Dust off those fireproof coveralls and prepare the pace notes – it’s time to get down and dirty with Dirt 4, the latest in Codemasters’ venerable rally series.
I’m not really a car guy. I grew up with posters of bands in my room, not cars or racing drivers. I get that Ayrton Senna was a legend, I do, but it was always Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell on my wall.
You might argue that doesn’t exactly make me a great choice for reviewing a rally game like Dirt 4, but I’ve always had a soft spot for rallying, and rally video games. Rallying, like golf, speaks to me on a purely selfish level. I was a handy rugby player when I was younger, but if I could have made it in any sport it would’ve been golf, because of the absolute solitude of it all.
Not that golf is solitary, of course – you can have a lovely time walking around with three friends – but the scoring system makes you an island. I could go around and shoot a 67 [Ha! He wishes! – Ed] and I’d probably deserve to win, but if someone else shoots 66? That’s absolutely fine with me. I did the best I could. I didn’t impede their round and they didn’t impede mine, and in the end, the best player won. And if I shoot a 77 then I’ve got nobody to blame but myself. It’s the solitude of the scoring that I appreciate. [Note: Does not play well with others – Ed]
And that’s the beauty of rallying, with its solo, time-attacking heart. It’s also something that Dirt 4 really nails with its career mode.
It’s a bit of an odd start, though. The game asks you if you want to play in Arcade or Simulation mode, then chucks you behind the wheel of a Ford Fiesta and lets you have at it. It’s bad. I crashed a lot, but I wasn’t competing or in an event – this was just a bit of a shakedown. Then Dirt 4 invited me to their driving skills school, which is one of my pet hates with driving games.
Ever since Gran Turismo and its infernal license system, that locked progression to later tracks and tournaments until you completed oddly specific license challenges, I’ve had an aversion to skills-based tutorials in driving games. I hate them. I know about racing lines and straight-line braking. I know about the application of power through corners and opposite lock when sliding. I even know about advanced stuff like trail braking and the slightest hint of handbrake on shallow bends on a loose surface, and these are all things I learned from actually playing rally games, not obtuse in-game driving lessons.
And those lessons did set me back a bit. I may have been astonishingly rusty in that taster session with the Ford Fiesta, but at least I was having fun, hooning about in a modest hatchback. Jumping up to a more powerful Subaru Impreza for those incongruous lessons just made things worse. I finished the driving school segment thinking, “Shit, I used to be good at driving games. Why can’t I do this any more?”
If I wasn’t reviewing it, I might’ve jacked it in. Not for good, mind you – I’m not a petulant child – but I’d certainly have taken a break from it for a few hours. Instead I ploughed on with the career mode, which includes delightful touches like setting up your team, picking its colours, livery and sponsors, and hiring staff. Before too long I started to enjoy myself.
My first event was in a borrowed Ford Fiesta, with a 1-litre turbocharged engine, and I had an absolute riot. It took place in the backwaters of America on a loose gravel road, so with a combination of front-wheel drive understeer, a peppy , zesty engine, and some gently slippery bends, it was simply sublime. Sure, I binned the Fiesta into the trees a few times and took advantage of the incredibly kind stage restart feature more than I’d care to admit, but that car on that surface really made the game come to life.
My second was in a Vauxhall Adam, also borrowed, with a faulty gearbox. Nicky Grist – veteran co-driver and stalwart of the series, from when the games were named after the late Colin McRae and Grist was his real-life co-driver – calmly informed me that there were a few issues shifting gears, and he wasn’t kidding. Once I’d scraped through in that hateful little roller skate, without third gear for the most part, I was dead set on going and buying my own car.
I went to the showroom and picked out a brand new Ford Fiesta. It instantly changed into my team’s livery – Team Thumbsticks is grey and orange, naturally – and I hit the road. I won my next two events, and by then had won enough races to progress to more locations, events, and higher classes of cars. (For reference, developers of racing games, this is a better way to curve progression than driving lessons. Stop it.)
To take on the new classes, I went to the showroom and selected a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, a 2-litre, flat-four rally monster with a huge spoiler and an all-wheel drive system, and took it to the road. And I hated it. Yes, it was a better car and it got me around quicker, but I wasn’t having much fun anymore. Even Nicky was struggling; I was getting to the corners before he’d gotten his words out, which seemed to me a sign that I was better off with the smaller cars.
That realisation caused me to do the only sensible thing in that situation: I shut the Lancer away in the garage, never to be seen again, and bought a twenty-year-old Seat Ibiza from the small ads. And I went back to having a blast with Dirt 4 again.
That’s one of the blessed things about Dirt 4‘s career mode; like a real rally, there are different classes of cars in each event, so if you don’t want to race a particular type of car, you don’t have to. There’s a whole swathe of cars in the middle – proper rally cars, with huge spoilers and all-wheel drive systems – that I don’t touch at all. But the little hatchbacks, the sort of cars we own in real life, that sparkle when driven to the ragged edge around a Spanish mountain road or an Australian dirt track? They’re the best. The classic rally cars, pickup trucks and beach buggy-type things are a riot, too.
Which is something they really got right with Dirt 4. It’s not at its finest when it’s a technical racing simulator, though it is a very competent one; you’ll have the most fun when it’s closer to banger racing, or grass tracking, or borderline destruction derby in a car that’s probably not fit for purpose. That’s why the
Top Gear The Grand Tour team always end up falling in love with the cheap, terrible cars they buy for their big challenges, and that connected feeling transfers beautifully to Dirt 4.
Oh, I should probably do the other traditional review bits too, shouldn’t I? The sound is, as you might expect, brilliant, and the music is a cheerfully eclectic mix of rock and pop accompaniments. And Dirt 4 is very pretty, save for a few missteps. While the mud’s flying and everything’s in motion – particularly in the replay mode, great for screenshots and reliving those Dukes of Hazzard airborne moments – it looks fantastic, but there’s a few things that don’t quite work.
The design team have put in what they’re probably thinking of as a bit of visual flair, to try and bring a bit of life to the static environs you’ll be careening through. A competitor car, broken down and smoking at the side of the road (with marshals waving you around) works a treat, but a flock of birds getting spooked from a bush just looks, frankly, crap. It’s supposed to happen quickly enough that you don’t notice it’s a bunch of flat sprites, but it just looks like the bush is projectile-vomiting grey goop at your car.
But it’s the fact this vomiting bush happens every single time you scorch past it – I crashed a few times from laughing at how shitty it looked, so ended up restarting the stage a few times – that has the opposite effect to making the stage feel alive. Flat sprite butterflies and bush vomit/flock of bird oddments all stand out angrily amongst an otherwise very pretty game.
But those are some pretty minor complaints, in the grand scheme of a great rally game.
Dirt 4 has one of the best career modes you’ll see in the racing genre, at times closer to the do-whatever-you-want elements of Forza Horizon than the franchised motorsports games it seems outwardly more similar to. If you’re a real stickler for speed and technical challenge you’ll probably enjoy the ‘proper’ rally cars more than I did, but the beauty of it is that you can progress your career however the hell you want, which is delightful.
And if you are like me, that’ll probably involve chucking yourself around in sensible small hatchbacks or old bangers, with a massive smile on your face.