After years in the wilderness – I like to imagine a lone, dusty Subaru Impreza trundling through the Australian Outback like a modern day Herbie – Dirt is back in a big way. Dirt Rally was an outstanding example of this racing discipline, taking the series back to its Colin McRae roots, but it was also a proof of concept, an internal experiment to show that rallying could be hardcore and popular at the same time. In that regard it succeeded and it fundamentally altered the course of Dirt 4’s development.
One of the first things you see when you load up the game is the choice between ‘Gamer’ and ‘Simulation’ handling. The latter has an awful lot in common with Dirt Rally’s handling model, while the former takes these foundations and tones it down, making it more forgiving and edging it closer to the difficulty of the last numbered game, if not its particular handling. There’s an awful lot more granularity to the options beyond this, letting you find the right balance of difficulty for you, with a greater bonus to experience the higher you set it. It is obviously at its best with simulation handling and a racing wheel in hand, though.
Where Dirt Rally featured dozens of stages across six locations, Dirt 4 is underpinned by the Your Stage system that can effortlessly generate new and unique stages for you to hurtle along. In truth, you have only a cursory input though deciding a level’s length and complexity, making it something of a misnomer, but it works fantastically well. You might also wonder where it actually is in the game, as it hides away without a mention in the game’s menus. It’s there, though. In Free Play, in the career, in the multiplayer, it’s in every rally in the game.
The way Codemasters have built the game around Your Stage leads to a fundamental shift in how you play. There’s no rewinding time, as has featured in so many Codemasters games of the last decade, and only limited restarts depending on your difficulty settings. It really pushes you to race what’s in front of you instead of learning a stage by rote, trying to absorb the co-pilot’s instructions – which never skip a beat – reading the road and reacting to the hazards you face.
There is, however, a sense of déjà vu at times, as I notice some rather familiar dips, turns and hairpins that feel eerily similar to one another. I’m also somewhat sceptical of the calculated pace of the AI. All you see of them is a little triangle moving along the progress bar, but they seem able to race ahead down any of the perilously bumping straight sections that crop up, though this could equally be my inability to live up to the game’s ‘Be Fearless’ tagline. It feels like there’s a big step up from Challenging difficulty, which isn’t all that challenging, to Demanding and Tough difficulties, with the latter fairly consistently out of my reach.
Landrush and Rallycross, on the other hand, use bespoke tracks with a number of different layouts, with the latter featuring tracks and locations that cropped up in Dirt Rally. A mixture of shifting surfaces and some particularly twitchy vehicles make this very challenging at times, and the ease with which you can be spun out by contact can lead to some rather frustrating races that quickly drain your pool of restarts if you’re going for the win. With the granular difficulty, I’d recommend knocking the AI difficulty down a notch if that’s becomes the case, while racing in third person can give you the spatial awareness you need, as the spotters can only give small amounts of information.
The career takes you through all sides to the game – rallying, Landrush, Rallycross and historical car rallies – but one touch I appreciate is that you don’t need to win in order to progress. Simply completing an event tallies toward unlocking the next tier or the next discipline. That’s a big part of what rallying is really all about, again tying into the removal of rewinding and the sensibilities of Your Stage, and it’s gratifying to see that here.
As soon as you’ve got a couple of events under your belt, you can set up your own team and race under your own name, while almost always having the fallback of being able to race under another team banner if you don’t have an eligible car. It’s an overarching system, letting you build your team, add engineers, improve facilities and grow your garage from credits earned across almost all modes. Though a step up over Dirt Rally, it can still feel relatively inconsequential, amounting to lowered repair costs and times, improving default set ups, and letting you sign more sponsors.
Sponsors add additional objectives to each event, ranging from finishing with minimal penalty time or without major crashes to placing in a particular bracket in a race. Meet objectives and they could come back with a better sponsorship deal next time. It’s a simple system, but it’s easy to lose track of when contracts run out, and there’s the need to track back to the main menu and head to the sponsors and branding section, which for some reason requires you to load up a garage area to simply chuck a few sponsors at your car.
The overall presentation is one thing that Dirt 4 absolutely gets right. Gone is the “dude bro” attitude of Dirt 3 and Showdown in favour of something more subdued and tasteful, but without resorting to purist sterility. There’s some great attention to detail throughout, such as the soundtrack carrying on into loading screens and pulling the classic Hollywood trick of then transitioning to the sound of a PA system in your garage. Even just the little beep to let you know that the stage has loaded is a tiny little touch of class, even if it could really just start playing the area intro, or the way fences resist your car for just a moment when you crash into them.
The idea is to keep you playing day in, day out. That could be heading online for a few races with your friends and other multiplayer lobbies, taking part in the matchmade Pro Tour that cycles through different cars each day, or taking on daily, weekly and monthly Community Events, which can range from a single stage through to what amounts to an entire season of rallying. Alternatively, simply head into Freeplay and have a quick bash in any of the four categories, creating your own races and championships.
One oddity through all of this is that the amount of credits you earn from custom events pales in comparison to the amount you earn from doing the same races in the career. Further to that Landrush and Rallycross earn much more for a series of short races compared to lengthy and taxing rallies. Earning a full garage of cars will take a long time, so I’m sure players will be tempted to grind away at these events.
Sadly, some of the playfulness of Dirt 3 has been lost in the intervening years. The Dirt Academy tutorial mode and Joyride’s block smashing minigames and time trials all take place around the free roaming DirtFish warehouse compound. It’s purely single player, so you can’t go and hoon around in this area with your mates, as you could in Dirt 3’s Gymkhana playground. Similarly, other old options are missing, like having sequential rally starts online, so you all share a stage and can potentially catch a player up if you’re quick enough, and there’s no party modes like cat and mouse.
Lastly, while it might appear at some point in the future, it’s still somewhat disappointing that virtual reality support is not within Dirt 4 at launch. It was one of the best features of Dirt Rally, initially built into the game on PC for free and then as paid DLC on console, and it will presumably follow the latter path if and when it’s added to Dirt 4 down the line.
In the end, Dirt Rally was just a glimpse of what was yet to come, with Dirt 4 bringing this long running series back with not just rallying, but more full-on wheel to wheel action alongside it. In going for a more focused style of game and a more demure attitude, it’s lost some of Dirt 3’s hyperactivity and fun, but with a limitless supply of new stages to send you car hurtling along, Dirt 4 is a rallying game for the ages.
Version tested: PlayStation 4 Pro