There's nothing quite like bombing it down a narrow country lane in a classic Mini. With wipers barely managing to keep up with the rain, headlights doing all they can to cut through the surrounding darkness, and certain death awaiting should you even so much as slip a wheel off the edge of the mud strewn track, it's enough to make your hair stand on end. Or at least, it is when you're playing a game. Safe in the knowledge that a crash won't leave you in a hospital bed, we may struggle to pluck up the courage to go above 30 in real life, but put us behind the wheel of a virtual Mini, and we'll leave Ken Block standing.
A slight step back towards a more bombastic style of game after the po-faced DiRT Rally, the irregularly capitalised DiRT 4 is the latest in Codemaster's long line of off road racing titles, treading the line somewhere between the realism of DiRT Rally, and the "ye-haw!" American fun of DiRT 2. With four different disciplines to test your driving skills against - Rally, Landrush, Rally Cross and Heritage Rally - there's dirt tracks aplenty, hairpin lefts around every corner, and over 50 lovingly recreated cars - including, yes, a classic Mini Cooper.
Before we get properly started, we should give credit where it's due - if you're new to the world of DiRT, Codemasters have done a pretty incredible job of ensuring everyone can find their footing here. With a helpful, yet concise tutorial to play through when you first get behind the wheel, the first short race effectively works as a trial of sorts of your abilities, after which the game will recommend a difficulty level to you. As we mentioned before, with DiRT 4 treading the line between authentic arcade handling and realistic simulation, the game has a host of assists that can be turned on or off, including two totally different types of overall handling - either "simulation" or "gamer", which will affect how much your car drifts, and how easy it is to spin.
Moving on to a series of quick lessons, DiRT 4 rapidly brings you up to speed on how the world of rally works - something which is much needed if you've never played a rally game before, as off road racing is a rather different beast. For starters, with no map to follow, and often no chevrons or obvious bends to look out for, you'll need to be using your ears as much as your eyes. Luckily, you'll be racing along with a co-driver, who'll bark out instructions to you in a kind of rallyman's code. "Left 1" means there's a really harsh left hand bend coming up, while "right 6" means there's a gentle curve to the right. If you've never played a rally game before, learning to listen out for these directions, will be one of the most important things you'll do - and luckily, in DiRT 4, there's even some handy on screen icons that pop up to reinforce the directions (although, if you're looking for a 100% realistic experience, you can always turn these off).
As mentioned above, the rallying here is split into four very different disciplines. Rally is what it says on the tin - a full throttle, knife edge race through tiny winding roads in often less than perfect weather conditions, in a quest to set the fastest time. Rallycross is a more traditional race, which sees you facing off against other cars on a mixed surface circuit, split into sections of tarmac and dirt. Landrush is the "ye-haw" mode for DiRT 4, and sees overpowered buggies racing across short, dusty, banked tracks as they jostle for position, while Heritage rallies are like a normal rally, only with Minis. And so, you know, better.
All four of these disciplines are combined in the game's career mode, which has a slightly different take compared to earlier games, with somewhat mixed results. There's a lot to like here - there's plenty of stages to get stuck into; different tournaments across all sorts of different categories of car; and a license system that only lets you move on to bigger and better things once you've got enough experience winning things lower down. But perhaps the biggest change is that now, rather than just being a rally driver, you get to manage your own team.
Starting your own team is easy enough - after working a few races as a "for hire" driver, all you have to do is buy your own car, and whammy - you've got your own team. After choosing a livery, some team colours and selecting a sponsor, you can start taking on races of your own - only this time, you won't have to share the prize money with your bosses. The only problem is, part of running your team is that you'll also have to handle the maintenance and repairs of the car, and all the team management that goes with it - and that's not really all that much fun.
There's more to a team than just a driver, and so you'll need to hire people to fill a handful of positions. To start out, you'll need an engineer, a chief engineer, and a PR person (each of which take a percentage of your winnings), with only two of those actually coming in useful in the game itself. You see, during races in DiRT, your car will most likely pick up some damage, whether it's regular wear and tear, or because you've smashed it into a tree. In between certain events, you'll get the chance to do some repairs, which will not only cost you money, but time. You're only allowed 45 minutes in a standard rally to do your vehicle up, or you'll be smacked with a hefty time penalty - so knowing how long your repairs are going to take is important. Your chief engineer will estimate this for you - and the better he is, the more accurate he'll be. While this all sounds fairly complex, it is all handled with just a few button presses in game - but it's still a layer of added complexity that doesn't really add anything special to the game, and only really detracts from the fun.
On the bright side, running your own team means you can choose your own sponsors, which in turn actually feeds back into the gameplay. Wanting to get the most for their money, your sponsors will set you challenges at the beginning of each race, whether it's achieving a certain finish position, completing the race on a certain difficulty, getting the fastest split, or one of any number of requests. Completing these will improve your relationship with your sponsor, and also earn you some bonus cash (which in turn you can use to buy new cars, upgrades, and the all important repairs for the cars you're driving) - so they're well worth doing.
