Reinventing the wheel
When we visited Codemasters back in E306, we noted the fearlessness with which the company approaches new entries in its long-established series. Whereas many developers would be averse to straying too far from the template of such proven commercial successes, Codemasters thinks in the longer term. Take the bold reinventions of TOCA and
Colin McRae Rally, which became the Grid and Dirt series respectively. And those fresh starts heralded continual experiments with format, presentation and even handling models. It’s an approach that risks raising the ire of fans – indeed, the Dirt series’ flirtation with US disciplines and Americanisms has caused displeasure among some sections of its audience in the past – but also one that mitigates against any danger of stagnation.
Dirt Rally was Codemasters’ boldest exercise to date, a critically lauded swing to the simulation end of the handling spectrum and a chance to experiment with early-access development for a studio more used to polishing its efforts behind closed doors. But it’s also a hard act to follow. In returning to the broader appeal of earlier entries in the series, Codemasters was faced with perhaps the most polarised Dirt audience to date. Whereas before the schism concerned rally purists and fans of the dazzling spectacle of the Landrush and Gymkhana events, now it’s centred on the core of the game: the way the cars handle.
Rather than dictate the character of the latest Dirt game, then, Codemasters has instead tried to please everyone by providing two very different handling models. Getting both right was, we imagine, an unenviable workload. But perhaps this switch from dictatorship to democracy is to blame for Dirt 4’ s underwhelming form. Here’s a game that makes a good fist of catering to everyone, but many aspects suffer as a result.
That’s not to say that Dirt 4 isn’t as courageously designed as previous games in the series – far from it – but rather that it’s unavoidably less focused. Don’t get us wrong: Your Stage is a remarkable creation that, after years of development, raises the bar for procedurally generated racetracks. It may repeat tiles with slightly too much frequency, but that’s the only clue that these routes weren’t designed by hand. Flinging a car down them is just as satisfying as navigating realworld or designed stages, and the way they keep you on your toes dovetails perfectly with the spirt of rally driving. But in opposition, both Landrush and Rallycross, while brilliant fun, feel considerably less substantial than the main rally component, offering only a handful of tracks and slimmer career modes.
The game’s expanded team management system, meanwhile, is far more in-depth than the one found in Rally, but feels just as cold and detached despite the newly introduced need to manage employees’ moods and keep sponsors happy. And while we’re happy to see the earlier games’ hyperactive staging areas have been made more authentic, Dirt 4’ s pit area, while laden with detailed options, is a bit lifeless. In the end, much of the game feels like a series of compromises as aspects of Rally’s exposed underpinnings and the glitzy excesses of earlier entries meet at an unsatisfactorily resolved halfway house.
None of this undermines the value of Codemasters’ approach, however. Dirt 4 is still an accomplished game, and while some may prefer Rally’s less forgiving handling, 4 still boasts one of the best off-road driving models ever created. In allowing itself the freedom to experiment with Dirt’s form, Codemasters continually breathes new life into a series nearly two decades old. Such a commitment to reinvention will inevitably occasionally misfire, but it’s hard not to escape the feeling that if Codemasters had been more forthright in the form Dirt 4 should take, the result would have been more impactful.
As well as modern vehicles and kit cars, Dirt4 includes a host of rally legends for you to fling down its winding courses