If you were travelling through Battersea on the 8th of April, you may have wondered what on earth was going on. To the commuters passing by on the trains that ran past the disused powerstation, it must have looked like some kev had broken into the compound in his pimped out Corsa, so he could thrash his car about like a loon in a vain attempt at some form of compensation. Only this wasn't some guy in a Corsa - this was Ken Block - a name that should be instantly recognisable to anyone who's watched Top Gear, and saw him shave a few years off poor James May's life. The creator of Gymkhana for cars, young Kenneth is a master of throwing his car around at high speeds, powersliding underneath trucks, and pulling off a doughnut, before racing through incredibly tight gaps as if he has no fear. With Gymkhana mode being featured in the upcoming rally game, DiRT 3, and with Codemasters keen to show off their new game, the stars had seemingly aligned, as a load of eager journalists (us included), were invited down to Battersea to watch Ken throw his car around in real life - before getting the chance to (virtually) have a go at it ourselves. We were certainly blown away by what we saw, as you can probably tell from our rubbish shaky-cam video below (yes, we lost him only a few seconds in). Apologies in advance for the sounds of the people next to us - we're not good enough at this whole video editing lark to add music over the top of it : (
Cleverly, there's logic with the location Codies chose, too, as Battersea Powerstation is one of the locations you'll be taking to in the game's Gymkhana mode. Spectacularly recreated in the game, when DiRT 3 launches on the 24th of May, it'll be up to you to whizz around the meticulously arranged cones and boxes, doughnutting around poles, skidding under trucks, and performing crazy jumps, all in the name of points - and looking very cool in the process.
DiRT 3 is the latest in the series of rally games from Leamington Spa based Codemasters, which, in its more recent years, has tried hard to shed the image of being by petrol heads, for petrol heads only. DiRT 2 was - in a word - amazing, as a game that never took its foot off the accelerator. Every time you took part in a race around one of its gravel/mud/dirt lined tracks, something spectacular would unfold right in front of you, whether it's two opponents crashing and ending up flipping themselves into the rest of the pack, forcing you to swerve in between the wreckage and rolling cars, or seeing an opponent leap over a jump above you, only for them to not quite make it - this was fender bending racing carnage at its finest, regardless of your knowledge of differentials.
It was in multiplayer, though, that DiRT 3 really came into its own, as that automobile armaggedon translated into an online game you wanted to keep playing. Whether in contact, or non-contact races, with the right group of friends, DiRT 2 was hilarious - and this is something Codemasters have expanded greatly upon for DiRT 3.
The game's multiplayer modes in general have been hugely expanded, adding a lot more variety to the game outside of the usual standard races. Amongst the new additions is Outbreak, which is a take on a classic zombie mode. The game begins by giving players a few seconds to find a hiding place on the level, before turning one of the players into a zombie, who then has to infect every other player (by crashing into them) in order to win. Seeing as there's no way to tell who's infected, and who's not, these online games have the potential to be manic experiences, as you race to hide from the zombie, er, cars. Invasion, meanwhile, is a destructive mode, which tasks you with defending the world from a cardboard robot invasion. With cut-out invaders propped up all over the level, in between giant cardboard skyscrapers, it's up to you to take out more of the invaders than anyone else, while avoiding the skyscrapers - something that's going to be quite when you have our driving prowess. Finally, there's Transporter, which sees you racing around the map to pick up a flag, before trying to take it through a gate, which randomly appears around the level - and with each of your seven opponents able to steal the flag by simply crashing into you, this is sure to cause plenty of fender benders.
In fact, one of the main problems with DiRT 2 was that there was so much carnage in each race, and so many moments you just had to watch again, you always wished there was some way you save your replays, and share it with your friends, rather than having to awkwardly point a camera at your TV and hope for the best. For DiRT 3 though, Codemasters have realised how amazing such a feature has the potential to be, and have added the ability to upload clips straight to YouTube. At any point in a race, you'll be able to pause your game, and go through the replay, finding the 30 second-or-so clip you want to upload (you're limited to a fairly short length of time - no full race uploads here). Press a button, and it'll be uploaded straight to YouTube, with no hassle at all, giving you a perfect way to preserve your finest (or worst) moments.
"If we were going to do split-screen, we wanted to do it right", Codemasters told us at the preview event, with regards easily the biggest - and most requested (by us, anyway) - change to the game's multiplayer mode, the addition of split screen. Now, an online connection (and in the case of the 360, subscription) is no longer required, as two players can play together on the same console, across a wide range of game modes. We had a go at the mode at the recent event, but, despite Codemasters promises, we're not certain yet whether the split-screen has been handled "right". In the build we played, you couldn't select the in-car view when playing in multiplayer, which was disappointing, to say the least. Far more worrying, however, was the fact that the build appeared to only allow two players, and seemed to be entirely separate to the online game (which is practically a heresy). To be done "right", DiRT 3 really needs to allow for two people to play on the same console, against people online, and allow for four players to play in split screen. Without these, it's going to be nothing more than a missed opportunity. With any luck, we'll find out it was just a limited build that we played - be sure to check back in a fortnight's time for our full review of the final version.
In terms of single player, the theme for DiRT 3 just seems to be to offer more - more rally levels, more stages, and even more cars. Where DiRT 2 offered a respectable 41 stages, DiRT 3 boasts over 100. This time around, the choice of cars is a lot broader, too, with a welcome nod towards the classics of yesteryear seeing even the good old classic Mini included. Each of the cars still lets you drive from inside the cockpit, for the true rally what-the-hell's-around-the-next-bend-oh-god-its-a-cliff experience, which is sure to keep your heart racing. Keeping your car under control is enough of a challenge in itself, yet alone when you're crashing through puddles, throwing water over your windscreen, which reduces your visibility even further - and in DiRT 3, there's an even bigger twist.
It'd be wrong to include classic English stages, and a classic English car, without including the classic English weather - and so, DiRT 3 brings with it some mightily impressive weather effects, which, far from simply looking amazing (which they do), add a whole new dimension to each race. With heavy rain battering your windscreen, turning the dirt between you and your wheels into a boggy marsh, and making even seeing where you're going a challenge, DiRT 3 is going to be even more exciting than the games that came before it - and that's before you even think about the effect the snow's going to have.
But while the game may sound pretty complex, and certainly very tense (it is), DiRT 3's still forgiving when it comes to newcomers. Should you not notice that hairpin bend directly in front of you, and instead plow straight into a hedge next to it, DiRT 3 gives you the same "flasback" mode as the previous games. Skidding out of control, or spinning is never the end of the race, as with a press of a button, you can rewind time, find a place where you were in control, and then start over again from there. It's a great way of helping new players get used to the game, while they're just starting to find their footing (or wheeling) - and even the most experienced players will find themselves using it from time to time.
With more stages, more cars, more modes, more social aspects, and an even greater emphasis on, well, fun, DiRT 3 is shaping up to be one of the greatest racing games ever made. With the same friendly learning curve the other games had, a revamped multiplayer mode, the introduction of classic rally cars, weather effects, split screen and YouTube integration, there's a lot the game's getting right. In a fortnight's time, we'll know if it's all come together.