STAFF REVIEW of DiRT 4 (Xbox One)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017.
by Chad Goodmurphy

DiRT 4 Box art Few things are more entertaining than a good arcade racing game, which is why Codemasters’ DiRT series has enjoyed longevity in an always-changing interactive landscape. However, ignoring 2012’s testosterone fuelled DiRT Showdown spinoff and 2015’s overly challenging DiRT Rally, fans of the franchise have had to endure a more than six year long wait in-between sequels. The good news, though, is that said wait is over, thanks to the recent release of the all-inclusive DiRT 4.

Those who go into DiRT 4 hoping for a return to the fast, visceral and pulse-pounding days of DiRT and DiRT 2 may be a bit disappointed. Not because this game is bad, by any means, but because it’s changed with the times and isn’t the same entity that once began life on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. No, this is a combination of parts, which tries to make two different camps happy.

This time around, players can choose from two different handling styles, as well as a bevy of customizable difficulties and settings. First is racer handling, which exists as the more arcade-inspired option and targets those of us who weren’t exactly good at the Dark Souls of racing (DiRT Rally). Then, there’s simulation handling, which is what those who loved the series’ most demanding outing will likely prefer to use, as though it’s not as challenging as what’s found in Rally, it’s still more realistic and skill-based than its peer.

Your chosen handling option can be changed at almost any time, and what’s nice is that DiRT 4 features a detailed practice area where you can test your skills with each one. It’s here where the game technically begins, with a plethora of helpful tutorials and demonstrations, which teach you all of its ins and outs. This includes how to drive on different surfaces, such as loose gravel, dirt and pavement, as well as the differences between handling in front wheel drive cars and rear wheel drive cars. The rest features talk about weather conditions, of which there are quite a few, and tips on how to take both corners and jumps.

Once you graduate from tutorial school (or opt to ignore it altogether), you’ll find yourself staring at a menu screen that is less flashy than it’s ever been. This is the first indicator towards DiRT 4 being more than just an adrenaline junkie’s rally racer. Then, following that, you’ll be able to choose from different gameplay options, including Free Play, Global Challenges, Multiplayer, Career and Joy Ride.

For the most part, Free Play is what it sounds like, as it allows you to create your own events, by choosing their locations, longevity and unique settings. There’s something different about it, though, which comes in the form of the Your Stage feature. This, you see, is essentially the basis of all of the game’s tracks, or their building blocks if you prefer that term.

With Your Stage, players can create their own courses within seconds. All it takes is choosing a worldwide location like Spain, Sweden or The United States of America, then adjusting a couple of sliders to determine the track’s length and complexity. What results is a procedurally generated course, which you can opt to save and share with friends or trash and begin anew.

It seems like this tool was used to create all of the rally courses that are found in DiRT 4’s Career mode. As such, every time you enter a new event, you can expect to find something a bit different from what you’ve played before, even if the location remains the same. This is a good thing as far as longevity goes, but after a while you will start to see the building blocks that go into making these courses, and wish for more variety in their settings. Essentially, it’s a bit of a catch-22, because this system creates an almost unlimited amount of tracks, but its building blocks don’t have enough variety to keep them feeling fresh.

Over the course of this game’s many hours of gameplay – a lot of which are found in its deceptively lengthy campaign – you’ll find yourself speeding through rainy forests, attempting to stay on course on tracks with snowbanks for walls, racing through exotic countryside and hitting the road Down Under. Its many rally events take place in several different locations, including Fitzroy, Australia; Tarragona, Spain; Michigan, USA; Varmland, Sweden and Powys, Wales. Plus, each one brings something different to the table in terms of not only geography, but also road types, track hazards and sometimes even weather, as is the case with Sweden’s snowy roads.

DiRT 4’s Career mode is somewhat strange in design, because although it features four different racing disciplines (International Rally, Landrush, Rallycross and Retro Rally), only the first three factor into unlocking its final championship, that being its Triple Crown. I guess Retro Rally is just an optional throw in, even though it’s listed alongside the others.

Rally, which we’ve already talked a lot about, is of course a timed event wherein drivers must negotiate challenging tracks with the help of a co-driver. The best time wins, just like in real life, and the game’s many championships are separated into sets of up to six different events. At the end, you’ll find that you’ll need to complete five different championships, totaling 30 different events, in order to walk away as the International Rally champion and unlock that portion of the Triple Crown.

Retro Rally is the same, except you’ll find yourself driving cars from yesteryear. It’s also quite lengthy, which fans of the sport will love.

Those of us who usually prefer the more frenetic, circuit-based confines of both Landrush (racing with trucks and buggies) and Rallycross (multiple laps around a track, with one needing to be an extended joker lap) are unfortunately overlooked a bit here. Sure, both disciplines are included in DiRT 4 and have their own spots in Career mode, but neither one is as fleshed out as either of the two Rally types happen to be. In fact, it won’t take you long to complete Land Rush and become its champion, because it only has several different championships to tackle. Rallycross is lengthier, which is nice, but it still doesn’t compare to the time sink that is Rally. Of course, not all gamers will be disappointed in this, because those who loved DiRT Rally and play these games for such events will feel right at home in this campaign. I just feel as if they could have done more to spread the events out evenly, thus increasing the amount of variety within this campaign.

