I’d still yet to hang up my jacket and discard the shrink wrap from my PS4 copy of DiRT 4 as the Landrush World Championship video began playing. Unfortunately, this moment captures DiRT 4 in a nutshell; after a ridiculous amount of hype, the overwhelming positive reception stemming from the experimental science project that was DiRT Rally, and six whole years between today and the last main iteration in Codemasters’ highly successful off-roading franchise, the product that existed in our imaginations and in early teasers was exponentially better (and had much more longevity) than what will drop worldwide on June 9th – though console owners have been able to pick it up since Tuesday. While still a phenomenal rally game in its own right, and highly recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in off-road racing, Codemasters objectively dropped the ball with DiRT 4 compared to the expectations set for this release, and as a fan of the series dating back to when it once bore the namesake of a rally legend no longer with us, I can’t help but feel extraordinarily let down from a critical standpoint.
The elaborate headgear snobs crying to end no on various message boards about the game’s lack of virtual reality support, as well as those panicking about a “dudebro vibe” due to the mere inclusion of licensed music, really need to acquire some perspective given the kind of experience that awaits in DiRT 4; the artificial intelligence are woefully off-pace compared to the stout opponents seen in DiRT Rally, DiRT 4’s stage generation tool fails to produce an experience even remotely similar to what we hoped it would achieve, and the game has so little content once you start to process what’s available and when, I’m left praying for a tidal wave of post-release content when typically I speak out against such a practice. Basically everything that was pushed as new and exciting by Codemasters in the months leading up to this game instead fell flat on it’s face, and it’s a rude awakening for those eagerly anticipating the absolute definitive rally game of our generation.
However, that’s not to say DiRT 4 is a bad game by any means. With team management aspects giving some tangible sense of progression and purpose to your time within the software, light eSports elements that naturally slide into the core gameplay experience rather than date the software to that awkward period when everybody wanted on the bandwagon, a drastic departure in presentation from the previous youth-oriented dudebro culture, and a core driving model that’s still extremely satisfying – albeit a bit too easy compared to previous iterations – DiRT 4 is a game you can easily spend money on while being fully aware of all its shortcomings, and feel satisfied with your decision to do so regardless.
It just doesn’t do everything they said it would.
Disappointment sets in the moment you graduate from the introductory tier econobox racers mere minutes into career mode, and step into proper four wheel drive race cars that have graced a fair bit of the title’s promotional footage. Though the front wheel drive cars are admittedly very good from a physics standpoint, the more attractive vehicles on the roster are handed to you fairly quickly, and it’s at this precise time when DiRT 4’s metaphorical daddy issues come to light. Rumors spread like wildfire about the game supposedly being dumbed down for a larger audience upon gameplay footage first surfacing, and unfortunately I’m here to confirm that DiRT 4 is by far the easiest game of the entire franchise – and yes, that includes the Ken Block-infused titles on the Xbox 360. Codemasters promised DiRT Rally, but better in the months leading up to DiRT 4 when avid fans inquired about vehicle physics, but this just didn’t happen; the modern rally cars are literal hovercrafts that go almost anywhere you ask them to. I was extremely upset after my first few stages with the N4 spec Subaru Impreza, as even DiRT 2 and DiRT 3 provided a much more convincing feel behind the wheel with roughly the same class of cars.
The one change that I felt had been made for the better, was that threshold braking is now more important than ever, meaning you’ll need to brake a lot sooner for tricky sections that come up fast. This is something I personally enjoy, as it teaches budding sim racers to set the car on corner entry. However, the cars have so much grip everywhere else and remain stable under even the most adverse of conditions, that a lot of the time I felt as if I couldn’t go fast enough once I was on the attack, compared to how in DiRT Rally there’s a need to dial back your aggression on longer stages because the car can get away from you at a moment’s notice. This problem is compounded by a drastic reduction in the number of decently quick modern rally cars due to the WRC and other developers playing hardball on certain vehicle models, which prevented Codemasters from licensing the big guns; with R5-spec rides being top of the food chain in DiRT 4, you’ll be lucky to eclipse 170 km/h in high gear.
