Dirt 4 could be the best rally game ever made. Actually, scratch that: for pure realism, it could be one of the best racing games ever made. Period. And it might also be one of the most accessible.
See, where Dirt Rally was unflinching in its steep learning curve - albeit addictively so - Dirt 4 offers something for everyone, whether would-be rally drivers or Mario Kart upstarts.
How? Building on the addictive competitive aspects of previous Dirt entries, Dirt 4 pairs a scintillating simulation engine with a host adjustment options - and these aren’t just your standard difficulty levels.
From handling choices to a real depth of difficulty customisation to pinpoint tweaks, Dirt 4, at least on first impression, looks to be the complete off-road package.
Rally realism - realised
Before we get stuck into the mechanics of Dirt 4 and what makes them so special, it’s worth saying just how immersive this game is. Recent Codemasters titles - including its Formula 1 franchise - have had a solid focus on achieving realism, in both their physics and their graphic elements, and Dirt 4 feels like the culmination of it all.
Stray slightly off the road and you won’t barrel out of control: you’ll lose grip on the rear right, fight the controls to snap the tail back into line and knock over a fence post - just missing a tree, before continuing towards the next near miss. Grip - or the lack thereof - has a proper presence.
Little surprises, too, are there to add a dose of reality. Hare around a blind corner and you’ll meet a marshal with a warning triangle, before passing a stricken competitor whose car has come together with a tree. Crest a jump and you’ll just miss a low-flying drone filming your progress.
Dirt 4 feels like a game where both the small touches - you have to drive the car to the checkpoint after the finish, for example - and the big graphics have been thought about and finessed together.
And this was in a pre-alpha version. If Codemasters fine-tunes things for the main release, rally fans will be in for a treat. It’s really everything you’ve come to expect from Dirt, with added effort.
Stage it yourself
While we’re talking about involving fans, Dirt 4 packs another feature that - with a little work - could be a really neat addition. It’s called Your Stage and, while it’s not quite a course designer, it does mean that Dirt 4 ships with potentially infinite track variations.
Select a country, tweak settings - including length, complexity and weather - and hit generate: the game will deliver a completely unique road for you to hurtle down. Sadly, we were only able to try it with one location - Australia - and the tweak options were limited, but the suggestion seems to be that more parameters will be there in the finished game, including aspects such as elevation.
Why is it exciting? For one thing, it means no more waiting for DLC - something that’s frustrated a lot of Dirt Rally fans. It also means a much closer-to-life rally experience.
Current World Rally Championship driver Kris Meeke, who helped develop the game, reckons it puts a lot more importance on the pace notes that you’re given by your co-driver - and, in the demos we played, that was very much the case. There’s no way of learning Your Stage routes; it’s simply about living on the edge and testing your reactions.
Full sim, if you fancy it
For those with really, really good reactions, there’s plenty to challenge, too. Unlike Dirt Rally, which basically required all players to spend hours getting good enough to come close to AI competitors, Dirt 4 puts that choice in players’ hands.
Handling, for example, can be set to ‘normal’ or ‘simulation’ - and the difference is tangible. Both use the same simulation engine, but normal makes things much more accessible. Simulation is pretty tricky and, used with a steering wheel setup, feels properly involving.
Besides handling settings, there are also difficulty modes - from ‘gamer’ to ‘pro’ - that adjust various driving aids. The differences between each level can be subtle or sharp, depending on your skills, but it means that Dirt 4 should deliver for both committed speed demons and casual off-roaders.
On any mode Dirt 4 isn’t easy: it requires you to make an effort to understand the road, to improve your control inputs - and it’s all the more rewarding for it. Playing in the Australian outback, there was a real sense of achievement in improving lines through corners and shaving seconds off the time - not by blind luck or a button-mashing, but by feathering the throttle and tweaking my response to the pace notes.
Driving aids can also be tweaked and turned up, down or off completely in the settings menu, making the learning curve even more addictive. Starting to nail it on ‘gamer’ mode? Time for the next level.
Tinker 'til you win
In fact, there’s all sorts that you can play with in Dirt 4. Codemasters likes players to get involved, and Dirt 4 delivers involvement in spades.
Pace note delivery, for example, can be tweaked to be quicker or slower, depending on your preference, reaction times and the car you’re driving.
As in Dirt Rally, there’s also a seemingly ceaseless array of options for adjusting your motor. From brake bias to damping to ride height, Dirt 4 lets you take it as seriously as you want to.
Better still, those tweaks pair with the realism and reactive game mechanics to actually make a difference, subtly but surely.
In fact, Dirt 4 feels like a game that you might never master. I was only given access to one rally stage and I didn’t get bored playing it for two hours, as I tinkered, adjusted and played with my car’s setup to try and chase those extra seconds. Between car setup and driver difficulty, this is a game that could steal months of your life.
More modes, more fun
As if that wasn’t all enough, Dirt 4 will also come with more vehicles, tracks and race modes than ever before.
The ever-popular Landrush mode will return - in which crazily powerful buggies race around short tracks over huge bumps - with more adherence to the real sport. We gave it a go and it’s the sort of fun that could see an evening disappear. That’s not to say it’s easy, mind.
There’ll be multiplayer, too, though we weren’t able to try it, while new feeder series will make an appearance, with the likes of Cross Karts on offer - alongside historic cars and new courses in Spain, Montenegro, France and elsewhere.
Like the Colin McRae games of old, players will also be able to make use of a rally school to hone their skills before stepping into the big leagues. It wasn’t ready for our hands-on, but it's emblematic of the focus on getting everyone and anyone into the addictiveness of rally - and, seeing how impressive Dirt 4 was even with our limited play time, that’s a worthwhile pursuit.
The early verdict
Yes, there was plenty that we weren’t able to try - in fact, our racing was a mere speck in the dust - and, when it ships in June, the latest Dirt game will have even more on offer to tempt rally fans.
Even at this early stage, though, all of the ingredients are there for Dirt 4 to become a franchise classic.
Gripping graphics. Realistic physics. Gameplay elements that genuinely surprise and feel closer to real than anything before. It feels less like a game and more like Codemasters has built an excellent gaming engine, laid out the elements and let players choose their form of fun.
Throw in a genuinely immersive progress gradient and the sort of adjustability that keeps both real rally drivers and novices in thrall, and there’s every chance that Dirt 4 will set a new standard for fast-and-sideways fun.