If there’s one company you can rely on to knock out a top notch racing game, then it’s Codemasters. Already a force to be reckoned with when it came to racing, a huge percentage of the Driveclub development team also headed over to them when their studio shut down, effectively suggesting that any game released by Codemasters in the next few years will be nothing short of awesome.
Dirt 4, as you might expect then, is awesome.
If you’ve ever watched rallying on TV, or actually gone to an event and watched as a bunch of crazy people drive a family sized hatchback down a winding forest track at stupid miles per hour, you probably had the same thought as I did: “how, exactly, are they doing that without wrapping their beautifully decorated Citroen round a tree?”. Luckily for all of us Dirt 4 lets us answer that without risking life and limb in the process; before too long you’ll realise the answer is quite obvious.
“With great difficulty.”
Things start off gently enough, with a quick tour of a large open space letting you get to grips with steering, sliding, braking and a few other neat techniques. Then it’s onto your first event, a timed point-to-point rally stage that Dirt 4 manages to do consistently with bewildering excellence. The car is low-spec, the course is straightforward and relatively easy to navigate, and the co-driver happily reads his pace notes in plenty of time for you to figure out how to approach the next corner without ripping your wheels off on a nearby gate. You’ll probably miss the fact you’re not actually going that fast, instead loving the way you’re gliding gracefully round long bends, jumping over crests in the road and nailing what feels like a perfect, unbeatable run.
Before long though you’ll be working your way up through the rallying ranks, eventually arriving at the top-end vehicles you’ve been watching on TV, and all assumptions that you’ll be flicking your car round snow-covered courses without a second thought will have long since gone out of the window. At the business end Dirt 4 is an unforgiving, brutally tough game which demands flawless concentration for minutes on end. A single dodgy steering input, a missed pace note (which might happen given your co-driver is prone to the odd mistake) or choosing to ignore the “don’t cut” warning because you’re trying to pick up some time… it can all end in tears. Several minutes of careful, meticulous driving all undone by a moment of carelessness, cockiness or just bad luck, and you know what? I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s rallying. You’re on the edge of your seat, not blinking, barely breathing, looking for the perfect turning in moment, applying just the right amount of brake to kick the back end out without slowing down too much, refusing to take your eyes off the road long enough to check if you’re ahead or behind your opposition. It’s rallying in a nutshell, and it’s so good.
But Dirt 4 isn’t all about the normal rally stages. You’ll get to do some historic rallying too, giving you some older cars to get hold of such as a Mini or Lancia which drive very differently to their modern day counterparts. It’s essentially the same, just feeling a bit older and sometimes trickier to drive. But there are also a virtually infinite number of courses available, and by using a simple slider for length and complexity you can pick one of the four main areas in the world, fiddle with a couple of settings and instantly have your own brand new tournament. It’s incredibly easy, and a fantastic feature to keep the longevity ticking over. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s “just another track creator” – it’s game-changing.
Elsewhere the Rallycross option has you racing other cars on a circuit, with a “joker” lap requiring all cars to take a slightly longer lap at some point during the race. If you can’t watched any of this then take a look on Youtube, there’s some fantastic races and will really give you a feel of just what a good job Codemasters have done by implementing this into Dirt 4. There are various levels of this to compete in too, and working your way up to the most powerful cars is a hugely satisfying process.
Other modes worth a look (although not quite as fun in my little opinion) include the Land Rush option, letting you race with trucks, buggies and the super-twitchy crosscarts, all the while plastered with the livery and sponsors that you’ve designed yourself (to a certain extent, no Forza style editor here) as long as you own that type of vehicle yourself. These races are pretty enjoyable and will keep you occupied for a good while, but I doubt I’ll rush back. The heart and soul of Dirt 4 is in the rallying, and in case it hasn’t already become obvious, that’s the part I spent – and continue to spend – the most time on.
But racing through a career isn’t just as simple as winning a series of races. Sponsors want your attention in return for a cash reward, assuming you can meet their requirements. You’ll need to win stages, get fastest laps, get through an event without any time penalties, that kind of thing. It’s an extra consideration while trying not to end up on your roof in a ditch, and the better your relationship the better the offers and rewards. You’ll also need to keep your sponsors happy though, as well as your staff, suppliers and various other parties. This is done through an RPG-light style system whereby you can spend money on upgrading your headquarters, improving your factories and various other facilities which provide more money, happier staff, more rare cars in the 2nd hand market, all sorts. Balancing this with buying your collection of cars is a tricky prospect, but a necessary one – ignore the garage upgrades and you’ll be stuck with 5 cars, needing to borrow vehicles for new events and reducing the income from your hard earned winnings. It all adds to the career experience, letting you approach your improvements however you choose.
Oh yeah. There’s multiplayer too. Really good, fun multiplayer. As well as the cross-platform leaderboards (oh yes) there’s competitive Rallycross and point-to-point racing, with no obvious lag that I noticed even when playing with others from another country. Some players are a bit ram-happy, but that’s part and parcel of an online racing game. There are dozens of options to tweak, and you can take your custom livery online too if you’ve got a suitable car in your garage. I’ve spent a lot of time playing online, and it’s great fun. Racenet is still kicking too, offering regular challenges to the Dirt 4 community with a league system to keep you playing with similar quality racers.
Anything bad to report then? Well, no. Not really. Visually it’s gorgeous, with a low sun causing glare through your dynamically grubby windscreen, cars gaining mud, scratches and dents as they press on through their punishing stages, and while it might not have the shine of Driveclub, it’s dealing with a more real-life set of locations and looks the part. Drones buzz around, capturing exciting footage, helicopters kick up clouds of dust, fog descends into a forest stage and makes visibility a tricky prospect, and the night stages are every bit as gorgeous as you would hope for.
If Dirt 4 is a sign of what to expect with the larger team at Codemasters, then we’ve got a very exciting few years of racing games ahead. Absolutely brilliant.
Reviewed on PS4