DiRT 4 Review – Mmmm, DiRTY Girl

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Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Codemasters
Publisher: Codemasters
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Yes

Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.

Screaming round a dirt bend at speeds no mortal should ever consider while nursing a punctured tire is when DiRT 4 is at its very best, the frantic desire to be the fastest having to be weighed against the need to just finish the stage and get a chance to repair your limping car. But as we’ll find out there are a few problems holding DiRT 4 back from being as good as it could be.

Before you get going there’s a beefy tutorial which does an excellent job of getting you up to speed, teaching you all the basics behind Scandinavian flicks, handbrake turns, braking techniques, the differences between FWD and RWD and much more. It’s a vast improvement over DiRT Rally’s lacking tutorial, for sure.

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Career mode does exactly what you’d expect with no big surprises. As you complete rally events the next batch will open up, with cash prizes being handed out so that you can purchase new vehicles, although you’ve always got access to team offers so you’ll never find yourself unable to compete in an event. Aside from rallying the career also guides you through RallyCross, which is circuit racing against A.I. opponents across dirt and tarmac, and Land Rush events composed of buggy and truck races on bumpy dirt tracks. RallyCross and Land Rush both offer a nice change of pace from the normal rallying, but thankfully never take the focus away from rallying either.

When we come to the handling, obviously the most important part of any racing, we also come to an identity crisis for DiRT 4 which doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants to be. Two years ago the supremely brilliant DiRT Rally arrived with its emphasis on a “realistic” simulation that nearly demanded players go out and purchase a proper wheel for the proper experience as playing with a controller took considerable skill with which to handle the sliding powerhouses. Meanwhile, the previous DiRT games favored a more arcade approach, so it was somewhat surprising to see Codemasters claim DiRT 4 was going to build off of DiRT Rally’s realistic handling model and indeed improve upon it. What we’ve actually gotten is much more in line with the games before DiRT Rally, the new handling improving on the formula by giving cars a better sense of weight but also granting them considerably more grip, even with all of the assists off. The result is that even powerful 4WD cars don’t want to slide very easily. In fact, I typically had to resort to the handbrake to get a good slide going, and even then mid-way through the bend the tyres would be gripping again. It’s a more forgiving style that makes it a much easier game to play using a controller and more welcoming for general racing fans, but some of the tense, on-the-edge feeling of DiRT Rally gets sacrificed as a result.

This less hardcore attitude permeates other areas, such as the A.I. which is a complete pushover unless you ramp the difficulty up. On the rally stages even a relaxed pace will see you finishing up miles ahead of the opposition unless you plow head-first into a tree like a complete muppet, while in the circuit racing events the A.I. tends to break very, very early so that it can creep round corners.

This leads to money rarely being a problem since you’ll most likely be winning the events you take part in, and while you may have to pay to repair your car even that won’t make much of a dent in your earnings. I was rarely, if ever, left wanting for the money to buy a new vehicle for an event, or to fix up my rally car or anything else.

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Having never driven a rally car in real life it’s hard to comment on just how accurate DiRT Rally’s incredibly slidey physics were, though I’d hazard throwing a powerful RWD card around gravel bends would indeed be a little slippy. For all I know DiRT 4’s higher levels of grip may be accurate, so ultimately all I can say is that it’s a very subjective thing. A perusal of the real life sport shows that while videos of the likes of Colin McRae and Sebastian Loeb show them screaming round corners like utter nutters they are also the exception to the rule, with the art of rallying generally being to minimize slides in order to maintain speed. Personally, I’d like something in the middle as DiRT Rally constantly felt as though I was driving on ice while DiRT 4’s dislike of drifting like a madman around corners left it feeling a bit less exciting, although don’t get me wrong as once you really get going in a powerful machine it can feel wonderful.  A bit of time spent in the tuning menu can reduce some of the understeer during breaking that seems to be the neutral setting for all the cars, making them a touch more tail-end happy.

There’s also a second handling mode that feels somewhat insultingly named Gamer which turns on all the assists and gives you damn near super levels of grip, the game working away in the background to keep everything neat and tidy on the entry and exit of bends. It’s still possible to force the car into a slide, but for the most part this mode can feel a lot like the game is playing itself.

If it’s sliding you want that’s where the seriously beefy Land Rush trucks come into play, their massive levels of horsepower meaning hitting the accelerator has the rear tires spinning like crazy, sending dirt flying in every direction. In many ways they provide the more engaging driving I miss in the rallying as even something as simple as accelerating needs solid control. It’s a bit of a shame that both Land Rush and Rally Cross get a measly three tracks apiece and a very small roster of vehicles.

