It feels like yesterday to me that Colin McRae: DiRT burst on to the scene as an exciting continuation of the popular rally game series, with a bit of added fun sprinkled on the top in the form of off-road circuit racing. In fact, it was a staggering 13 years ago and eight games later, the franchise is still going strong.
In recent years, what used to be a one-size-fits-all-rally experience has split down two separate paths heading. DiRT Rally is for serious stage aficionados, DIRT (insert number) is more generalist and accessible. The question is then, with DIRT 5, has Codemasters succeeded in appealing to a non-stage-rally audience?
To answer that rather pertinent query, if its form matches intended function, we first need to cover what this game represents. In essence, most of the time, you race against competitors around laps of circuits. These circuits can be on gravel, mud, snow and ice, or even combinations of these conditions. Throw in some Gymkhana events plus Path Finder hillclimbs, and you have the basics of what this game is made up of.
On the face of it, there is a diverse array of content upon release. There are 10 locations, each with their own character and multiple different stages. It rarely feels like you do the same circuit or route more than once or twice when playing through career mode. The car choices are great too. Multiple classes ranging from historic rally cars to buggies, pickup trucks, Dakar-conquering beasts and modern rally-spec GT cars.
Within each type of vehicle classes there is an exciting variety of cars to choose from, like a sweet shop for motorsport fans. Each beholds its own handling and performance characteristics, meaning that your choice can really make a difference on specific tracks. There’s also livery editor that adds a degree of customisation to make each car feel like your own. This is basic and there are only a few pre-made designs to unlock, but aside from that, the vast array of colours and textures give you enough to make something unique every time. Odd, though, that vehicle upgrades aren’t part of the tweaks that can be made.
Even more expressive than the liveries or distinctive car behaviour, however, are the overall game aesthetics. From the initial magenta splash of the loading screen to the on-track action, DIRT 5 features a very clear design direction that is unified throughout.
When you first launch the game, you are greeted with an adrenalin-fuelled, action-packed intro video that instantly sets the tone. The bright colours combined with music loud enough to make you miss live concerts really hype you up. These elements are not as dynamic or immersive as those in Colin McRae: DiRT 2, but the energy is certainly present. The game instantly has a bold personality which isn’t always the case with modern games.
Then you hit the track for the first time, and thankfully, the music festival vibes largely carry over. The graphics are superb on a high setting, maintaining the pattern of bold vibrant colours that get right up in your face and scream at you. Even on an OG PS4, the visuals pop and on the Xbox Series and PS5, you can switch between more detail and 60 frames per second or slightly less detail and 120fps.
The element that really stands out is the sense of depth that this game gives you. A drive up the South African mountains is rewarded with a rich view and a sense of achievement; the quarries of Italy give off such a feeling of vastness and depth that many games struggle to replicate. The northern lights found at the Norwegian events sum it beautifully. The aurora borealis lights up the sky and has a magical feeling to it.
The sound is equally as awe-inspiring. Each car has a unique tone that matches up well with what you would expect. The attention to detail is especially noticeable in this regard, such as the ever-present soundtrack getting louder as you drive through populated areas and then fading again as you hit the abandoned mountains.
Which leads us on to the actual gameplay itself, and unfortunately this is where we hit our first bumps in the road. The key word here is inconsistency.
Although there is a decent of variation between each car’s handling, they can often feel a little bit lazy. The smaller purpose-built rally cars feel the nicest, with the older RWD cars such as the Lancia 037 feeling appropriately lairy, and the four-wheel-drive steeds feeling a little bit more stable and predictable. However, the behaviour of the bigger machinery can be wayward, with some feeling sharp and giving you lots of confidence, whilst others feel lumbering and a bit unpredictable.
In essence, here’s a handling model that works well on the more open dirt trails, where lurid slides are rewarded, but lacks the necessary precision for the tighter Playgrounds and online events. This is improved by using a wheel for those event types, but compatibility did not come until after the initial launch.
Throughout single player, your AI-controlled opponents are also a mixed bag. To start with, you aren’t presented with a difficulty setting – if you’d like to tweak that, you need to go deep into the setting menus. Once selected, I would sometimes find myself struggling to keep with the pack, but other times I would win by over 20 seconds. Rubber-banding is present, which in theory is fine for this kind of experience, but the execution needs refinement. Rivals tend to group together in giant clusters, meaning that racing your way through the field is rarely as natural as it sounds.