Obviously, as sim racing has progressed as a genre, we now know that race cars aren’t total death traps to drive like in the Richard Burns Rally or Grand Prix Legends days, but both myself and others with real world experience feel DiRT 4 is just a step too far in the other direction. In fact it’s the main point of discussion on the game’s Subreddit at the moment.
However, in my trials this doesn’t appear to pop up across every vehicle on the roster, as the historic Group B entries are every bit as insane as you’d expect them to be, with rides such as the Lancia Delta S4 requiring you to breathe on the throttle in third gear just to contain all of the ridiculous power in some sort of controlled fashion. The problem at the moment with too much grip seems isolated to just the modern cars, so if you’re extremely picky in regards to vehicle physics, I’d honestly suggest avoiding modern stuff altogether and making a beeline for the historic rally tier of career mode the second it becomes available – which is fairly early.
Sadly, the new short course off-road stuff, operating under the fictional moniker of LandRush to avoid additional licensing fees, leaves a lot to be desired – in fact I’d actually go out and call it incomplete. The LandRush content simply pales in comparison to what Codmasters have created both across the rest of DiRT 4 and in Rally back a few years ago, with the somewhat adequate buggies giving way to Pro2 and Pro4 trucks that slip & slide around as if they’re operating under a demented re-incarnation of iRacing’s old tire model. The trucks drive like absurdly stiff tin cans, and you never feel as if the tires are digging into the racing surface as they should; instead the trucks wildly wiggle and scoot around under power, to the point where non-wheel users shouldn’t even bother. Unless you actually enjoy this style of racing or want a modern throwback to Sierra’s SODA Off-Road Racing from the late 1990’s, the LandRush discipline and the vehicles within it are of such a poor quality compared to what we’re used to from Codemasters, you’re better off skipping it unless curiosity gets the best of you.
And once again, the previous three main DiRT titles did it much better; if I could yank the Stadium Truck physics from DiRT 3 and place them into DiRT 4, I certainly would without hesitation.
Had Your Stage materialized in a similar manner to what we all had in our imaginations when Codemasters first announced it to the world, I’d be fine with what they’ve done to some of the cars on the roster considering we’d have near endless tracks to drive them on, but this is instead another area where DiRT 4 drops the ball in a pretty substantial way.
Traditionally, rally games have shipped with a finite number of stages, where the development team hand-crafts multiple routes through X amount of environments, and eventually after Y hours of play, you’ve driven every track in the game – both forwards, as well as in reverse. After DiRT Rally was universally blasted for including just twelve stages in a $60 package, Codemasters set out to rectify complaint numero uno by coding a procedural generation engine into DiRT 4, therefore hoping to provide gamers with an unlimited set of stages where you’re always on your toes and driving something new, and as an added bonus, totally eradicating the memorization element out of online competitions. We were told there would be millions upon millions of route combinations, but unfortunately it appears the marketing team were operating on technicalities. Your Stage works on a technical level – you’re indeed always driving a new, unique route in both career mode and in other sessions – but the routes themselves always consist of the same preset chunks.
And there aren’t many preset chunks.
I think we all knew in the back of our minds that there’d be a catch with this procedural generation technology, but I didn’t expect to run into it so early. Less than an hour into the rally portion of the game’s campaign mode, it’s hard not to notice that the same couple of corners keep popping up throughout your events in Australia and Wales, and this eventually extends to the other three rally environments as well. It’s extremely disheartening, as you’ll begin to spot identical corners and even combinations of turns, complete with the same trackside objects and surrounding terrain very quickly, to the point where you experience this weird mixture of Deja Vu and highway amnesia as you progress through the championship. By the time I reached the pinnacle of the rally ladder, the Global Rally Series, I was seeing the same bend – complete with identical trees, spectator placement, and land geometry – two or three times per stage if not more, which is where the shots above are from.
