If you like rally games for the sensation of thrashing a car through a dusty course and listening to the groan of a Straight 4 as tires shred under the weight of g-force, then I’m happy to report that DiRT 4 satisfies your primordial urge to play in the sand.
As a direct sequel to 2011’s DiRT 3, Codemasters’ newest entry is designed to appease two polar corners: hardcore rally fans and casual fans, with a choice between a “Gamer” and “Simulation” mode offered up early on alongside a pleasing number of options that affect how your car behaves and the competency of the opposition AI. Choose Gamer mode and you’ve got insane levels of grip, meaning you can attack corners without fear, whereas Simulation is a far more studied, careful exercise in car management. The former might be a good entrée but the latter is the best way to experience DiRT 4.
Rallying, as ever, is the beating heart of DiRT and the big new feature this year is the inclusion of procedurally generated courses. Instead of racing through real arenas recreated for the game, every course is randomly generated by the computer in one of five main locations (Fitzroy, Australia; Powys, Wales; Michigan, USA; Varmland, Sweden and Terragona in Spain). The reasoning is sound. Rally games are traditionally limited by the number of courses that exist in the real world, and this No Man’s Sky-esque approach neatly overcomes that obstacle. But it also means that DiRT 4 doesn’t have that workman’s attention to detail. You lack the sense that it’s been meticulously handcrafted by a rallying fanatic staring at a sea of pixels, eyes bleeding from the strain.
A lack of personality doesn’t mean it’s not fantastic fun, mind you. Race through the hilly terrain of Australia and you’ll find that smoke paints your car as you tackle the challenging dips in the surface, while the beautiful Welsh forests are gorgeous to behold and full of pebbles that rattle your undercarriage. In Sweden, roads are carved out of the snowy hillside, while Spain is a succession of paved roads that rise and fall sharply through the country.
If you’re new to the genre, don’t expect Burnout levels of speed. This is about artful cornering and listening to the pacenotes of your co-driver (either Nicky Grist or Jen Horsey).
For more red-blooded thrills, Rally Cross and Land Rush are your friend. Red hot Rally Cross features bass thwomping beasts with exhausts pipes that jut out of the dashboard like something aboard the Nostromo. Here you sprint off the line into a hailstorm of spiting, snarling engine notes, racing in close competitive quarters against on-screen opponents. There’s an added tactical element at play, too, known as the “Joker – a lengthened section of track all drivers must complete once.
But both Rally Cross and Land Rush (think dunes and dirt buggies) are set on circular tracks, and there just aren’t enough of them. There’s no procedural generation at work here, and instead, you’re forced to make do with a paltry number of territories and a handful of bite-sized arenas. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
The best mode of all is Historic Rally, which lets you tackle the winding, procedurally generated rallying courses behind the wheel of classic vintage ride: think Lancias, MGs and even a ’60s Mini Cooper S. Thanks to a sublime selection of classic cars, you’ll yearn for the halcyon days of ’80s and ’90s rallying, but the good news is that car variety is good across the board, from RX Supercars in Rallycross to Peugeot 298s, buggies, trucks and more.
Attention to detail is also spot on. Snap to a view of the cockpit and you’ll see your driver changing gear and even depressing the clutch. Get behind the wheel in a buggy and you’ll navigate a cloud of dust pockets as you peer out of a tiny porthole, utterly blinded on your flanks – a wonderfully claustrophobic experience. Race through Australia and you might see a helicopter watching the action from the skies, while in Wales, I even spotted a drone swooping across the road.
Online, there are weekly competitive challenges to take part in alongside a robust multiplayer mode, though at the time of writing, I did have trouble finding sessions to join. Joyride gives you timed challenges to take on and Freeplay allows you to tinker with sliders to generate your own courses.
Perhaps the only real disappointment is Career. It’s utterly unmemorable, and aside from a bit of red tape in which you manage team members and crew, you’ll spend most of your time finishing races and jabbing the X or A button to hurry up and get through the next screen. Many races also take place in a succession of heats, and it can get wearisome traversing the same ground for the fourth or fifth time just to progress through artificial stages where your reward for coming first is a cut and paste image of your car on a podium.
Still, DiRT 4 is packed with stuff to di and its longevity is guaranteed thanks to the fact you make tracks at random. I would have liked a richer variety of locations, but you can’t deny that using the computer to do the heavy lifting is a clever trick.
Technically, DiRT 4 is as solid as they come. On a standard PS4 the framerate barely dipped below 60 FPS in my sessions, and I only encountered slowdown during frenetic Land Rush races. I’ve played better-looking games, no doubt, but audio is absolutely fantastic, from the spit and crackle of an engine note to the well-timed pacenotes of Nicky Grist or Jen Horsey.
In the end, DiRT 4 is something of a feat: both a considered challenge and an appetizer to the world of rallying at large. It helps that the actual racing is spot on, with cars that handle brilliantly because nothing beats the sensation of dabbing the brakes at the perfect moment and landing that drift, and Codemasters has largely played it safe, never alienating one crowd in favor of another. Ultimately, DiRT 4 won’t make as big an impression on either group as a result, but it’s going to keep players of all creeds busy for a long time indeed.
This review is based on the PS4 version, which we were provided with.
DiRT 4 is something of a feat: both a considered challenge and an appetizer to the world of rallying at large. It helps that the actual racing is spot on, too, with cars that handle brilliantly.