Release date: November 6, 2020
Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PS4, PS5, PC (Steam), Stadia
Reviewed on: PC
Developer: Codemasters Cheshire
Dirt 5 is exactly the kind of racing game the world needs right now. It’s also unlike any entry in the franchise before it.
If you know sim racing, you likely know Dirt Rally 2.0 — the only game in which those trite cross-genre Dark Souls comparisons actually apply. Dirt Rally 2.0 is thrilling and brutal. It can be tremendously satisfying, but I’d never call it fun. Dirt 5, on the other hand, is extremely fun.
Make no mistake: This is a full-on arcade rally racer, comprising multiple disciplines of off-road racing, from classic rally cars to modern raid trucks, and even that absurd Jeep Wrangler thing with the slatted tires that they race in Scandinavia. The presentation and general color palette of the environment is bold and colorful; vehicle liveries are brash and leave no ambiguity as to the sponsor you’re parading around the circuit. The vistas are breathtaking, and the music reverberates from track-side PA systems to lend some weight to that festival atmosphere.
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The end result is perhaps the most focused Dirt experience this side of the Rally entries, but a very, very different one. Dirt 5 shares more in common with the PS3 classic Motorstorm than anything Codemasters has developed previously. That may put off longtime fans who remain attached to the Colin McRae-endorsed golden era of this brand, but I believe it’s just the fresh start this series desperately needed.
Dirt 5 review: Career and gameplay
On the surface, there’s nothing unique about Dirt 5’s single-player campaign. Much has been said about the inclusion of voice actors Troy Baker and Nolan North, as well as the personalities of Donut Media, and how they factor into the story, but ultimately, that all amounts to window dressing.
Dirt 5 pretty much just throws you into an events tree, and you progress through it at your will. There's the occasional "Main Event" that's said to be a bigger deal than the rest, and a weak sponsorship dynamic to career progression. For the most part though, there's very little to do when you're not in the car.
However, Dirt 5 throws a far more varied gamut of events at you than ever before. While there are point-to-point stages on offer here, there’s no conventional rally. The majority of events, aside from the occasional Gymkhana excursion, take place alongside other competitors. There are no pace notes or service area stops; wheel-to-wheel racing is the focus.
That encompasses everything from conventional rally cars to trucks, buggies and other vehicles designed for the most intense off-road racing imaginable. This is perhaps best expressed in the game’s Stampede races and Path Finder time trials — races on routes that are extremely treacherous, with very rough and rocky terrain and absurd elevation changes. Here’s where those Motorstorm cues — a title this very team worked on when it belonged to Sony many years ago — truly surface.
If none of that sounded hardcore enough, you’ve also got a dynamic weather system to contend with this time around, which transforms races from beginning to end. Almost every campaign event in Dirt 5 ends in a completely different place from where it starts. An idyllic sunset might give way to an unexpected torrential downpour as night falls; a blizzard might clear up, revealing the asphalt underneath the snow as the sun emerges and bakes the ground. Before Dirt 5, the folks at Codemasters Cheshire also gave us Onrush and Driveclub — two games with benchmark weather effects for the genre. Dirt 5 does well to continue that legacy.
These conditions also have an effect on vehicle handling, meaning that when the snow begins to fall, changing direction and maintaining traction through the corners becomes more difficult. You’ll want to follow the ruts and treads of the competitors ahead of you, as they tap into the deepest layer of the road surface for optimal grip.
All of this adds some variability to the handling model, which is quite forgiving, all told. Don’t expect the depth and nuance of the Dirt Rally games here; cars in Dirt 5 are generally far easier to control, and you’re fighting with the course and other competitors far more than you’re struggling to wrangle your machine. A little bit more weightiness and road feel might have been nice, but this is still a very fun drive. It's engaging enough for players of all stripes, without being so demanding that it’s off-putting to more casual players.
Within individual events, you’re also tasked with completing objectives — say, trading paint with three cars, or staying in the lead for a certain distance. This has quickly become a hallmark of Codemasters’ less serious racers, having also appeared in Project CARS 3 earlier this year. (The roots of this design can be traced, once more, back to Driveclub.)
