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DIRT 5 review (hands-on)

DIRT 5 represents a new lease on life for Codemasters’ all-purpose off-road racer

DiRT 5 hands-on
(Image: © Codemasters)
DiRT 5 Fast Facts

Release date: October 9, 2020
Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PS4, PS5, PC (Steam), Stadia
Previewed on: PC
Developer: Codemasters Cheshire
Publisher: Codemasters

Racing in the snow sucks.

Oh, sure, it seems fun: sliding about, kicking up bits of frozen earth and flinging them at your opponents as you overtake. In actuality, though, it’s less exciting and more nerve wracking — especially when the sun goes down, the blizzard ramps up, visibility drops to nil and your heart is stuck firmly in your throat.

Sure, DIRT 5 won’t offer the sort of hyper-realistic, knife-edge simulation of its sister title, DIRT Rally 2.0. Codemasters Cheshire, the studio making DIRT 5, makes no bones about the fact that this upcoming entry is intended as a more immediately fun experience, and one you’re even encouraged to enjoy with friends, via split-screen, in the same room. And yet, DIRT 5 still lends itself so well to these moments when you’re facing the elements, and you can’t see a damn thing. Only, in this case, if you crash, you can keep going.

I had the privilege of playing a preview beta of DIRT 5 on PC four months out from its scheduled release on October 5. What I found — at least in terms of the gameplay and on-track experience, because I didn't get to see any of the campaign — was exactly what I’ve been missing from the off-road racing genre as of late. Codemasters already has the simulation angle covered with DIRT Rally; DIRT 5 is for those pining for a rewarding and dazzling arcade ride.

Weathering the storm

There was something immediately familiar about DIRT 5 from the moment I slid into my first event at the Henningsvaer circuit in Norway. There’s no doubt even at this early stage that the game moves smoothly, even with all its delightful effects, like road surfaces being repeatedly eroded by competitors as their tires pick up gobs of gleaming mud. The color palette is bold and the vistas are bathed in idyllic light.

For anyone who’s played Codemasters Chesire’s previous work — namely, the massively-underrated Onrush, as well as Driveclub and Motorstorm (when the team was known as Evolution Studios under Sony’s wing) — these visual cues are impossible to miss, and set an appropriate first impression. 

“DIRT 5 is built on the same core foundations as Onrush,” development director Robert Karp told Tom’s Guide during an online Q&A session. “But there have been huge amounts of change to the engine, and in everything from physics to lighting and textures and shaders and more.”

Races can go from this...

Races can go from this... (Image credit: Codemasters)

The progress shows. One of Onrush’s most arresting achievements — its sophisticated dynamic lighting, weather system and seasonal changes for environments — returns in DIRT 5 as well. However, here the elements themselves and the effect they have on the race are far more profound.

During one rallycross event in Norway, where I was piloting a ‘98 Subaru Impreza S4 WRC, I was overcome with awe over the dramatic change in race conditions from beginning to end of this three-lap jaunt. A fairly calm dusk atmosphere fell to gray as clouds ominously rolled in. By the time the sun went down, snow swept in from the heavens at full intensity as lightning intermittently struck in the distance. I couldn’t see a thing, and if not for lit directional boards a few hundred feet ahead, I’d have collided head-first with the barrier in front of me.

“In autumn and spring you get very different color palettes,” Karp elaborated. “You can play in every location every season, it will have an impact on certain things.”

Weather effects have always been the Cheshire team’s MO. To this day, I still consider Driveclub’s dynamic weather system far and away the most impressive in any racing game, though with the added power of next-generation hardware, DIRT 5 might finally set a new benchmark.

...to this, all in the space of minutes. And the snow affects your speed and grip, too.

...to this, all in the space of minutes. And the snow affects your speed and grip, too. (Image credit: Codemasters)

DIRT 5's imposing audio presentation also deserves a shout out. In-car sound is a torrent of whines, whirs and clunks coming from every direction, mixed with brutal, bassy engine notes and the noise of crushed earth brushing past at 100 mph.

I particularly enjoyed the clever way in which the soundtrack is incorporated into gameplay. By default, all sound while you're racing is diegetic — so you'll hear music piped in from specific sources on track dynamically as you drive by, rather than statically at all times. It really immerses you in the atmosphere, though if you'd rather have a more conventional listening experience, you can turn that off in the settings.

DIRT 5 will land on Xbox Series X and PS5, as well as current platforms and PC. It supports Smart Delivery on Xbox Series X — meaning you’ll get it for free on Series X if you have it for Xbox One — and while the game is guaranteed to run at 4K resolution and 60 frames per second on both next-gen systems, the Series X version has been confirmed to support a 120 frame-per-second mode. It’s unclear at this stage if that option will make it to the PS5 release as well.

Additionally, DIRT 5’s post-release support will consist of a mix of paid and free updates. The Amplified Edition offered at launch costs $80 and includes early access to three cars and sponsors, XP boosts and a pass to all post-release content, which will include at least 12 vehicles in total. Codemasters told us that any new tracks that drop after the game’s launch will be free for all users.

