The name DIRT 5 would normally imply that the game is effectively a follow-up to 2017’s DIRT 4, but that isn’t quite the case here. The fourth mainline installment of this popular rally racing franchise was a relatively serious rally game, just with an arcade driving model, allowing players to explore the beautiful world of racing the clock in unpredictable stages of dirt.
Down to managing your own team, liveries and staff, the game was a really enjoyable experience even for those who are put off by Codemasters’ more serious simcades like DIRT Rally.
So what is DIRT 5?
A pure and colourful arcade racer, where players duke it out against fierce opponents in short but exciting events across the globe, without anybody holding back bumps and nudges as there’s no damage model or penalties to worry about.
And behind the project, the talented team behind the exciting but terribly marketed OnRush, many of whom also worked on titles like Driveclub and MotorStorm. This group will have to deliver Codemasters’ first cross-gen project for the new generation of consoles.
Will they be up to the task? We tried the Xbox One X and S versions to find out, as we are awaiting to share more on the next-gen experiences on Xbox Series X|S.
Style over substance?
The design philosophy for Codemasters’ new racing game seems to be simple: spectacle, fun, adrenaline at all times. It will certainly be a controversial decision to remove all of the depth that come from a more serious approach to racing games that characterized prior episodes in the DIRT franchise.
No car setups, no teams to manage, no damage model to worry about. DIRT 5 is about as arcade as it gets, with just enough driving assists that can be turned off to guarantee a rally-style approach, having to control the rear in oversteering cars out of corners.
Bumping is allowed, encouraged in fact, usually even minor shortcuts work in a series of campaign events that usually go between 2 and 5 laps sprint races against up to 11 other opponents that rarely ever exceed 6-7 minutes of total race time. It’s pedal to the metal all the time, no holding back anything.
Aside from a few interesting modes like Pathfinder and Gymkhana, which we’ll talk about in greater detail later, pretty much the entirety of the events happen in these high-adrenaline races across a wide array of incredible spectacular locations.
The frozen waters of a wintery New York City, the green forests in Brazil, the fascinating ancient ruins in Italy, the snowy hills in Norway, and so forth. Asphalt is a rarity, grip levels are usually fairly low between dirt, snow, ice, grass, ponds of water and bumpy surfaces, constantly putting players through the struggle of maintaining control despite the arcade approach.
While a game like Forza Motorsport 7 features more realistic car models with a crystal clear general look and feel thanks to rock-solid 4K resolution and 60 frames per second, DIRT 5 is clearly operating on a smaller budget and can’t quite compete with said technical prowess.
This isn’t to say the game is not incredibly spectacular, on the contrary in fact. Whereas cars and environments look pretty good, what stands out most is the game’s approach to spectacle. Every track is filled with lights, particles, smokes, fires that beg your eyes to follow them instead of the road.
The wind blows the fresh snow away from the track, massive clouds of dirt invade the trajectory when cars go by, light posts and flashing direction signs stand out thanks to fantastic bright lights that give their best on Xbox One X and on HDR-capable TVs. There’s even natural events like the magnificent northern lights of the aurora borealis and vicious sandstorms, the latter of which can turn the event on its head.
If that weren’t enough, dynamic weather and largely accelerated day/night cycles can turn a sunny sunset ride into a dark storm of snow where visibility is practically non-existent. Unfortunately, AI does not seem to be bothered by such changes, so be aware of that. It now becomes clear why Codemasters chose to sacrifice most of the depth outside of the cockpit: they focused on making every race an absolute rush of speed, beauty, spectacle. All the screens you see in this article have been made with the game’s great Photo Mode, which makes the impressive vistas of DIRT 5 shine even more.
Our podcasts are better
The game tries its best to prove its got a story to tell, though unfortunately it kinda falls apart quickly. An in-game race-themed podcast narrates, through the voice of a commentator and an ex-driver voiced by gaming’s most prolific voice actor Troy Baker, the rise of the protagonist through the various races, how the reigning champion Bruno Durand is following your steps, the dirty tricks he used to mantain the crown.
The game tries to make the on-going rivalry personal, but at the end of the day it’s just a series of events against randomly named opponents where you gotta arrive first every time. To put some extra spice into individual races, there’s also sponsors, who offer you optional challenges that increase your rep if you manage to complete them during the race.
These vary from rather straight-forward ones like bumping another car or overtaking 10 cars, all the way to rather specific requirements like finishing the race in reverse or obtaining the lead on lap 1.
Unfortunately, these objectives are randomly generated for every event, and the game does not seem to consider the sort of event in play when handing them out, thus it’s easy to find an objective of getting 15 drifts and 100 seconds in the lead in a row in a race consisting of 6 turns on 3 laps of a small oval where the entire event lasts less than 60 seconds.
At least these challenges can be swapped out with a new random set for a small credit cost, but since the pool is limited it’s sometimes tough to find a list that suits the event. At least the system is fully optional.
