The Sports Desk – A Look At Dirt 4's Road Ahead
Codemasters recently announced Dirt 4 (coming on June 6 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC), a return to the multi-discipline racing of the series (which excludes the excellent Dirt Rally) which we haven't seen since 2012's Dirt Showdown. Since then we've not only had a new round of home consoles, but countless other racing titles – including a number of them from Codemasters – have brought their own ideas to the track.
What does Dirt 4 have to do to make its mark and elevate the franchise? Here are some things I'd like the game to address.
IS GYMKHANA IN THE GAME OR NOT?
Codemasters' first unveiling of Dirt 4 makes no mention of Gymkhana, the precision drifting discipline featured in both Dirt 3 and Dirt Showdown. I find the absence so far conspicuous, and I hope that gymkhana is indeed in Dirt 4. I not only think the freestyle gymkhana arenas are cool, but the events also offer a different kind of car action beyond just racing. Dirt 4 has various types of off-road racing including rally, rallycross, and short track racing. Including gymkhana or something we haven't seen so far would add diversity – something that's always welcome in racing games.
WHAT ABOUT OFFLINE SPLITSCREEN RACING?
I get this question about every racing title that comes out, and it's unfortunately been missing from a lot of racing games. Of course, splitscreen doesn't make sense with rally racing in Dirt Rally, but this year's Codemasters' game F1 2016 did not have it, while both Dirt 3 and Dirt Showdown did. Hopefully it's included for Dirt 4 for the appropriate disciplines.
DIRT 4 NEEDS A GOOD CAREER MODE
While this is a given, Codemasters' titles, from previous Dirt titles to past F1 games and Dirt Rally, have been inconsistent when it comes to giving single-player racers a compelling career campaign. Dirt 4 has partnered with the FIA for the World Rallycross Championship, but as the game contains various disciplines I'm curious what the overarching structure is. The press release states that players can create their own driver, take on sponsors, and build a team with goals and rewards.
This sounds like a good start, but I'm curious how far the game takes it. Will there be a virtual paddock and cutscenes like F1 2016? Grid Autosport from 2014 highlighted the team aspect with teammate controls. How will that important team dynamic play out on the track, in the R&D of cars, and in the arena of team/driver politics? Without a compelling structure to spur players forward, this mode could easily wear thin quickly. Racing titles have often struggled with ameliorating the race-to-race grind, and Dirt 4 doesn't have to replicate verbatim all the things Codemasters has done in previous titles, but I feel like that on the whole Codemasters has struggled to offer consistently compelling career structures though its various franchises over the years. F1 2016 is only now giving fans something to get excited about, and I can only hope we're not starting over again and going back to basics for Dirt 4.
HOW CAN DIRT 4 COMPETE WITH FORZA HORIZON 3?
Dirt 4 is not an open-world title like Turn 10's lauded game is, but the comparison is not completely out of left field. Fair or not, people are going to compare Dirt 4's off-road races with the freedom to explore in Forza Horizon 3. In a larger sense, Dirt 4 can address users' desire for flexibility with a range of experiences. The game seemingly does this by switching players between rally, rallycross, and other racing types (here is where gymkhana would be useful, if it's in the game), and a strong career structure could be a way to marshall all those efforts under a larger all-encompassing goal – another strength of a good open-world title.
From a moment-to-moment perspective, a previous Codemasters title had its own way of dealing with the challenge of delivering the anything-can-happen feeling of an open-world racer in its own lap-based context. Grid 2 featured LiveRoutes, which were specific races whose turns were procedurally generated as you raced. Taking on the unexpected (you didn't have an onscreen map, BTW) at full speed was exhilarating and kept you on your toes. While I doubt that Dirt 4 makes use of this specific feature (which hasn't been used since Grid 2) since it isn't mentioned in Dirt 4's initial features reveal, this illustrates one of the ways that a game could try and liven up the lap-by-lap experience.
Dirt 4 does feature a rally route creation tool called Your Stage, which lets you choose a rally stage location and route parameters to create and share an almost endless amount of content. This is a very promising feature, and hopefully it's presented in a focused way beyond just throwing up a sea of user-created content to wade through. I think it would be cool for the creation and racing of these Your Stages to be tied to your career profile or even presented to you in career mode. In this way it could not only offer unexpected racing content, but also give the feeling that you're taking on the real world even if you aren't racing online per se similar to Forza's drivatars.
So far Dirt 4 features daily, weekly, and monthly challenges and leaderboards and tournaments, but I'm curious if there will be any club or league options (like Grid Autosport and Dirt Rally, respectively), if online progress will be tied to single-player progress and vice versa, and how full featured the experience is in general. Online isn't just about competing with real-life racers, it's also about feeding fans social desires and giving them a progression path. The online components of previous Codemasters' titles have varied in their feature sets, so I'd love it if Dirt 4 set a high standard the company to follow.
WHAT ABOUT THE FORMER EVOLUTION STUDIOS?
When Codemasters took on the former developers of Driveclub after Sony shut down Evolution Studios, it was announced that the developers would be taking on a new IP. Codemasters also said the former Evolution Studios devs would help with existing properties, listing Dirt specifically. While we don't know exactly what these devs are doing within Codemasters, it will be interesting to see if there are any new ideas – particularly in the area of online, a focus of Driveclub's – that make their way into Dirt 4.
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