DIRT 4 Review – Eating Dust and Liking It
DiRT 49th June, 2017
In December 2015, Codemasters released DIRT Rally. There's little argument against saying it's the best rally game ever released. It had a laser focus and knew exactly what it wanted to be. Moving away from the DIRT franchise's more accessible nature, DIRT Rally had a steep learning curve, it was terribly difficult and uncompromising to anybody and everybody alike. DIRT 4 has both eased this off slightly and also gone too far, gutting the game of any challenge.
Dirt 4 is at its best when you're on the edge of your seat. Where spinning out of control on the last lap leaves you with a hole in your stomach. Where the stress of a bumpy track leaves you with sweaty palms. Dirt 4 is at its best when you're hit with an intense feeling of relief as you finish a race, hopefully in first but often not. It's a shame that there are a few glaring flaws too.
I should explain what was said at the end of the first paragraph. When starting DIRT 4 for the first time, the game will ask you to choose between Gamer and Simulation controls. Simulation is the closest you'll get to DiRT Rally. It's still unforgiving if you take a corner too fast, slam on the brakes too hard or turn too hard. The thought requirements are still there, you need to pay attention to every bump, the surface of the track and particularly the weather. What's most important is that it's approachable, despite the difficulty. I'm far from the best at racing games, but I can't help but recommend Simulation controls.
This is mainly because Gamer controls are just too easy. Having spent a couple of hours with 'Gamer' controls, I can't help but be a little disappointed. I fully understand and appreciate the want, even the need to make a more arcade and approachable method of playing the game. Inclusivity for those who would struggle on simulation is an excellent thing, it could have just been a little more in the middle. Even when altering the settings to make it as difficult as it can be, it offers no challenge at all.
It isn't to say that racing on Gamer isn't fun, it certainly is. You can liberally slide around corners, use the handbrake to your heart's content and jump around in as much rain and snow as you like without much risk of spinning out. To all intents and purpose, gamer mode is simply DIRT-lite. It's not a big problem, just too easy. That's why I heartily recommend jumping into DiRT Academy first. A host of lessons will teach you how to handle a car, the use and feel of weight displacement, how to correctly go around corners, using your brake, handbrake and acceleration.
Where the real variety and joy in control comes is the myriad of cars available. As with real life, each and every one of them feels different in their own special way. It's learning these cars, the little details, which makes DiRT 4 special. Much like I mentioned in my review of Forza Horizon 3, Codemasters also manages to make every car feel unique. You'll get the chance to encounter them all as you run through the career and other modes. The career, in particular, will give you the opportunity to race for another team to build up cash, buy your first car and then build up a team of your own. In addition, upgrade and tune the cars to your heart's content.
Sadly, the career mode is barebones at best. All of your challenges are featured in four modes: Rally, Rallycross, Land Rush and Historic Rally. Sadly, Land Rush is minuscule in its offering, with just a handful of stages. The rally is where the game really places its focus, with an extensive number of events. Historic Rally is literally Rally, just with old cars. Possibly the most egregious sin of career mode is the lack of detail that has gone into your progression as a team. Codemasters' mastered this nine years ago with GRID. However, DiRT 4 shows a few basic menus and icons to represent your growth rather than anything visible like a garage to view a number of your cars or even a small trophy cabinet.
Outside of career, these same four modes are available in a variety of community challenges that task you to beat other people's scores, multiplayer, Freeplay, Joyride and Dirt Academy. Joyride and Freeplay are the key features here. Looking at joyride first, this places you in an open area (think the Top Gear test track) and the ability to freely drive around or challenge yourself with time attack or smash attack challenges. Time attack is fairly self-explanatory, where smash attack challenges you to smash a number of blocks within a time limit.
