You know when a band goes off and does a side-project, then comes back for the next album as themselves again, and you can hear influences and aspects of said side-project in those new songs?

This is exactly what playing DiRT 4 felt like for me.

If DiRT Rally was Codemasters going off and indulging their hardcore rally enthusiast fantasies, DiRT 4 is the result of them bringing what they learned from that side endeavour back to the established formula for the follow-up main franchise DiRT sequel.

And spoiler alert; I LOVED DiRT Rally.

Right from the moment it dropped in Steam Early Access, Codemasters made their intentions clear; this was a love letter to the hardcore sim racers and the long-time Colin McRae Rally series fans. The simulation handling model made the simple act of driving a high-powered rally car feel like a brutal syringe of adrenaline shot right into the chest, a lá Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. Combined elsewhere with a great attention to detail, fantastic car and location roster and the official FIA World Rallycross Championship license, and it’s no wonder DiRT Rally became such a roaring success.

Inspite of DiRT Rally’s cross-platform success on both PC and subsequently console, however, it wasn’t a given that DiRT 4 would be great by default. A lot of the licensed cars and locations from DiRT Rally were lost due to exclusivity arrangements elsewhere; BigBen Interactive got the World Rally Championship license, and Gran Turismo took the Pikes Peak ball and ran home. Never mind that Porsche’s deal with EA should’ve proven that exclusive licenses are artificially restrictive for almost all involved; such is the nature of the beast. Additionally, DiRT 4 would have to accommodate a wider, more mainstream audience, so some of the hardcore elements would have to be toned down.

Amongst these pressures, Codies must’ve felt like a heavy metal band tasked with closing the main stage at Glastonbury after someone had broken in and stolen all their guitars and amps.

How great to say then that, armed only with an acoustic guitar and great songs, DiRT 4 is still a roaring success.

Let’s address the meat and drink of any DiRT game; rally racing. Put in a corner by the lack of licensed cars and stages, Codemasters’ solution is the Your Stage mode; stages set in five different locations generated randomly with the ability for the player to generate custom stages of varying length and complexity. This is a feature Codemasters have had in the works since 2011, and theoretically supports an infinite number of stage layouts – and in lieu of official locations being ruled out, Your Stage is as good a replacement as it’s possible to have.

I did notice some repeating sections – the game does have an alarming tendency to put tight hairpins immediately after blind crests and fast jumps, for example – but in all fairness, that did take a while. And if rally racing is all you do in the career mode, the lack of variety in locations might start to get old after several hours. However, given the restrictive circumstances, taking a handful of settings and spinning out a feature that generates infinite combinations of stages from them is a genius way of overcoming this hurdle. The lack of officially licensed cars isn’t felt either; sure there’s no 2017 WRC cars, but there’s no way a DiRT game won’t feature iconic rally cars like the Subaru Impreza, Mitsubishi Evo, Audi Quattro, Lancia Stratos and Mini Cooper in some way. All are as integral to a DiRT game as legendary co-driver Nicky Grist, who is present once again with his warm Welsh tones of guidance and encouragement from the passenger seat.

The actual racing experience itself is great fun, all built on Codemasters speciality; a solid and weighty simcade handling model. It was DiRT Rally’s fantastic physics which enabled everything else to soar in that game, and DiRT 4 does a great job of bringing that in whilst still remaining accessible to new and casual players. There are two handling modes on offer, Gamer and Simulation, and I must profess to playing almost exclusively on the latter setting. Given I played DiRT Rally on a wheel and my current wheel setup is not functioning, I was a little anxious about going full simulation handling on an Xbox One controller. I needn’t have worried; halfway through my first stage I felt comfortable and relatively confident in the controls. More high-powered cars are sometimes prone to sudden oversteer at the wrong flick of an analogue stick, but for the most part medium-powered 4WD and front-wheel-drive cars are a joy to drive on any surface.

This also means rallycross racing is as deliciously fun as ever. The FIA World Rallycross Championship license was retained from DiRT Rally, here expanded with the full calendar of tracks along with an updated 2016 roster of cars and the RX Lites junior catagory. And if any mode from DiRT Rally deserved to be beefed up, it was RX. Rallycross as a sport is tailor-made for videogames with its short races, elimination formats, mixed-surface tracks and aggressive racing, and DiRT 4 showcases enough varied content and tracks to prove that rallycross could play an even bigger role in future games than it already does. As it stands, it’s easily my favourite portion of Career Mode and remains as much fun as it’s possible to have with one’s clothes on.

Landrush unfortunately isn’t on the same level; on pad the beefy buggies and stadium trucks felt a lot more numb and unstable, not helped by the landrush circuits being more slippy and jump-heavy than RX tracks. This also made the AI more clumsy, and given they were already brutally aggressive in RX mode, Landrush swiftly became a minefield of ragequits and restarts for me – falling the wrong side of frustrating into ‘sod this I’m going back to RX’. Given how much I’ve invested into RX racing in DiRT Rally & 4 though, I admit I could just need more practice with the big behemoths.

Whilst we’re on a negative tangent – performance problems. Graphically the game looks great, with the lighting engine deserving particular praise, but on Xbox One I have noticed severe framerate drops, mostly in heavily forested areas. Additionally, I’ve had a weird glitch where the screen will briefly flicker in real-time, and upon investigation of recorded footage seems to show a random different frame flashing up for a split-second. It’s not quite a deal-breaker but is noticeable enough to be frustrating, and should be a priority for Codemasters to fix in a patch if possible if it transpires to be a widespread issue.

All of the above however is packaged in a slick presentation, with a gorgeous new UI presenting forth the featured gameplay modes of Career Mode, DiRT Daily, Joyride, DiRT Academy and online multiplayer. Additionally a renewed focus on GRID-style team building and management is well executed; individual staff can be hired and fired, sponsor deals signed, and parts of your race team’s operation upgraded and bolstered as funds flow in. It all feels super satisfying to build your operation up from a starting point of one used car and some bacon butties to a World Championship-winning armada of race cars and engineers. Great presentation and Career Mode features are generally a staple of Codies games, and DiRT 4 is another lovely step forward in these regards.

Rating: AHHHHHHH I’M ABOUT TO HIT A TREE/10

After DiRT Rally, I freely admit I went into DiRT 4 with a lot of goodwill ready to give to the game. I also had a faith that Codemasters – a company that generally listens to its audience and gets it right more often than not – would be able to bring the necessary elements together and make a fresh, new mainline DiRT game with the best of DiRT Rally brought into a more accessible all-round package.

And that’s exactly what they have done.

A crisp and more mature presentation belies a self-belief that Codies don’t have to be down with the kids, and that a game based around the sheer joy of rally and off-road racing can still hold up even without Ken Block powersliding a Ford Fiesta around Battersea Power Station. A handling model that’s realistic-feeling without being masochistically difficult underpins a nicely fluid and deep career mode and plenty of replayable content, all in a package available in the box on launch without too much carved out for pre-order bonuses and Day 1 DLC.

In an era where hype and expectations are there to be disappointed and crushed, Codemasters had built up enough trust in me down the years for me to be fairly confident they wouldn’t get this one wrong. And in spite of some small flaws, I’m so happy to be proven right.