DiRT Rally was a real breath of fresh air when it released on the PlayStation 4 last year. It was celebrated for its razor sharp focus on the sport, as well as its challenging and fulfilling gameplay. Codemasters stripped away the excess and released a lean, mean, and unashamedly hardcore rally game – and it was great. With DiRT 4, it’s built on the groundwork laid down by its predecessor by adding in some extra modes that lower the barrier to entry.

First thing’s first: rally is still the bread and butter here, with any doubt abated by an impassioned intro movie. DiRT 4 has inherited much of the spirit of its forebear, in addition to its much loved hardcore, sim-style handling. However, your first clue that this is a game gunning for a wider audience is that the simulation is joined by 'Gamer' handling, an oddly named alternative that offers more casual players a friendlier feel. Initially you’re forced to pick one or the other, but you can later switch over – or customise it yourself, toggling assists on or off as you see fit. 

Thankfully, both of the default settings feel great: if you’re used to DiRT Rally’s more realistic approach then you’ll be right at home, while the more arcadey handling is expertly tweaked to give players a little more wiggle room yet still provide a decent challenge. The leaderboards have cleverly been split between the two handling models, so you’ll only be competing with other players on the same level.

The career mode starts you off competing in rally events as a driver for hire, but quickly your options open up. Once you earn enough money, you can buy your own car and start a racing team in much the same way as in the last game, recruiting staff, improving your facilities, and slowly making your way to the front of the pack. The difference in DiRT 4, though, is that the rally and officially licensed Rallycross events are joined by Landrush, a chaotic mode of closed circuit racing on dusty tracks. You’ll need to tackle each mode in your climb to the top, but the variety is welcome and you’re in charge of which championship you tackle next. 

Sadly, Landrush is probably the weakest mode. The short circuits play host to races that can devolve into a free-for-all with bustling trucks and buggies controlled by aggressive AI. Rallycross fares better because of its unique ruleset and multi-surface courses that make for more tactical and interesting racing.

Rally is the highlight, though. There is a real edge-of-your-seat thrill to thrashing a powerful car around a narrow course that you’ve never driven before, with hazards potentially around every corner. When everything clicks and you’re flying along, perfectly in sync with your co-driver’s directions, it’s magnificent – especially in the knowledge that it can all go so very wrong extremely quickly. Whether you’re playing with the sim handling or not, DiRT 4 delivers a similarly frenetic rallying experience as its forebear.

Another mode that sits outside of the career is Joyride, a place to unwind if you grow weary of managing your team and the intense, multi-event championships. This is where you’ll find time trials, block-smashing challenges, a sandbox area to zoom around in, and most importantly the stage creator. Dubbed 'Your Stage', you can set some vague parameters like length and complexity, then the game will generate a rally stage for you. Once you’re happy with the course, you can lay down a time and challenge your friends to do better. It’s an impressive tool: there are seemingly endless iterations of stages to race through, and when you’re behind the wheel, it feels like a purpose-built route rather than something randomly generated.

It should mean that there’s never a shortage of things to do in DiRT 4, as you can always set up or take part in online multiplayer events that are totally unique. Additionally, you have a handful of daily, weekly, and monthly challenges to interact with, which offer some lucrative rewards should you do well. Earning credits is as satisfying as ever, and it all feeds back into the career mode, where you’ll need big bucks to purchase new cars, a bigger garage, and more.

All this makes for an entry in the series that’s less straight faced than DiRT Rally, but retains its best components. So while you can throw cars around a bit more with the Gamer handling, you still need to keep on top of damage, upgrades, and fine tuning in order to succeed. Fortunately, everything is easy to manage thanks to Codemasters’ trademark slick presentation, and new elements are introduced well. For more casual players, features such as repairs between stages could’ve been a turn off, but it’s very well executed here. There’s even a mode called DiRT Academy where you can test drive vehicles, learn racing techniques, and generally hone your skills.

It achieves this at an almost locked 60 frames-per-second; replays are at 30fps, and we did notice some occasional slow down during busy Landrush races. Graphically, the game is no pushover, but we couldn’t help but notice some poor textures here and there. The sound, meanwhile, is very good: audible cues tell you when you have a flat tire or when the surface beneath you changes, and engines pop and roar with real energy.

Conclusion

DiRT 4 is an impressive package that takes the strong foundation of DiRT Rally and sprinkles on a few friendly updates, such as DiRT Academy and the return of Landrush. The handling, whichever way you lean, is robust and extremely gratifying with cars that are a lot of fun to drive. The career mode gives you plenty to do, and Your Stage means you’ll never be short of new rally challenges to take on. Some very slight graphical gripes aside, this is another success story for a developer that seems to be firing on all cylinders.