Dirt 5 Review
The DIRT series of games has been around now for a very long time and can trace its roots all the way back to Colin McRae Rally which was released back in the before times; or 1998 if you prefer. This eventually morphed into the DIRT nomenclature in 2007 and hasn’t had the great Colin McRae’s name attached to it since Colin McRae: DIRT 2, released two years after his death in 2009. They were fun arcade-style rally games that slowly expanded their racing beyond straight-up rally stages. You could take part in various off-road events such as Rally Cross and for those wishing to emulate Ken Block, Gymkhana events were included too.
However, the franchise went dark after the rather disappointing DIRT Showdown only to emerge in 2015 in the form of DIRT Rally. Since then we’ve had DIRT 4 and DIRT Rally 2.0. Confused naming conventions aside, the last three were, ostensibly, die-in-the-wool rally games all about getting from point-to-point as quickly as possible, all the while avoiding the natural hazards that festoon the side of country roads. It seems, however, that with DIRT 5, Codemasters is keen to distinguish the DIRT series from being a pure-breed rally series in preparation for the studio taking the official WRC license in 2023.
Whilst this is wild speculation on our part, it would make sense to morph the simulation-based DIRT Rally arm of the franchise into a WRC-backed game but keep the DIRT name going with something else. If that’s the case, then they’re off to a good start with DIRT 5. Sure, it has its faults, but it’s a game that knows what it is, isn’t ashamed to be it and has lots of fun whilst it’s doing so. It reminded us of the early days of the DIRT series and whilst they were too heavy on the X-Games culture for some, you couldn’t deny that they were fun to play. DIRT 5 doesn’t latch on to any specific, real-life competitions, but it does draw some inspiration from them.
Should you delve into the Career mode, you will take on the role of the new kid on the block in the championship. However, you do not need to go it alone, as you will have Alex “AJ” Janiček (voiced by Troy Baker) by your side giving you advice as you navigate each bracket. As the in-game undefeated DIRT Series champion, you’re his side-project, his protege and hopefully, his heir apparent. There is, however, a fly in the ointment in the form of Bruno Durand (voiced by Nolan North) who is vanquishing all before him and through the medium of a podcast from Donut Media is goaded into taking on AJ.
It’s a unique way of navigating a single-player career and whilst the races do get somewhat repetitive after a while, James Pumphrey and Nolan Sykes are entertaining presenters, doubly so when joined by game voiceover royalty such as the other Nolan and Troy. It’s one of many things DIRT 5 tries in an effort to distinguish itself from the norm and generally it hits its mark. There are moments where AJ cuts in with the same advice at the end of the race and if we hear again how we’re not making any friends we’ll likely scream, but then again there’s something soothing about hearing Nolan North’s voice.
As you meander your way through your career you can choose your path through each bracket, focusing on the types of races that suit you the best. Don’t like sprint races? Avoid them. Really like the pathfinder rounds, the only type that sees you on your own? Then pick the path with more of them. We didn’t particularly enjoy the ice races on New York’s river so where we could, we’d skip the ice-breaker rounds. In addition to New York you will visit Arizona, Brazil, Morocco, China, Italy and Norway. Each has their own unique look and feel with the weather changing dynamically as you race and they all look rather stunning. If you’re like us, you’ll spend more time than you’re comfortable admitting in DIRT 5’s photo mode.
Earning the stamps to unlock new races and brackets isn’t overly difficult and with each race lasting less than five minutes in most cases, it doesn’t feel like a slog. In fact, if anything, it goes by quicker than you think should you make a straight line to the end by earning just enough to make the next bracket. We would, however, recommend that you hang around and race more rounds. If you do so you’ll also unlock throwdowns with other in-game professionals. These head-to-head races are earned by winning and, should you beat your opponent, you will gain some unique rewards. Coupled with rewards from the myriad sponsors who are more than happy to throw in-game cash at you, unlocking new vehicles to throw around is pretty easy. There are plenty to choose from too!
If you love your rally history, you’ll likely be drawn to the historic rally cars, which include some greats such as the Ford RS200, Subaru Impreza S4, Mitsubishi Lancer VI and the Lancia 037 Evo 2. There are also some suped up SUVs such as the Aston Martin DBX or if you’re a fan of the crazy you can race the frankly bonkers WS Auto Racing Titan in the stampede events. These will look familiar if you’ve ever watched the equally crazy Icelandic hill climbs or that episode of Top Gear where Hammond drove over a lake. Each discipline you race in requires you to drive things slightly differently. The ice racing events we didn’t so much care for places a greater emphasis on your ability to drift whereas the pathfinder races, where it’s you versus the hill, require you to focus on picking the best way through the course to beat the three-stamp time.
Like a late night TV advert, however, that’s not all DIRT 5 has to offer. New to the series is the Playgrounds mode. Here you can create your own arena that fits into one of three types. A Gate Crasher event requires you to get through all gates as quickly as possible. Smash Attacks will see you collect objects in your arena in the shortest time possible or, for those who think spinning around in circles is good fun, you can create your own Gymkhana. Here you’ll need to drift, spin and jump your way to a high score. All of them have leaderboards attached and a voting system that will see the mode suggest other tracks similar to ones you like. The possibilities here are endless and there are already some amazing tracks to, literally, get lost in. It’s a fantastic addition and will likely be DIRT 5’s mode of choice once players complete their solo careers and look to take on the community at large.
It’s a shame, then, that multiplayer as it stands is so underwhelming. Split between a race or party games the queue lengths are astronomically long and you don’t always get a match. When we did it there was only one other driver and once you’ve stretched out a lead there’s a high chance that your opponent will just quit the race. We weren’t even able to get a lobby for the party games. All is not lost, however, and thankfully there's the ability to play local, four-player split screen, which is something to get rather excited about. It’s rare to see this at all in this era of console gaming so to see DIRT 5 include it is great to see.
There are, however, a couple of points which really bring DIRT 5 down to earth with a bump. Biggest of the two in our opinion is the handling or lack thereof. All the cars do have their own characteristics and you do have to change how you drive to win races but this is done by an iterative learning process rather than by feeling what the cars are doing. This lack of feel is mostly down to a complete absence of force feedback on a pad. Only once during our many sessions did we have any rumble and when we did, it disappeared the next time we booted up to play. This gives the game a lifeless feeling with no way of knowing what your car is doing other than the visual clues you’ll get when racing. Even when we did have feedback, it was generally limited to rumbles for spinning tyres and jolts when we plummeted into a wall. There was no nuance to it and even though we are dealing with a purebreed arcade racer that doesn’t mean the handling has to be entirely absent.
The other area that knocks things down are the bugs that are still present post-launch. During our playthrough we had a few moments where we were unable to advance from the post-race menu and required us to quit the game and restart to carry on. Thankfully our race win was registered but required us to endure the slow load times more times than we cared for. We also encountered scratchy audio for several seconds when coming out of a pause menu. Whilst none of them are huge gamebreakers they’re annoyances and despite post-launch patches, they still exist.
DIRT 5 is a game that brings purpose to the franchise outside of the sim-focused DIRT Rally. If our suspicions prove correct, then DIRT 5 provides an excellent springboard for future installments and brings the joy of pure arcade racing to those who desire it, much like Forza does with its split Forza Motorsport and Forza Horizon series of games. Codemasters will, however, have to do something about their online lobbies as well as the handling going forward to truly elevate what is a fun and ambitious arcade off-road game to the heights it is clearly aiming for.
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