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Wot I Think: Dirt 4

An automotive expert reviews

This is my first time contributing to RPS, so I'm going to start out with a little (pertinent) information: I've driven a lot of cars. As an automotive journalist I've sat behind the wheels of everything from the aggressively unremarkable Dodge Dart to brilliant machines like the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series, the Subaru WRX STi, the Audi R8 V10, a rally-prepped Ford Fiesta, and even a pair of formula cars. I'm pretty quick on tarmac.

Dirt 4 isn't about tarmac, so I knew it would be a learning experience. In fact, I drove that Fiesta I mentioned a moment ago about 100 meters onto a rally stage, with Tim O'Neil and Ken Block on board, before I valiantly steered it into a ditch. Once I got it out of the ditch and en route again I made it down another half of the stage before reacquainting myself with the ditch. I swore to do better next time, but next time never came.

“Close enough”, I thought when I got this assignment, so I set up my sim gear and got to racing.

Dirt 4 [official site], like many modern games, figures out where you stand by throwing you right into the game to start. I was offered the choice of “Game” or “Simulation”, I picked “Simulation”, and it plopped me in the virtual seat of a WRX STi at the beginning of a stage. At least Ken Block wasn't watching this time.

Hello ditch. After completing that stage and meeting its ditches, a choice of difficulties is presented, and the lowest one was generously titled “Racer.” As tempting as all the cool modes and features I'd read about were, I opted for the prudent and still enticing rally school option, which takes place at a virtual reconstruction of the Dirtfish Rally School in Washington.

The information was presented clearly, even if I did find it a bit lacking in detail. While I understand that, for the most part, video game tutorials need to cater to a rather small attention span and just get the player into the action, I wish there had at least been an option for a bit more detail on some of the lessons. I diligently spent a long time working on and conquering these lessons, and I felt ready to both tackle the game and ready to take another shot at avoiding ditches in that Fiesta.

The stock setup on most of the cars is fairly neutral, which can lead to some understeer on heavy braking, and has garnered a lot of complaints online. A few minutes in the tuning menu can make your cars a lot more tail happy, but it's still not quite as crazy as Dirt Rally was. I think this is a good thing. Dirt Rally rewarded oversteer more than the real world does. Yes, when you watch the supercuts of Sebastien Loeb driving like an automotive deity, it's all of big drifts and huge rooster tails, but this is the exception to the rule. Rally deals in improvisation, so a big part of success is mitigating accidental oversteer without loosing too much speed. This isn't to say that oversteer can't be faster in rally – it often is, especially on tighter corners – but much of the time you want to minimize your slip angle so that all of your power is working to send you forwards. Dirt 4's physics are more accurate, even if they are less cinematic and even if Codemasters did go just a little too far in adding grip.

That said, a car biased towards oversteer is significantly faster than one biased towards understeer, so just mess with the tuning until it's set up to match your skill level and driving style.

With that sorted out, it was time to start my career of flinging expensive machines off of cliffs and into trees, given that Rally is the only discipline that's unlocked to start. Where the career mode really shines is once you've gotten enough money to buy your own car and start your own team. Picking your livery is satisfying and courting sponsors and staff is simple enough for it to be a welcome break from driving, not a tedious chore.

Where it's best, however, is R&D. If you don't invest enough in R&D your car will break down faster and be more likely to give you trouble over the course of a stage and require more time and money spent on repairs. Poor planning, cheap car parts, and a crash or two can drain your bank account and earn you a penalty for exceeding the 30 minute repair allotment. Pushing to the top tier of a discipline without the funding to do so can leave you driving slower than you'd like so you don't wear down your weakest parts too fast.

Once you've completed a few Rally events, the other disciplines start to open up. Land Rush, stadium races in super trucks, is straightforward, quick, and aggressive racing which comes as a welcome respite from the constant improv that is a stage rally. Of course, you don't get to start by tearing it up in a 900 hp truck; you start in a CrossKart, which is basically a roll cage with a 750cc engine (150 hp goes a long way in a 705 lb car) and some wheels sticking out. Think of what a hillbilly formula car would be and you're on the right track. Even though it was the noob version of LandRush, the CrossKart races were some of my favourites in the game. I might need to play with one of these in the meatspace soon.

Land Rush leads you nicely into Rallycross, which is my favourite event both in the game and IRL. Superficially it's similar to Land Rush, but the addition of some tarmac sections in the tracks and the joker lap, a more technical extension to the course that you have to complete once in the race, adds a bit more strategy. Taking your joker at the right time can be the difference between a podium finish and being dead last. My only issue is that on all but the highest difficulty setting the AI seems utterly terrified of going flat out, even on arrow-straight stretches of tarmac. The beginner cars seem painfully slow but still offer great racing opportunities, the Group B cars are quick, unstable, and utterly punishing when you make mistakes, and the Supercars are bliss. I haven't tried them all yet, but the Focus RS RX has been by a wide margin my favourite, especially after I had the gearing and alignment set up how I like it.

After a while doing short races in stadiums, the call of a stage rally will once more overtake you, and then the game's most impressive and most important feature is sitting there, waiting patiently for you to notice its brilliance: the generated stages.

Previous rally games have been great, but have stopped feeling like rally after playing it a few times. As soon as memorization becomes a factor it's not really rally anymore. Of course, procedurally generated levels in any game can be mediocre, but these don't seem any different from the hand-picked stages in career mode. You can choose length, complexity, and number of stages in your event, and then save it to share with friends if you think it's brilliant. This handily cements Dirt 4 as the best rally game out there.

As it stands, Dirt 4 offers infinite replayability for stage rallies, and some good options in other disciplines. I'm hoping that in the future Codemasters is going to add some more courses for Land Rush and Rallycross (GRC, with its Red Bull addled, Vegas-XTREME antics and massive jumps would be a great addition), but for now I'll be happily enjoying the bountiful content in the main game. Dirt 4 is right up there in the top tier with iRacing and Project Cars, and it has me loving low traction in a way I haven't before. I'm itching to give it another go in the meatspace... this time with the ditches as mere scenery.

Note: I reviewed Dirt 4 on an Aorus x7 hooked up to a Fanatec Clubsport wheel base (with the BMW GT wheel), pedals, and sequential shifter. A handbrake would have been wonderful, but mapping the input to the shift paddles worked well enough.

Dirt 4 is out now on Windows via Steam and Humble for £45/$60/€55.

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