Learning to drive can be a soul-sucking toil. Doubly so if you live in a big city. Having spent the last 14 months trying to get my license — spoiler: I still haven’t — you’d think gliding around hairpins in four-wheel drive dream machines would give me a carefree jolt of welcome escapism. And you’d be absolutely right. Powersliding around the sunbaked flats of Tarragona, Spain in a video game is a hell of a lot more fun than being cut off by a Scottish pensioner in a Skoda Citigo while your driving instructor takes passive-aggressive notes.
Shock horror: playing Dirt 4 is more pleasurable than chugging around the rain-lashed streets of Edinburgh with L plates on. It’s also a rather good racing game, albeit one with rough edges, fitting neatly into that Codemasters tradition of delivering well-balanced, generously-featured driving sims (it's out June 9th on PC, PS4 and Xbox One). Tucking into the legendary British studio’s latest all-you-can-eat rally buffet certainly provides satisfaction, though a a few undercooked ingredients occasionally threaten to spoil the meal.
You can use the super immersive dashboard cam for all 50+ cars. Trying to see in the rain with this view is a pain in the arse, mind.
In the years since the man who lent his name to the first Dirt tragically passed — rally god Colin McRae — the series has struggled to find a new identity. From the good-natured, slightly too 'down with da kids' Dirt 2 , to the punishing simulation stylings of 2015’s Dirt Rally , the franchise has never quite settled into its own skin. And while you could level the same criticism at Dirt 4, at least it’s finally found a killer feature to hang its mud-splattered hat on: a seriously cool track generator.
Your Track is definitely the biggest selling point of Dirt 4. Idiot-proof, elegantly designed and hassle-free to use, it cooks up procedurally-generated courses at the click of a button. Though you can’t tinker with every last detail of your custom track, there are more than enough options to spawn a constant series of routes that feel fresh and unique.
Once you select which country you want to create your track in (regional routes in Australia, England, Spain, Sweden, Wales and the US are all available), the two main factors that affect the makeup of your course are length and complexity. Want a quick 90 second sprint through the twisting mountain regions of Varmland, Sweden? Make your track a mile long. If you’re after a longer challenge, Your Track lets you build courses up to 10 miles in length.
As in Dirt Rally , Codies’ Rewind feature has again been cut. Instead, you get 10 restarts to last you a whole tournament.
The complexity setting throws in a further, much more nuanced variable. How far you tweak this slider determines how much the elevation of your course changes, while also altering how tricky corners are. I’ve made some truly monster routes, where maxing out both sliders spawns helter-skelter dashes filled with dramatic dips into valleys, terrifyingly blind chicanes, and sections peppered with gargantuan puddles that obscure the entire screen when playing in one of Dirt 4 ’s variety of bumper and dash cams.
Considering you only have two bars to fiddle with, the sheer variety of routes Your Track is able to muster is pretty cool. Even with its stripped-down interface, I never feel like I’m repeating the same sections, or driving through rejigged courses. Tracks feel impressively bespoke, and there’s enough nuance in how you manipulate those sliders, alongside other variables like time of day and weather — hint: don’t overdo the fog option — that these custom courses feel much more various than you’d expect.
There are some downsides in how it’s implemented, though. Such an amazing feature should surely be Dirt 4's lifeblood, running through every aspect of the game, or at least as many as possible. Yet Your Track is only available when you create custom championships in Freeplay mode (the main campaign events don’t let you rejig routes). It’s also limited to Rally and Historic Rally disciplines, not the buggy and truck mayhem of Landrush or the multiple heat standoffs of the 16 racer Rallycross.
I also wonder if Your Track has negatively impacted Dirt 4 ’s visuals. This ain’t a pretty game. I don’t know whether or not focusing on procedurally-generated courses led Codemasters to pare back art assets in favour of making terrain placement as flexible as possible, but soon the landscapes you race through feel cookie-cutter. The routes you can take and make may have variety, yet the actual scenery you pass is often a hodgepodge of generic cardboard-looking trees and barren wastelands. I’ve been playing on PS4 Pro, and even Sony’s souped-up console can’t quite make this distractingly jaggy racer beautiful — Codies really need to come up with a better anti-aliasing solution next time out.
Away from the headline track feature, Dirt 4 offers up a handling model that instantly welcomes you in with a warm hug... then swiftly smacks you around the chops on higher difficulties. I’m not one to fiddle with suspension sliders or fret over the springs of my Opel Kadett’s rear anti-roll bar, so I stick to the game’s arcade-esque settings. Of course, if you’re hardcore enough to appreciate that Dirt 4 has nabbed the World Rally Championship license with official courses like Lohéac Bretagne, you’ll be pleased to know you can go seriously far down the bonnet-tinkering rabbit hole. Hell, you can even choose to manually adjust the pitch of the driver’s seat with the d-pad, or manually work your windscreen wipers.
Large chunks of the campaign centre around traditional checkpoint rally racing, yet the really interesting wrinkles come with the new Landrush events. Whether bombing about in buggies, 900 bhp trucks or jittery as hell crosskarts, the chassis-mangling action of these circuit sprints would make Destruction Derby proud. Horrible crashes; swirling storms of dust that totally blind you; AI racers who are constantly obsessed with shunting you into a ditch. Listening to your co-driver issue po-faced directions in vanilla rallies has a methodical, exacting charm, but it’s got nothing on the spectacle of eight pickup trucks all rutting each other senseless trying to take the best line into a sharp corner.
Crosskarts are love. Crosskarts are life.
An extra word on those crosskarts — they’re friggin’ fabulous. Aside from Your Track they’re absolutely my favourite thing in Dirt 4 . These single-seater buggies pack motorcycle engines under the hood, and in full flight trying to tame the teeny karts is terrifying… the sort of terrifying that makes the hairs stand up on the backs of your arms. Twitchy, unpredictable and downright demented, zipping through a Landrush event with a half dozen of these adorable off-roaders is like playing a real-world, borderline demonic Mario Kart.
It’s impossible to pass any definitive judgement on Dirt 4 — the game’s online races and set of weekly/daily/monthly challenges aren’t live at time of writing. What I can tell you is Codemasters has come up with the least fussy and coolest track generator I’ve seen in a racer. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that, outside of this superb innovation, the rest of the game is a slightly conservative effort. Next to the thoroughly modern, sublime sandbox of Forza Horizon 3, Dirt 4’s ploddingly linear career can feel positively prehistoric.
Then again, Playground Games’ Aussie speed demon doesn’t let me create an almost infinite number of custom tracks with the jab of a button. Time to hit that dirt road again — this time, after all, there’s no telling where we'll end up.