The same segments repeat themselves for multiple times in a stage, and then stage after stage on top of that. If you’re not seeing an identical corner, you’re simply approaching that same corner in reverse, as seen in the Spain screenshot. So yes, while the math behind the procedural generation engine probably did spit out a hypothetical “millions upon millions” stage number when Codemasters were asked about it, the reality is that there’s not much variety in the chunks it uses. The technology powering Your Stage does work, albeit in a very repetitive way.
For solo play, this absolutely sucks major ass and it makes the career events blend together in the most atrocious, dull, boring manner, because there are far too many instances of “I just saw this very corner not two minutes ago and then twice on the last stage what the fuck” for anybody’s liking. When it comes to the online spectrum, however, it’s just enough to keep things exciting and reliant upon driver skill rather than some asshole memorizing every little bump and throwing the car sideways at 200 km/h because he knows there’s this weird line in sector 2 of Shepherd’s Shield that’ll catch the car just right. So I don’t really know what to say here other than it’s certainly not the revolution many had imagined, but for online racing it gets the job done.
Repetitive track design extends to the LandRush and rallycross disciplines, albeit in a different way. Despite three unique locations in California, Nevada, and Mexico, all three short course tracks were built in the shape of a horseshoe; a bunch of sweeping left hand turns followed by a slow, inner part of the track with a technical right hand corner. Rallycross fares slightly better, though the same roster of locations returns from DiRT Rally, and if you’ve sunk tons of hours into that particular game… Well… I’ve got some bad news for you. Get ready for more of the same. Codemasters had a great opportunity to recycle tracks from some of the older DiRT releases, such as Shibuya, Smelter, or the Los Angeles Coliseum, but for whatever reason, didn’t. If the FIA and Monster were anal about fictitious layouts then I can kind of understand, but the volume of circuits on both the RallyCross & LandRush fronts are severely hurting.
Thankfully, what sounds like a very dull, uninspired selection of vehicles, and locations that blend into one another due to a severe case of repetition, is tied together with a phenomenal presentation. This is arguably the best part of DiRT 4 and it’s hard not to have a big grin on your face the first time you see it under your control; the whole package looks especially slick, and no, the dudebro vibe from past entries in the franchise has not returned. Menus are now flashy without being in-your-face-radical, and some of the stuff I personally advocated for in my review of DiRT Rally a while back – a comfy service park with your car on display prior to each stage – has been implemented into DiRT 4. This extends beyond the track itself; you’re dragged to your team’s Washington headquarters to customize your livery, with the car parked out on a spare slab of tarmac, surrounded by your team personnel and matching support vehicles.
Atmosphere this rich and lively is a welcome change of pace from hardcore simulators that compete to see which one of them can bore you to death the quickest.
Obviously, with a livery editor and sponsorship acquisition screen, this can only mean one thing: DiRT 4 boasts some sort of proper career mode. It’s a bit of a magnum opus that combines elements of everything Codemasters have done dating back to Race Driver: Grid in 2007, which makes the repetitive, underwhelming content sting just a tad more. Initially starting out racing for other teams – and you can progress through career mode driving entirely for third parties if you so choose to – DiRT 4 opens up the moment you purchase your first car. Sponsorship goals, the aforementioned livery editor, and even the ability to select alternate colored logos for each sponsor return from Race Driver: Grid, while the process of hiring engineers, mechanics, co-drivers, spotters, and even a PR guy all return from DiRT Rally. The blend of the two design elements from previous Codemasters games is simply phenomenal, with the added twist of sponsorship relationships and brand loyalty making it much more than a cut and paste job.
