The release of Dirt Rally in 2015 felt like a pivotal moment for Codemasters. Having meandered in previous years away from its more grounded racing roots in its quest for the mainstream, this full-blooded, teeth-baring sim wasn't simply a return to the old ways; it was a total reinvention of the studio's philosophy. Here was a driving game that spat gravel in the face of anyone who dared come near it without working knowledge of load transfer and trail-braking, and it was all the better for it. The only question was, where could Codemasters go from there? What would happen when Dirt eventually went back to catering for the masses?
Dirt 4 offers a fairly convincing answer, though there have been some casualties along the way. Gone are the legendary real-life stages that propped up so much of Dirt Rally - there's no Col de Turini here, no Pike's Peak or Sweet Lamb - and in their place is something very different. At the heart of Dirt 4 is a feature Codemasters is calling Your Stage, which gives players the ability to conjure up their own stages by setting a series of parameters before conquering them and sharing with others. That's right; Dirt 4 is built almost entirely around procedural generation.
It's a move made through circumstance as much as it is through choice - Gran Turismo now has sole rights to Pike's Peak, while WRC tracks look like increasingly becoming the domain of the official games - but after some initial reservations I'm finding myself onboard. For starters, it means you'll want to hold onto your copy of Dirt Rally if it's authentic stages that you're after, yet it also means that Dirt 4 is a very different beast, and one that complements Rally rather well. This isn't a straight sequel to Dirt Rally, and instead is something else entirely.
It helps that the procedural generation works, and is much more than just a gimmick the likes of which we've seen in other Codemasters games (I'm thinking specifically of Grid 2's risible Live Routes feature). Game director Paul Coleman - a rally nerd who co-pilots in his spare time, and the driving force behind the series' recent push for realism - has been chasing the idea for years, and it's evidently the result of much work and refinement. In the initial demo we're afforded a look at Australia, one of the five rally backdrops that will be available in Dirt 4, and the results convince with their feel and flow. Trackside detail hasn't been compromised, either, and you'd be hard-pushed to tell the stage had been generated just moments before you take to it.
The procedural generation plays to the ideal of any off-road game, where the challenge is constantly evolving and you're never sure what's just beyond the brow; where you're reliant on the pacenotes of your co-driver and sink into flow state as you make sense of the tangle of numbers being shouted in your ear. Dirt 4 is built around that sense of not knowing what lies around the corner, and the accompanying heart-quickening sense of dread. As a result, Dirt 4 absolutely nails the thrill that comes when you've just conquered the unknown with nothing more than a reckless right foot and a handful of opposite lock.
Thankfully the handling that marked Dirt Rally out as something special is intact, and Codemasters can't be accused of dumbing down. It has moved towards something more accessible, though, with players able to opt out of the simulation handling for a more forgiving ride. From a brief hands-on with the new (and optional) handling mode it certainly works, even if it feels a little muted coming straight from the full-blooded sim. Still, the option to be able to enjoy Dirt while sitting back on the sofa is a welcome one, and Codemasters has put some thought into how best to smooth off its simulation for some players.
"We tried putting real world assists in, putting loads of traction control - but people hated them," Coleman explains. "They were feeling like they couldn't drive fast, they couldn't enjoy it, so we looked at how we did things with Dirt 2 and Dirt 3, and a lot of the stuff comes from the way the controller interacts with the game, and how we manage the weight shift. One of the solutions we came up with is removing that need to understand that you have to have the car's weight over the front wheels to have the grip there. Removing that from the equation, the player was able to make much later decisions about the direction they wanted to go in, and get away with making as a driver I'd term a mistake. They get much more enjoyment out of throwing the car around and staying on the track a lot more."
For all that Dirt 4's new mode opens up the reach of Codemasters' game, it's what the more hardcore simulation brings to the other disciplines being introduced that really excites. Rallycross will be returning from Dirt Rally, and the official FIA World Rallycross licence means it's the one place where authentic tracks will feature with Lydden Hill, Holjes and Hell among others all featuring, though in this early look it's only the Pro Buggies that feature in the new Landrush mode. In earlier Dirt games it's a discipline I'd hurry through, but the simulation handling brings them to vivid life as they bounce around a short dirt track, the 900BHP being fed through those skinny tires and that tube-frame chassis forcing you to saw away at the wheel like a sea captain in the middle of a storm. After just one three lap race I had very sore arms and a seriously big smile on my face.
The new approach is part of a general softening of the American accent that's defined previous mainline Dirt games. The dudebro inflection has gone, and in its place is the more downtrodden homespun voice of your spotter in Landrush events, or of rallycross driver Jen Horsey who returns from Dirt 3. They'll all be part of a campaign that takes you from rally school onwards to the various disciplines as you make your mark as a driver, driving for teams or creating your own and acquiring sponsors, hiring staff and designing your own livery.
It's all a bit more low-key than we've seen before in Dirt games, where the dazzle is replaced with something more grounded. The triple-A polish might not quite be there - not yet, anyway- but in its place is something far more valuable. If Dirt Rally was a reinvention of Codemasters, then Dirt 4 does feel like a return to the good old days - before Dirt, before Grid and when the studio quietly pumped out great racing game after great racing game. At the very least it shows that Rally was no fluke, and that Codemasters is firmly back on track.