I’m a bit of a petrol head. I’m also a bit of a gamer. In fact, I love my racing games. I would also class myself as a long term fan of Codemasters. So what are the chances I’m going to love DiRT 4, the latest in the long line of Codemasters racers to hit my life over the years? Pretty high I should say.
Unfortunately, as much as I absolutely adore the racing, I’ve been left with a tinge of disappointment.
DiRT 4 is the latest in the world’s leading off-road racing series, as you get to go behind the wheel of some of the most powerful machines ever created. You’ll find yourself flinging dirt, crashing into trees and barrel rolling like there is no tomorrow. But you’ll have great fun in doing so because the racing is super fast, highly frantic and hugely enjoyable.
As you would expect, the main draw is in the rally stages – and if anyone knows a thing or two about how to create a decent rally game, Codemasters is it. After all, they’ve put their name to all the very best racers and vehicular experiences from the early 1990s to date. They’ve got pedigree with the Colin McRae series, TOCA, GRiD, F1, Micro Machines and of course the entire DiRT franchise including the outstanding, and very recent, DiRT Rally.
And that pedigree comes out multiple times throughout your time with DIRT 4.
Rallying is all about time trialling, and that found within DiRT 4 is immense. No matter with which of the two gameplay options you decide to roll with – the ease of Gamer or the hardcore Simulation – no matter your route, and no matter which car you are behind the wheel of, you’ll be afraid to even blink as you hoon it past trees, over jumps and through water splashes like the very best of them. Keeping one eye on the clock is key, but should you even dare to let your concentration slip at any point, will end up in a tangled heap of metal, struggling to get your car over the finish line and ready for the next stage.
To make matters even more complicated, rewinds are gone, but thankfully a limited number of resets are present – and you’ll be finding yourself utilising these as you try your best to keep up with the stellar times set by the AI.
It’s all about keeping up with your opponent’s times you see, and the AI on offer are not only pretty decent, but, when you get the chance to go side by side with them in the circuit races of Rallycross, Landrush or Crosskarts and Pro Buggy racing, are downright dirty. You may think that heading into the online world of racing is a tough ask, but here, with DiRT 4 you’ll find that level of aggression replicated in the solo campaign.
Thankfully, as is the case within the rally world, you get to fix any cosmetic and mechanical issues that may arise with your machines, calling on the knowledge of your hired team in between stages. Admittedly, it’s a fairly easy process to tap a button and get your hired hands to fix any issues, but it’s a nice little addition nonetheless and really makes you feel as if you are part of a full-on rally team. The options to hire and fire engineers and team members at will just heightens that feeling, with better engineers, mechanics and co-drivers unlocking the further you progress.
The main career of DiRT 4 consists of making your way through numerous events, placing well, earning medals and licenses before gathering up enough cash in order to purchase yourself new cars, all of which then unlock further events. The list of stages and events is fairly sizeable, but will probably only really keep you busy for a few weeks at the most – dependant on your skill level. You can obviously amend game settings as you see fit, making DiRT 4 harder or easier as you go, prolonging your time with the career ten-fold if you should so wish, but whether that is something the casual racers out there will bother doing, I’m not too sure.
Of course, once you are done with everything that the career has to deliver, your next port of call will most definitely be with the wonders of the online world.
DiRT 4 provides a couple of options in that respect, with both Competitive and full-on Multiplayer modes being the main draws.
Competitive brings you daily, weekly and monthly challenges to get your teeth into, with multiple stage events gifting in-game cash rewards dependant on your end of challenge finishing position. These are constantly changing and will be a vital source in keeping DiRT 4 fresh and accessible throughout the months and years ahead. With the career mode not being the lengthiest in the world, the competitive edge that these challenges bring will no doubt see racers heading back over and over again.
And then we have the proper head-to-head multiplayer, something which works very well indeed.
Depending on your choice of event, you’ll either have the pleasure of going up against other vehicles, all controlled by other racers, with their physical muscle smashing into you at the very first corner, or, as is the case with the rally side of things, just heading on into a stage with only a timer to worry about. Whichever discipline you decide to roll with though, the multiplayer works well every single time, showing no form of lag or stutter.
It must be said however that whilst I’ve never had a problem finding any multiplayer race, I’ve rarely had the pleasure in seeing a full lobby of eight players at any one time. For a game that is at the forefront of the racing scene, and has only just released, that’s a little disappointing and is a bit of a concern going forward. If you’ve got mates, then all should be good, but rely on strangers at your peril. Especially as we head further down the line.
You may have noticed that as yet, I haven’t spoken about the cars or tracks which have been included in DiRT 4. That’s quite simply because in this game, the cars are not the stars of the show. Neither are the circuits nor routes either. Instead, the actual gameplay lifts DiRT 4 up and above the mundane, refusing to allow the usual showstoppers to take centre stage. Much of that is down to the brilliant gameplay mechanics, awesome physics and overall feel you get from the racing, but additionally, the lack of car numbers and world locales never allows them to become forefront of the mind.
