I am a big motorsport fan. There is barely a formula I won’t watch and have been following the main categories for as long as I can remember. I have a huge appreciation for any driver who has reached the pinnacle of their chosen category as it takes a certain kind of someone to drive cars consistently fast. However, there is one form of motorsport whose drivers I hold in the highest regards. To me, anyone who is willing to drive a 4WD monster through twisty roads of varying surfaces at speeds which defy common sense are just that little bit more special to me. Driving a rally car is to drive on a knife edge, where the smallest of mistakes can end in catastrophe. The reflexes and just sheer talent required to drive these machines and win have held me in awe since I first saw Colin McRae win the world title in 1995.
It was no surprise that my first digital foray into the world of rally driving was through McRae’s own rally game released way back in 1998 on the Playstation. Nearly twenty years later and we are now presented with the twelfth game in this series. Whilst the name has changed, DiRT 4’s roots can be traced all the way back to the original Colin McRae Rally. However, it bears far more resemblance to 2015’s DiRT Rally, a game which caught pretty much everyone by surprise. Released, initially, on Steam’s Early Access program it was quite rightly lauded for its simulation prowess. Even on console, its star shone brightly even if, by default, it was rather tricky on a pad. This time around the focus has shifted to being more than just a hard-nosed rally simulation. This time, DiRT wants to suck you in and keep you going sideways forever but most importantly it wants you to have fun!
DiRT Rally was an uncompromising beast. To drive fast you really had to know how to shift weight around and get a feel for each car. With DiRT 4 there are now two different handling models. Gamer, for those who prefer a more arcade feel to their steering and Simulation. The latter builds upon the excellent groundwork laid by DiRT Rally and they have made it far easier to tame on a gamepad. So much so that I found it far more preferable to use than the gamer setting. Whilst the gamer model made the cars much more compliant, I personally got a lot more enjoyment from the better feedback the simulation mode gave. I feel much more confident now driving on my gamepad within DiRT 4’s excellent handling model than I ever did on its predecessor. Still, the addition of the gamer handling model will no doubt delight rally fans who found the tough simulation stance of its forebear a deterrent.
Whilst you generally don’t have much time to take in the sights whilst driving, DiRT 4 looks rather nice. There are no vast improvements over DiRT Rally which may disappoint some but for me, the enjoyment comes from the driving rather than how it looks. The weather effects have been improved in particular fog which, if you get dense fog for a stage, is easily the most daunting to face. I absolutely hate any stage that involves fog and I can assure you that I have never felt more terrified in a driving game. Barreling down a sequence of gentle curves in top gear whilst having near zero visibility made me genuinely scared. Whilst I knew no harm would come to me should I have a big off the unknown of the course ahead and the requirement to place absolute trust in my co-driver was unnerving. The sense of relief was palpable and while I still hate those stages, few challenges in digital motorsport have made me prouder than when I finish a fog stage in one piece.
One of the new features of DiRT 4 is “Your Stage.” Much like the blueprint feature of Forza Horizon 3, it lets you map out stages of your own in one of DiRT’s five rally locations (Fitzroy in Australia, Powys in Wales, Tarragona in Spain, Michigan in the USA and Värmland in Sweden). While you can only control the complexity, stage length, time of day and weather conditions the sheer number of permutations means there’s plenty of meat on the bone here. Not once did I find the stages awkward and while you can’t tweak the layout to your choosing the algorithms at work here do a fine job of creating stages. Add the ability to share with, and challenge your friends, you already plenty of replayability here and that’s before you even touch its community features.
Beyond this, there’s league based racing where you pick your car from the respective class to go and set the fastest stage time. The set of community challenges is carried over from DiRT Rally and as well as Rallycross which is now also joined by Landrush. The latter being a circuit race on dirt tracks with jumps, bumps and plenty of close racing. However, both of these modes suffer from a lack of circuits to race and once you’ve raced them a few times you may find yourself drifting away from them and back to the more traditional rally challenges. Leaderboards also appear for pretty much everything including the challenges you can undertake at DiRT 4’s proving grounds, Dirtfish. My personal favourite is the time-attack challenges where you need to find the fastest way around a circuit busily trying to collect green icons that take time off your lap. If you find the right lines and avoid the red icons that will add time you will slowly find yourself improving your car control. I can’t recommend highly enough these and the available tutorial challenges to help those who struggle with wrestling these cars across a stage.
Through it all one thing kept pulling me back to do one more stage or have another pop at trying to improve my time on a time-attack challenge; enjoyment. I was having lots and lots of fun. While I may not like the fact that Pikes Peak is no longer featured or that, despite covering all surface types (gravel, mud, tarmac & snow), I miss the Germany stages, I was still enjoying myself immensely. Sure, the lack of tracks in Landrush and Rallycross are a disappointment but for me, I’ve always preferred the straightforward rallying. There is so much to do and so many different ways in which you can challenge your friends that you’ll be going long after you’ve finished the career mode. The “Your Stage” system, in particular, will no doubt see me coming back, again and again, to try my hand at any number of different and unique stages.
DiRT Rally was the entry point, the entrée if you will, ahead of the main course of DiRT 4. While sim die-hards may still prefer the former it’s hard for me to go back given everything on offer here. The simulation underpinnings are still there and the cars will still spit you off if you go over the edge but everything is much more pliable and far friendlier to those of us driving on a gamepad. There’s more to see, more to do and more importantly, it’s much more fun!