After a short time you’ll be able to purchase your first vehicle and begin your very own team that you’ll gradually expand by adding more facilities and staff. A quick trip to the menus lets you hire new engineers who get paid based on your total championship winnings, which you can offset by plastering your car in sponsors who will pay out provided you meet their goals such as finishing at least one stage cleanly, winning the event or getting X amount of fastest sector times. From this menu you can also pick out your team colors and choose from a woefully small selection of patterns to stick on your vehicles. Finally, you can spend big money to improve team facilities, doing things like buying a better lounge for your stuff so that they’ll generally be happier and less likely to develop negative traits, a larger garage so you can have more vehicles, building a fancy VIP area for potential sponsors or purchasing better tools for your team to use. You can even invest in an R&D center that will allow you to upgrade your cars with higher quality parts.

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It’s entertaining stuff for the first little while, but ultimately two problems render it as nothing more than a tacked on feature that needs to be fleshed out in future iterations. Firstly the lack of difficulty across the entire game presents an issue. Since winning events isn’t very challenging money is rarely in short supply which makes pleasing the sponsors feel like a waste of time. The money they bring in is a nice bonus and can help offset team costs, but ultimately the cash they give you feels like a drop in the ocean rather than something you should be relying on to help run your entire team. In the same way investing in engineers and R&D for better parts never feels as vital as it should because cars can take considerable punishment before it ever becomes. What’s the point investing in better engineers and parts when basic workers will do the job just as well?

The other problem is that they’ve wrapped the whole team management shebang up in a boring series of menus with as much personality as every politician ever. You never get to see your team physically grow or change despite sinking huge amounts of cash into constructing new facilities and hiring more staff. Without that visual connection the feeling that you’re just paddling in a shallow mode that got tossed into the game is increased tenfold.

Once you’ve gotten through the career mode you can always head online, which is where Rally Cross and Land Rush both shine provided you’re okay with some close-quarters smashing. Regular rally is obviously just as enjoyable as it is in singleplayer, but I would loved to have seen options for racing opponent’s ghosts. There’s also pro tour mode that basically mimics the career but with other people, all of the tracks being generated so that it’s different every time.

Sadly there’s no split-screen option, so if you enjoy getting your mates round for a few stages and pizza this isn’t going to be the game for you.

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If you get bored of the default rally stages then that’s where the new Your Track feature comes in, a system that randomly generates new tracks for you to tackle. You get some mild say in how the system puts it all together with a slider for stage length and complexity, and options for the time of day and weather, but other than that DiRT 4 slots a bunch of stuff together like a crazed scientist who’s been let loose with a Lego set. The results are actually surprisingly convincing at times, although after a while you’ll begin to recognize certain sequences of corners. Still, it should add a healthy chunk of longevity for the more dedicated players, especially since you can save tracks in order attempt to improve your time or send it to friends for some friendly, or not so friendly, competition.

On the technical front DiRT 4 is something of a mixed bag, featuring a bouncy soundtrack and great audio mixing but graphics that feel dated. Occasionally the game can look lovely thanks to some solid lighting, and the performance is generally very solid, but overall there’s a grainy look to the environment, a lack of detail in the trees and foliage and generally just a feeling that it’s unfinished. It’s also a shame to see that none of the five countries look very interesting, lacking some of the nice vistas we saw in DiRT Rally.

With that said some of the smaller details Codemasters have included are much appreciated, like A.I. breakdowns on the track, your co-driver mentioning things like the engine potentially misfiring, drones flying overhead or patches of fog loitering on the track. You even get to drive the car to the marshal at the end of each stage, which is ultimately pointless but a nice touch nonetheless.

Having spent a few dozen hours with DiRT 4 I’m still not sure that it knows what it wants to be, and instead has settled into a slightly awkward middle ground between DiRT 3 and DiRT Rally. It’s completely lost the bombastic, “XTREME!” attitude of the prior main entries in the series in favor of a more serious look and feel, but that switch has left it feeling a little bland. DiRT Rally compensated for this by being “XTREME!!!” on the track instead, its handling making you feel as though were always a split-second from crashing, whereas DiRT 4 opts for a softer style that forgives mistakes. I think if Codemasters hadn’t specifically referenced DiRT Rally there would be less of a division between fans, because when you play DiRT 4 it feels quite clearly like it was meant to follow in the footsteps of DiRT 3 as a more relaxed game that anyone can enjoy. Taken in that regard I had a lot of fun playing DiRT 4, and while it does have it’s fair share of problems anyone looking for a rally game that doesn’t need the dedication of DiRT Rally should look no further.

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