One of the more unique parts of DiRT 4 is its level creator. A rare feature on consoles, this is a stripped down, yet powerful tool that lets you create an almost infinite number of courses by tweaking only a handful of settings. Instead of letting you craft the course yourself by hand, you instead simply have to choose a course location and length, at which point the game will automatically create one for you. It's a powerful tool, and one that Codemasters have been keen to shout about, but we're not sure it's quite as useful as we'd hoped - in honesty, we'd prefer either racing around a lovingly crafted track, or one that we've been able to properly make ourselves, with a proper level editor.
However, while Codemasters gets a lot of things right with DiRT 4, there's one thing they got very wrong. While there's a whole host of assists and realism settings you can disable if you're looking for a more accessible race, there's one major realism setting that's constant across all modes, and that's damage. As you can probably imagine, keeping your car on the game's narrow roads isn't all that easy - with large bumps and verges often only a few inches away from your wheels, it can be all too easy to clip something, and end up flipping your car into the nearest tree. If you do that, you may find your car's picked up a bit of damage - and while most problems won't affect your performance too much, others can effectively end the race for you.
One such problem is flat tyres. It doesn't take too much of a clonk to end up puncturing your wheel, and although your co-driver will let you know your tyre's deflating, it isn't initially obvious exactly what you're supposed to do. What you're effectively left with a choice between two bad options - you can limp it to the finish, if you think you can make it without the wheel bursting, or you can stop and try and change it mid-race - something that'll end up costing you a pretty substantial amount of time in a race that's usually only decided by a few seconds. Other issues can prove more fatal - grinding brake disks, dodgy gearboxes, and cracked suspension springs can all cost you the race altogether, forcing you to retire due to mechanical difficulties, at which point you'll have to either quit the series, or retry the race. And with most difficulties having only a limited number of retries (and with no way to rewind/use a flashback to nip back in time a few seconds, and maybe brake a little bit earlier for that nasty corner, as you could in other recent Codemasters games), a slight bump can very quickly turn into a race wrecking issue.
The realism issue rankles on some of the other modes, too - particularly Rallycross. What should be a fender bending tussle with half a dozen other racers has been turned into an overly cautious trundle around a course, due to some overly aggressive corner cutting rules, and a confusing (and poorly explained) rule about "Joker laps" thrown in for good measure. In a nutshell, each Rallycross race consists of (at least) four laps - and on one of these laps, you'll need to turn off to go down a slightly longer/more awkward dog leg known as a Joker. Poorly explained in game, these Joker laps are sometimes incredibly hard to spot, as with minimal signage on the track in general (literally three tiny cones are sometimes all you'll have to tell you you can't go down one road), and nothing in the way of a map on screen (or navigator), you're sometimes left to simply guess where it is.
As mentioned above though, perhaps the biggest issue with the Rallycross races is corner cutting - not because the computer players do it too much, but because you'll be whacked with a massive time penalty should you so much as stray even slightly off course. If your two wheels leave the course for all of a few seconds, you'll soon find yourself being investigated by the marshals - and should the nameless, faceless ones decide you benefited from straying over the track boundaries, you'll get a harsh time penalty. And while we can at least understand why we might get penalised if we were actively trying to cut a corner, the problem here is the rule's a bit too trigger happy - if you botch up entering a corner, and take it too tight, or enter a chicane too fast, you're likely to still end up getting penalised, even though you probably didn't benefit in the slightest. Even more frustrating is when the computer players decide they want to take a corner wide (or tight) and bump you onto the grass - at which point the marshals will investigate you for corner cutting. Charmers!
And then there's the lighting. Visually, DiRT games have always looked great, with crazy weather effects, accurately modelled interiors, and hedgerows so authentic you can almost taste the chlorophyll. With DiRT 4, though, things almost feel like they've taken a bit of a weird step back. Rather than looking smooth and silky, the tracks in DiRT 4 often look oddly... fake. Sparse, almost, like they're a set on a low budget film. As far as we can tell, the main issue seems to be with the lighting. With very little room for subtlety, DiRT's engine is seemingly great at handling MEGA BRIGHT or PITCH BLACK, but not so great at the things that come in between. So puddles and rivers you need to cross look like bright white blocks of tarmac rather than a translucent bubbling brook - and sometimes, racing in cockpit view even on a bright and sunny day can be almost impossible as soon as you enter a forest. While in external view, the trees cast nice, soft shadows, as soon as you go inside, those same shadows turn to big black monoliths that make it almost impossible to see where the track goes - and turning your headlights on does nothing to light the way. We don't usually complain about graphics too much here, but when they affect how the game actually plays, there's something more than a little bit odd going on.
Still, despite the flaws, DiRT 4 is a compelling, and for the most part, enjoyable rally game that offers countless hours of racing fun. While the inability to turn off collision damage does mean this has more of a learning curve than we'd like, there's still a lot to enjoy here, with plenty for veteran petrol heads to get stuck into. Needless to say, with so few competitors, this is definitely the best rally game on consoles - but a few more difficulty options, a real focus on the driving over the superfluous "team management" and some more work on the graphics engine would have made this a must buy.