DiRT 5 is a very entertaining arcade racer but doesn’t quite fulfill its potential
- Developer: Codemasters
- Publisher: Codemasters
- Release date: 3rd November 2020
- Genre: Off-road racing
- Platforms: Xbox One/Series X|S, PS4/PS5, Windows PC
- Reviewed on: Xbox One X
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
DiRT 5 marks the point where the split between the more serious DiRT Rally and the fun-focused numbered series of DiRT games is complete.
DiRT 4 tried to hold onto DiRT’s pure-bred rally roots by including traditional Rally stages and trying to be a bit more serious, a bit more grown-up. Now DiRT Rally caters for the Sim crowd, DiRT 5 has adopted the style of DiRT 3 and Showdown and is now once again a bold, brash, out-and-out arcade racer. The focus here is on short intense races, variety, and most of all, fun.
The career mode is presented as branching networks of events unlocking dependant on which event you chose previously. This allows you to roughly choose the events you like the most, although occasionally the routes force specific race types on to you.
Balancing and progression feel a little off throughout the career, though. You will tackle the same types of races frequently but in different classes of vehicle. Where most games traditionally introduce more powerful and challenging vehicles as you progress, DiRT 5 chops and changes, and you can be blasting high-powered rallycross monsters in the early races, but in the latter stages of the career, you may find yourself in a big lumbering SUV. It’s still entertaining whichever stage of the career you are at, but it’s an unusual structure.
Most races are very short, with the longest ones lasting less than five minutes on average, even towards the end of the career. DiRT 5 has a wide variety of car classes, but the rate at which you switch between them hinders you getting comfortable in any one class, and it makes it less worthwhile experimenting with the different vehicles.
There is plenty of choice and a good variety of events, but DiRT 5 feels like it has spread itself too thin in some categories. Sprint races, for example, are fun races set around a small oval. There are only a few ovals though, and they only take a minute or two to complete. It’s the same with Pathfinder events, which are DiRT’s version of hill climb/rock crawler events. They are point-to-point races, and again, there are only a few tracks that take a couple of minutes to finish. I’d much prefer it if they fleshed each category out more, even if it meant less variety.
I think the main reason this feels so problematic is that the core gameplay is so much fun. The tracks are well designed, and the vehicles have great variety, but when your time with them is so short, it leaves you wanting more. It took me around seven hours to reach the final race of the career mode, and I loved it, but it felt short-lived. You can go back and complete all the remaining events you didn’t tackle first time through, which will likely take around 20-25 hours, but even then, the absence of any lengthy stages left me unsatisfied.
It’s this pandering to the casual market that I didn’t enjoy as much. DiRT 5 feels like stepping into the mind of an ADHD afflicted child. You run an event and enjoy it, but just when you start getting into it – ooh, a squirrel! – and off it goes onto something else.
Admittedly, as a pick-up and play racer, it’s fantastic, and even more so if you have friends to play with. DiRT 5 excels with its arcade racing focus. Races are short, intense and often exhilarating. Whether you have five minutes or five hours to play, you can load it up and be off and racing in no time, and it is even better in split-screen co-op.
Co-op lets you tackle the whole of the career with a friend in split-screen, and the highest finisher between you determines the rewards you will receive. Rather than fighting amongst yourselves for the win, it encourages you to support each other, and you get to share the victories. Only the main profile will get the career progression, but the joining player will get to keep all the cash and rewards to use in their own game. (The Xbox One version supports two-player split-screen, but the Series X|S versions will allow up to four-player split-screen.)
I play with my kids, who are only seven and five, and are still learning how to play racing games. Normally, they try a racing game and love driving, but get disheartened when they don’t win. Because the highest placed player determines the success, they can bash and crash around in last place, but as a team, we still win. It’s a feature I wish more games had, and thanks to the easy to learn handling and team wins, they are willing to play more and are improving rapidly. I can’t wait for the Series X version so we can all play together!
I was disappointed to find that you can’t play online co-op, though. In the midst of lockdowns and generally having to avoid other people, an online co-op mode would be a great way to share the fun of the game together. Hopefully this is something that will be added in future DiRT games.
DiRT 5 has added a narrative that runs throughout the career mode, and it’s excellent. It revolves around the current champion AJ, his rival Bruno, and eventually, you. Between events, a broadcast starring YouTubers Nolan and James from Donut Media kicks in, with plenty of back and forth banter between the drivers and hosts.
It’s always going to be challenging to add a meaningful story to a racing game, but this is easily one of the best attempts I’ve experienced so far. Characters are likeable (even the stereotypical douchebag is entertaining), the vocal delivery is natural-sounding and the script is decent without sounding forced.
While the broadcasts are playing you can flick between menus, customise your vehicle and plan your event path, so it isn’t a hindrance to the gameplay. If you tire of listening to it, you can pause or cut it off completely, but it’s so well produced I found myself listening to it most of the time.
I really like the way they have incorporated the story. It doesn’t interfere with your gameplay, and can easily blend into the background, but it is enjoyable and it fleshes out what would otherwise be a simple checklist of events to complete.
On (and off) the road
In contrast to its sibling DiRT Rally, DiRT 5 has extremely accessible handling. Even the greenest of racers should be able to pick it up and be competently sliding, handbraking and jumping around the circuits with ease. There’s the usual full complement of assists, but with a couple of exceptions (I’m looking at you, ridiculously slippery Sprint cars), you likely won’t need them.