The campaign consists of over 120 events in total, in a bracket that ensures every completed race unlocks one or more new invite for a different competition. While they all have fancy names like Icebreaker and Xtreme Cross, at the end of the day, most are just variations of the formula, allowing the players to duke it out in fast-paced races over the globe.
What changes is the terrain and the cars. The arsenal of 4-wheel rides contains rally legends like the 1977 Fiat 131 Abarth or the 1986 Ford RS200, to recent beasts like the 2019 Ford Fiesta R5 or the 2019 Peugeot 208 WRX, with various dune buggies, jeeps, speedcars and sprintcars to further increase variety. On top of various skins that can be unlocked through sponsors’ reputation points, there’s also a surprisingly deep and varied customization mode, that allows players to apply paint jobs, stickers and sponsors of all kinds, creating some truly unique looks.
Naturally, all events can also be enjoyed in solo races, with the 70 or so tracks available that can be customized in terms of time of day, weather, amount of laps, class of cars and so on. In another design choice that reminds us of the good games of old, there’s even split-screen up to 4 players for any mode.
While the options available for it seem limited, and in fact each player seems to just start with the last car they used, it’s a very fun way to enjoy even races of the campaign, as players can help each other in clearing harder events by battling the AI drivers together. Then, of course, things escalate in terms of intensity when it comes to online races, where on top of the standard races seen in the other modes, various party modes with coins and such pop up. Unfortunately, the version we were provided did not include these extra modes, so we can not judge on their quality just yet.
My way or the highway
We promised further details on the Pathfinder and Gymkhana modes, so let’s get on that, shall we? The former is basically Trials on 4-wheels, as the players are asked to come over tight and complicated twists and turns with several jumps, uphills and downhills to carefully manage. The game’s easy-going driving model makes these events relatively simple to finish, but skills will be challenged for those who want to go against the global leaderboards. Similarly, Gymkhana puts players in small arenas full of ramps, cones to donut around, gates to clear while drifting and so on, with the intent of scoring incredible points by connecting as many exciting acrobatics as possible. This mode does not seem to have the depth and variety seen even in DiRT 3, but it more than makes up for it with the sheer options available in said stages, all built in the powerful Playgrounds editor.
Aside from the online races, this seems to be the game mode people will be grinding once the story’s over. In relatively limited arenas in fact, players can use a TrackMania-like editor to build ramps, curves and such to form treacherous tracks for racing, but also Gymkhana events and so on. With several objects and decorations to choose from, there’s already a surprising variety that can be found in the game’s own track browser. And with a rating system, tags and leaderboards for each event, players are certain to be able to compete on the style of events they prefer to specialize in.
Cracks on the surface
Simplifying the game’s formula down to a pure arcade racer is sure to cause some controversy amongst fans, but it’s a clear game design choice that players can even prefer. There are, however, a handful of hiccups we encountered in our lengthy play sessions. While some of these are said to be fixed by an upcoming day 1 patch, and neither is gamebreaking or scorechanging, it’s either way important to point them out. A first note goes for the performance, with the game offering a mode prioritizing framerate (to stay as close as possible to a smooth 60 frames per second while sacrificing a bit of the pixel count), and one on visuals, keeping a high resolution and better assets but suffering with the frames per second. And suffer it does, as I’ve found the latter mode rather hard to play, with rather unstable performance all around that seems to drop below 30fps and go above 50fps in a crazy up and down on Xbox One X. Performance mode is the way to go, which isn’t always glued to 60 frames per second but it stays close enough to the mark for the most part, though some tearing can be seen from time to time.
There’s also various elements that seemed a tiny bit undercooked. The storyline seems to imply a fierce rivalry, the voices heard in the podcast imply that driving aggressive is going to make the other opponents more combative themselves, but in reality these concepts never really go anywhere. A lack of car setups will make for a more leveled playground when it comes to online and leaderboards, but it also means that some cars are practically useless, because if their handling or speed isn’t on par with the rest there is nothing that can be done about it. The soundtrack is blasting enough but the song variety isn’t high, the race tracks are many in number but actually see a lot of repetition in terms of locales and turns, the customization of cars is enjoyable but not quite on par with the likes of Forza Horizon 4 and Need For Speed Heat. On paper, DIRT 5 clears just about any check a racing game needs to deliver, but several aspects might have benefited from a slightly longer development or a bigger budget.
I completed the 125 events of the game in about 4 intense days, trying the other modes and losing hours in the editor, trying the weirdest construction ideas out for others to play with. A lot of depth was sacrificed from prior chapters and there’s certainly several games out there beating DIRT 5’s individual strengths. But at the end of the day, I had a really great time. Blasting with high speed rally cars through heavy snow in Norway, trying to find my way during a sandstorm in Morocco, sliding around on a gloriously shiny ice in New York is a riot, with the aggressive AI and the short nature of races guaranteeing short bursts of adrenaline that just begged for one more race as I was ready to turn off the game for the night. It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s spectacular. Do we truly need more from an arcade racer?