With all the ferociousness of a 2007 Ford Focus violently swinging its elegantly engineered chassis around a tight hairpin corner in the depths of the Michigan brushlands, Dirt 4 has emerged to emphatically let everyone know that Codemasters remains King of the Rally in no uncertain terms. It’s a bold statement and no mistake, though it remains one that happily turns out to be true.
Now much easier for non-simulation fans to get into
From top to bottom Dirt 4 improves, refines and polishes just about everything that its critically acclaimed predecessor, Dirt Rally, did when it released on PS4 in April last year. Arguably, one of its most significant avenues of progression comes in the form of how Codemasters have addressed the series trademark punishingly difficult car handling model. In particular, such improvements in this speak to those players who have typically found the Dirt Rally's dogged pursuit of simulation level realism to be a little too much to stomach at times.
Split between ‘Gamer' and ‘Simulation’ handling models that can be chosen at the beginning of the game, the former eases up on the unforgiving handling model of last year's game, instead augmenting it with a number of technical assists to take the stress out of Dirt 4’s otherwise terribly precise and demanding standard of driving. All in all, it’s a welcome addition; a knowing concession to an audience which Dirt Rally has traditionally struggled to resonate with.
Elsewhere, a comprehensive tutorial, coupled together with a set of well-explained and easily graspable lessons help to roll out the welcome mat yet further for series newcomers. Indeed, in fashion not unlike the recent Guilty Gear Xrd REV 2, Dirt 4 really takes the time to explain the nuances and subtleties of its design in a way that we just haven’t seen before, and for that, I (and no doubt others) are endlessly thankful.
Nonetheless, despite such spirited appeals to the less hardcore, the learning curve embraced by Dirt 4 remains nearly every bit as steep as its predecessor, and still demands that the player pile hours upon hours into its substantial offering before the first glimmers of a seasoned driver begin to reveal themselves. Ultimately, much like its immediate predecessor, Dirt 4 is a game of limits. A constant gamble where the best drivers have to push every turn and get that extra mile an hour or two out of every corner in order to shave precious hundredths of a second off their time, crushing failure is often just mere centimetres away in Dirt 4, and it’s in that miniscule gulf that exists between victory and defeat that the best drivers find themselves forged out of the asphalt.
More than that however, the handling of any of Dirt 4’s vehicles whether they be old-school Mini Coopers or the power packed spectacle of the Ford Focus RS RX supercar, all feel incredibly responsive and fine tuned; the developer allowing players a great deal of latitude to tweak the technical minutiae of each car to truly tailor car performance to exactly how they want.Whether you're grinding through gravel, or carving new paths through rain sodden mud, Dirt 4’s handling never feels anything less than sublime.
An almost overwhelming offering of content
In furthering the design narrative of what is essentially a bigger, better Dirt Rally, the sheer amount of stuff to do in Codemasters latest rallying effort is frankly dizzying. At its core, there are four different racing disciplines in Dirt 4 - Rally, Rallycross, Land Rush and Historic Rally. Of the quartet, Rally follows the expected template of smashing times and positions across a variety of multi-stage rally tracks all over the world. Rallycross on the other hand, combines track and country environments with much beefier cars to create a much swifter, and arguably more disciplined rallying experience.
As expected, Historic Rally offers little in the way of surprises, as it allows players to relive classic rallying venues in a number of equally antique looking cars. What is more than a little different and is a mode that returns from last year’s Dirt Rally however, is Land Rush. A fully off-road jaunt across wide, dusty, desert tracks and other such untamed surfaces, Land Rush forces the player to reevaluate their knowledge of rallying, as the sweeping wide corners and relentlessly undulating peaks and troughs do little to tap into any previous lessons that have been received behind the wheel. In case it isn’t obvious already, you’re always learning in Dirt 4, and perhaps nowhere is that more keenly evident than in Land Rush.
Complimenting all of these modes is the Your Track functionality. Serving as a procedural track generator, Your Track enables would-be racers to tailor a number of different parameters to create a unique track each and every time. Sure, such an offering falls a little short of a true track editor in all fairness, but it offers enough creative latitude for most players that it will provide Dirt 4 with an extra set of legs in the long term.
Speaking of the long term, the leaderboards in Dirt 4 are now multi-platform, allowing you to pit your racing mettle against folks from non-PlayStation lands for the foreseeable future. The Joyride mode conversely, spices up the usual po-faced spectacle of rally racing with an extended series of time attack style events, such as smash attack - where you must crash you as many coloured obstacles before the time limit expires. Pointedly, Joyride might seem like sugary, goofy fun on the surface, but its colourful challenges belie a level of difficulty that undoubtedly runs parallel with the rest of Dirt 4’s offering.
Then there is the Career mode.
A series of interlinked events, championships and tournaments, Dirt 4 leverages a persistent player profile where experience is gained from race to race which then unlocks later car class categories depending on the experience earned. Adding a yet further layer to the Career mode is a team management framework where you can run your own team, which includes getting sponsors who will set you targets for bonus cash, hiring engineer staff, co-drivers, purchase facilities and more.
For petrolheads with a management fetish, this aspect of Dirt 4’s career will certainly seem enticing, such are the depths of micromanagement delights that it offers. For the rest of us though, for whom the organic hues of the road hold more allure than the clinical monotony of the office, such team management elements can often feel surplus to requirements.
A technical marvel, for the most part
Your eyes don’t need to be working that well for you to realise that the Dirt 4 is quite the looker. With oodles of trackside detail, gorgeous weather effects and some beautifully rendered vehicles, developer Codemasters manage to keep the whole affair trucking along at a near perfect 60 frames per second, which not only provides buttery smooth animation, but more crucially, a level of ultra responsive control to match.
If there is one issue with Dirt 4’s otherwise bombastic visuals, it’s the manner in which replays are handled. Rather than depicting the action at the same 60 frames per second that it was originally recorded at, replays instead opt to cut the framerate in half somewhat inexplicably, resulting in a noticeably choppier visual experience than the game itself usually prescribes.
On a different note, given just how received the VR portion of Dirt Rally was in earlier in the year, the absence of PSVR support in Dirt 4 can seem a touch disappointing. Nonetheless, Codemasters has promised that they will look into PSVR support for Dirt 4, and again, if February’s Dirt VR expansion is any indication, then the eventual PSVR support for Dirt 4 should end up being something very special indeed.
As was the case with 2016’s Dirt Rally, the quality of the sound engineering in Dirt 4 compliments its visual spectacle masterfully, with every sound, whether it’s the roar of a Mitsubishi engine, the crunch of dirt under the tyres or the audible thud of the suspension after a vigorous jump, sounding precisely how you would expect it to. If you have a sound system of even average repute, you can definitely expect Dirt 4 to make the most of it.
Slight technical oddities during replays and occasionally stifling team management elements aside, Dirt 4 represents the pinnacle of the rallying series that Codemasters has been nurturing for years now.
Perhaps more significantly than that however, is how Codemasters have managed to make Dirt 4 more appealing to newcomers and arcade racers than any of its predecessors; all without compromising the robust level of challenge so commonly associated with the towering rallying series.