Sticking with brands you receive earlier in your career will boost your loyalty, giving you an incentive to have certain logos on your car for the long haul rather than jumping to the best offer immediately as you would do in the original Grid. As in real life, the game doesn’t allow for conflicting brands either, so you’ll have to start making choices when competing energy drinks or tire manufacturers want to throw you a little cash. Based on whether you’ve been able to complete their assigned tasks or not, it’s also possible to fall out of good standing with the brands on the side of your car, creating this dynamic world within DiRT 4, in which there’s much more to the PR side of things than just signing the best sponsors and riding the wave of cash. As you progress into higher championships, some of their requirements get pretty insane, so there ends up being an actual challenge to retaining their respect. It’s a great little ecosystem Codemasters have got going on, and I’m very happy they made the choice to put it into DiRT 4.
Like I mentioned above, the process of building an actual team full of humans to support you returns from DiRT Rally, but this time it’s a little easier. I was able to finish the rally ladder on a skeleton crew, swapping out old mechanics for new, more efficient ones as my driver level increased. Unless you’re a seriously shit driver and are limping home a busted race car with each passing stage, there’s basically no need to hire any additional crew members – or upgrade your team’s facilities – as the bare minimum is more than enough.
However, those who do want to toss their money around, are easily free to do so, as the act of upgrading facilities, paying out contracts, signing new team members, buying cars, and of course upgrading them with better parts, guarantees you’ll always have something to spend money on – and better yet, it’ll cost a lot. This certainly isn’t MXGP3, where you have a spare $245,000 USD that’ll sit there for all eternity. Codemasters have done a good job with career mode’s logistics, as it seems the moment money comes in, money gets spent, and there are ways to royally fuck yourself if you don’t read menus and plan your journey with at least some kind of logic behind it. I hate games where money just starts to pool after X amount of progress, so it’s cool that even now having reached the end of a main career strand, I’ve still got to be careful with my funds, and there’s still tons of stuff left for me to buy as I pursue the other disciplines more thoroughly.
The shitty part about all of this depth to progression in career mode, is that the process of going out and competing in championships is ridiculously short, and it would have been nice if there were a few more environments for each of the disciplines, as this would directly inflate the game’s solo campaign length. Like I’d mentioned in the opening paragraph, I’d completed the LandRush World Championship – the final series in the discipline – only an hour or so after returning home from Wal-Mart to pick up the game. Rally fared a bit better – clocking in at around a day – but with only five locations on the calendar, it’s certainly not much of a Global rally series that awaits for the final showdown, nor is it much of an epic championship when your main rival retires out of one event, and there’s basically no time for him to even try and mount a comeback.
It also doesn’t help that the artificial intelligence in DiRT 4 is extremely poor until the very end of each career discipline. Playing on the Tough difficulty setting – the highest that’s available – I would sleepwalk through events and amass rally leads of up to two minutes in length, also sweeping the entire LandRush calendar with five straight victories, which from a gameplay standpoint just isn’t very fun. To try and bump up the difficulty, Codemasters have gone out and jacked up the inclement weather in the final events, but when every stage over the course of an entire 30-stage championship suspiciously takes place at night under heavy fog or rain, it all feels a little forced. The AI do put up a much better fight in the closing chapters, but it’s only enough to put a dent in your winning streak rather than rob you of several victory or bump you down to mid-pack. There simply needs to be an Alien or Master level difficulty, because what’s available at launch just doesn’t cut it.
LandRush and RallyCross fare a bit better, though it’s very hit or miss. Sometimes you’ll be mixing it up in the pack and surprised by the AI’s competence; other events they’re eating your dust, if they can even get that close to begin with.
I can’t say there’s a lot of extra curricular activities in DiRT 4, but what’s included is definitely much appreciated. Taking a page directly from Richard Burns Rally would be the DirtFish rally school mode, which sends you to the actual property in Washington for what’s essentially a glorified tutorial mode far more detailed than what we saw in the legendary title over a decade ago. Though I didn’t learn anything groundbreaking at DirtFish, the inclusion of such a feature for new drivers is pretty much essential, as while the handling model in DiRT 4 is significantly easier than it’s predecessors, the complexity of the terrain puts newbies in a world of hurt if they don’t know what they’re doing, and it’s fantastic that Codemasters have chosen to properly educate the masses rather than giving them crutches with flashbacks and other bogus bullshit that doesn’t encourage gamers to get good at what they’re playing.
