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How Codemasters is managing to fill Colin McRae's legendary shoes with a YouTube sensation...
Trying to break into the US market has crippled so many promising music acts over the years: Craig David, Samantha Mumba, Blue (okay, maybe not "promising" per se). But the same holds for games publisher, Codemasters. The company's attempts to gain a foothold in the US market have been pretty blatant on the current-gen consoles, none more so than today's news of a distribution deal with THQ across the pond. Branding and licenses have also been dramatically realigned with the Americanisation of both the publisher's flagship driving game IPs, Race Driver and the series formerly known as Colin McRae. Both IPs have been repositioned around GRID and DiRT titles - presumably block capitals make Americans pay more attention, like STARBUCKS or FOX NEWS - and it's a far cry from the TOCA and Colin McRae licensing of years past, both of which will mean very little to the majority of gamers outside of Europe.
These attempts at realignment have returned limited success so far, although we'll bet good money that DiRT 3 is about to buck that trend for one very good reason: Ken Block. If DiRT 3 was a golf game, then Ken Block would be the equivalent of Tiger Woods (before the philandering, that is). His Ford Fiesta and its custom liveries adorn the DiRT 3 box like a coquettish cover girl, new Gymkhana modes have been introduced to reflect Ken Block's famous YouTube antics and, in a distinctly hyper-real move, gamers can even upload videos of their exploits directly from the game onto their YouTube account. Instead of XP, players gain fans as they progress in various areas of the game - you even have a specific voice-over guy dedicated to managing your fan-base, although regrettably he calls you "compadre" and "amigo" a lot. If the game gave me the power, then I would fire him just for that.
Yes, it's true that Ken Block featured in last year's game, and yes, his Subaru Impreza was on the cover, but he was less the sole star of it (instead sharing the limelight with the likes of former BMX star, Dave Mirra) and the game didn't come with all the bells and whistles of this third instalment. Pulling Block's trademark Gymkhana discipline into the game as well as a slice of his publicity style have formed a package that gels well now, and doesn't merely feel like a Mickey Mouse bastardisation of a once great rally game with enough X Games advertising to fund a Third-World nation. That's not to say that the in-game ads don't come thick and fast in DiRT 3 - not a moment passes when you're not subliminally bombarded by this energy drink, or that skate shoe - but it's more tolerable now. As Block's stunt-cum-rally driving antics have progressed beyond niche and up into mainstream appeal since 2009 (no doubt thanks to an immeasurably rerun episode of Top Gear), so has his tenacious brand of rally fusion caught on virally and bridged the gap between rally disciplines on either side of the Atlantic. The upshot: Codies has landed itself a whopping catch in the marketing stakes.
Getting down to the actual game for a second though, it handles superbly. An initial play will feel a bit weird with overly twitchy cornering and a drift mechanic that can all-too-easily bog you down through corners. After a little perseverance with it though, this handling style soon becomes second nature. It's a different approach for its genre, almost akin to SEGA Racing Studios' SEGA Rally remake of 2007. Where most arcadey driving games offer a two-tone transition between throttle and brake controls that has you constantly flooring either one or the other, DiRT encourages you to use a feathered touch. Braking takes a supporting role as the primary focus is put on easing the throttle in and out of corners to retain grip and stop the car from sliding out into an excessive drift. In short then, Codemasters' long history of perfectly blended sim and arcade elements in its driving games remains proudly intact.
The range of modes on offer is equally impressive. Outside of a Burnout game, it's hard to recall any other driving title that's quite as creative with its separate disciplines. Many of them make a return from DiRT 2 such as the Rally, Rally Cross, Trailblazer, and Land Rush events, although each one feels markedly more refined in DiRT 3 thanks in no small part to more dynamic tracks and environments, and the addition of rain/snow weather effects. Head-2-Head races and Drift events have been added to the roster and give it plenty of ballast but, although these might sound like vogue disciplines that are 'down-with-the-youth', they're old fogies in comparison to Gymkhana. It really is a tricky mode to explain in detail and your best bet is probably to search out a YouTube vid of it in action, but a simple description would be something along the lines of: 'You got Tony Hawk Skateboarding in my DiRT!'. A handful of mode variants also flesh out the superb new feature and provide plenty of longevity.
In fact, scrub what we said at the top of the last paragraph - when you add in the fact that all of these modes are playable through ranked leaderboards, and most are available in the multiplayer where you'll also find a handful of whimsical Party Modes, there really isn't any other driving game that compares to DiRT 3 in terms of breadth and variation. Perhaps the one grievance we'd attach as a rider to all of this is that the Dirt Tour career mode can be completed fairly quickly. If you run through the path of least resistance, ignoring events with less profitable Rep Points and skipping through to the end-of-season tournaments as soon as they're unlocked, then DiRT 3 can be bested in around 5 hours. On the other hand, if you take advantage of all of the events on offer, ratchet up the difficulty, and get the most out of the supplementary Depot sandbox areas, then you'll get far in excess of 10-15 hours out of the game.
Graphically, DiRT 3 is no slouch either. Cockpit views are there-or-thereabouts with high-production sims such as Forza and GT (we're not suggesting they're better, sim fans, just that they're comparable), and once again Codemasters has proven that it's right at the top of the pile in terms of damage modelling. Beyond the epically irritating voice-over work of your various agents, DiRT 3's sound package is as sleek as they come too. Whoever chose the soundtrack at Codemasters needs to be given a raise, and the sound effects are spot-on as well. In fact, all-round production values and interface design gets the thumbs-up from us, whether it's multiplayer matchmaking or the streamlined system for uploading YouTube vids. Truly, DiRT 3 is a tough game to fault: it looks great, sounds great, and plays superbly.