With last year’s DiRT Rally and it’s VR expansion, Codemasters returned to form and proved why they are the kings of rally games. Sweeping aside the hoonigan antics of Showdown, they stripped it back to basics – driving from point to point as fast as possible without hitting a tree or staining your trousers. With a sense of inevitability though, the series has moved back into numbered territory and DiRT 4 has been unleashed. Has it learned the lessons of the hugely popular but hardcore focussed entry from last year, or will it rely too heavily on the arcade direction of the core instalments? Actually, it’s a bit of both.
Right out of the gate you’re given the choice of simulation or arcade handling, then thrown into a rally stage to prove your skills… and determine your difficulty level (which can be fully customised afterwards too). It’s a bold statement to kick off the game – are you in this for the realism or do you just want to hurtle around the tracks with reckless abandon? With a relatively simple option DiRT 4 is suddenly catering for both types of racing gamer, and it does it without real detriment to either. The handling model beloved in DiRT Rally is there in full effect, with probably more options on console than we’ve ever seen before, and it’s just as challenging and unforgiving without being alienating. If that doesn’t rev your engine then switch it over to arcade and get the full rally experience with some of the more technical edges smoothed off. Before you hit the championships proper there’s ample opportunity to learn how to drive the particular vehicle types, and switch up the handling models to find the one that suits you best.
Get clear of the practice and it’s time to built your reputation out in the world of off road motorsports. You’d be forgiven for thinking this is just a clone of DiRT 2 or 3, and whilst there’s similar content, it still feels more like a serious endeavour than showboating in drift heavy Subaru’s. Not being able to afford your own vehicles from the beginning, there’s the ability to drive for other teams and earn cash in the various disciplines available – Rally (which is split into different power and drive categories), Landrush (which is circuit buggy and truck racing), and Rallycross (circuit rallying). Doing well awards money and experience and climbing the ranks brings you new events, vehicles and the ability to create and manage your own team. Seen in terms of engineers in the last game, team building in DiRT 4 has a greater depth and influence on how you play. Setting your team name and colour scheme is the start, adding sponsors is naturally the next step, then getting various personnel to manage everything from your crew to the marketing rounds it all off nicely.
Given this is maybe 2 hours into the game, you’d think that there’s nothing further to do outside making sure you’re hitting sponsor targets for those all important bonuses, or hiring a better engineer here or there. You’d be wrong as it gets deeper with upgrading facilities that add new functions, and unlocks better staff and more cars to pick up from the used car lots. It extends to parts and vehicle upgrades in the service stops, reduces repair costs, and even makes your team happy if you make sure they can get hot coffee and bacon butties at 4 in the morning. Despite being a relatively light resource management aspect of the game, it really helps to bring your team and the reward structure to life. The cash given in the events is balanced just right so that it doesn’t take long to build up your bank enough to splash out on upgrades, and they’re not overpriced either. Equally, the cars are not so pricey that you see yourself having to race in 20 championships to get a new motor, you’re able to dip in and out when you need a new one for an event. Again, the option is usually there to drive for another team, so no disciplines are locked out if you don’t hit the criteria.
What we’re here for really though is the racing, and it’s as sublime as ever featuring every surface you can think of across several countries. Rallying is exhilarating as you zone out of your living room, breathe every word your co-driver utters, and feel the rhythm of the stage as you crest, dip and handbrake across dirt, snow and tarmac. Changing the pace with Rallycross pits you hell for leather against 5 AI opponents on fast and generous circuits where barging and blocking are par for the course. The events are over quickly but are immense fun, as well as featuring the official FIA World Rallycross Championship across differing international stages. Then Landrush is there for when only big, overpowered trucks in the desert will do. Again it’s circuit racing, but with the fast and bouncy buggies or solid stadium trucks it makes for a surprisingly tight and satisfying diversion. Each race mode is different, each has tiers of difficulty, and all build the challenge at a steady pace so that your skills grow with the events. The choice between arcade and sim is also present in the events when it comes to car setup. With the chief mechanic selecting a setup for the stages ahead you can put your faith in that and jump straight in, or you can tinker to your hearts content and test it out on the numerous shakedowns. That said, your mechanics can’t control the weather, so you better trust they know how to make the car stop in thick fog or at night. Don’t despair if there’s a puncture or minor damage during an event though, there’s now an option to pull over and fix them, even if you do get a time penalty.
If you missed just chucking your car around an open space, there’s the training arena with a huge amount of time challenges to have a go at, and it’s somewhere that’s very good at stealing your time. Then there’s Your Stage which uses the game engine to generate rally stages based on your parameters, which can also be saved and uploaded to RaceNet to share with the community and your friends. I’d argue there’s nearly too much to do because you can end up getting absorbed in a couple of areas and never even see some of the extra features. This could be down to menu design because where traditionally you’d go Main > Discipline > Race, DiRT 4 opts for Main > Everything > A Bit More > Some More > Race. This style means not backing out far enough will keep some of the extra stuff from view.
One of the biggest boons of the last game was the online events, particularly the daily, weekly and monthly challenges. These return in much the same format and follow the same rules as any of the campaign events. So far they’ve been limited to rally events, and these work really well again. Dive into an event and you get one shot to set a time. Mess it up and you are still going to get some cash for it, but you’ll be in the lower tiers, whilst the higher tiers reap the rewards of the prize pot. However, the single attempt is a great leveller, especially on the weekly and monthly challenges that are over multiple stages. You might consistently be a third tier driver in the daily events, yet a solid performance in the monthly can push you into the top tier. Adding more to the community events is Pro Tour mode which pits you in the same vehicle class on the same stage as up to 8 other players to see who’s the fastest. Depending on the number of entrants will give a positive, neutral or negative score which are used to move up (and down) tiers. As a synchronous time trial it’s a lot of fun, and for those obsessed on proving their skills it can be pretty addictive. Matchmaking needs to improve a little to get the maximum out of it though.
To wrap up the package there’s the visuals and audio and I’m in two minds whether I even bother mentioning them. It’s so obvious they’ll be good that I could just skip them… I won’t though. If there were awards for menu music then Codemasters should win all of them, just the background tunes get you set for the events. Moving to a loading screen kicks whatever is playing up a notch, landing in the service area has the tune coming out over a radio, and it’s all seamless. The same song follows you from stage end through to the next stage start, rising and falling and mirroring your journey. It’s a great selection too – everything from House to Rock, so there’s bound to be something for everyone. It’s missing the option of having the co-driver shout at you through the controller on the PS4 version, but not exactly a deal breaker. Your eyes get a treat as much as your ears, with particular highlights being Australia at dusk with long shadows across the road and rich coloured environments. Bumps, dents, scratches and entire sections of car body deform and fall off and hamper your performance in the most realistic way I’ve seen so far, and the action manages to stay smooth throughout as well, with only the particle heavy landrush events causing small touches of slowdown if all the AI come together in a corner.
DiRT 4 is impressive without doubt. With more than enough to keep you going in the campaign, ever changing community events, and a procedural stage generator, it’s hard to see how it could be improved further. That may be the biggest issue Codemasters face from here – what else can they do outside some new cars that would warrant another full game in the series? It’s not a problem to solve now though, for the moment just enjoy the best rally game on the market.
An Xbox One review copy of DiRT 4 was provided by the Codemasters PR team, and the game is available now on PC, Xbox One and PS4. If you want to see some in game footage, hit up our YouTube channel for a couple of stages.