Dirt 4 is almost upon us, the most recent entry in the Dirt series following Dirt Rally released at the start of last year, however, Codemasters has made it clear that there's more of an accessibility to the game this time around, as their aim is to appeal to those more casual racers as well as the hardcore racing simulator fans.
A big part of this is the Rally School mode, which teaches players the basics away from the heat of the competition, allowing those who haven't played a Dirt game before to get to grips with the systems and how to race. Once players have a basic understanding of racing, then, they can then go onto the Joyride mode, which involves a number of challenges such as knocking over boxes, again providing a more casual, low-tempo experience for those who want to mess about in their car before actually taking to the track. As senior executive producer Clive Moody told us at the preview event, although these challenges are meant to be fun mini-games, they also continue to teach you more about the races and how to drive.
A brand new feature that Codemasters was keen to show off in Dirt 4 when we saw it was Your Stage, a mode that allows players to randomly generate tracks which they can then race on. Players begin by choosing the location of the track, including options such as Michigan, Wales, and Australia (all of which add different conditions to racing), and then adjusting several parameters such as length and complexity. The game then throws out a track which you can see on-screen, and these can be edited (such as reversing the start and finish line and of course changing weather and time of day) or randomised again as much as you want, meaning no race is ever the same as another in this mode.
Moody sat us down and made us a mid-level track in Michigan, USA, for our demonstration, and although the track was randomly generated, we were really impressed with the detail it showed, and it felt like a track tailor-made to be put in the game, from the crowds at the side of the track to the environmental details. Although we only did a track of medium difficulty, we can imagine that putting the length and complexity to max will create some really challenging stages, and the magic of this is that you can save tracks once you've created them, and then share them with your friends. With these tracks being brand new each time, we think this will create a levelling effect as well, with both casual and experienced racers thrown into stages they have no past knowledge of.
In terms of our racing experience on the track, being a novice racer we had assists on (as part of what's called Gamer Mode, as opposed to Simulation Mode), which we found very helpful. For instance, on top of our virtual teammate hollering directions at us, we also had an accompanying indicator at the top of the screen telling us when turns were coming up, how severe they were, as well as bumps in the road, although these can be turned off for those who want more of a challenging rally experience. We found it very useful, however, and we can imagine this, as well as other assists, will make it that bit more accessible to a more casual crowd. Another assist that was emphasised as very important by Moody was weight shift, which can be difficult if people aren't used to rally cars or how they drive.
The track we had generated was in the rain and was very muddy, and we definitely felt the effects. Some tight turns needed to be taken extremely slow (something we learned the hard way) and the loose grip in the mud also posed another challenge when cornering, but it was easy to learn as we went along, especially given the aforementioned assists telling you when corners were coming and how severe it was (there's no mini-map as you might find in other racers).
What most impressed us, however, was the visual detail. At the start of the race we set off in our shiny white car, but as we went on our car gradually became caked in mud from the track, and by the end, there was no white in sight. This attention to detail is present throughout, from the little details on the car to the environments you're speeding through, and even in terms of gameplay as well, as when you have to finish the race you still have to drive the extra few yards to the point where you get out of your car, rather than cutting simply to a menu again.
In terms of the cars you'll get to race in the game, there's a really varied mix, cars are all split into classes, ranging from classic rally cars from the '60s/'70s all the way through the contemporary vehicles. Dirt 4's partnership with World Rallycross also means that the best possible cars are on show for players to race with, including updated seasons with all the new cars within that, and Landrush features buggies and trucks with incredibly powerful engines as well, so there's something for everyone.
In short, what we've seen so far of Dirt 4 is very promising, and their overall aim to make the game more accessible for a casual audience is very clear. It's never dumbed-down or taken away from the simulator side of things, but the inclusion of things like Rally School and Gamer Mode really do impact the gameplay for novices hugely, and with the variety available in vehicles and with tracks via Your Stage, there's every reason why this is one for Rally fans to keep an eye out for.