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DiRT 3 is the most exciting and entertaining racing game to rev its engine on PS3 in a long while.

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It’s the game the often too bland Gran Turismo 5 could have been and it’s the game the rotten WRC game of last year should have been.

DiRT 3 from Codemasters picks up the extreme off-road rally action seen in the earlier DiRT games and takes it to a new level.

Direct comparison is difficult because I’m basing my experience of DiRT 2 on the memory of playing it several months ago, but DiRT 3 just feels faster, slicker, better presented and even more refined than its predecessor.

One of the main strengths of DiRT 3 is its variety. Whether working your way through the career mode or setting up your own single or multiplayer challenges, you’ll constantly be jumping into different cars, racing around different courses and experiencing different events.

Silly vehicles which I’ve never really enjoyed racing in, such as trucks and buggies, still feature in the game, but pleasingly the emphasis here is on rally racing.

A plethora of rally cars from down the years are present, ranging from zippy hatchbacks to bigger beastlier brutes. There is real pleasure not just from seeing them in the game but also from getting behind the wheel of the more retro-flavoured models from Audi, Opel and Fiat. You can even get into a Monte Carlo Mini or an old MG Metro.

The older cars going back as far as the 60s feel rough and ready compared to their modern counterparts but that’s part of their appeal.

As well as the performance of the cars being satisfyingly dissimilar, the track surfaces also vary greatly. Whatever you’re racing on, be it gravel, asphalt or dirt, you’ll notice differences in how your car reacts.

As they should be in a rally game, weather effects are excellent. Rain and snow falling have an impact on visibility while mud and water will slow you down. It’s really impressive how cars struggle for grip on icy slush.

As well as these positives, DiRT 3 is also a beautiful game. The arty triangular menus are stylish enough but when the action switches to the track the game comes into its own.

The racing environments are gorgeous. Forests in Finland, snowy passes in Aspen, dusty tracks in Kenya - the courses are some of the best I’ve seen in any racing game, with superb attention to detail in the scenery and stunning lighting effects during daytime or night racing.

Those aforementioned cars look great, and I particularly love how snow and mud builds up on them during races.

DiRT 3 factbox

Developer/publisher: Codemasters

Formats: PS3, Xbo 360, PC (PS3 reviewed)

Verdict: 9 out of 10 – A classy and hugely enjoyable game which roars straight to the front of the pack in the racing genre.

The cars even look good once they are battered up. The damage modelling is right up there with the best, but this isn’t surprising since Codemasters has been nailing this aspect of driving games since the classic days of Toca back on PS1.

Audio is very good throughout the game, from the convincing growls of the engines to excellent crowd effects.

The downside is the voiceovers from the three inane characters who crop up too frequently for my liking. Two of them - agent Ellie and mechanic Jack - are inoffensively bland, but the third one Christian (PR consultant I think) is annoying, being more of the ‘great job, dude’ insincere praise variety.

Saving the best until last, the most impressive achievement of DiRT 3 is the sublime car handling.

I was underwhelmed at first due to the default settings making driving too easy, with the various assists doing most of the work. However, once I’d sorted these out the quality of the handling soon became apparent.

It somehow manages to combine the looseness, pick-up-and-play accessibility and over-the-top action of an arcade racer with the skill and dexterity required from a simulation.

The controls are simple, and it’s easy to start throwing your car around a track. Doing it successfully, however, takes accuracy, timing and the right balance of risk and reward.

DiRT 3 has a more sophisticated engine under its bonnet than most driving games out there but doesn’t drift away from its main aim of being a driving game for the masses to enjoy.

Aside from overly long loading times and AI opponents who are often not as aggressive or competitive as they ideally should be, it’s hard to find much to fault DiRT 3 on.

Some things in gaming are just guaranteed, it seems. EA Sports’ games are always top of their league and Rockstar’s action games are always compelling.

It’s the same whenever Codemasters puts out a racing game - you know you’re in for a treat. From Race Driver: GRID to F1 2010 and now with DiRT 3, those clever Codies know how to keep petrol-head gamers happy.

DiRT 3 is a must-buy if you’re a fan of racing games.

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