PC, PS4, Xbox One
Something’s wrong. We’re not referring to the flapping thud of a burst tyre or the winceinducing scrape of detritus lodged against the brake rotor – though both of these noises are causing us concern. No, it’s Nicky Grist’s calm, collected pacenote delivery as we desperately try to keep ahead of the class leader’s time that’s bothering us the most.
In Dirt Rally, Codemasters’ bold recent experiment with the chameleonic series, chief game designer and professional co-driver Paul Coleman recorded the game’s pace notes while wearing a helmet and strapped into a D-Box motion seat. The peerless outcome communicated the stress of fast sections and the violence of camber changes and bumps. But Grist’s apparent insouciance suggests that the team has reverted to a more traditional recording-booth setup. It does the job, of course, but despite the return of a big name it’s hardly as stirring, and feels like a step back.
The game is dialled back in other ways, too. Take the visuals, for example: while Dirt 4 certainly has its moments, it rarely looks quite as striking as Rally; some subtle lighting effects for snow glare and reflective signs are pleasing, but the inexplicably ugly water and rain effects are an odd comedown from Rally’s dirty splendour. The new locations are problematic, too. Both games drop in on Sweden and Wales, but 4’ s additions of Australia, Spain and Michigan just don’t raise the pulse like Rally’s Finland, Monaco or Greece. The absence of iconic locations such as Sweet Lamb and Pike’s Peak compound the matter further.
Dirt 4 goes someway to making up for its lack of official courses with Your Stage, the procedural route generator on which the rest of the game is draped. You can only determine length and complexity via a pair of sliders, and set time of day and weather conditions, but the system is capable of generating an all-but-limitless parade of diverse courses (you just might have to hit the generate button a few times to get the twisting descent you were hoping for). The results are surprisingly convincing, for the most part feeling like real or handdesigned efforts – indeed, Codemasters has even used the tech to populate the game’s career mode.
Procedural generation’s inherent problems aren’t fully solved – there’s a disquieting sense of déjà vu as you hurl your car through identical acute left handers or dodge the same formations of rocks on the outside of several sweeping right threes – but what they lack in bespoke detail is more than recouped by the dizzying variety of routes. More importantly, the continual flow of unfamiliar corners and crests perfectly captures the intensity of rally driving, in which quick thinking, improvisation and inadvisable bravery are all essential attributes. And the ability to save your creations, build multi-stage events (which pay out and contribute to your career earnings), and then share these with your friends and challenge them via online leaderboards could give Dirt 4 the longest tail of any rally game so far. Blasting down a procession of short, two-mile stretches of randomly generated gravel is thrilling and moreish.
Another advantage of using created, rather than real, tracks is that Codemasters has been able to construct a career mode free from the usual uneven difficulty curves that are synonymous with rally games. Here, you start with single stages just over a mile in length, and progress up to the multi-event championships that take place on complex eight-mile routes. Combined with a commendably detailed and supportive Dirt Academy, which takes you through a wide range of basic and advanced techniques, this is the most accessible Dirt career mode to date. Accessibility is a key concern for the series’ fourth numbered entry. Dirt Rally was uncompromising, and brilliant for it, but it catered for a specific, dedicated audience. Creating a handling model that appeals to both that hardcore contingent and the broader audience of the main series would be a fool’s errand, so Codemasters has built two separate models instead. Right from the off you can choose between Gamer and Simulation – a distinction so profound that it has its own menu option rather than sitting with the other settings. Gamer shaves off all of the rough edges, tidies up your car’s attitude in the corners (even with all the assists off) and imbues tyres with Herculean levels of grip. It’s not so intrusive you can’t break traction or lean on the particular characteristics of your car, but everything still feels stifled and dull.
Switch to Simulation, however, and Dirt 4’ s cars come to life. The game’s tweaked version of Rally’s handling model may prove divisive, however. While the nuance and complexity of vehicle feedback and response remains, Codemasters has increased the fidelity of its suspension physics and made cars – even the Stratos – slightly more forgiving. For our money, Rally’s setup provides the more satisfying challenge, one that better communicates the violence of rally driving. But 4’ s revised, and still remarkably involved, handling flatters more and has the knock-on effect of making playing with a pad almost as enjoyable as a wheel.
The handling tweaks are particularly noticeable when wrestling with buggies in the returning Landrush mode, and make Rallycross (which retains Rally’s licensed venues and adds three more) exhilarating bumper-to-bumper racing more manageable.
But despite a multitude of improvements and a much larger offering than its predecessor, Dirt 4 somehow feels less spirited. Had Rally not existed, this latest game would’ve felt like more of an event, but in its current form it doesn’t quite achieve the potency of its more focused forebear.
Despite a multitude of improvements and a larger offering than its predecessor, Dirt 4 feels less spirited
LEFT You can now retain control of your car after the finish line, bringing it to a controlled stop in front of the marshal. It’s a nice touch that adds to the sense that you’re taking part in real events.
BELOW Landrush takes place on a handful of fictional tracks, and proves riotous fun. It makes for a pleasant change of pace, too ABOVE Codemasters throws in details like crashed cars that make its procedurally generated tracks feel more alive than they might have otherwise. We miss photographers dashing from the track, though
You can create your own team livery and gradually amass sponsors to make everything look more professional. Once founded, you can enter your team into any of the game’s events