Codemasters’ introduction of Dirt 4 revolves around Dirt Rally. At numerous occasions during the reveal of what will be the sixth game to carry the Dirt moniker – counting both Rally and Showdown – representatives of the studio referred continuously to the successes and ideas that are being carried over from Dirt Rally to Dirt 4.
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The lessons learned from the handling, player feedback, vehicle weight distribution, in-game game progression, track design and more have made their way into this next instalment in the off-road racer. Such dedication to continuing that work and taking advantage of those lessons poses an obvious question: Why are Codemasters not now building a Dirt Rally 2?
“Dirt Rally was a success in terms of it meeting our own expectations, but Dirt as a franchise has traditionally done bigger numbers than Dirt Rally would ever do,” explains Dirt 4 game director Paul Coleman in reply to the direct question. “To get to those sorts of numbers we need a broader base of content in our game and we also need to have a much broader accessibility scale.
“Continuing that Dirt Rally focus would have allowed us to do a bit more, and it might have led to a few more sales, but ultimately it would have been us going down that same path. Rally just doesn’t allow us to go big enough with what we want to do with the franchise.”
Rally is too niche a sport for the mainstream, then, and it’s also an activity that is not easy to learn in either real life or the digital space. Specifically, Coleman references the fact that many players coming to Dirt Rally as fresh-faced virgins of the kind of reactive, technical driving it demands found huge difficulty in overcoming the initial challenge curve of learning how to navigate narrow tracks littered with hazards. Relying solely on a co-driver for verbal instructions regarding upcoming corners also proved too much for many.
The idea with Dirt 4 is to blend some of these dedicated rally moments into a wider framework, coupling it with other ideas and events that are on the more accessible end of the spectrum. Through this recipe, Codemasters are hoping that they’re going to end up with a game that is both instantly engaging for the casual fan and deep enough for the grizzled veteran.
Of course, this reaching out to both the casual and the hardcore is often met with suspicion and distrust. So many games attempt to appeal to just about everyone in an attempt to gain commercial success, and yet so many end up appealing to no one as a result of not focusing on a specific audience. A jack-of-all-trades and master of none tends not to be an approach to design that results in a beloved game.
To Codemasters’ credit, though, Dirt 3 was released in 2011. Therefore, any accusations of this being a series dominated by a desire to grab cash are difficult to sustain given the six-year gap between core releases. Dirt Showdown and Dirt Rally, the two games released since 2011, have both aimed themselves at specific segments of the audience as opposed to the entire racing game market. Combining those two products into one is a case of blending specific ideas as opposed to formulating a catch-all approach from scratch.
Since Dirt 3’s release, Codemasters have been looking at the mistakes they’ve made as well as the positives they can continue to embrace. Going too hard and direct with the patronising, inane and aggressively stereotyped ‘dude bro’ presentation that has characterised some Dirt releases has been one of the mistakes the studio is keen to put right.
“We’ve overdone things in the past in trying to hard. Yes, you need to be different and you have to give people a reason to try your game and be interested in it, but sometimes you can go over the top,” admits Coleman.
“This time we’ve been very careful in the way we’ve introduced the content. I think we could have easily just gone out and got a Californian surfer dude to shove the ‘dude bro’ angle down people’s throats, but it’s more important for us to capture the professional side of the sport.
“We’ve gone out and brought in professional drivers, and our players know that this is a sport that I and we all love. We want to bring in the real drivers to fuse their passion into the game.”
The goal here is to capture the professional side of the sport both on and off the track. Dirt 4’s career “is much more about the whole experience of being a rally driver,” says Coleman, and allows you to take control of events at a team management level.
Once you’ve gone through the driving school, secured a place in a team and put some good performances together you start to earn money that can be saved in order to eventually establish your own enterprise. This involves the hiring and firing of engineers, mechanics, co-drivers and even PR reps to publicise and market your brand. With your own team under your command, any and all success gained comes as a result of your own hard work in building your vehicles and racing them, so goes the promise.
Alternatively, you can opt to forego the management side entirely and simply focus wholly on being the very best driver you can be. To make this achievable for everyone there exists three different handling models to choose from, allowing you to make the call as to how much assistance you want/need.
Opt for no assistance whatsoever and the sensation is close to how Dirt Rally feels when the same assists are turned off, the result being a need for sharp and constant attention for the duration of your time behind the wheel. Too much pressure on the brake or not enough trust in your car as you slide around a corner sees you quickly both off of the road out of contention for a spot on the podium.
The other extreme comes loaded with handling assists and makes for a much more relaxed and straightforward drive. Really, the most basic understanding of how a throttle, brake and steering wheel work in tandem is all you need to know to jump in and start winning. Coleman explains that he hopes those who begin on the assist-heavy option will be inspired to move up the ladder of difficulty as they gain confidence, but you are able to play through the entire career and all multiplayer modes with full assists if you desire.
With all that in mind, Dirt 4 seems to be living up to its promise to try to craft a racing game that incorporates both the rally elements and the accessibility that the series as a whole has, often with alternate releases, strived to provide.
Couple this with a new system that sees it able to procedurally generate tracks, have you set times on them and challenge others to outdo you and you’ve got a game that seeks to be accessible to all and to offer enough content to prevent repetition.
The promises are lofty and exciting, then, and firmly put Dirt 4 in the position of the most ambitious game in the series yet. All it has to do now is live up to the expectations it has itself cultivated.