You will often find yourself doing one of three things. The first common situation is overtaking everybody down the inside of a wide-open hairpin and snatching the lead in one fell swoop. The second is getting yourself stuck in the midfield cluster and basically losing all control of your situation, being bounced around like a pinball. Scenario three is either crashing into something solid or being forced into it by the AI, which often results in you re-joining in last position, miles behind the pack.
Oh, and I haven’t yet mentioned the incredible traction they always seem to get out of corners, no matter whether they have two-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive. This makes it incredibly difficult to set up a move for corner exit, resulting in you sending one down the inside in the spirit of Leeroy Jenkins and hoping that you can block them on the exit. All of this isn’t to say the competition aren’t fun to race, but they can be frustrating.
So far then, and DIRT 5 gives with one hand, and sometimes takes away with the other.
As with many racing titles, the heart of the single player experience lies within the career mode. Here you are greeted with a podcast style commentary featuring the funny quips of Donut Media. You quickly find out through various voiceovers that you are joining dirt racing legend AJ’s driving academy, hoping to win races and fight your way to the top of the sport. The Donut Media team continue to provide the commentary throughout, alongside rival characters voiced by Nolan North and Troy Baker. It compliments to the bold, vibrant, feel good factor of the game.
As you progress, however, it becomes apparent that it lacks a little bit of depth. There aren’t any cut scenes or surprise visual elements which can bring a story to life and immerse you fully within a game. When I reached my first “main event”, I was hoping that a win would make something happen to bring the career mode to life, but sadly not. There are some extra events to unlock along the way called Throwdowns which have unique elements to them, and you can unlock bonuses by pleasing sponsor targets, but that’s about it.
Most of the base gameplay within the career is split into eight different event types. This may sound great on paper, but in reality, four of the disciplines – Ultra Cross, Land Rush, Stampede and Ice Breaker – consist of two or three-lap races in a very similar style. As you can imagine, Ice Breaker takes place on ice while Landrush tends to be slightly wider and more open layouts, but they are both essentially the same type of racing, just re-branded.
Gymkhana is a little bit disappointing. It doesn’t feel as refined or natural as it did in DiRT 3. However, the Path Finder events are something unique as you traverse solo across a rocky landscape. Finally, we have the oval races named ‘Sprint’. While this is used to title small races, there are also a handful of Spint evens using actual sprint cars where the AI seems completely broken and the handling is awry.
As you race, there are also optional objectives given to you for each event, which means you have something different to focus on during each race. These can be fun in some instances, but also completely impossible in others. It sounds cool when it asks you to finish the race in reverse, but when the game physics are designed to allow you to drift up to 90 degrees without spinning and you don’t have a massive lead, it requires a cumbersome three-point-turn.
I like the challenge of doing lots of different events and routes in different cars, and I like the energy. If brevity is your bag, there’s a quick pathway through events to reach the grand finale, but completionists still have the option of going back and achieving victory in every challenge.
Dirt 5 does have other game modes beyond the career. Playgrounds mode is potentially the saving grace of this title – it allows you to create your own levels and upload for the world to play. It’s full of creativity, providing a community platform that could outlast any other aspects of the game. You can race on other people’s creations and compare your times or scores to the world’s best. The creation mode is intuitive and you can throw something fun together in a short amount of time.
Online, things are fun but a little bareboned. At the time of writing, there isn’t the option of a private lobby with friends, nor the option browse lobbies or change any settings. You can however team up in a party of eight people total (just four upon initial release) and join pre-set games. Once there, the racing is boisterous, in so much as there’s a lot of crashing. There are Party Modes too, which consist of capture-the-flag variations. Sounds like a riot but is somehow a little hollow.
On the whole, the Codemasters Cheshire studio has created a fun game that’s well built and full of energy. The bold aesthetic, smooth visuals and loud soundtrack bring the game to life. Pick up your controller and enjoy blasting through a muddy jungle in an off-road beast. Playgrounds add a layer of madness and creativity that’s found lurking in all the best DIRT games.
However, DIRT 5 just misses the mark in other critical areas. The career doesn’t feel as immersive as it could have been, and your adversaries can be frustrating at times. The driving experience is solid but can lack finesse. Online has no progression features and vehicles can’t be upgraded. We’ll see if the community sticks around, but for now DIRT 5 is an entertaining game to play through during a lockdown, but too shallow to stick around afterwards.
|Release date||6th November 2020|
|Available platforms||PC (Steam), PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series |
Stadia coming in 2021
|Version/s tested||PC, PS4 and PS5|
|Best played with||Controller|
Full disclosure: We bought this game for the purposes of review. Here is our review policy.