Codemasters has come a long way with the DiRT series. Among the many things that set their games apart from the competition, an unrelenting focus on different surface types, vehicle types, and good old-fashioned dirty rally racing have been what players can expect from them. In that regard, DiRT 5 stays on track with previous entries but still manages to wield the magic that makes these games so great in some interesting new ways.
First off, DiRT 5 has a new selection of ways to play. Where DiRT 4 had an emphasis on procedurally generated tracks, DiRT 5 moves away from that to just having a ton of variety and customization options. With 10 different locales to race in, the variety is certainly there, and each region has their own geographical challenges that couldn’t be more fun to overcome. Areas that particularly stood out to me where the canyons of Arizona and the muddy trails of Brazil, but if you prefer your altitude a little higher, the mountains of Greece and Nepal are also outstanding places to race. You really can’t go wrong with DiRT 5’s locations though, as they’re all just as beguiling to admire as they are exhilarating to plow through over and over again, getting a little better each time.
"DiRT 5 stays on track with previous entries but still manages to wield the magic that makes these games so great in some interesting new ways."
Before we get into the nitty gritty though, I must quickly point out that DiRT 5 is one of the most gorgeous racing games ever made. Everything from the sun gleaming from behind mountain tops, and wet mud getting caked in the side of your rollcage are distractingly vivid and realistic. Even more so on the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, which have performance and detail modes, both of which look outstanding, so I just generally recommend the smooth frame-rate mode wherever possible.
That same level of reverence was clearly given to DiRT 5’s many vehicle classes, all with plenty of variants within them. Everything from sprint cars and super lites to rock bouncers and cross raid trucks are here, and they all look, sound, and play fantastically. All of them are different enough to make DiRT 5 feel extremely versatile, yet that still feel like they belong in this game. The selection covers such a wide spectrum of performance and speed that you’d be hard pressed to not find at least a couple that any racing fan can fall in love with. Even more than that, the different landscapes and surface types you come across make learning new vehicle types a fun challenge that you willingly partake in, rather than it feeling like the game is just arbitrarily forcing you to leave your comfort zone because it can.
Just when you get used to dry jagged terrain, you’ll be speeding through ice and snow, and then trying to master sliding around in mud and gravel in South America. Each type of track feels so different and fun to master, that the excitement of the next one completely overtakes how much you might miss the last. Weather changes how the tracks play as well. Rain, snow, and sandstorms all greatly impact how certain sections of tracks behave dynamically, even continuing to intensify or decline as the race goes on.
"DiRT 5 is one of the most gorgeous racing games ever made."
I first realized how much a track could continue to change due to weather when I drove on a patch of road in the first lap during a snowstorm where the road was a bit slick but the snow wasn’t really sticking yet, but on the second lap, the entire road had a thin layer of snow that forced me to slow down a bit, then, on the third lap, I almost entirely lost control at the same location because snow was now several inches deep and much harder to maintain friction on. I was forced to recalibrate my technique as the snow got worse, and it was an intense thrilling experience.
That’s not to say the driving is free of quirks though. For a game as fun and freewheeling as DiRT 5 clearly aims to be, I was surprised to see how strict and punishing it often is with small objects and thin, wimpy trees that could instantly stop you dead in your tire tracks, while most other arcade racing games generally let you plough through similar obstacles with little more than a scratch and a loss of a some speed. A punishment that better fits the crime.
DiRT 5 is also fairly harsh about cutting corners. While you can get away with a little bit of it, especially on tighter turns, DiRT 5 will not hesitate to force reset you back on the track, sometimes drastically cutting into your lead whether you meant to cut through the track or not. Punishment for errors is expected, but the trouble is, with a game like this where fast-moving vehicles are bouncing all over the place, you are certain to find yourself in these situations by accident more often than on purpose, yet the game treats you like a cheater. So when you lose your place in the race over it it can take the wind out of your sails a bit. Couple that with how long it can take to catch back up to the pack, you’ll often be tempted to just restart races even though you may only be a third of the way through them. That said, when you do well and manage to really pull away from your opponents, maintaining that lead is equally as smooth as catching back up can be challenging. So DiRT 5 certainly knows how to reward as well as it does punish, for what it’s worth.
"For a game as fun and freewheeling as DiRT 5 clearly aims to be, I was surprised to see how strict and punishing it often is with small objects and thin, wimpy trees that could instantly stop you dead in your tire tracks."
All of these elements come together in DiRT 5’s several ways to play the game. You have a fairly hefty career mode that takes you through its tracks, as well as an arcade mode that currently consists of time trials and custom free races that you can customize to your heart’s content. Want to race on pure ice during a snowstorm in a 4-lap race with 9 opponents at night with trucks? You got it. Free racing has you covered with just about any type of race you can imagine. As well as playgrounds, which is a pretty nifty track editor with a surprising amount of depth to it. Playgrounds is a huge step up from the custom track generator from DiRT 4. You can make your own tracks with a system reminiscent of the Tony Hawk games, publish them, and discover other tracks other players have published.
This by itself brings a lot of value and longevity to the game and I look forward to seeing what the DiRT 5 community does with this over the coming months and years. The game’s intended centerpiece is surely its career mode though. The campaign takes you through all the isolated tracks and vehicle types with logical combinations as you watch a rivalry unfold between characters voiced by none other than Troy Baker and Nolan North, who, as you might expect, inject way more life into the story than any racing game campaign has any right to have. Also, events are introduced by a couple of podcasters instead of the standard racing game broadcasters. The dialog here takes a lot of swings at jokes, and misses most of them, but it’s certainly nothing cringe-inducing.
Overall, the campaign is pretty interesting for a racing game, with paths that you choose and developments that you can affect. There’s also off and online multiplayer, the online portion of which I was unable to test out on this pre-launch build. On top of those racing modes you also have your standard garage and profile areas to look at what you own, customize your vehicles, player icons, and all that good stuff. This area certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but I suppose there’s no need to, either. I would have liked to see a little more customization of vehicles here, though. Perhaps something more along the lines of what 2019’s Need for Speed Heat brought to the table. But what’s here is serviceable, albeit standard.
"Overall, the campaign is pretty interesting for a racing game, with paths that you choose and developments that you can affect."
You progress in a few different ways in DiRT 5, but what you’ll be paying the most attention to is your XP, Rep, and DiRT dollars. All of which ultimately give you access to more cars, parts, and sponsors, which of course, serve as nice excuses to work on sub-goals like staying in first place for 10 seconds. It’s a familiar progress flow to anyone who has played a racing game within the last ten years, but still feels fresh because of DiRT 5’s variety in unlockables and vehicles.
DiRT 5 is a true step forward for its genre in many ways. It leans on the fundamentals that have been hammered out by racing games before, but takes them to new levels with an actually entertaining campaign, a deep custom track editor, and intensely dynamic and consequential weather systems. While it’s only available on current gen consoles at launch, I fully expect DiRT 5 to ultimately be known as the first big standard-bearer for ninth generation racing games… Once the dust settles.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Weather systems, variety, and finely-tuned rally racing are top-notch for the genre today.
Occasionally overreacts to minor infractions with race-ruining consequences and misses an opportunity to out-do its rivals with customization.