The Gymkhana challenges from DiRT 3 return, but they’re 100% optional side-quests buried within the DirtFish compound, rather than being awkwardly placed into the primary campaign mode. Personally I loved Gymkhana in DiRT 3 and thought it was a really unique, exciting twist on performance driving, but given how many people hated it with a passion, it’s nice to see Codemasters listening to the masses and putting it off to the side as a gimmick, where many people felt it belonged.
Online racing returns with a vengeance, though I’d personally be weary of region lock bullshit on the Steam version as has been par for the course with every other Codemasters title dating back several years now. The biggest positive here is that Codies have brought back Online PvP rallying, meaning you’re no longer forced to create those clunky leagues if you want some quick point to point action, and this is something that is much appreciated considering nobody’s really sure why they took it out in their last release.
DiRT Daily, Weekly, and Monthly events return from DiRT Rally, giving you alternative ways of earning huge credit totals, with the Pro Tour mode providing ranked PvP rallies that steal from the EA Sports playbook and place you in Divisions, and then Tiers as you post good results (or suck major ass) in what’s essentially DiRT 4’s eSports mode – though they’re good about not waving the eSports name around like other developers are known for. Custom lobbies, something Assetto Corsa has taught us not to take for granted on consoles, are also functional at launch and loaded with activity from people who have just bought the game, but again, this might not be present on the Steam variant due to region lock. Yell at me if it’s not, it’s worth an article.
As far as I can tell, Career mode is seamlessly integrated with online racing, allowing you to use your campaign cars against others while earning cash, but this time the loaner cars aren’t at a massive disadvantage, so kudos to Codemasters for balancing things and not subjecting the plebs to brutal anal rape when a no-lifer enters the server.
Summarizing DiRT 4 is a very difficult task, because there are two distinct schools of thought when it comes to the title.
On one hand, it’s a game that’s certainly worthy of the DiRT 4 namesake. There’s a distinct variety in the experience that’s comparable to the previous three entries in the franchise; you’re jumping around from Baja trucks, to rallycross cars, to modern rally offerings, and then even taking in some Gymkhana for a laugh, all within the span of an hour. The driving physics are tight, the graphics jaw-dropping, there’s tons of multiplayer functionality for both competitive and leisure play, it’s got a career mode only the snobbiest of hardcore simulation nerds could get upset with (“I just want to race, I don’t have time for that sponsorship management shit”, they cry), and the whole experience is wrapped up in a beautiful presentation that fits naturally with the rest of the franchise. Codemasters have built something that is a perfect addition to the trilogy of DiRT games.
However, for all it gets right, there are very distinct blemishes. After a stellar outing in DiRT Rally, the cars now feel noticeably too simple to drive despite their claims that the hardcore handling would be here to stay. Your Stage works as a piece of technology – there’s no goofy 100 foot jumps due to a glitch in the coding – but it’s arguably more repetitive than fixed stages given the limited amount of chunks Codemasters gave it to work with, so in execution it’s something we’ll have to wait for DiRT 5 to be truly refined to the extent we’d imagined. The car roster, after the WRC and other developers have started to play hardball, leaves much to be desired; the lack of a modern “pinnacle” class, as well as generic LandRush trucks and tracks in a sea of world-renowned brands, stick out like sore thumbs. Also, five environments and a field of AI bots this pathetically average certainly aren’t enough for a world rally championship, and in a mass display of cognitive dissonance, I’m left wanting a comprehensive post-release DLC plan because of it.
But as a $60 game, weighing the pros against the cons and then back again, there is certainly still enough here to justify your purchase, and it fits naturally into the Codemasters DiRT franchise. As a racing game, and as a DiRT game, it’s phenomenal, yet it could have been so, so much better.