Therein lays a contributor to one of DiRT 4’s biggest problems, that being its lack of a true identity. Even now, after putting more than 20 hours into the game, I feel like it’s missing something. A true identity, I guess you’d call it, because in an attempt to appeal to different groups of players, Codemasters has created something that suffers from an unfortunate identity crisis and doesn’t feel like it’s all that it could have been. It wants to be like DiRT Rally, while also harkening back to the days of the first DiRT games, but it ends up getting stuck along the way.

Don’t read the above as me crapping on this thing, because it’s more of an observation and detraction than it is a game breaking issue. I do, however, miss the days when DiRT was less structured and had more personality, but this is still a very solid game despite its lack of a true identity. There’s a lot of great racing to be found within, and the attention to detail it showcases is truly impressive. Each car sounds differently, each type reacts to terrain and weather differently, and all of the vehicles are prone to realistic destruction and damaged parts if you’re not careful. This includes flat tires that rumble and blow before forcing you to either stop for repairs (and face a penalty) or drive on rims, as well as misfiring engines and destroyed headlights.

Weather also plays a large role here, especially during Rally events. Rain slickened roadways cause you to slide and drift, while ruts form in their most traveled crevices. Fog, on the other hand, can reduce your visibility to next to nothing, and can appear and disappear at will. Snowbanks also line some tracks, and can cause you to flip or roll without much effort, while the slushy roadways that weather triggers can also affect your handling. Then, there’s nighttime, which makes everything more difficult. However, like every other time of day, all of which are recreated viscerally by the game’s impressive day/night cycle, you’ll get used to it and learn to deal with what it has to offer.

As you progress through the Career, you’ll earn money that will allow you to start your own team by purchasing vehicles (either new from their manufacturers, or used through the in-game classifieds) and hiring staff members. This currency can also be used to upgrade your team’s headquarters, R&D labs, PR department and more, which leads to more skilled workers and greater team morale.

Although being able to create your own team (and drive for it) is an asset in DiRT 4, it is not entirely necessary. You may earn more money this way, but it’s very possible to get through Career mode while driving for different sponsors and their own teams. Sticking with one team will also increase your relationship with them, so long as you perform well and achieve some of their posted tasks. These are things like completing an event without any restarts, coming in first place, or incurring zero penalties.

Continuing on, while DiRT 4 isn’t as challenging as its very demanding predecessor, it can still be difficult, especially if you make it that way through settings choices. Even on its easiest difficulty and lowest level of AI competency, this game can still be challenging whenever your competitors decide that they really want to go for it. Then, at other times, you’ll find that they’re docile and easily beaten. This is evidence of another problem, which is an uneven difficulty level that can sometimes create frustration, especially as you near the end of the campaign.

Moving on from Career, it’s important to talk about Joy Ride, which is somewhat of a campaign in and of itself. This is where you’ll go to unwind and have some fun, through time trials and challenges, whereupon you’ll be tasked with trying to knock over a set amount of boards in a limited amount of time. This fun and offbeat arena is a nice change of pace, which will surely please fans, especially those who like to challenge their friends. It helps, too, that you can earn different medals, which are good at enticing folks back for just one more try.

Of course, there's also multiplayer, which is affectionately called Jam Sessions. It’s here where you’ll be able to hop online and play against others from different geographical locations. Championships can be set up, and their standings can change based on how you do in each of their different events. Make sure to play some single player first, though, because the competition can be quite stiff out there on the Internet.

Like the single player modes it complements, Codemasters’ latest features solid online gameplay that is sure to please those who like to race against real people instead of programmed artificial intelligence. It looks good, plays fast and seems devoid of lag. The rest of the game is quite similar, for the most part, with some impressive lighting effects, great weather, a very good day/night cycle and an excellent licensed soundtrack. There are, however, some problems, including a small amount of screen tearing and visuals that won’t wow folks as much as one would expect.

Alas, we’ve come to the end of this review, where I must admit that DiRT 4 wasn’t exactly the game I was hoping for. Going in, I dreamed of a more frenetic and arcade experience, which would feature a good mixture of Landrush and Rallycross events alongside its Rally tracks. However, what I got was something that favours one event type over the others, and is more like an accessible DiRT Rally than its most enjoyable predecessors. Still, despite this change, I was quite impressed with most of what I saw and experienced herein, even if its drawbacks keep it from being exceptional.

If you’re looking for a game that features a lot of attention to detail and places a great focus on its handling mechanics, then DiRT 4 is a very worthy pick-up. Just don’t go in expecting a game that is as ‘arcadey’ as the first several DiRT titles were.

**This review is based on a copy of the game that we were provided with.**

Overall: 8.1 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.1 / 10
Sound: 8.4 / 10


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