Blending Dirt Rally’s hardcore sim credentials with a gentler learning curve
PC, PS4, Xbox One
Developer/publisher Codemasters Format PC, PS4, Xbox One Origin UK Release June 9
The car’s attitude continually shifts with each violent landing or adjustment in direction
We’ll admit to wincing a little when Dirt 4 was announced in January.
Dirt Rally, released last year, was an uncompromising, snarling return to Codemasters’ racing roots that entirely dispensed with the series’ long-running grabs for mainstream success. It spat anyone who didn’t understand throttle steering and load transfer violently into the verge. So talk of a more approachable Dirt game that also encompasses a partial return to the brash American motorsports of former entries felt like an unfortunate backwards step.
When we first sit down with the game, during a visit to Codemasters’ Southam HQ, our fears appear to have been justified. We barrel through an unfamiliar course and set some leading split times, despite rolling the car cutting a corner. We politely smile at the devs who are sat in with us and let them know that it feels… nice. And it does: the car is fun to shake through the turns, corners feel fast, and there’s a surprisingly buttery feel to the handling that recalls the accessibility of the earlier games. It’s bold and enjoyable, but it all feels a bit muted in the wake of Rally.
Knowingly, our hosts change the handling model to ‘simulation’, switch off all the driving aids, and flick transmission to manual. It’s a revelation. Now we can sense exactly where all four contact patches are, and what they’re doing. Load transfer works perfectly as we trail brake into corners before lifting off and letting the car go sideways, then flick the nose in the other direction to tackle the next turn. Every change in camber and deformation on the track must be accounted for, as the car’s attitude continually shifts with each violent landing or adjustment in direction. All of this and we’re not even using a wheel. The unyielding spirit of Rally is still very much intact, then. Now, however, there’s an alternative option for players put off by such a daunting challenge.
This shored-up handling model finds its way into the returning Rallycross mode, too, which continues to hold the official FIA World Rallycross licence. Lydden Hill, Holjes and Hell remain, but are joined by new tracks in France and Portugal. The way the cars handle on these tarmac-and-dirt mixtures is remarkable, and tackling them in anger from the cockpit of a WRX Supercar provides some of the game’s most absorbing challenges.
Landrush mode is a more controversial addition, but also benefits hugely from Dirt
4’ s meaty, no-nonsense sim handling. The bouncy, 900bhp barges at its centre are ridiculous creations, and require a shift in driving style to hustle around Codemasters’ unofficial but well-designed circuits. It’s a physically exhausting, grin-inducing sideline to the other two more precision-focused disciplines, and is presented entirely free from the dudebro Americanisms that have come to define the series in the past – helped, in no small part, by the presence of US rally and rallycross driver Jen Horsey.
While the game’s rallycross tracks are official, its rally stages are not. Rally’s spectacular recreations of official stages are all absent – a result of Gran Turismo acquiring the sole rights to Pikes Peak and the official
WRC games controlling the rest – and have been replaced by a near-unlimited supply of procedurally generated tracks. But we’re happy to report that Codemasters’ tech works spectacularly: none of the dozens of procedural tracks (created via Your Stage, which uses sliders to define length and complexity) that we work our way through feels underwhelming or thrown together. Tracks are generated quickly, and we would struggle to distinguish them from hand-designed courses in a blind test. Rally driving isn’t about memorising corners and braking points, but is instead an instinctive discipline in which you rely on pace notes, courage, and overworked vehicle components. Your Stage perfectly encapsulates that spirit, and also means that the career mode exhibits a gentler, more curated learning curve.
There’s still some time left in the staging area, of course, but Dirt 4 already feels like a continuation of Rally’s astonishing pedigree, rather than a compromise.