DiRT 5 is the perfect launch title. It’s a genre most gamers – casual and core – are familiar with; it’s designed in such a way that anyone can have a good time (with driver-assists and accessibility options); there’s plenty of content to unlock; and the presentation is objectively impressive on next-gen consoles (other elements are a matter of preference). However, it also suggests with the success of DIRT: Rally, Codemasters is happy to push the original DIRT series back towards an arcade-style racer – think DIRT 3 and DIRT: Showdown – for better and worse.
This becomes blatantly clear once you start up the game and are instantly bombarded with the non-stop banter and forced jokes of several event hosts and podcasters. They’ll be a constant presence during the “Career” mode, introducing events and commenting on your progress through the ranks. Throw in the flashy menu artwork, vivid colours by day, and abundant neon lighting at night, and this feels miles away from the grounded DIRT 4. Don’t get me wrong, the gameplay is still fantastic if you’re after an arcade racer, but the way its presented begins to grate after a few hours (the interplay between Troy Baker as “AJ” and Nolan North as “Bruno”, can only carry the game so far). I soon found myself rapidly skipping track introductions and post-event celebrations.
There are brief moments DiRT 5 may look like a traditional rally game but it’s really not.
The driving in DiRT 5 is both loose and forgiving, even with the driver-assists turned way down. Disabling all those assists will turn your vehicle – regardless of its individual stats – into an unstable powerhouse, capable of tearing up straights but slipping into a drift as soon as you try turn. In the prior games, this would be a disaster for low-skill drivers. However, thanks to the removal of traditional solo rallies and ensuring all modes are competitive with other vehicles present on the track, every road and dirt trail is now insanely wide. When bunched up, vehicles have space to jostle for position, but when you’re free of the pack, these wide surfaces are incredibly forgiving to those who can’t maintain their racing line.
As a consequence, players looking for a challenge are going to have to crank down the driver-assists and crank up the AI difficulty. Playing with the default “medium” AI difficulty and driver-assists, every time I managed to pull ahead of the pack, I could quickly gain a greater lead as the AI jostled each other behind me, all but guaranteeing victory. For those after the thrill of point-to-point racing against the clock, you’ll have to settle for running time-trials for a position on the online leaderboards. However, even that feels limited as certain tracks only support certain vehicle classes and the bulk of them are closed circuits designed for multiple laps.
The career path is littered with main events that incorporate several types, but you can typically progress at your own pace, choosing the events you’re most proficient at.
All that said, the way the Career mode is structured allows for players to progress through their preferred events, without grinding modes they dislike. Your way forward is a branching succession of single events (interspersed with the offer of unique driver “throwdowns” at certain milestones) and “main events” that bookend each chapter. Every event you complete liberally doles out “stamps” towards qualifying for the main event, XP towards your player level, rep points towards your overall reputation, cash towards new cars or liveries, and bonus decals if you place in the top three. If you can also complete several challenges mid-race, the rewards are higher still. The ability to tackle single events at a time, rather than a daunting multi-stage rally, makes this mode ideal for short play sessions, or fun to binge over several hours with the constantly changing scenery.
The Arcade mode includes the aforementioned Time-Trials if you want to avoid jostling with other cars, while the Quick Race mode is great for practicing on new tracks before tackling them in the Career mode. Multiplayer options include up to 4-player split-screen in the Career mode if you want to jostle for top position within your household, and online races that ranged from chaotic, packed grids to intense 1 vs. 1 sessions, depending on the server numbers. As you can still gain XP and cash from multiplayer events, this is a great way to experience high intensity racing – I found human drivers far less likely to fall behind and stay behind – while still unlocking new vehicles and liveries.
DiRT 5 constantly throws bigger numbers and unlockable cosmetics at the player.
Where DiRT 5 deserves plenty of credit is in both the number of tracks on offer. Each track has a distinct layout and visual identity (and most of them have a “reverse” configuration for even more choice). Unlike many rally games, every track looks and feels unique. There are tracks in the USA, China, South Africa, Greece, Sweden, Morocco, and a few I’ve probably forgotten, covering a dozen biomes. Too many of them are closed loops packed with crowds, but occasionally they take you off the beaten path and I was reminded of the series’ traditional rally heritage.
If you can’t get enough of the tracks on offer, DiRT 5 comes with a “Playgrounds” mode to build and upload your own courses or try out other players creations. Unlike DIRT 4’s randomised track generator, you’re currently limited to an arena-style environment to build closed tracks. However, even with only a few hours spent sampling other users’ creations, there’s room for considerable creativity and far more verticality than I expected in an otherwise small arena. There’s a degree of curation on offer, so it’s easy to find well-rated, polished tracks quickly.
The photo mode is intuitive, powerful, and the perfect way to show off all those ray-traced reflections.
I’ve mentioned the presentation many times and it’s worth repeating just how fantastic DiRT 5 looks while holding a near-perfect 60fps during gameplay. On the budget Xbox Series S, there were rare, precipitable drops on packed grids at the start, but these smoothed out quickly. The use of contrasting, vibrant colours and ray-traced reflections – this is a game with abundant puddles, melted snow, and reflective ice – looks great, as did the shifting time-of-day lighting and changing weather conditions. Tracks can start out dry and dusty, in the bright midday sun, only for storm clouds to move over, with pounding rain turning parts of the track into mud slurries. Despite weather not affecting handling as much as I expected, it adds a degree of dynamism to any event. There’s also a fully-featured photo mode for those who prefer creating screenshots to the actual racing.
Overall, despite the annoying banter, uninspired soundtrack (a predictable assortment of modern and iconic rock tracks), and loss of traditional rally events, DiRT 5 is still recommended for those after an accessible arcade racer, with split-screen and online multiplayer, plenty of tracks and vehicles to unlock, and visuals that’ll show off the power of next-gen hardware. DiRT 5 looks to be the start of a definitive split from the simulation-focussed DIRT: Rally but remains a solid choice if you know what you’re in for.
DiRT 5 is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S, PC and Google Stadia.
This review is based on the Xbox Version of the game.
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