Dirt 4 may no longer bear the name of the legendary, late rally driver Colin McRae, but his legacy lives on in its DNA – the franchise evolved from the Colin McRae Rally games. In one aspect, Dirt 4 marks a return to the franchise’s roots: unlike Dirt 3, it doesn’t feature the king of “hooning”, Ken Block, and the precision-driving Gymkhana mode is absent.
But while the original core discipline of rallying is very much the focus of Dirt 4, it isn’t just a rally game: it also features rallycross (proper racing on hybrid dirt/tarmac tracks) as well as Land Rush - off-road buggy, truck and kart racing. But it does major on incredibly authentic rallying, in lovingly reproduced versions of real cars (including an impressive roster of classics), on courses from a carefully chosen selection of countries that reflect the wildly varying conditions that real-life rally drivers face: rainy Wales, snowy Sweden, the fast but precarious tarmac of Spain and the dusty environs of Australia and the US.
Fire up Dirt 4 and you’re instantly pitched into a pretty gentle rally stage, designed more than anything to assess your driving skills and set the game’s difficulty (plus driver aids) accordingly. As soon as you begin the Career mode proper, one major difference in comparison with previous Dirt games becomes apparent. It’s way more forgiving than any of its predecessors, which tended to assume you have similar skills to the likes of McRae and Block. That instantly makes it a more inclusive game, bringing appeal to those seeking a more arcade-style driving experience.
Which is not to say that Dirt 4 has in any way abandoned its authentic rallying credentials. Crank up the difficulty levels, turn the driver aids off and you have a full-blown rallying simulator, which replicates real life in startling fashion. Codemasters has clearly striven to give Dirt 4 the widest possible appeal.
Structurally, Dirt 4’s Career mode deviates from previous iterations, and does so quite impressively. It adds a sim-game element by putting you in charge of your own team. So you must do things like design your own livery (via an excellent system that encourages extreme garishness) and, as you earn prize-money, recruit engineers, PR people, researchers and the like. They will allow you to upgrade your cars and enter a wider variety of events. Car-purchasing is a key element of the game: you swiftly acquire a choice of which rallies to enter, so you’ll need to acquire eligible machinery.
Your rallying career starts off in very gentle fashion, in low-level, national rallies, up against opposition whose skills are as undeveloped as yours – in the past, one tiny mistake would have sent you to the back of the field, but unless you crank up the difficulty, you can get away with indiscretions in the earlier stages of Dirt 4’s Career mode and still win rallies. As you earn your international licence, difficulty naturally increases, but the difficulty curve remains admirably progressive for a rallying game.
At any time, you can jump into Rallycross or Land Rush, providing a markedly different driving experience characterised by brutal, full-contact racing. In both modes, the tracks are great, but the buggies and karts in Land Rush are authentically twitchy, so take some getting used to. While they are pretty diverting, the rallying definitely feels like the heart of the game.
And Dirt 4 is a pretty meaty game, containing plenty of other elements. The online side, augmented by Codemasters’ famed RaceNet system which fosters the impression of being part of an authentic motor-racing community, provides a bewildering number of options for racing against human opposition.
Plus there’s the Dirt Academy, into which you’re dropped before you launch Career mode, and to which you can return at any time. It’s basically a rally-driving playground which contains a fabulous guide to the most advanced driving techniques – including the likes of trail-braking, pendulum-cornering and the principles of weight-transfer. Unlike, say, Gran Turismo, it doesn’t force you to take tests, but it will leave you with all the knowledge you need to go rallying in real-life. There are a couple of mini-games which are a bit reminiscent of Dirt 3’s Gymkhana in there too, but they are rather tucked away.
And if you finish Career mode and beat everyone online, there’s yet another way in which you can test yourself. Entitled Freeplay, it lets you pick a country, weather conditions, time of day and so on, and set up a championship over procedurally generated tracks which, by definition, will never repeat themselves.
Dirt 4 is simply the best rallying game that you can get your hands on right now. It’s substantial and authentic yet, unlike its predecessors, has just as much appeal for those new to rallying games as for those who fancy themselves as aspiring rally-drivers or e-sports stars. It may not be flashy or extroverted, but it’s a very fine game.