Freeplay is where DiRT 4 really shines. The focus on Rally racing found in the game never shines stronger than here. Choosing from the five countries available, you choose from very simple settings of length and complexity and a track is generated. Following this, you can set the weather and time of day. This is DiRT 4's way of procedurally generating tracks and it works fantastically. Each and every one I've had the chance to race on has felt coherent and, best of all, real. The little things from the crowds, barns, and houses you'll drive past. The helicopters there to film your progress for the viewers at home. These could very easily have been hand-crafted tracks. It's an achievement that they appear to be, even though they're not.
What's the big shame for me is that this reliance on Rally racing has led to Land Rush and Rallycross feeling tacked on at best. Land Rush has a mere three tracks with a few routes per track. Rallycross has just five tracks, in the same situation with a few routes per track. The big disappointment for me is due to the fact that these two are by far my favourite parts of the game.
The limitations of certain game modes aren't the only problems I've got with the game. I've always found Codemasters titles to be strong at release, at least in the case of issues. However, I've encountered a fair number of bugs and some of them interfering massively. The first, and worst, was simply that the game wouldn't launch - an issue encountered by a few people, having looked at the Steam community. The only fix was to manually install the 2005 Visual C redistributable and then uninstall and reinstall the game. In the game, I'd encountered camera issues where it would persistently judder as if attempting to focus on something else before snapping back into place.
AI could also do with some improvements also. I've lost count of the number of times I've been rammed off of the path, forced to cut a corner due to this and then penalised a massive amount of time as a result of 'corner cutting'. It's things like these that just take me out of the game. I won’t complain about the lack of a rewind option found in most racing games. It just would have come in useful when I'm penalised for another car knocking me off track.
Beyond these issues, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention exactly how stunning DiRT 4 looks and sounds. The cars spraying up dirt as they ride around a wet, muddy track. The rain as it hits your windscreen, pushed to the side by the wipers as a car pulls up alongside you in an attempt to pass. Everything has such a great amount of detail. It's surprising, then, that the UI remains as basic as it can be. My complaint about career progression being relegated to menus is only made worse by how dull moving from menu to menu can be.
On the audio side, however, there's literally nothing to complain about. The cars sound absolutely fantastic, particularly as you're in a close race, in a pack as the weather comes down around you. Even the pace notes have some level of personality to them - particularly those of Nicky Grist. The soundtrack is also a key feature that livens the game up. Bastille by Pompeii, Air is Free by Johnossi and My Turn by Hoobastank prop up what is an excellent collection of tracks.
There's little doubt in my mind that Dirt 4 will have a long lifespan. Freeplay mode, multiplayer and the ongoing release of community challenges should keep people coming back for more. This is particularly true in the case of Freeplay as the generated tracks add something new, rather than forcing players to constantly race the same tracks.
DiRT 4 isn't a game that will be looked on as a defining moment for the genre, even the series. It's likely that belongs to DiRT Rally. What the game does offer, though, is the best racing game of 2017 so far. It's a great game that should keep players occupied for a decent amount of time. What will be key is the future free content promised by Codemasters. This will hopefully pad out the anemic Land Rush and Rallycross modes. DiRT 4 is a very good game. While not quite as focused or simply as great as DiRT Rally, it's another strong entry in the series.
PC version reviewed. Copy provided by publisher. You can buy it for PC, PlayStation 4 or Xbox One via Amazon.
DiRT 4 is a very good game, that much is certain. Retaining the fantastic control of cars from DiRT Rally, albeit made somewhat simpler, it offers almost endless rallying with a procedurally generated track system and a number of changing online challenges. Not without its flaws, including an oversimplified gamer control scheme and anemic career mode, it's still a worthy entry of the core DiRT franchise.
- Great tutorial system with DiRT Academy
- Simulation mode offers an excellent and approachable, but still difficult challenge
- Rally racing is fantastic, with the Freeplay mode offering almost limitless numbers of tracks
- Excellent aesthetic quality, looks and sounds fantastic
- Gamer mode is simply too easy, making it almost impossible to not finish first in every race
- Land Rush and Rallycross modes are woefully anemic, lacking content
- The game has a few bugs that need fixing and the AI could be improved, or at least more forgiving when it penalises you for something caused by the AI