If you’ve had the displeasure of sitting at a family birthday party while a nephew goes on and on about cows and zombies in Minecraft, you’ve experienced firsthand the consequences of there being too few racing games in this world. With the waiting line for Gran Turismo Sport already into the parking lot and around the next building, racing fans were most likely to be found playing one of two games: Forza Motorsport or iRacing. Now there’s another alternative: Dirt 4, launched last month, puts you behind the wheel of professional-grade rallying machines at some of the world’s top events.
This is Codemasters’ latest attempt at making a game that will entice you to stay up too late on a work night. And not because it requires that time investment, but just because you genuinely never want to turn it off. What Dirt 4 does best is find the line between casual gamer and full-on “I have parts of a car in my living room because I think it makes me drive better” virtual raceaholic.
From the start you’re given a choice between Gamer and Simulation handling settings. Gamer offers a more forgiving racing experience, while Simulation, though not making it impossible to avoid rolling, certainly makes you work harder to complete a clean stage. The difficulty settings can be tweaked later, even just before a stage begins, which only helps mix things up once first-place finishes become an all too common occurrence. We especially recommend disabling exterior cameras; it’s really the best way to experience missing a hairpin turn at 60 mph.
Career mode leaves you responsible for buying cars, hiring engineers and co-drivers, and upgrading your facilities, giving you a reason to keep playing even if it’s to finish an event to afford better talent. The better the engineers on staff, the more durable repairs during an event will become, but at a cost. The same can be said for improved racing parts, which play a vital role once you start throwing your helmet into larger 12-stage events. However, better-quality parts don’t quite translate into having the fastest 22B on the icy hills of Varland, Sweden—rather, the parts you do have last longer and won’t take as long to repair. This means that when you hit a water hazard too fast or bounce off yet another fence, you’ll get a chance to hit a few more things before stuff really starts to fall apart.
Three championships into our test of the game, we had earned enough money to buy a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X from the dealership. Older and rarer cars, like a 1975 Ford Escort Mark II or a 1985 Renault 5 Turbo, can only be purchased in the classified section, but they aren’t always available.
When it comes to creating the livery of your dreams, the options are fairly limited. For our Evo X, we were given a handful of design options. From there, you pick the colors, and that’s it. No different wheel or tire options, no adding lights, and no, you can’t put Lamborghini doors on a Ford Fiesta R5. Dirt 4 is certainly no Need for Speed Underground 2 in terms of car customization, but it knows—as should you—that it’s the stage time that counts, not what color the damn brake calipers are painted.
Each of the five locations for rally stages offers its own challenges. If you’re too quick sweeping around a Left-5 corner in Australia, the fences will grab you up and spit you out on the other side of the hill. Wales has a fantastic combination of challenging splits, and with fast downhill sections and plenty of unforgiving camber throughout. Play enough of those stages, and the paved roads of Spain will completely change the way you’ve been driving anyplace else. We did notice, however, that during the introduction to Michigan, there seem to be some generously large mountains along the horizon.
The biggest new feature for Dirt 4 are procedurally generated stages that you’re free to customize with the use of two sliders (length and complexity), as well as options for weather and time of day. As with many virtual worlds that use procedural generation, things begin to look similar after a while, although it would be tough to create the same stage twice.
Tuning cars seems oversimplified. This is another place where Dirt 4 uses sliders to allow variations for elements such as spring rates and the final-drive ratio in a Group B Audi S1 Quattro. It’s even possible to add or remove spare tires in exchange for weight; however, it’s not clear anywhere how much mass is added or subtracted. During a six-stage event, we gambled and left the spares back at the tent and finished four minutes behind the pace because our Evo X blew two rear tires with five splits left to go.
In multiplayer mode, all of the cars and money you earn in career mode carry over, but losing too many events against other online players can make you go bankrupt. As players compete on the same stage at the same time, they appear as tiny arrows on the left side of the screen. There’s no course map; it’s just a tall vertical line that shows where the splits are and how much of the stage is completed. If a friend suffers catastrophic engine failure, it’s pretty obvious where the rod left the oil pan.
If things become a little too serious on rally stages, players can choose to do Landrush events, which feature stadium trucks, crosskarts, and buggies. This is another area where multiplayer mode shines, because on these circuits one wrong move can completely ruin your race and potentially a few others’, too. It’s a good balance between time spent on serious rally stages and using someone else’s rear quarter-panel instead of brakes to slow down for a turn.
More bumper-to-bumper battles take place during Rallycross, which feature official FIA World Rallycross supercars (as well as classic Group B machines) at places like Lydden Hill in Great Britain and the Lånkebanen circuit in Norway. Just like in the real Red Bull Global Rallycross series, it’s all about winning each heat for the fastest time and working up to that dramatic championship final. The top three finishers are typically the ones who know when to take their joker lap at the opportune time without watching the rest of the group pass them up before the race is over.
With all of these features, plus a delightfully smooth soundtrack while browsing the menus or waiting for other players to join, Dirt 4 brings what a lot of race fans have been wanting for a while now. It’s a game that’s easy enough to learn, yet smart and deep enough to keep the interest of players who need a challenge. The accumulation of dirt and snow on the inside of the wheel wells is one of the many details that make Dirt 4 feel fresh. A low-flying drone seen overhead during a stage, or a few forgotten pace notes by the co-driver, happen just rarely enough to keep each stage exciting.
We highly recommend Dirt 4 to anyone who prefers the crackle and pop of a Fiat 131 Abarth in the hills of Spain to the ticking clock of other titles still on the way (the latest on the Gran Turismo release date is “fall,” or about a full year later than first scheduled). Dirt 4 is available now for gamers using PlayStation 4, Xbox One, or PC.