Despite autumn bringing with it much cooler weather which entices people to stay inside, and franchises such as Forza Motorsport or Project CARS renewing people’s interest in virtual race cars by releasing their latest iterations in rapid succession, the most technically competent off-road racer in recent memory boasts just a few hundred active users on a cozy Friday evening. Codemasters may have struck gold by complete accident with their niche offering known as DiRT Rally in the spring of 2015, but a refined mass-market variant pushed out a few years later has already descended to the ranks of obscurity just a handful months after launch. DiRT 4 received stellar reviews from mainstream gaming publications, and visually is the closest a third-party team will come to recreating the overall graphical fidelity seen in something like Forza, yet the masses eager to try it out have now totally lost interest, and Codemasters have seemingly jumped ship from the project as well.
DiRT 4 wasn’t a bad piece of software by any means, it just wasn’t the massive all-encompassing off-road experience that was advertised in pre-release promotional material, leading to a situation where the fourth game in the franchise which once proudly donned the namesake of Scotland’s finest rally driver couldn’t be listed as a tangible improvement over the former three iterations. The roster of vehicles didn’t shrink or expand, it merely substituted some cars for others. We revisited locations fans of the series were already quite familiar with, while swapping out unique stage layouts for bland & repetitive procedural generation functionality. The game’s semi-fictional take on hill-climb racing was scrapped, with rally racing split into two distinct disciplines (historic & modern) to fill the gap, whereas rallycross racing mostly regurgitated the same selection of content from DiRT Rally, and short course off-road truck racing was an afterthought at best; three tracks, all of which look about the same and sport an identical horseshoe layout.
It was a sidegrade, not an upgrade.
Yet for all it gets right – as a lack of content does not necessarily mean the core game is inherently broken or unsatisfactory – a close friend of mine states he can still find unopened copies of DiRT 4’s Day One edition, now heavily discounted, at his local supermarket. And though it technically has still out-performed Kylotonn’s officially licensed rally offering by a ratio of 3 to 1 and numerically has become the go-to rally game, DiRT 4’s active player-base explains why Codemasters have more or less ended this chapter prematurely. There was a period of time in which Race Driver: Grid was in the household of everyone with even a passing interest in race cars on the Xbox 360, and those are the kinds of games Codemasters specialize in maintaining. Their company did not aspire to build a game that three hundred people will play sporadically, and as a result they clearly have moved on from DiRT 4.
The series’ official subreddit features discussion almost exclusively centering around DiRT Rally, which has been out on store shelves for over two and a half years. A rogue post has noticed that community updates straight from Codemasters ceased in early August, and we’re now getting into the thick of October without any word regarding the future of DiRT 4. The game’s lone piece of downloadable content – something it desperately needs in abundance considering no one series within the package can boast a robust array of content – is instead just a pre-order bonus car that was eventually made available for everybody to purchase.
While I’m normally not one to advocate for downloadable content – I’m a loser who bitches and moans about the lack of PlayStation 2-era “feature complete” – DiRT 4 features just five rally locations and three short course off-road tracks; Codemasters would be forgiven if more appeared as additional purchases. This has not been openly discussed nor hinted at. By comparison, DiRT 3 featured such a plethora of downloadable content post-release, it ended up justifying a re-release of the entire game with this content on the disc by default, and dollar-for-dollar it’s still one of the best racing games money can buy.
Patches to fix nagging in-game problems have also been for the most part absent. There are still bugs with how the game calculates your prize winnings; you can finish an entire championship in career mode without ever leaving the track, only for a sponsor to pull a random vehicle reset number out of their ass and claim you’ve failed their bonus objective. Mechanical wear and tear, even in longer events, is for the most part non-existent; you can get away with a skeleton crew running your operation as you approach the final championships in all four of the game’s career arcs. Call it a reward for clean driving and keeping your nose out of trouble, but it’s possible to complete entire rallies without once making use of your crew members to enact repairs on your vehicle; strange given DiRT Rally a few years prior forced you to really think about how you allocated your time in the service area.
There’s also the highly controversial topic of DiRT 4’s “hidden steering assist”, which fans noted at launch felt like a hand of God was constantly generating understeer and preventing the cars from getting too out of control for the average user. While I do agree something has been done behind the scenes in order to make DiRT 4 more approachable to a wider audience, in my own recent travels my buddy and I have discovered that the game’s toe values are actually inverted. By merely setting a rear-ward brake bias and using positive toe values in place of negative values (and vice versa), I was able to salvage and actually have a lot of fun with a couple of cars I’d once deemed to be broken. The problem here is that the average DiRT 4 owner will not once touch the garage menu during the complete duration of their time spent within the game, meaning for every person like myself who can experiment with solutions to unwanted handling characteristics, there will be ten more who promptly ask for a refund on Steam.
I am unsure why Codemasters were unable to sit down and push out a brief default setup update across all three platforms to free up the cars and generate handling characteristics more in line with that of a traditional rally game, as this would have gone a long way to preventing a lot of the backlash against from the community. Yet for what is an adjustment that would take a Codemasters employee anywhere between two and four hours to implement across all 45 cars or so in the game, this option was not explored. Instead they have perpetuated the trope of racing simulator developers bundling their cars with atrocious preset configurations that no sane person would ever hit the track with.
A buddy of mine recently acquired his first decent PC steering wheel, and DiRT 4 is what we’ve been slugging it out in over the past few days, which is partially what inspired me to write this piece. Upon playing through the title a second time, Codemasters actually did build a really good rally game in DiRT 4, or at least one that was good at launch. But instead of fleshing out the game world with free updates that added more events to career mode, pelting the userbase with a stream of downloadable content to enhance the vehicle classes and racing disciplines already in the package, or just tidying up loose ends after their loyal community went out of their way to report any problems that came up, the DiRT 4 you played in July of this year is virtually unchanged four or five months later. I’ve not seen a company drop a game this hard in years; even the shitty Eutechnyx NASCAR games had some sort of comprehensive post-release plan that kept you at least partially engaged in the title’s evolution.
That isn’t to say DiRT 4 is inherently a bad game. For a discounted price, you can generally buy it and have a lot of fun with it, especially compared to Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo and WRC 7, both of which have been plagued by technical issues and the general sloppiness you’d expect from inferior teams. It just seems like structurally, Codemasters built a very good core experience to later expand upon, but then for whatever reason didn’t enact any sort of post-release support and immediately shifted their focus to Formula One. That’s great for Formula One fans, as F1 2017 is objectively one of the greatest racing simulators ever released, but this simultaneously means a whole bunch of rally fans have been stiffed for merely being interested in the wrong kind of racing game.
I would love to be proven wrong, and wake up to news of a DiRT 4: Rally Hysteria expansion or some shit, but there have been zero indicators any sort of thing will happen. Codemasters have recruited a lot of talent from the now defunct Evolution Studios – makers of DriveClub if you’re a bit out of the loop – but these guys were said to have begun work on a new intellectual property, something that DiRT most certainly isn’t. I clicked the “New Post” button on WordPress at around 8:30 PM local time, and saw Steamcharts tell me that just over one hundred people were playing DiRT 4 on PC. This is a dead game in every sense of the phrase, and it’s something Codemasters could have easily prevented, but for whatever reason, didn’t bother to.