If Codemasters' off-road racing series were a car it would sport its fair share of scrapes and crumples. Enduring the tragic death of Colin McRae in 2007, the fall from favour of the World Rally Championship and a number of name changes, Colin McRae Rally ne Colin McRae: Dirt ne DiRT may have had one careful owner, but you could forgive it for being a bit of an old banger.
Yet thanks to a masterful refit DiRT 3 emerges from the garage a slick, snarling, exhilarating beast. While some racing series go the route of merely adding more tracks and more cars, or more bizarre gimmicks, DiRT gets it right by weaving together a mix of different gameplay styles that feels entirely fresh. It's fun, a uselessly broad term I know, but when you are charging along a country road at speed, with plumes of gravel and mud spraying up behind you then you'll know exactly what I mean.
Codemasters have excelled themselves. Suddenly, thanks to a genuinely creative approach, the venerable series feels vital once again. The result is 2011's best racer so far.
The Career Mode, spanning four seasons, charges you with competing in a number of different events, each of which reward you with Reputation Points based on aspects of your performance, from your final position to a plethora of mini-objectives. As you earn these points they'll unlock further race choices to ensure your progression. No real surprises there then.
Instead, it's in the unique make-up of your career that satisfies most. DiRT 3 threads all of the different disciplines and race types on offer into a concoction that never feels stale. One minute you'll be charging around a Rally Cross circuit, directly competing against your foes, then you'll zipping through Norwegian forests in point-to-point Trailblazer races and the next ting you know you'll be tearing through the moneyed streets of Monaco in one of the Head 2 Head challenges.
The sheer amount of environmental and race type variety on offer means that you'll never get stuck in that tired grind of race after race that even the best driving games can fall foul of. And thanks to a degree of choice, you can go some way to avoiding the events that you feel are less compelling.
What you can't avoid, however, is the Gymkhana, a professional version of what my mate used to do in his RS Turbo around Tesco's car park. It's all doughnuts and drifting and jumping, executed within a relatively cramped playground that demands the utmost control over the car. Heralded by many as a revelation, and centre stage in the game's marketing, I can't help but be a little underwhelmed by its inclusion.
The thing about Gymkhana, the perceived wisdom, is that initially the intricate interplay of throttle and handbrake required to succeed is too much to handle. But then, slowly, you'll learn to link that doughnut to that jump, via a swooping drift underneath a truck and the full glory of the experience will become clear. That's true, to an extent, it certainly demands that you learn an entirely alien skill, but the pay-off detracts from what the game does best: thrilling high-speed racing.
For me Gymkhana was a chore. But then I particularly enjoyed Land Rush, a mode that chucks you behind the wheel of larger trucks and buggies and sends you bouncing along a dirt track littered with jumps. I found bombing along, bashing into my competitors a joy, but plenty of others have highlighted it as a weak point. Horses for courses, I suppose.
Universal praise, however, can unreservedly be heaped on the handling. The standard settings straddle that tricky divide between arcade and sim, but you can actually fiddle with each of the assists and difficulty settings separately, to such a degree that you can pretty much please yourself. What this means is that you can whack all the assists up to the maximum while still maintaining a challenge. The result, should you choose it, is a brilliantly accessible all-out arcade racer.
Then there's the multiplayer modes. Thinking entirely outside of the box, Codemasters have included a number of left-field game types that sound ridiculous on paper, but offer an entertaining diversion. In addition to the standard racing modes, there's a zombie-flavoured "tag" game, a car-bound version of capture the flag and even a game where you have to run over waves of cut-out robots too. It's this kind of creativity that lets you know that even after all these years, Codie's aren't even close to running on empty.
Even the visuals manage to impress. Avoiding the slightly brown look of previous games running on the EGO engine, there's a kind of over-exposed, bright and open feel to the game offset by some beautifully warm detailing in the environments. From forests to dusty African plains via snowbound Aspen tracks and flooded dirt tracks - you'll struggle to find a better looking racer.
Wrap all of this up with some wonderfully implemented social tools including a nifty youtube upload feature, plus some of that trademark Codemasters presentational sheen and it's hard to resist the charms of DiRT 3. This is a title from a team at the very top of their game. Truly it's hard to think of another studio that can match their quality or prolificacy. Right now, DiRT 3 is one of the best racing titles you can buy.