So far in our look at Codemasters’ newest rally game, Dirt 4, we’ve taken a look at the feeling, the cars, and the stages. If you’ve followed this series, you will have realized that my reaction to Dirt 4 has been somewhat lukewarm compared to Codemasters’ prior effort, Dirt Rally. While some aspects of the feeling of the cars has taken a positive step forward, in other ways, I felt that it slipped behind the amazing experience that Dirt Rally offered. As for the stages, the “Your Stage” feature is a great concept, but its first iteration comes across feeling just a bit too bland. After reading parts 1-3, you might asking yourself, “Why should I buy Dirt 4”? That’s absolutely a fair question, but the stuff that I’m going to cover today explains why I find myself still coming back to Dirt 4. At the end of the day, even though the feeling of the cars is a bit dulled and the stages feel a bit repetitive, Dirt 4 does something very well. In fact, it does this better than any other rally game ever made, and because of this, I’ve already played over 50 hours on the game. What is this? It is the ability to convincingly simulate the atmosphere and experience of taking part in a real rally at the clubman or semi-professional level. There are a few ways that Dirt 4 accomplishes this, so let’s jump in and I’ll explain!
In my opinion, the ability of a rally video game to capture the atmosphere of a real-life rally is a very important part of the finished project. Over the years we’ve seen some games such as Mobil 1 Rally Championship do this very well. Even though this game was made 17 years ago, it simulated the entire 2000 British Rally Championship with real-life classic stages such as Hafren in Wales, Pundershaw in Carlisle, and Hamilton’s Folly in Ulster. On top of that, it featured all the fantastic F2000 cars that competed in the BRC during that era. To top it all off, the game featured an in depth service area, realistic damage, and a slick presentation that made you feel like you were actually a part of the real-life BRC. If you remember my review of Dirt Rally, I felt that even though its content was fantastic, there was nothing to hold it together. The game felt more like a library of classic cars and stages that could be raced one by one, but there wasn’t the feeling of taking part in a real rally.
I am thrilled to tell you that Codemasters have addressed this problem and then some in Dirt 4. When you take part in a rally in Dirt 4, you actually feel like you are taking part in a real event. The most impressive thing is the way that they accomplished this. Codemasters added many small touches to Dirt 4 that individually seem quite small and insignificant. However, when they are all put together, they create a very immersive experience. Let me give you some examples to illustrate what I mean. First of all, when you create a custom rally, you can be as creative as you want. If you want to run a marathon one day event with 12 stages and only one service, you can. If you want to run a two day event with a short group of stages in the evening, a service halt, and then a full second day beginning at the crack of dawn, you can. The game lets you choose where and when your service stops occur, so you can tailor your rally experience as you choose.
Once you start an event, the game takes you to a realistic looking service area where you can set up your car. You will find that the options are even more detailed than they were in Dirt Rally to the point that you can even choose to take 1 or 2 spare tires depending on how long the upcoming loop of stages will be. Scrolling across the bottom of the screen is a news feed that tells of various events that are taking place in the rally. Some examples of this include stage cancellation for unruly spectators, big crashes, damage to fields that are upsetting the local farmers, and traffic issues causing delays. This is a neat little feature that requires almost no graphical resources, but does a lot to add to the immersion factor of the game. Another really cool touch to the service area is the ability to look at the road order and how the weather forecast changes as the event progresses. Once again, this feature doesn’t require very much in the way of graphics, but goes a long way of making you feel like you are in a real rally. These are some of the little things that Dirt 4 does really well to “set the tone” and deliver a convincing rally experience.
After you have set up your car and are ready to leave the service area, the game continues to deliver little surprises that continue to emphasize the rally atmosphere. As you are pulling up to the start line, your co-driver will let you know about any information that is coming out of the stages. This could include a slow time from the leader, changeable weather conditions, or that an accident has occurred out on the stage. Sure enough, if you get news of an accident, at some point, you will come across an orange triangle and a crippled rally car by the side of the road. Just as in real life, sometimes the car is well off the stage so you don’t loose much time. However, other times, it is located in a rather precarious position that will force you to really slow down to make it past safely. I know it’s silly, but the first few times I came across, I found myself taking my hand off the steering wheel to wave at the driver and co-driver standing next to their stricken car! Once again, like all the other things I mentioned, this is a small touch, but when combined with everything else, it makes Dirt 4’s atmosphere feel very real. For rally nerds like us, this is something really special.
