by Matt Porter
reviewed on PC
Back to basics
I’ve never followed rally driving, or really known any of the people involved with it other than the late Colin McRae, the man who formerly had his name attached to various rally games. Television coverage seemed boring, with cameras positioned at certain locations along the course only capturing snippets of the action. Actually going to an event seemed even less appealing, as the locations are often remote and prone to bad weather. And yet, I’ve always been enthralled by the video game version. They provide a unique challenge often not present in normal road racing games. The sense of isolation is very real too. It’s just you and your co-driver out in the wilderness, going as fast as you can. The Dirt series is full of good games, and Dirt 4 just so happens to be the best one in some time.
It’s actually been six years since the last numbered Dirt game, which may come as a surprise to followers of the series. Dirt 3 added the gymkhana mode, bringing what is essentially car-based free-running and a whole bunch of attitude to what has historically been a straight faced and serious franchise. It wasn’t for everyone, but it certainly added a bit of character and some mass appeal to the game. All that is gone in Dirt 4, and we are back to the basics. Drive as fast as possible, and don’t make any mistakes. That’s not to say all the “fun” has been taken out of it though. For those looking for some more action, you still have the Landrush and Rallycross modes to dive into, where you’re actually racing against other drivers at the same time.
Playing with others
Landrush has you driving buggies and large stadium trucks around simple dirt tracks against a bunch of other drivers. Sand and dust is kicked up into your face if you’re behind the pack, making it almost impossible to see, forcing you to find a clean bit of air at the risk of going a bit slower. The spectacle of these events is great, with fireworks and big crowds cheering you on. However the actual gameplay aspect here is lacking. The AI in particular don’t add to proceedings, as they’re easily beaten as long as you don’t make any mistakes. They seem very slow to get off the line, and I often found myself well ahead of the pack even before the first corner. From there it’s just a case of driving round a boring circuit until you win. There are a handful of locations these events take place in, but not that many, and they’re all just variations on a theme. And that theme is mud.
Rallycross is a little better, as the AI tends to put up more of a fight here. Tracks are a combination of a bunch of different surfaces like gravel, asphalt, and dirt, challenging you to quickly change up your driving style as you make your way around the small circuits. There’s also the added element of the Joker lap. There’s a slower section of the track which every driver must take at least once during the race. You can use it to your advantage however, especially if you’re being held up by traffic. Taking the Joker lap early can give you some clean air, allowing you to increase your speed and overtake the rest by the time they take their own Joker laps.
It’s in the main rally mode that Dirt 4 truly shines though. The car handling and physics is just excellent, although the cars do tend to get a bit “flip-happy” if they get airborne. The game seems to try and flip your car back onto its wheels so you can avoid taking the time penalty associated with resetting your car, but momentum can often take you what feels like a few flips too many. Other than that though, the cars feel great, and they’re all pleasingly different. A robust training mode at the start of the game introduces you to the basics if you’ve never played before, but there are also some tips that veterans might not have considered. It teaches you the difference between front wheel drive, rear wheel drive, and four wheel drive cars, and how to make the most out of each of them. It introduces where and how to brake, and how to do it on different surfaces. It teaches you the pendulum turn, and how to deal with over-steer and under-steer. Dirt 4 is a great point to jump into the series if you’ve only been admiring from afar until now.
The game looks great too, particularly when it comes to damage modelling. I’m one of the few people who enjoys playing simulation driving games from cockpit view, but even from inside the car you can see damage pile up. Your driver side door can become loose and slam against the side of the car. The windscreen will crack in various places, lowering visibility. The hood of the car can buckle and rise up, obscuring your vision slightly. There’s also a great deal of attention to detail in the less cosmetic damage modelling. You can hear bits of your car going wrong, such as the engine misfiring, and you can feel a flat tire vibrating through your controller as well as feeling the effects on the handling. Even the radio in your car can go on the fritz, causing information coming from your co-driver or spotter to cut in and out.
There’s a good variety in the stages too, ranging from the sands of Australia to the forests of Wales to the snows of Sweden, to the plains and small towns of Spain. Some of the stages and tracks may be familiar to you if you played 2015’s Dirt Rally, but even the repeats have been giving a little graphical boost. As you progress through the game and unlock more locations, you’ll also need to be purchasing more cars and engineers to keep up with the competition. There’s a good amount of customization for your car, and you can choose from sponsors to add, who will give you rewards for completing certain objectives during competitions. Sadly you can’t customize your character that much, and you never really see the person you’re playing as. Dirt 4 has ripped out the over the top style from Dirt 3, but it’s also ripped out some of the character in the process. As such, it feels stale at times, and unlocking new events and purchasing new cars becomes formulaic.
From a pure driving standpoint though, it’s tough to beat Dirt 4. It’s a niche style of racing, but it’s one with a lot of positives that the majority of people can enjoy. If you’re into competition and bumping into other drivers as you race, there are modes for you, but there are better options out there if that’s all you’re looking for. Dirt 4 is for the people who love the simulation aspect. They want to be challenged. They want to ‘Scandinavian Flick’ their way around dense forests at night time with the fog and rain closing in. It’s dirty, but it’s glorious.
Realistic handling that’s tough to beat, great variety in locations and road surfaces
Lacking character, inconsistent AI