Learning to drive a car can be a stressful experience. When I was in high school I took driving lessons from a certified instructor named Mr. Neeble, a stern old man with the relentless cadence of a film noir mobster. Imagine already being nervous about sitting behind the wheel, then as you’re trying your damnedest to stay in your lane and stop at all of the proper signals, you have to listen to a constant deluge of mantras like “Hands at 10 and 2!,” “Check you mirrors!,” “Eyes on the road!,” and my favorite “Don’t be a tailgater bumperchaser!” I left each session in a shaking state of full-body tension, but somehow I passed the course. Mr. Neeble may have put me through the ringer, but my driving did improve.
I learned to drive in my parents’ car, but some drivers education programs employ vehicles with an extra steering wheel and pedals for the passenger-side instructor. The logic behind this being that the instructor can override the student’s driver-side controls at any time as a safety measure. The passenger-side controls provide some piece of mind for both the driver and the instructor since the instructor can correct minor errors on the part of the student without risking any broken laws or bones.
The stakes in the off-road car racing video game DiRT 3 are considerably lower. Weaving suped-up machines at top speed through winding, narrow passes on paths of mud and gravel during a rainstorm in the game is considerably trickier than merging onto the highway in real life, but mistakes don’t result in expensive repairs or bodily harm. As a simulation game, DiRT 3 presents players with an opportunity to compete in realistic off-road competitions of a professional caliber, without the danger and costly equipment of real driving.
Even with such a promising premise, I often felt like I had to fight the DiRT 3 for control, as if Mr. Neeble had become so frustrated by my incompetence that he just took over the game from a passenger-side wheel. Though fidelity-reducing driver assists like automatic braking and cornering stability are totally optional, the steep learning curve of the cars’ handling models pushes you toward these training wheels. Elsewhere, my predestined progress through the game’s single-player DiRT Tour campaign often felt more like a string of sponsored ad spots than a story of rising through the ranks.
Here’s how it all goes down. After selecting your vehicle and the race in which you want to compete, you’re treated to a hefty load time of almost 30 seconds. The loading screen is comprised of slow tracking shots of your logo-emblazoned car. These pans are designed to make the vehicle look impressive from dynamic angles, but I found it difficult to focus on anything beside the arresting corporate decals. While it’s true that real rally vehicles are covered in sponsored icons, half-minute close-ups before every race came across as a pre-loaded advertizing scheme. Oh well, I didn’t get this game for the loading screens anyway.
Next comes the actual race, which if you’ve never played a DiRT game before and have the assists turned off, you will not win. In fact you’ll be lucky to finish better than last place. DiRT 3 prides itself on its simulated car handling (supporting an array of peripheral wheels), which requires high attentiveness to the angles, surfaces and inclines of turns and mastery of environmentally responsive steering. In short, it’s pretty hard for a newcomer to keep the car on the road, facing the right direction. Rather than retrying the same track over and over (if you actually finish the race, a retry also means sitting through another load screen), I was more driven to actually make progress and attempt new tracks where I might have better luck. I switched on a couple assists and successfully soldered forward. Mr. Neeble would probably have been pretty disappointed.
So, let’s say you’re won a couple events. In most racing games you accumulate an overflowing garage of cars from your in-game winnings. While there are plenty of autos in DiRT 3, you never really own them. When you win races in DiRT 3, you earn points and those points go toward unlocking predetermined sponsorship offers from various racing teams. This gives you access to vehicles with gaudy logo treatments. Most of the cars in a given class seem to have about equal horsepower, making aesthetics the key variance. It’s too bad you’ll need to squint to see distinctions between many of the cars underneath their corporate-sponsored shells. Additionally, the most recent team unlocked will always award the most bonus points for using it, which is how the game passively invites you to give each of their sponsors time in the spotlight. The “endgame” vehicles are not insane supercars, they’re just big-time advertiser deals from DC Shoes and Monster Energy for car models already accessible.
The result of all this ad noise combined with toggling on all of the assists is that the DiRT Tour just about drives itself, stopping only to let you choose your next sponsorship experience. “That rocked! Upload that footage to YouTube,” the disembodied voice of your unseen bro pal beckons post-race. DiRT 3 pushes you to share video footage more than any other single mechanic. You don’t have to be content merely sifting through the game’s myriad sponsorships, because with a little effort, you can be an advertiser too. You know, for that driving sim you like with all the ads in it.
It’s a bummer that I felt this way about the game for most of the campaign’s length because there’s a phenomenal driving game underneath all of the sponsored clutter, contextually authentic as it may be. After I finished the campaign, I switched off most of the assists with the intention of bettering my driving skills. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I’d improved considerably since my initial failed attempts and continue to become more entrenched in the simulation style of which DiRT 3 is capable. That’s right, I’m still coming back to DiRT 3; it’s a less claustrophobic experience once you complete and break away from the campaign’s narrative.
I should mention that during the DiRT Tour there was one consistent bright spot: gymkhana. For the uninitiated, gymkhana events focus on performing tricks (donuts, jumps, drifts, etc.) instead of racing, and they take place in areas full of daredevil-inspiring obstacles instead of linear tracks. At some point you unlock the open-ended DC Shoes (natch) Battersea compound which has no timer or score missions, just Achievement-style objectives that you can choose to engage or leave in the background. Not only is it an absolute blast to fling your car over steel girders and under semi-truck trailers in Battersea, there’s a freedom and a playfulness to gymkhana that is just flat-out missing from simulation racing. There may not be enough to the gymkhana events to justify an entire game around them, but they serve as great complement to the unforgiving rigor of the rest of DiRT 3‘s driving. And yeah, Mr. Neeble would probably hate gymkhana, which makes it all the more appealing.
There are two layers to the DiRT 3 experience. The top layer is a thin, beautiful sheen; it keeps up appearances and pays the bills through corporate partnerships. Players can casually remain on DiRT 3‘s top layer, and they’ll likely have a decent enough time. The bottom layer houses the deep simulation, and is where DiRT 3 really gets its legs. The problem is that the power relationship between these two layers is imbalanced in favor of the weaker, top-level experience. Also an issue is how there’s no clear path for players to make the transition from top to bottom. During the campaign, DiRT 3 smothers you with attention, but once you complete the Tour, you’re thrown out the door in the middle of the desert. The game makes you earn your freedom and tasks you with finding your own purpose for continuing to play it.
DiRT 3‘s learning curve mimicked my own driver’s education experience more than I would have liked, but in some ways, the contrast of knowing that I’d once again bested a Mr. Neeble-esque gauntlet, makes the thrill of unassisted driving all the more resonant.
Further Reading: Rocksmith and the Limits of Learning (Medium Difficulty)