Dirt 4 Review Part 1: The “Feeling”

We’re currently in a bit of a lull as far as the WRC is concerned. Now that the dust has settled a bit from Sardinia, and Poland is still more than a week away, I thought that it would be a good time to discuss the long-awaited release of Dirt 4 by Codemasters. In addition, I wanted to be fair and have more than just a few hours with the game before I formed my opinions. It is for those reasons that this review is coming out almost 2 weeks after the game was released. A few weeks ago in anticipation of Dirt 4’s release, we did an interview piece with Paul Coleman, the lead developer of the project. When you read his responses to my questions, it is clearly evident that Paul is a rally enthusiast just like the rest of us. Because of this, my hopes were quite high for how Dirt 4 would turn out. So, did it live up to the hype and lofty expectations? Let’s sit down to talk about Dirt 4 and find out!

First and foremost, this is a rally blog, so if you’re looking for a review of Dirt 4 from a gaming perspective, you should look elsewhere. In addition, I’m going to be honest and tell you right now that in the two weeks I’ve owned Dirt 4, I haven’t even touched the “Landrush” mode once. If you are a short course off road racing fan, I’m sorry, but this article is going to focus primarily on the rallying side of the game with a little bit of rallycross thrown in there as well. Like I have done in other video game reviews, I’m going to address whether or not Dirt 4 is faithful to the sport that we love so much. I’m going to cover the elusive “feeling” of the game, the cars, the stages, and lastly how the game captures the atmosphere of rallying. In each of those areas, I’m going to touch on “gamey” topics such as physics, sound, graphics, and controls, but only as they pertain to these Dirt 4’s”rally-centric” aspects. Without further ado, let’s jump right in with the first part and talk about how Dirt 4 feels.

If you’ve followed our other reviews, you’ll know that when I discuss the “feeling” of the game, it is not strictly based on the physics of the game. Yes, physics play a big part, but there are other areas such as sound and force feedback that contribute to how well a game recreates the experience of being in a rally car. You’ll remember that we gave Dirt Rally a glowing review in this area, so I had high hopes for Dirt 4’s simulation mode to provide a very similar experience. Does it live up to those expectations? Kind of… but in a different way than Dirt Rally did. When I fired up Dirt 4 for the first time, I was fully expecting it to feel the same as Dirt Rally, but even more refined. Instead, I was greeted by a very different experience that honestly initially felt very strange and disappointing. If you’ve read various sim racing message boards, I am not the only one who felt this way. After a few hours of playing the game, I was very tempted to jump on this blog and rip Codemasters a new one for “ruining” the physics of Dirt Rally. However, I decided to resist that temptation and take some more time with the game to try to understand how and why Codemasters made the changes they did. Now that I’ve had two weeks playing the game, I think that I’ve begun to figure it out.

As was promised by Paul Coleman, the cars feel a lot more heavy in Dirt 4 than they did in Dirt Rally. This has several ramifications to how the cars behave. First of all, when the cars drive over a jump, they don’t try to take off as they did before. This is definitely a huge improvement. However, because of the increased weightiness of the cars, there is a lot less sliding going on in Dirt 4 than there was in Dirt Rally. This is where I initially thought that the physics were completely broken because at times, the car felt like it was on rails. However, with more playing time, I’ve begun to understand why this might actually be more realistic. Let me explain why. In real rallying, you often hear drivers talking about “committing to the lines” as they move through a stage. It took me some time to figure this out, but when I began to focus on keeping my car in the lines of the earlier cars running the stage, I found that I was able to get into the same “groove” that I hear real drivers talking about. The increased grip of staying in the lines allows me to dance the car from corner to corner especially in the flowing sections. When I point the car into the apex and keep it on the lines, it sticks there and carries me through the corner. It doesn’t feel nearly as fun or dramatic as making a huge slide, but it actually may be a more realistic representation of what real drivers experience behind the wheel.

Once I came to this realization, it certainly increased my enjoyment of Dirt 4. However, things still didn’t feel quite right. The best words that I can use to describe this is that the “feeling” Dirt 4 feels dulled or muted compared to the rawness of the experience that I experienced in Dirt Rally. There are several reasons for this, and I hope that Codemasters will address them in the coming months with post-release patches. The first reason is the force feedback is far less aggressive than it was in Dirt Rally. Much of the vibration from the uneven stage surfaces that made Dirt Rally feel so raw and visceral is now gone. It has been replaced with a force feedback system that makes the experience feel much more like driving a race car on a circuit. There are subtle bumps or jerks, but they just don’t communicate the feeling of being connected to the road like the force feedback effects in Dirt Rally did. The second area that I feel has changed for the worse is the sound. In Dirt Rally, the sound of gravel striking the underside of the car was very pronounced just as it is in real life. In Dirt 4, however, this sound is not nearly as noticeable, and it definitely neuters the sense of speed and danger. You’ll hear an occasional clatter when you pull the handbrake at a hairpin junction, but other than that, the engine dominates your auditory experience. These two factors really detract from the driving experience found in Dirt 4. It just doesn’t feel as raw as it did in Dirt Rally, and I find this to be a huge disappointment.

There is one other strange thing about the “feeling” in Dirt 4 that just doesn’t make sense to me. The cars are are very “understeery” when on the throttle exiting a corner. Codemasters said that this is because their default car setups are designed to be more neutral to appeal to a wider audience. I’m OK with this, but no matter what I do in the tuning section of the game, I can’t get the cars… even the RWD ones… to break loose when on the throttle. Even with the rear springs and dampers stiffened, and the diffs fully locked, the car still pushes to the outside of the corner when on throttle. In Dirt Rally, the Fiat 131 was one of my favorite cars to drive because it required careful balancing of the throttle to control a slide coming out of a corner. In Dirt 4, this experience is gone, and it has taken away a lot of the joy that I used to experience while driving that car. It doesn’t require any of that nuance that was needed in Dirt Rally. Now in Dirt 4, I can just mash the throttle coming out of a corner, and the car will straighten up. It just doesn’t feel right, so I’m hoping that Codemasters fix this at least with the RWD cars.

When I fired up the rallycross part of the game, I was expecting the same problem, but surprisingly, the feeling is very close to what is found in Dirt Rally. The cars sound just as aggressive as before, and they behave in almost the exact same way. The only minor difference that I can find is that the tarmac sections feel slightly less “floaty” than they did in Dirt Rally. Other than that, it is essentially the same experience, and this is a good thing. Even though rally is always my first love, I occasionally have a rallycross itch that needs to be scratched, and I can say that Dirt 4 does this very well.

So that’s what I think about the “feeling” of Dirt 4. I’m curious… have any of you tried out Dirt 4? How are your experiences similar or different to mine? Have you been able to find any ways to rectify the issues that I have found with the game? I’d love to hear your input below in the comments box. I’ll be back in a few days with part 2 where we’ll take a look at the cars featured in Dirt 4.