We’re big fans of Codemasters work on rally games (well, any racing game they make really), and any long time readers and listeners will know how much we love the thrill of hurtling through forests and narrowly missing a terminal crash. Every now and then though we want a change of pace that’s not demanding as much precision, and that’s the zone DiRT 5 is drifting in to. Forget the hardcore realism of the other rally games, this is a more informal affair where the accuracy has slipped in favour of action. Picking up the direction of where DiRT 2 and 3 were going and leveraging the pedigree from ex-Motorstorm and DriveClub devs, this is brash, loud and hectic. It’s also raucous fun and a great way to end a generation of excellent racing games. Sliding around on snow, gravel, ice and mud beckons.
Whilst this is like a return to some of the previous titles content, it’s also a departure as well. There are no pure rally stages in DiRT 5, so let’s get that upfront. If you’re looking for that kind of challenge then pick up the peerless DiRT Rally 2.0 instead. Here is a game that takes the principles of chucking loads of cars on slippery surfaces and amps that up, whilst layering on top a faux extreme sports competition vibe. This fictional world is dominated by Alex Janiček (A. J., voiced by Troy Baker), and you’re an up and coming driver that’s caught his eye and ended up being mentored by him. There’s another newbie on the scene though that’s set to cause waves – Bruno Durand (played by Nolan North) – and there’s no love lost between the two. It’s an interesting backdrop to the path that you’ll take through the career mode, and it’s partially told through the DiRT Podcast by Donut Media with hosts that really bring an excitement and humour to the events. You’re here to race though, and whatever happens in the story doesn’t distract from the on track action.
The career is split into five chapters, comprised in total of around 130 different events, plus some one-on-one throwdown events to unlock, though the structure means you don’t have to complete absolutely everything. As you progress there’s the choice of which event to pick next from a selection, and this means you can forge your own path. It’s handy as it means there’s a degree of specialisation in that there’s the ability to avoid those races that you’re not as good at. At least, sometimes there is. Each chapter end has a level target and stamp barrier (i.e., the ubiquitous 3-stars scoring method), that needs exceeding to progress and there is a need to revisit ones that were skipped to gain some extra XP or more stamps. It is worth doing as there are sponsor challenges that can be completed in race for bonuses, liveries to unlock, and of course cash to earn to buy more stuff. It’s not arduous either, the races themselves are fast and furious. Split into different categories like Land Rush, Stampede, Rally Raid, Ultra Cross, Ice Breaker and Sprint, the aim is usually simple: get to the end before everyone else.
DiRT 5’s race events are either lap based courses or point-to-point battles, and despite the differing names of them most of the time it’s a case of hammering it alongside 11 opponents, trying to stay in a straight line. The format doesn’t really change to much for the most part. There are two events that do change things up though – Gymkhana and Pathfinder. The former is set in small closed areas for doing tricks, and the latter being more like an off-road assault course. Both are just you against the clock and are refreshing to not have to worry about getting smashed into the scenery. All the other events demand concentration to understand which way the track is going to turn next, one eye on the proximity markers for the opponents, and one eye on the minimap. With no pace notes or racing line it becomes more about getting a feel for the terrain and figuring out what the right level of braking is to kick in a drift and blast around a bend. Getting it wrong usually means getting punished by the AI rather than anything other than cosmetic damage to the car. It’s lovely, subtle damage too, a dent here, a crack there… then an entire panel will get ripped off revealing the detailing underneath.
Fortunately, the opposition has to deal with the same lack of traction, and in Dirt 5 it’s gloriously missing. Gravel is perfect for powerslides; mud is cloying and saps the speed along with the grip; snow reduces braking strength; and ice… well, it’s like trying to drive on it. No matter which of the ten countries you’re visiting, or which configuration of track, there’s always at least two different surface types to cope with. That’s before the weather drops its load too. This is extreme racing, so it’s got extreme precipitation too, and that changes the tyre interaction as much as the visibility. Layer on a speedy day/night cycle and it creates dynamic events that look and feel spectacular. Seeing a sandstorm coming in to Morocco or having the skies darken and the mist thicked in China lets you know there’s going to be something else to contend with soon. Was the RWD with great speed but poor handling feeling like the right choice to make now?