The handling doesn’t always seem related to the vehicles, though. In some cases, huge two-tonne trucks are nimble and grippy, allowing you to thread your way around circuits with ease, while some small lightweight cars feel ungainly and are hard to turn-in. The gearing is often all over the place, too. Some cars have such short-range gearboxes that you’ll need to use third gear around hairpins, or use much higher gearing than feels natural around the bends.
This is compounded by the lack of any tuning or upgrading system. It seems like such an oversight that they would hire the Donut Media guys and not put upgrades and customisation into the game. As it is, customisation is limited to adjusting the colour scheme of your cars. At first I painted my cars, but I always race cockpit or bumper cam so never get to see it. Normally, you can admire your car in the replays, but there aren’t any in DiRT 5. Again, it’s unfathomable that this wouldn’t be included as it’s one of those features you take for granted.
DiRT 5 in general, and especially the career, would benefit hugely from having cosmetic and performance upgrades for the vehicles. It would give a sense of progression to the proceedings, and make revisiting older vehicles far more fun if each time you used them they had a bit more grunt or increased traction through corners.
That’s not to say the cars aren’t fun to drive, as they are. Easy to learn driving mechanics means you can be competitive right away, and as a result you can just get on with enjoying the racing. There’s still plenty of opportunity for more skilled racers to test themselves, and even if it’s easy to jump in to, there’s a high enough skill-ceiling to encourage experienced racers to refine their skills. The leaderboards for every event provide added incentive to push that little bit harder, and I even retried some of the career events just to place higher on the leaderboards.
During the races, AI is typically unpredictable, but keeps a decent pace, so you can have some close and tense races won by just a few tenths. There’s a slight imbalance, and some races can see you miles ahead by the finish line, but the majority of races are closely fought affairs.
The AI have zero awareness, though. If you make a smooth overtake, rather than backing off they’ll just plow straight into you. They usually jostle amongst each other while racing, making races feel more organic, but you will still occasionally find them all sitting on the racing line in a convoy, which can make it a pain to get past them. This is mainly in the opening lap, and once the pack opens up it can be easier to get past them, but the AI definitely needs work. I often had to resort to dive-bombs and aggressive tactics, which doesn’t bode well for playing online.
The events are mostly circuit races, with a few point to points thrown in, but there’s good variety among them. Some have massive elevation changes, and racing at different times of day in conditions ranging from sunny skies to night-time thunderstorms and heavy snow keeps things interesting. Pathfinder is a welcome break from the usual race setup, involving some mild hill-climbing and navigating rocky terrain, but like many things in DiRT 5, it’s not fleshed out enough, with just a few tracks taking around 2 minutes to finish.
There are some standout classes that are a cut above the rest, though. 90’s Rally has some choice machinery, and the handling of these cars is closer to what you would expect from a rally game. I had way more fun than I expected in the X Cross Raid cars, too. Considering they are chonky SUVs, the handling is great and the races are usually close, involving lots of bumping and shoving.
Gymkhana as always is fantastically good fun, and even more so thanks to the new Playgrounds mode. Here you can create your own events or try out others’ user created content; races, gymkhana stages, obstacle courses – there’s some real creativity on show here.
Making your own content is really straightforward, and the track editor is simple enough to pick up, but affords you enough tools to make some amazing creations. Some of the tracks and arenas people have made are amazing. Multi-tiered sprawling circuits are very popular, while others have made creative use of the track building elements and came up with some truly imaginative obstacles.
Choosing one to try is quick and easy. You just find it in the list, broken down by category such as gymkhana, or by popularity. You don’t need to download them, just select it and play. The whole process is very smooth. Each creation also has a leaderboard attached, giving these events a lot of appeal for competing with friends.
There was a lot of discussion online about the graphics on DiRT 5 being underwhelming, but seeing it in action this really isn’t the case. The environments are rich and colourful, and they pack in loads of detail. The environmental effects in particular look amazing. Lightning storms fill the skies with dazzling flashes of light, and dusty desert circuits occasionally have dense sandstorms swirl across the track, while heavy snow storms hammer across your windscreen, obscuring your view.
I love way the changeable weather affects the road surface, too, with heavy rain causing the track surface to fill with puddles and waterlogged ruts. Even the bright sunshine looks glorious, reflecting off your car’s brightly polished surfaces, at least until your car is inevitably caked in dirt. It’s not just the tracks that look good, the detailing on the vehicles is exceptional, too. They have all been modelled down to the finest detail.
On the Xbox One X you can choose between visuals and performance, with full 4k resolution running at 30 fps, or reduced fidelity targeting 60 fps. DiRT 5 looks stunning in 4k, but it’s much more enjoyable at higher frame rates. It’s a trade off we won’t have to make soon, though. DiRT 5 uses the Xbox Smart Delivery system, so if you’re upgrading to the next gen consoles, you’ll be able to play at 4k60 or with the right display, even 120 fps.
DiRT 5 is a massively entertaining game, and while it gets a few things wrong, the core gameplay is solid. The co-op career is a great addition, and the easy to learn mechanics make this a great game for fans of arcade racers, or those who love off-road racing but find the likes of DiRT Rally too hardcore. If they had fleshed out the content a bit more and improved the progression, it would be great, but as it is, DiRT 5 never feels like it’s living up to its full potential.