Games

Rally returns in our DiRT 4 preview

We get hands-on with the brand-new racer and take it for a test drive with its creators.
Written by John Robertson
7 min readPublished on
A buggy driving in DiRT 4
There are loads of alternative cars in DiRT 4
Buoyant from the success of DiRT Rally, Codemasters is setting out to go one bigger in every department with DiRT 4. From a host of graphical and physics improvements, to the promise to deliver a racer that pleases all kinds of racing fans, alongside a host of features designed to deepen and expand upon previous games in the series, this looks to be the most exhaustive racer the UK studio has yet attempted – and we’ve played it already.
The perceived move away from the more traditional rally experience will not initially please dedicated fans of DiRT Rally, but DiRT 4’s aim is to blend the essence of offroad racing with newer, more modern motorsports events in a way that doesn’t alienate the purist.
It’s a tall order, but Codemasters’ experience in the digital rally arena – which dates back to 1998’s Colin McRae Rally – puts them in better shape than all others to deliver a sophisticated racer that appeals to all.
“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is make great games for people that love games,” explains DiRT 4 game director Paul Coleman when quizzed on the overall goals for the game. “To do that we need to tread a line between throwing everything at it, including the kitchen sink, and thoughtfully working out what it is that’s actually going to work best.
While DiRT Rally is a very special game and holds a place in my heart, I think it’s quite dry and quite empty in a lot of places
“While DiRT Rally is a very special game and holds a place in my heart, I think it’s quite dry and quite empty in a lot of places. I’m delighted we’ve made the move to a numbered DiRT game again, as it opens the door for us again to do a lot of things that we should be doing.”
Coleman goes on to assert that Codemasters have to deal with the pressure that comes with being a market leader in the racing field, it therefore being his and his colleagues’ job and duty to deliver games that push the genre forward and, in the process, keep the studio in its position at the top.
To achieve the diversity required to attract a large audience, DiRT 4 sees dedicated rally events sit alongside the more chaotic, eight-player 'Landrush’ races. New vehicle handling and weight distribution make driving more sensitive and a deeper career mode sees you go from driver to team owner. The biggest game changer, however, in terms of both technical achievement and facilitation of player choice, is the inclusion of the brand new ‘Your Stage’ system.
Designed as a means to make sure players never run out of stages to race across, Your Stage allows you to procedurally generate tracks via a number of sliders dictating length and complexity of the course. The higher the complexity slider the more likely it is that you’re going to be challenged with tight corners, undulating road and miscellaneous hazards such as rocks and trees that spill into your path.
A Lancer EVO 6 in DiRT 4
Is the EVO 6 the ideal classic weapon?
“We’ve seen the success of this kind of procedural generation in other, non-racing games, and that has demonstrated there’s an appetite for it,” says Coleman by means of explaining where the inspiration for such a thing came from. “It’s actually something I’ve been wanting to do since DiRT 3, and looking at the feedback from DiRT Rally we knew that a lot of players were getting frustrated by the lack of track content.
“The inspiration, then, came from our problem of giving people just 15 tracks and telling people that’s a whole game. That’s not a game, that’s 15 tracks that can be learned and very quickly mastered.”
For a sport that revolves around quick thinking and navigating across unfamiliar terrain, Your Stage makes perfect sense. As Coleman intimates, one of the problems with a limited number of stages in a rally game is that players begin to memorise the tracks and gain the kind of advantage of familiarity a real rally driver just doesn’t have.
After you’ve raced your stage you can share it with friends and challenge them to beat your time, or save it to your own preferred list to race again another time. Perhaps most interesting is that online lobbies of players can opt to race one another using these procedurally generated tracks, meaning each player is approaching the rally blind and thus levelling the playing field.
Your Stage is also the biggest indication that the success and popularity of the principles embraced in DiRT Rally haven’t been forgotten. Revolving one of your primary features around delivering a more authentic approach to the rally ideal itself should go some way to calming the fears and anger of those hankering after DiRT Rally 2.
Indeed, playing the game first-hand reveals that guiding your car across dusty roads and cutting corners over grass verges feels akin to DiRT Rally. The precision is there, as is the sense of sheer speed and the feeling that you’re going to lose control at any moment should your concentration slip below maximum. As a result, DiRT 4 feels like anything but a shallow racer. Different handling models make this sensation more or less obvious, but the feeling of danger and speed remains no matter what you opt for.
A Subaru on a dirt track in DiRT 4
Hammering a Subaru across the outback
Codemasters’ goal is to open the game up to more people, though, with a range of handling options available to choose from that make the cars more or less difficult to handle. The design team’s experience, believes Coleman, means they’re at a point where they understand how to deliver handling models that work across all types of player:
“In the past we would have had to find a middle ground between the different types of players, but now we can offer a bunch of options for players to choose from based on the knowledge we’ve got.
“What I hope is that players who start on easier settings eventually move on to turning assists off. I don’t want to say that they should be turning things off, and there’s no reason why you can’t play the whole game however you want, but I want them to feel like they might want to try doing it.”
The choice works its way into career mode, which is far more expansive than anything seen in a prior DiRT game and is the area most players are going to spend the majority of their time when offline.
“You start career as a hired gun, driving for teams that take a cut of your winnings, with the rest of the money going into you bank account,” describes Coleman. “There will come a point where you’ve got enough money to buy your own car, and when that comes you will be advised to start your own team.
“From that point forward you can hire PR teams, engineers, mechanics, spotters, co-drivers and you build this whole team around you. It gives you another reason to keep playing and make your way up in your career and it’s something that I think was lacking in DiRT Rally.”
It might not be called ‘DiRT Rally 2’, then, but much of DiRT 4 is clearly inspired by the desire to build upon elements found in, or missing from, DiRT Rally. If Codemasters can blend these progressions into the more extreme and outlandish events typically associated with the DiRT series then it could have a winner on its hands again.
The obvious threat here is that by seeking to build a game that appeals to all racing game fans you invariably deliver one that appeals to none. With a steady hand like Codemasters at the wheel, though, that risk is dampened.
DiRT 4 will be available for Xbox One, PS4 and PC, and will be hitting the shops in June 2017.
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