For almost two decades now, Codemasters' Dirt - formerly Colin McRae Rally - has delivered some of the best racing games, and been the final word in rally racing. What started out as a true-to-life portrayal with the help of the late champion has morphed over time into an incredibly exciting and fun-loving franchise, one that extended its off-road wings to appeal to a more broader audience. The critical zenith of that phase was its last numbered Dirt entry - Dirt 3 - which means that expectations from the next game in the series were high.
Dirt 4 released earlier this month, and we took it for a spin to find out if it could live up to our hopes. Given its shared naming heritage, you'd expect it to retain most of what made previous versions click. After all, as the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Codemasters however seem to have done the near opposite of that. The latest Dirt instalment - available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC - is an amalgamation of Dirt 3 and Dirt Rally, the latter being a simulation-oriented return to rallying roots which scored well with the series' core user base. Dirt 4 borrows a larger chunk of its DNA from Dirt Rally, and eschews fan-favourite features such as the rewind ability, which has found a place in Forza Horizon as well.
On the surface, it's meant to serve both sides of the armchair racing community: Dirt 4 allows for two handling options, "gamer" and simulation. The first is designed for people who just want to have fun (à la Dirt 3), and the other for people who wish to be challenged (à la Dirt Rally). Beyond that, you've got difficulty options featuring driving assists as befit most racing titles. This includes things like traction control, and ABS braking, as well as AI expertise and the number of restarts available to you.
If you're not sure of your driving skills, that's fine. The game starts with a practice rally stage, and depending on your performance, it suggests one of four customised difficulty levels. Dirt 4 nudges you to climb the ladder as you play, pushing you to get rid of assists and adopt a more simulation approach even if you opt for "gamer" controls, as the sponsors rewards tend to come from increasing difficulty at times.
The driving mechanics are still solid, more so with simulation than "gamer". Dirt 4 is after all a Codemasters title, and Dirt Rally showed it hadn't lost sight of its roots after years of Dirt and Grid titles becoming more mainstream with their heavier arcade approach. While the new Dirt title brings a realistic handling feel and a sense of on-the-edge control that gives rally racing its excitement, it does modify its mechanics a tad to make it slightly more accessible.
But unfortunately, it's lost all the pizzazz of its numbered predecessors. Where Dirt 2 and Dirt 3 were praised for their presentation and style - some of it earned by bringing in the likes of Ken Block and Travis Pastrana, and embracing the wild side of off-road racing, from gymkhana to the X Games - Dirt 4 is a downright serious racer. The sense of flair and cool-factor is missing from the race designs: gone are modes like Domination and the Free Roam donuts and jumps; and the voice overs and the menus. Sure, some of that is only on the surface, but all of it contributes towards the overall experience. And in its quest for realism, Dirt 4 has brought in unnecessary additions, such as the requirement to drive your car to a marshal after crossing the finish line.
The remaining game modes in Dirt 4 are Rally, Rallycross, and Landrush. While rally is the crux of the experience, Dirt 4 doesn't have any licenses unlike Dirt Rally. Instead, Codemasters have built a procedural rally stage generator called 'Your Stage', which claims to have a billion possibilities from its five variables: length, complexity, location, time, and weather. Some of it might seem moot on the surface – driving a stage in a cloudy late afternoon vs rain at night doesn't change the underlying route – but that's only until you experience it yourself. It makes you appreciate the importance of your co-driver's pace notes – especially on dense fog days – and changes how most are used to playing racing games.
For what it's worth, it's the official game of the FIA World Rallycross Championship, so it does get five tracks from there: Lydden Hill, England; Höljes, Sweden; Hell, Norway; Montalegre, Portugal; and Lohéac Bretagne, France. Owing to the licensing, rallycross now has the proper structure of its race type. You must pass a 'Joker' lap – a slight detour for the route – at least once during the race, with a spotter helping you when to take it.
Landrush is optional to career mode, which is probably a blessing in disguise. Codemasters said that they weren't going to make Landrush the arcade side of Dirt 4, and retain a simulation feel. That shows in the worst possible way, unfortunately. It's almost impossible to steer without spinning out, with the cars exhibiting wheel-lock and massive over-steer by default. Landrush in Dirt 4 can be a highly frustrating mode to play through, so it's nice that it's not integral to career progress.
Another aspect Dirt 4 borrows from Dirt Rally is the focus it places on building a rally team. In the beginning, you start off as a driver for any team that will hire you. After racking up a few wins, you will have enough credits to start your own crew. You don't have to just buy cars, but take care of the whole shebang. That means deciding branding and maintaining sponsors, who are crucial to financial success in the long run. If that's not enough of a distraction from the on-road experience, you also have to build up facilities for your team, from accommodation, catering, logistics, R&D, recycling, to workshop. Unfortunately, it's as sleep-inducing as it sounds on paper, and makes you wonder why Codemasters is so interested in pursuing office-cubicle-level realism with a series that once placed emphasis on making big jumps and spinning in circles. It's not as if the team building needs a lot of thought, à la Football Manager, but it seems designed as a credits-sink, to keep you thinking about how to earn more out of events.
If you're looking for some Dirt 3-style fun, the only place you'll find a version of that is Dirt 4's Joyride section, which does have a fair bit to offer. It retains the smash attacks from Dirt 3, and brings a timed attack challenge on top, where you've got to complete a specified number of laps while picking up time boosts and avoiding time delays. Both those game modes are offered with Dirt 4's full range of cars, from Ford Fiesta and Mini Cooper, to Audi Sport Quattro and Subaru Impreza. However, the variety is nowhere close to the levels of previous Dirt titles, where you were asked to pull off a multitude of stunts.
You'll also miss Dirt 3’s charm in Dirt 4’s diluted career mode. Gone are the elements that made it so exhilarating – gymkhana, trailblazers, X Games and Winter X Games, and a better Landrush – and it’s disappointing that Codemasters has chosen to focus a lot more on its simulation fans. Ultimately, it makes for a new Dirt chapter that doesn’t share the ethos of its numbered predecessors, and it doesn’t feel right for the game to be called Dirt 4. That's not to say the game isn't good; fans of Dirt Rally, Project Cars, and other simulation titles will find enough to enjoy here. But if you're getting into Dirt 4 to relive the joys of the earlier hits, this is the wrong game.
A word about graphics performance
On top of all that, the game looks nothing like its 2017 peers, so much so that Dirt 3 on the PC (a six-year-old game) looks better than Dirt 4 on the PS4. The PC version is better by comparison, but it still can’t stand toe to toe with Dirt 3. It’s perplexing how Codemasters have managed to go backwards, and hopefully it can be improved with an update going forward.
Rating (out of 10): 7
We played a review copy of Dirt 4 on the PlayStation 4 and a retail code of the game on Windows PC. The game costs Rs. 1,179 on Steam, Rs. 2,700 on Xbox One, and Rs. 3,999 on PS4, while the PS4 disc version is priced at Rs.3,499. It costs $59.99 across all platforms in the US.