Dirt 4 is an authentic and innovative off-road racer, though it lacks the focus and finesse of its exceptional predecessor.
Dirt was always positioned as the Colin McRae Rally series' louder, brasher offspring, taking Codemasters' wonderfully pliable off-road racers and giving them a heavy American slant (at a time, it's worth remembering, when the late Scottish superstar was wowing fans across the Atlantic with his showstopping antics in the X-Games). It was a play for a broader audience that might have proved divisive, but it did result in a handful of lavish, bold and enjoyable games that were often more glitz than grime.
And then, in 2015, the series took a very different turn. Dirt Rally was a hardcore offshoot that had more in common with Warthog's revered Richard Burns Rally than it did any of Codemasters' earlier games; this was a full-blooded sim that wasn't afraid to fling you into the woods if you'd neglected to study the intricacies of weight transfer under braking, and one that demanded your attention and respect. It earned that respect, too - Codemasters has a long history of making driving games, but I still think none of them had ever come close to the exquisite depths of Dirt Rally.
Which leaves the first Dirt game since Rally - and the first to carry a number since 2011's Dirt 3, itself the product of a very different Codemasters to the leaner company the Southam outfit is today - with something of a conundrum. How do you play to the wider audience while maintaining your hard-won integrity? How do you cater to two very different crowds?
Dirt 4 has some fairly convincing answers, though as a follow-up to Dirt Rally it occasionally falters. There's a schism here that proves mostly effective, with two very distinct, disparate handling models; on one side there's Gamer, which ladles on the assists, granting your front-end superhuman grip on turn-in and ensuring everything stays neatly in place upon exit. It's a throwback to the older, simpler Codemasters rally games (even if it's still entirely possible to clutch kick the rear end out, a first for the mainline series, I'm sure), and it's perfectly serviceable even if it feels a little muted.
Maybe that's because we were spoilt by the exemplary handling of Dirt Rally, which returns here with some thoughtful tweaks in the Simulation model. The suspension modelling has been improved, and there's now much more play in each car. There's a bigger window of opportunity with which to go about your business, making it a slightly more forgiving game than the original Rally while not forgoing any of the complexity. A knock-on effect, it would seem, is that while playing on a wheel is still the way to go, a gamepad is now a much more viable option.
Nowhere is that updated handling model felt more than in the rear wheel drive buggies that make up the Land Rush mode, where that simulation model is particularly welcome. There's a delicious amount of travel in the suspension of these generously sprung, ludicrously chuckable beasts, and racing them is as boisterous and bruising as a session in a bouncy castle with a half-cut rugby team. A small shame, then, that this side of the game feels slightly undercooked and under-served, with only three courses and a handful of cars - a problem shared with the rallycross, which despite carrying the official licence feels like a sideshow rather than a serious event.
Given how fans have been vocal about how traditional rally is where the series' appeal lies, though, you can hardly berate Dirt 4 for having a focus on the discipline, and it's pleasingly authentic too. There's an enthusiast's eye for detail at work here; the running order of each stage now has an impact with different weather coming into play, the track marshal warning you of what hazards lie ahead in a more dynamic take on events. At the end of each stage, you must bring your car to a stop by another marshal, a small, weird detail that actually works wonders; after the intensity and pressure of running a stage, it's a serene moment of release that helps ground you in the reality of it all. All that, and the return of Nicky Grist in the co-drivers chair - and good god is it lovely to have the Welshman back.
This is the most generous Codemasters has been with its rallies as well, on the surface at least. The big new feature here is Your Stage, a course generator that promises near limitless content. You're stymied in how much control you have - the only variables in your command are a slider for course length, course complexity and a say in the time and weather conditions - but the results are at least convincing. Off-road driving is all about the fear of the unknown, and Your Stage plays beautifully to that - combine it with the ability to share courses with friends and the return of online challenge leaderboards and you've got the foundation for an off-road game that could set you up for life, and maybe one that can finally oust the ageing Richard Burns Rally off the hard-drives of the faithful.The Witcher game that never was Made in Poland but not by CD Projekt Red.
Odd, though, that despite all that content Dirt 4 feels more limited in what it offers than Dirt Rally. The five locations on offer give a run-through of every surface you'd hope for in an off-road game - from the compacted snow of Sweden to the dust and dirt of Australia - but, Wales aside, none of them stir the soul quite like Dirt Rally's Finland, Greece or Monaco. The absence of iconic stages such as Sweet Lamb, the Col de Turini - and, for that matter, Pike's Peak - really hurts Dirt 4. No amount of randomly generated content can offer an effective replacement for such legends.
Maybe that feeling of limited riches is also down to presentation that feels distinctly second-rate after what's gone before in the mainline series. The career mode is a trudge through faceless events and half-hearted team management that feels like it's been lifted from one of Milestone's lesser WRC games, and the front-end is either functional or plain frustrating. Dare I say it - I kind of miss the glitz and pizazz of older Dirts, and the feeling that you were participating in an event.
It's not enough to detract from how accomplished Dirt 4 is where it matters, when you're tearing from point to point and manhandling any one of its fine selection of cars. It is enough, though, to make you miss the focus of its predecessor, and Dirt 4 falls short of the greatness of Dirt Rally. It falls a little short of what's come before in the mainline series too, though it's still worthwhile. After the more worldly glamour of earlier numbered Dirt games, this feels more like a a clubman racer - modest, understated but 100 per cent authentic. It's a very different type of Dirt, but I think a lot of people are going to be alright with that.