Rallying on PC, The State of the Art, Part 1: Dirt 2 vs Dirt 3

I’ve always loved the sport of rally racing. It’s an incredible spectator sport; unlike normal circuit racing, almost literally every single second of rallying coverage is exciting to watch, as the drivers thread their way along tight stages at unbelievable speeds. Unfortunately in Canada there’s no way to watch WRC (the World Rally Championship, the pinnacle of rallying in the same way that F1 is the pinnacle of open-wheel racing) in any form. So lately, after building a new gaming PC, I’ve been turning to driving sims to get my fix.

Dirt 2

The first rally game I jumped into was Dirt 2. I’d bought it in a Steam sale some time ago and hadn’t tried it out, but managed to get bored enough one weekend to give it a go. And happily, I was blown away! Somehow I’d managed to miss the hype when it was first released, and had no idea of the sheer quality and depth the game has. I love discovering unexpected gems like this.

The physics are great and crashes can be spectacular!

Despite being a couple of years old now, D2 looks phenomenal, and works great on a 3-screen Eyefinity setup. The audio is also amazing, with a good base engine note and details like gravel hitting the underside of the car, suspension squeaks and rattles, turbo blow-off etc. But the best thing about the game is the steering wheel support; the force-feedback is the best I’ve experienced in any game or sim so far, and does an amazing job of communicating the road surface and the amount of grip. It needs to be experienced, writing about it can’t do it any justice so if you have a wheel I highly encourage you to try the game out. As you’ll see in the next part of this series when I cover Richard Burns Rally, Dirt 2 is not really a sim, and the handling is not “realistic” – but that doesn’t mean it’s not satisfying and hugely fun.

The best-looking Pontiac Solstice ever.

It’s not perfect, of course. In addition to basic rallying and trailblazer (hill-climb style cars with no pace notes), Dirt 2 has rallycross (basically circuit racing in rally cars with 7 opponents) and truck events. The rallycross is less successful than the pure rally gameplay – I’ve had to restart many races due to unavoidable hits by the AI – and the truck racing is a big point of contention in the fanbase, with many people complaining about its inclusion and the amount of it in the career mode. I agree with the latter complaint and feel there’s just too much landrush, the truck version of rallycross, especially. In addition, there’s a pretty good variety of locations across the game but there’s a lot of repetition in the actual track layouts, as typically there’s only one track per location that’s re-used in sections for different events. Finally, a big wishlist item for a sequel would have to include a more feature-rich replay mode – the camera selection is superb but you can’t save or edit replays, and there’s no photo mode which is a real shame as the cars and environments look great.

The environments looks great in 3-screen Eyefinity - click for a bigger view.

Dirt 3

Dirt 3 was released just a few weeks ago and I was very hopeful – here was a chance to really improve the core gameplay and fix the problems with Dirt 2. Unfortunately, it’s a disappointing missed opportunity.

Let’s talk about the improvements first. The addition of weather and night driving is very welcome, and adds variety to the stages. The incremental improvements in the rendering, most noticeably better post-processing (motion blur and lighting effects especially) look really good, though they do hit the framerate a bit. And the new environments take advantage of the new capabilities (especially snow in Norway) and offer some nice diversity.

More beautiful environments in Dirt 3.

And so onto the negatives. First of all, the major new feature that Codemasters have been pushing, and what a lot of the game is actually built around – gymkhana. Oh boy. If you thought the truck racing was controversial, you haven’t seen a forum thread on gymkhana go nuclear. Nothing to do with posh girls and horses, gymkhana refers to Ken Block’s “auto playground” videos, where he flings a car around obstacles with ridiculous precision. As a 3-minute Youtube video, and no doubt as a spectator event, it’s spectacular. Actually driving it… I’m not convinced. It requires skill that most people simply don’t possess, and while you could make that argument for racing too, it’s fairly easy for a game to make you FEEL like a good racer, by simply lowering the challenge provided by AI or time limits, or having traction control-style driving aids enabled. With gymkhana, if you have trouble power-sliding a car in smoky circles inside a concrete box, it’s not really possible to make that any easier. There’s a “trick steer” driving aid provided, but with a wheel I couldn’t tell much difference with it activated and it didn’t make my life any easier as far as I could tell. In addition, the tutorials for specific tricks are short and uninteractive and really don’t help you to learn how to perform the more difficult ones.

Unfortunately there’s a good amount of freeform gymkhana in the career, and worse, there are “gymkhana attack” events. These give you tricks to perform in a set order with a strict time limit, and I found them incredibly annoying. They kill the flow of the game far worse than the truck events did in Dirt 2. There are also despicable “drift” challenges that are similarly horrible and feel out of place. Drifting and rallying are two different disciplines; people interested in one are by no means likely to care about the other.

So what about the rallying itself? Well, the good news is that the superb control has been retained, and even improved a bit, with more of the car’s weight felt in sharp turns. Some of the tracks are just awesome fun, especially the snowy Norwegian trails. However, the stages are all very short, even more so than in the first game it seems, with the longest being a few minutes long and the normal length being around 90 seconds or so. And the amount of rally content in the game is not as great as advertised – Codemasters were saying 60% of the game would be rally/trailblazer, and it honestly only feels like half that to me. I should go count the events to back that up but that’s my gut feeling after playing the first half of the career.

Both Dirt 2 and Dirt 3 have superb multiscreen support. This is the hood cam view in 3-screen Eyefinity. Note the HUD is drawn on the center screen, where it should be. Click for more detail.

The main announcer for the game is now a super-annoying Californian-sounding guy that for some reason insists on calling you by Spanish/Mexican male-bonding terms of endearment (amigo, muchacho, compadre…). He’s absolutely obnoxious and seems targeted directly at Mountain Dew commercial audiences. It reads like an attempt to make rallying “extreme” and basically sex it up to get people with more hormones than brain cells interested, but it just ends up insulting everyone involved and honestly lowering the tone of the whole game.

And finally, no improvement has been made to the replay mode at all. The single new feature we got was an “upload to Youtube” option, which allows you to just take a 30-second slice of the replay and upload it (and incidentally provides the hyperactive announcer with some of his most annoying lines). No editing, no photomode – extremely disappointing.

So, while the actual rally driving in Dirt 3 is probably the best yet, the game itself is a step backwards and I’d say that Dirt 2 is probably the better product. It’s not too expensive on Steam, and in fact is likely to be featured in the (hopefully) upcoming summer sale – so jump in and see why I like it so much!

I agree :)

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