In terms of cars there’s a lot on offer and they’re all brilliantly realised and viewable from the menus. Every discipline usually has 5 or 6 options, and the slowest for each category is available from the start. From Rally Cross to Formula Off Road, pretty much everything is covered. As the career progresses some of the events even have the option of which class is used so if you prefer the Cross Raid to the Pre Runners you can select those instead. Buying a new car is as easy as holding the purchase button, as long as the cash is in the bank, and default liveries make them stand out. However, there’s a reasonably simple yet deep livery editor that allows for several presets for every vehicle, and a big part of the reward system is providing textures and patterns for you to go crazy with. As with everything in DiRT 5, there’s lots of colour, and it’s easy to create something bespoke to you. It’s the same with the player card too that’s showcased for the podium sitters, and I’d assume for online too. At the time of writing this the servers aren’t up so it’s tough to confirm what is and isn’t in that.
That said, one of the multiplayer elements is up and running, even if the fruits of labour are not able to be shared yet, and that’s the Playgrounds mode. In here you can build your own arena event for checkpoint races, gymkhanas or block smashing using preset items from the development team. It’s surprisingly easy to do and appears to have loads of memory allocated for item placement, although as with anything like this, you have to make sure you know what you’re wanting to create up front. Ramps, fences and platforms are placed and snapped together, then can be copied and moved around, and finally tested with a quick run in whichever car has on hand. Once the circuit is setup there’s a validation process and it can be shared with the community. For those that like the enclosed events and drifting, donuts and jumps, this will be a great mode that provides a decent feed of new content. As it’s only functional up to the pre-validation part at the moment it’s hard to say what the creativity will be like, but just from messing around in the editor and making a time trial, it’s looking promising.
Performance wise there were a few questions heading into playing DiRT 5, and one was answered pretty quickly – has it been aimed at next gen platforms? It definitely has and I’m more excited to play the upgraded versions after spending the time in this one, but that doesn’t mean it’s detrimental to the current consoles. Playing on a PS4 Pro there are framerate and quality options to pick from, however, each shows that Codemasters are pushing the engine capabilities to the limit. Usually in a racing game I’d plump for 60 fps and enjoy the responsiveness, but screen tear is an issue. Not loads, though when it happens it’s across the middle of your view. 30 fps locks it all down and it’s very smooth, but it does have some light and texture pop in problems that are mainly noticeable during night races. It’s still a gorgeous game though, and has a superb audio mix that pumps the upbeat soundtrack to your ears at every given moment. There’s no in race music to take away the growl of the engines, though it does filter through the PA systems of the circuits so you catch snippets as you’re drifting around bends. It heightens the sense of a party atmosphere in the world, and that continued push of style and substance.
Having been away from this type of off-road racing for a while (excluding the undervalued ONRUSH), Codemasters have given DiRT 5 a triumphant return to the frivolous end of the genre. It isn’t meant to be taken seriously, it’s all about giving it some welly and sliding around on the edge of control, and this delivers on all fronts. Or rather nearly all fronts. There are bits still to be implemented post-launch, like the aforementioned multiplayer, and full steering wheel support. However, drop-in, drop-out 4 player couch co-op is present from day one. Do those bits matter right now though? I spent the first part of the career with a grin from ear to ear as the whole presentation grabbed hold of me and dragged me along in its vision. You really do feel like you’ve been pulled into a fully realised racing world. From the fake driver interviews on the podcast, to the PA announcements blaring out in the native language of the country you’re visiting, it all has an effect to put you in that cockpit, in that place, and at that time. Not that it gives you any time to savour it as it’s continually pushing you on to the next event in your quest to be the best, but it will take you on a hell of a ride.
A PS4 review copy of DiRT 5 was provided by Codemasters PR team, and the game is available on PC, Xbox One and PS4 from 3rd November for the Amplified Edition, and 6th November for the standard version. A Stadia version is in the works for release in 2021. Free PS5 and Xbox Series X upgrades will be available at the launch of those consoles.