I find in-race objectives fun, as they give you another consideration within events besides simply winning. This means you need to strategize a bit throughout the course of a race, and that generally keeps you on your toes. However, the objectives themselves can be a bit ludicrous, like making contact with other cars while airborne. Any given track might only contain one jump per lap, so this can quickly become a point of frustration for players intent on 100-percenting each individual contest.
Dirt 5 review: Performance and graphics
In a word, Dirt 5 looks phenomenal. I tested it on my PC, which employs an Nvidia GTX 1070 GPU and Ryzen 7 2700X CPU, and the game generally looks very good, and runs between 50 and 65 frames per second at 1440p on medium-to-high settings.
There is a bit of stuttering, particularly early in races where the entire pack of cars is in front of you, kicking up mud and filling the screen with all sorts of carnage, but things definitely smooth out once you make your way to the front. It’s not the friendliest game toward less-powerful rigs, although it is a cross-generational title so that isn't terribly surprising.
The mystifying track design definitely helps Dirt 5’s appearance, though. There are sprawling, dusty hillsides lush with vegetation, claustrophobic quarries strewn with deep, gray puddles, and an impossibly-blue Hudson River blanketed in ice, with the shores of Manhattan visible in the distance. The environments themselves are incredibly varied, able to be played in any season or weather condition, and the jaw-dropping vistas dare you to keep your eyes on the road. The tracks are that inventive and beautiful, and really help couch the Dirt festival as a traveling extreme motorsports circus touring the wonders of the world.
Dirt 5 review: Multiplayer and Playgrounds
The career and racing is only part of the Dirt 5 experience, though. There’s also Playgrounds and a suite of party modes that should delight anyone with fond memories of thrashing about the Battersea compound playing tag in Dirt 3.
It’s a comparison that’s been made loads of times already, but it’s an apt one: Think of Playgrounds like Halo’s Forge mode, but for racing games. You essentially have a free space to create a stadium-like course that can be used for traditional racing, or to make something more akin to an obstacle course.
Considering that Dirt 5 isn’t available to the public at the time of writing, we don’t have a great sense of what the most talented members of the community will whip up. That said, Playgrounds appears to give you a lot of leeway to make things truly absurd, thanks to an intuitive snapping system and loads of different track types and objects you can fill the environment with. Typically, track editors have a hard and often stringent cap on the geometry they’ll allow you to drop in a given space, but the memory available in Dirt 5 feels luxurious. We'll see what happens when the community tests those limits.
You might not be the type of gamer willing to lavish those creative juices on making something of your own. Thankfully, there are those aforementioned party modes on offer too — Vampire, King and Transporter — that offer fun ways to chill and laugh between races.
Vampire is basically infection-style tag, King is sort of like a game of keepaway and Transporter is like King, but with drop off points for scoring, which evokes a similar game type in Forza Horizon 4.
The one trouble for now is that Dirt 5 isn’t launching with private lobbies, which personally kills the fun for me. They will be available down the line, but there’s no word as to when. My favorite games of tag and aimless Battersea runs in Dirt 3 happened in private lobbies with my friends, who tend to be more willing to play in good faith than your garden-variety online trolls.
Also disappointing is that online multiplayer is cross-gen, but not truly cross-platform. Players on PS4 and PS5 can play together, but not players on PC and PS5, for example, or Xbox One and PS4.
Dirt 5 review: Verdict
There’s been a real dearth of big-budget arcade racers over the past several years, that deliver fun while still pushing technical boundaries. In that sense, Dirt 5 is exactly the game the genre has needed, arriving at the perfect time to coincide with the PS5 and Xbox Series X.
From a single-player perspective, Dirt 5 is not as sprawling or unpredictable as it leads you to believe, and the multiplayer experience really could use private lobbies and true cross-play functionality. But these are gripes that don’t take away from the experience when the rubber hits the gravel, which is absolutely delicious. Dirt 5 is a candy-coated arcade rally tour de force. It knows a good time, but doesn’t feel watered-down or simplistic for how accessible and immediately enjoyable it is.
The game also represents the missing piece of the Dirt puzzle. Between Dirt Rally 2.0 holding down the hardcore sim side of things and Dirt 5 covering the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Codies has finally settled on a winning, two-pronged approach toward off-road racing that shouldn’t leave anyone feeling left out.