This stretch of a track located in Brazil shows DIRT 5's impressive lighting at work.

This stretch of a track located in Brazil shows DIRT 5's impressive lighting at work. (Image credit: Codemasters)

Just keep rolling, rolling, rolling

Fortunately, while the conditions take a toll on your car cosmetics — bumpers dangle and sheet metal gets punched in by overeager rivals ramming you from behind — the action never ceases.

This is perhaps the greatest difference between DIRT 5 and DIRT Rally, or even DIRT 5 and previous entries in the mainline franchise. Recently, I revisited DIRT 3 with a friend — probably my favorite iteration of the series overall — and was surprised to find that the top class of rallycross cars were surprisingly hard to control, especially on tarmac. Get too confident mid-drift, and you’d swap ends careening into a barrier that would suck you in before ultimately stopping you dead in your tracks.

DIRT 5 doesn’t feel that darty, though. My initial impression was that the steering seemed slightly disconnected and lacked road feel out of the gate, but that changed when I switched off traction and stability control. After doing so, the Ariel Nomad I was driving instantly became livelier, inviting attempts at heroic feats of car control but rarely getting away from me entirely — exactly how an arcade racer like this should handle.

What’s more, when you smack a wall in DIRT 5, the action doesn’t stop. Rather, you bounce and keep rolling. Keeping that in mind, and given the width of DIRT 5’s roadways, I couldn’t help but feel a strong wave of deja vu wash over me, calling back to another one of my favorite off-road arcade racers: Sega Rally Revo.

The courses in DIRT 5 offer sweeping, fast turns and lots of space for wheel-to-wheel competition.

The courses in DIRT 5 offer sweeping, fast turns and lots of space for wheel-to-wheel competition. (Image credit: Codemasters)

That 2007 title handled smoothly whether you were a rookie or a seasoned pro at racing games. However, teasing out the fastest lap times required precision as well as a knowledge of where on track drifting was useful for shaving precious tenths, and where you’d be much better served cornering all neat and tidy-like. And if you kissed a wall in Revo, you’d lose some momentum, but not nearly as much as in most rally racers, where an errant rock can end your run.

DIRT 5 feels like one of those easy-to-learn, hard-to-master arcade racers, which makes it the perfect foil to DIRT Rally 2.0. That’s not to say things can’t get a little hairy from time to time; during a Stampede event, where I attempted to rein in a rally raid monster while carving through a Brazilian rainforest, I regularly noticed my opposition catching tree roots and taking bad hops off imperfections in the path, sailing through the air sideways.

Such events are brilliantly chaotic, though perhaps not as chaotic as the last one of the four in the demo I played: a World Of Outlaws-style short track oval race in a Sprint car somewhere in the Arizona desert. I’m not well-versed in Sprint car racing, though the sheer absurdity of it has always intrigued me, and I’m happy to see it replicated in DIRT 5 because it’s a motorsports discipline typically absent from most racing games these days.

In these events, you’re jockeying for position almost perpetually sideways. This results in a lot of contact, but you need to keep your head down and find a rhythm in the long corners to carry your momentum. The problem is that the aggressive artificial intelligence and slightly wayward steering doesn’t really give you a chance to do that, though Codemasters stresses that those two aspects of the experience are far from finished and will continually be tuned over the next several months before release.

It's worth noting that fans of traditional rallying won't be left out of the lurch in DIRT 5. Point-to-point special stages are still a part of the package, though these weren't available to try in the beta I played.

A deeper DiRT campaign

Although it’s still early, what’s clear to me in what I’ve played of DIRT 5 is that the pieces are there for a thrilling arcade off-road racer. The big question is how the game’s campaign and off-track single-player elements can tie everything together.

This has admittedly been a failing of DIRT games as of late — particularly DIRT Rally 2.0, which made do with a dry list of rallies and a weak team personnel management mechanic that was so barebones, it felt tacked on as an afterthought. DIRT 4 handled those managerial elements well, though Codemasters tells us they haven’t been preserved for DIRT 5. There is, however, a livery editor and sponsor mechanic present, where players will have to meet objectives to earn the attention of big brands, like Goodyear, Pepsi and Monster Energy.

For the most part, though, DIRT 5’s single-player experience is a narrative-driven one, including characters played by Troy Baker and Nolan North as well as an in-game podcast series hosted by Donut Media, a real-life auto enthusiast content network.

Baker and North’s characters appear on the show, along with guest appearances from Formula 3 and W Series star Jamie Chadwick. These episodes will provide the context for DIRT 5‘s career mode, which is organized into chapters and peppered with one-on-one Throwdown events that offer a bit of a break from the pack racing motif.

Racing game story modes have a bad reputation, for good reason. But DIRT 5 is clearly more of a spectacle than any previous entry in the franchise. If Codemasters can pull off the narrative, it could really be the linchpin that makes DIRT 5’s already thrilling on-track moments carry that much more weight. Fortunately, we won't have to wait long to find out the answer to that question: DIRT 5 launches October 9.