It’s hard to get that feeling of love with any of the vehicles in this rally monster and owning vehicles – although possible should you so wish – isn’t required. Instead running around as a mercenary, jumping behind the wheel of whichever team’s car is on offer is the name of the game and you’ll worry little about whether you’re in a Ford Fiesta R5, Subura WRX STI, Mini or Opel Ascona 400. Yes, they all handle differently, and learning how you will control the power of each is part of the draw, but you’ll never feel like you have to take purchase and own a certain car for a specific event. Mixing and matching, within the parameters set, is key.
Similarly, the tracks brought forward by Codemasters for DiRT 4 are definitely limited. In fact, you’ll only really happen across a handful of different locations with Australia, Spain, Michigan, Sweden & Wales setting the scene for the rallying and your short course buggy & truck landrush racing limited to just a few circuits in California, Nevada & Mexico. But again, this matters little as the multitude of actual rally routes is large – huge in fact should you consider the Your Stage option – and you’ll never feel like you’re missing out. It’ll be a supremely hard task for you to ever get bored with the stages in place, and it will be months and years before you ever get to learn the intricacies of each route.
Mixing things up even more is the fast, fun and friendly Joyride option. This is a collection of challenges in which you’ll be looking to beat the clock. Again. But this time, it is all about fun. Collectible time bonuses will need to be hit and blocks smashed should you wish to even think about grabbing the gold, silver or bronze medals available. Hit the time increasers meanwhile and well, you’re in for a whole world of trouble.
Joyride is a great place to show off your inner Ken Block skills and really is a superb departure from the seriousness that is abundant in the main career. It is also your best chance of just whacking out a quick five minute session, with a host of challenges included – all of which will push your skills to the very limit.
So once you’re bored with the Career, can’t find any friends to mess around in multiplayer with and have posted enough times to the daily, weekly and monthly leaderboards to ensure your name will forever be remembered in DiRT folklore, what else is left? Well, other than practising your skills in the DiRT Academy, you could always create your own stage.
Yep that’s right, DiRT 4 features a hugely impressive Your Stage mode, allowing each and every racer the opportunity to mix and match their way to glory. It’s a super simple process too – choose your locale, your stage length, complexity, the time of day and the weather of your choice before hitting the generate stage button. Within seconds you’ll have a new stage, generated completely by your own fair hands – well the hands of the Codemaster AI monkeys at least. With millions of variations available, it can never be said that DiRT 4 doesn’t have the depth. Lack of cars? Yes. Lack of rallying options though? Not a chance.
That leaves us with wondering what graphical masterpiece Codemasters have come up with and as a visual experience, DiRT 4 just about delivers the goods. It has to be said that it isn’t anywhere near a match for the market leading Forza series, but the graphics and cosmetic bodywork crumples are still of a high enough quality to stop anyone getting in a tizz. The vehicles themselves are solidly created with enough camera angles to allow all gamers the chance to enjoy what is on offer, whilst the routes and racetracks which you’ll find yourself flying through have been well imagined.
It would be nice to see a bit more variety in the trees lining the tracks, and yet again Codemasters have seemingly just reused all human animations from the ageing F1 series, with a huge disappointment being met whenever you have to look in on the emotionless drivers and constantly repeated animations of spectators. But should we let that ruin our time? I don’t think so.
Whilst I’m on the visual subject, and even though the vast majority of the action is super smooth without a hitch, there are occasions when DiRT 4 lags just slightly. This is usually found when barrelling out of a bend in one of the Landrush trucks, especially when viewing the action from the bumper cams. The slight pausing effect it brings is a tad annoying, but thankfully as it’s pretty much limited to just those occasional moments, I can let that go too. Just.
In regards the sound, and again, much like the visual quality it is a bit hit and miss. The cars sound awesome as you’re ripping up the dirt across both standard stages and throughout the arena based action. The bangs, whizzes, pops and more that sound from your vehicle’s exhaust as you floor it over jumps is delightful. The rally stage co-driver is an essential and comforting voice too, as without him you’ll be left to drive headlong into a tree, or tootle around at walking pace. He is clear, he is precise and the ability for you to have his instructions thrust towards your ears earlier or later than the default standard is welcome.
What I don’t like though is the constant harassing of ‘just drive up to the marshall’ at the end of every single stage, or the picky parent-like tone that is used by the Spotter throughout the circuit racing. It may be a little better if his ‘spotting’ techniques were solid, but on too many occasions he’ll call a placement wrong in regards the Joker exits in Rallycross, no matter how good his CV was when you hired him. If the helpful tones weren’t so needed in the fast frantic rally racing, then I’d happily switch the ‘helpful’ advice off completely.
These issues with the sound and visuals mean that DiRT 4 never really comes across as the perfect racer. Granted, we may never see the perfect racer, but I really would have liked to see something that was ready to push Forza for top grid dog. Instead, it falls short of the high expectation levels that were greeted when Codemasters confirmed that a new DiRT title would be on its way. There is no doubting that the team behind it know their stuff, and they’ve replicated the rally world beautifully, ensuring that enough content and challenge is in front of any gamer that wishes to test themselves.
But at the end of the day, DiRT 4 is left as very good racer that is let down by the odd visual and audio issue. If you’re a gaming petrol head who is prepared to look beyond those though – and can consider turning off the repetition of your Spotter – then you’ll most definitely like what you find.