Dirt 4 Review Part 3: The Stages
First of all, I’m sorry that this review series has been dragging on a bit longer than I expected. I unfortunately had very limited internet access while on vacation over the holiday weekend here in the US, so I was unable to get this up on the blog until now. Of all the various aspects of Dirt 4 that I was looking forward to trying out, it was the new stage design system that held the most excitement for me. In the months leading up to Dirt 4’s release, we were promised a “procedural generated” stage design system that would give us a “nearly infinite” number of stages to drive in the game. That sounds pretty good… right? So, now that Dirt 4 has been out for a little while now, how good is the “Your Stage” feature, and more importantly, is it enough to keep me coming back for more?
Well, after all the hype and anticipation around Your Stage, I’m going to have to curb your enthusiasm a little bit. It is by no means a bad system, and as a first attempt, Codemasters have done a pretty good job. However, I think that Codemasters did themselves a bit of a disservice by hyping it up so much prior to release. Many of us who eagerly shelled out the cash to pick up the game on the first day were hoping for a completely unique, randomized experience every time we loaded a new stretch of road generated by the Your Stage tool. Unfortunately, that isn’t really the case. You see, the way Dirt 4 makes the stages is by splicing together a set of pre-made sections. This is a really good idea, but unfortunately, there just aren’t enough sections to make the stages feel unique. There will be many moments in a single stage, let alone an entire rally where you will notice the same sequence of corners over and over again. It still happens in a somewhat randomized way, but once you’ve seen the same hairpin turn with the same advertising banner for the 3rd or 4th time in a single stage, it kind of ruins the feeling of randomness that was promised by Your Stage. It’s a lot like hearing the same spot on a white noise app when trying to fall asleep. If you don’t listen too closely, it sounds like random noise, but once you hear a distinctive sound in the loop, you get fixated on it. The same thing happens when you see the same junction or hairpin a few times in Dirt 4.
As a result of the repeating sections, even though in theory you are driving through a different stage every time you play Dirt 4, they all begin to feel the same, and none of them stand apart as “classics.” Unlike the hand made stages in Dirt Rally, there are now no longer any iconic landmarks such as the arena in Sweet Lamb, Gina’s Jump in Panzerplatte, or the summit of the Col de Turini. Every stage is now a somewhat generic ribbon of road cut into the landscape. I understand that due to licensing issues with the WRC, Codemasters can’t include any of the landmarks that they had in Dirt Rally. However, I would have hoped that some fictional points of interest would be injected into the procedurally generated stages to help spice them up a bit. For example, what if occasionally in Wales, the stage wound through a logging camp with trailers, logging trucks, and log piles? Even though the Your Stage roads feel a bit “samey” within the same rally, there is some good news that between the different rallies, there is quite a bit of variety. The environments do differ quite a bit, so switching up the rally location does bring some freshness back to the game that was lost with the repeating stage sections. However, as I feared before the release of Dirt 4, only 5 environments just aren’t enough to make the game feel complete. I know that it might sound demanding, but I don’t think that anything less than 8 unique rallies is acceptable for a modern rally game. Remember that back in the day of the Colin McRae games, there were at least 8 distinct rallies included in the game. That was over 10 years ago, so for a game made in 2017 to have only 5 environments feels a bit sparse.
So far, I’ve been a bit harsh on the stages in Dirt 4. Does this mean that Your Stage is a complete failure and should be scrapped? Absolutely not! Even though there are currently not enough tiles for each rally and not enough rallies in the game, Your Stage is a really good idea. This is Codemaster’s first pass at this type of technology, and there is huge potential for them to refine and expand upon it in the future. At the moment, the first iteration of Your Stage in Dirt 4 serves as a good tech demo of what can be accomplished with this technology. I really hope that Codemasters take the foundation they created in this game and build upon it for future releases. What should this look like? Well, first of all, I’d like to see more sliders for the player to control how the stages come out. For example, instead of just length and complexity sliders, there could be sliders to control the frequency of junctions, the amount of elevation change, and the percentage of the stage in open land versus dense forest. Secondly, I think that Codemasters should work on the distinctive tiles such as hairpins and junctions that are too easily recognizable when they pop up time and time again in a stage. For example, I don’t notice it so much when I pass through the same flowing 4, 5, and 6 corners nearly as much as I do when I come across the same hairpin junction with that same TV truck and spectator area. If Codemasters could do something to switch up these areas of the procedurally generated roads, it would help a ton with making the stages feel more unique.
Is Your Stage everything that we hoped it would be? Yes and no. Yes, it does create a fairly believable stretch of rallying road that does feel like a stage. However, the limited customization options, repeating tiles, and sparse selection of rallies in the game kill some of its longevity. That being said, I really hope that Codemasters take some of the negative comments about Your Stage as feedback to make it better in the future rather than scrapping the project and going back to a limited number of hand made stages like they did in the past. Even though the first pass of Your Stage isn’t as good as I hoped it would be, it isn’t all bad either and I really have high hopes for “Your Stage 2.0” when the next Dirt game comes out. I’ll be back in a few days with the 4th and final part of this review where we’ll take a look at the rally atmosphere that Dirt 4 offers. Until then, enjoy the weekend!