I’m halfway through a gruelling four-mile rally when a tyre suddenly pops. I can hear the loose rubber clinging on for dear life until it eventually bursts and disintegrates, revealing a bare metal wheel scraping along the gravel and leaving a trail of sparks. I could restart, but I decide to push on because I’m three long rallies into a six-stage championship. The car is flailing wildly and I have to fight with it to keep it on the track, but I somehow manage to limp over the finish line and place a respectable third.
This is Dirt 4 at its best. Those moments when you’re flying by the seat of your pants, wrestling with your car as it careens through the mud, surviving long enough to cross the finish line. Rallies are intense, nerve-racking tests of endurance and driving skill. And when something goes wrong, like a knackered wheel or your headlights blinking out after one too many bumps in a night race, things get even more stressful. Especially when you consider that some damage will carry over into the next stage.
When you start Dirt 4 you’re given a choice of two controls: Gamer and Simulation. Gamer labels itself as being for those who want to “have fun”, but don’t be tempted to choose it. When it’s enabled the game is laughably easy, and you’ll soon grow tired of coming first in every event and rarely veering off the track. The traction control and other assists are ramped up to an absurd degree, and while it’s cool that it’s there for inexperienced players, you’ll get a lot more out of the game if you choose Simulation.
Simulation isn’t quite on the same level as superb hardcore spin-off Dirt Rally, but it’s a lot less forgiving than Gamer. You really feel the weight of the car as you speed around a corner, and it’s easy to spin out if you’re too aggressive with the throttle. Even so, it’s noticeably more accessible and immediately playable than Dirt Rally, with nowhere near as much nuance to the controls and physics. You can get away with a lot more here, and the learning curve is more gradual as a result.
Off the track there’s a team management mode that seems to have been inspired by Metal Gear Solid V’s Mother Base. Money earned in championships is spent on facilities and staff, unlocking the ability to buy better parts for your vehicles and bonuses like sponsors paying out greater sums of money and mid-championship repairs costing less.
But it all happens through a series of dull, joyless menus, and although it’s compelling for a few hours, it soon begins to feel like a chore. It would have been nice to have some kind of visual representation of my team growing, because that doesn’t really come across when it’s all buried away in menus.
I do like the sponsor system, though. The gaudy logos you plaster your car with aren’t just for show. If you team up with, say, electronics company Blaupunkt, they might be pleased if you finish a race cleanly without hitting anything. And if you do your relationship will improve, earning you more money. But it goes the other way too, and it’s possible to damage your partnerships with sponsors by failing to meet their needs. It’s the most interesting part of the career mode, because it ties into the minute-to-minute driving in a direct, meaningful way.
If Dirt 2 was your annoying little brother wearing a backwards baseball cap and listening to Pendulum, Dirt 4 is your silver-haired dad reclining in a distressed leather chair with Desert Island Discs on the wireless. The tone is a lot more understated and serious, reminiscent of the old Colin McRae Rally series, and I welcome this with wide open arms.
But it does lean a little too heavily into being earnest and minimalist, and sorely lacks any personality as a result. It’s so dry, although the lovely Welsh voice of rally legend Nicky Grist—who you can now choose as your co-driver—does bring a bit of colour to the thing.
Dirt 4 is a fun, easy to play rally game with a lot of room for customisation depending on your skill level. Although you can push this too far and make winning an event an absolute nonsense. It’s well made, but lacks a certain sparkle. I appreciate the return to the more straight-faced rallying of the McRae series, but the punishing, refined driving of Dirt Rally is ultimately a lot more rewarding. But if you need an easier entry point to this, the muddiest of all motorsports, Dirt 4 might be your best bet.