Another way that Dirt 4 has really made its rallying experience feel way more realistic is in the damage modeling. In Dirt Rally, you could push hard through every stage and as long as you didn’t hit anything solid, you could really thrash the car and get away with it. Even if you did hit a tree or rock, you could limp the car to the end and know that you had a service stop every two stages. That is no longer the case in Dirt 4. If you are driving a lower-level R2 car with fairly stock parts, you need to be careful with how you treat it. If you take the car up to the red line with every up-shift and bang down through the gears without braking to match your revs to the car’s speed, you are going to do a lot of damage to the engine, gearbox, and clutch. If you aren’t careful, you will find yourself limping through a stage with a slipping clutch, and if you don’t baby the car, you will not make it to the end of the stage. This adds a whole new aspect of real rallying that was missing in Dirt Rally. To succeed in Dirt 4, you need to have some mechanical sympathy for the car to make sure it gets to the end of the rally. This means that you are going to have to concentrate more on being smooth, following the lines, and carrying momentum from corner to corner so that you are not slamming on the gas and brakes in a way that damages the car.
If you do limp the car back to the service area, you have a ton of choices to deal with all the problems you created. You can clean and inspect the car first to decrease the amount of time it takes to diagnose and repair the damaged parts. In addition, you can decide if you want to have your service crew do a comprehensive repair and replace that is more time consuming or a quick fix that might not make it to the next service halt. Unlike in Dirt Rally, you can’t just repair everything with time to spare. While playing Dirt 4, I have found myself really agonizing over what repairs to make and whether or not to take a time penalty for going over the allotted time and checking out of service late. Because of the fantastic damage modeling and service area, those of you who played and loved the epic Richard Burns Rally will feel a nice “deja vu” when playing Dirt 4. The damage that can be collected during a stage and the way it is dealt with in the service in Dirt 4 are is very similar to what I remember from Richard Burns Rally, and that brings a huge smile to my face.
A Rally Career:
The last big way that Dirt 4 simulates the feeling of being a rally driver in real-life is through its portrayal of a rally career. You might be thinking that I’m talking about the “Career Mode” of the game, but actually, I am finding that the game delivers this experience much better in the “Freeplay” section. Why is this? Well, it’s because the money that you receiving for winning rallies in Freeplay is much closer to real-life than what I’m finding in Career Mode. While the prizes go up exponentially in the Career Mode to help with the progression of the game, in Freeplay, the prize money is quite static and makes competing in a championship much more difficult and closer to real-life. Once you subtract damage and crew salaries from your winnings, it doesn’t leave you with too much money and you need to be careful with how you spend it. On rally stages, I found myself debating pushing and risking damage and rising costs or just sitting back and consolidating to secure a solid finish without any big expenses. This is the dilemma that many grass-roots rally drivers face every event, so for Dirt 4 to capture this in the game is something really special.
At the end of the day, Dirt 4 is a really good rally game. Even though the game doesn’t feel quite as good as Dirt Rally, and the stages are somewhat uninspiring, the depth of the features I discussed in this piece made Dirt 4 worth the money I spent. At times, I’m finding that because the rally experience is so rich and convincing, I am overlooking some of the game’s deficiencies that I mentioned in parts 1-3 of this review series. In addition, if you have followed Codemasters’ feedback, especially that of Paul Coleman, they are making it clear that they are aware of many of the issues that I discussed in this series. Based on how the studio approached things with Dirt Rally, I am really confident that they are listening and do care about the community’s feedback. To sum it up, I’d still recommend Dirt 4, but it has left me wanting a bit more. Whether this will come as updates, patches, and DLC for Dirt 4, or a whole new rally game (Dirt Rally 2 or Dirt 5) will become clear in time. For the moment though, Dirt 4 serves as a nice compliment to Dirt Rally. Neither one satisfies completely, but where one is lacking, the other delivers, so together, they make a good package. For the future, however, I’d like to see a fusion of the positive elements of both of these games with more locations. If Codemasters can pull this off and improve upon their “Your Stage” concept, that would be one cracking rally game. Dirt 4 is a good start, but I’m hoping we’ll see more in the future.