The Dirt series is probably my favorite racing franchise. Not only are there high quality versions coming out of Codemaster every other year or so, you can get them in two flavors: the more simulation oriented Dirt Rally games, or the more arcade-like numbered Dirt games. I admit I tend to enjoy the less-simulation heavy racers—as long as they have realistic feeling and satisfying driving mechanics. Dirt 5 delivers those in spades.
Dirt 5 is a racing game that centers mainly around off-road racing. It features different types of off-road racing, mostly variations on rallycross mixed material racing—where you’ll be driving over dirt, mud or sand one moment and then over paved or brick roads the next. You’ll be doing this in a number of different buggies, specialized vehicles, trucks and cars from a number of different rallycross eras. If you’re looking for traditional rally racing with co-drivers, you’ll be disappointed: there’s no rally here, with mostly only head-to-head racing on closed circuit or short rally-like tracks.
In Dirt 5 you can take on your opponents in a number of different events through multiple different modes of play. There’s a narrative focused career mode, online mode where you can face-off against players or play with friends, an arcade mode that lets you do single races, and the playgrounds mode which lets you drive in or create different types of arena tracks for checkpoint or freestyle trick racing.
Arcade and multiplayer modes are pretty straight forward. Arcade mode lets you do a single race or a time trial. Multiplayer mode can either be played online or locally split screen—even on PC—and you can choose to play any number of party games and races. The party games are objective based, and sound hectic with up to twelve players able to play at once online—but these party modes aren’t something I had a chance to play during the embargoed pre-release review window. If these party modes significantly change my perspective after launch, I’ll update this review.
Playground mode is interesting, and it has the potential for some longevity with its community content. In Playground mode you can either create your own arena-based tracks, or download community made ones. It features three events: gate crasher with timed checkpoints, freestyle “Gymkhana,” and smash attack—smash objectives to reach a high score in the allotted time. Creating courses is great fun, and pretty easy. Currently, there aren’t that many locations to make the courses in—but the locations just serve as backdrops anyhow.
The meat of Dirt 5 is its narrative story mode. Narrative is used loosely here—as most of the “story” is almost purely narration with the narrator voiced by legend Troy Baker (Nolan North even makes an appearance as your rival). But the story can be completely ignored if you choose. Unlike previous Dirt games, there is very little to do between races. You don’t hire a garage crew, and there is no tweaking of cars, or repairing them between races—any damage sustained during a race disappears afterwards. You can purchase cars from the garage. There are two main metrics: performance, and handling, with these being represented by letter grades. You’re also given information on the car’s drivetrain, engine type, weight and torque, but cars that might look good on paper may not translate to the track–or event. Even with those details, I didn’t really feel like I had enough detailed information to make a truly informed car decision—but the currency is so easy to come by, it never feels like a waste to dump points into a car if it’s something you think you’ll use. You can also customize your car’s livery in the garage, but the options are a little lacking. Most cars’ patterns are unlocked only by reaching a high player level. Until then, you can change your car’s color, and add decals as you unlock them.
This is almost pure arcade as you race on the variety of different events over the entirely of Dirt 5’s 70 routes over 10 locations across the globe. As you finish more races, you’ll get currency and experience. Currency is used to unlock new cars, as well as customization options—and experience is there as another gateway, locking customization options behind a gate. The most notable thing about Dirt 5’s career mode is its ability to be played entirely in splitscreen, with up to three other players alongside you.
Not every mode is a winner, but Dirt 5, no matter how you play it, feels damn satisfying. There are a few settings to make the driving more or less challenging, by tweaking traction control, stability management, and anti-lock brake systems. There’s also autobrake, and an AI difficulty setting. It doesn’t get any more detailed than that. But it’s not about the options, it’s about the gameplay: Dirt 5 is a pleasure to drive. The various surfaces you’ll drive across manage to feel like you’d expect. Driving on mud is substantially different than driving on pavement. Some circuits are entirely on ice, and driving even on wet ice feels different than normal ice.
If you’re worried about lack of unique courses to drive on, don’t be: there are over 70 courses across 10 global locations. Some of these places are breathtakingly gorgeous, with audiences and background ambience that make it feel like I’m racing in an ultra-high fidelity 90s arcade racer. Confetti gets tossed across the track, fires burn in burn pits, waves crash on the shore, and fireworks fly and burst above the finish line. The courses are dynamic, beautiful, and some of them are absolutely challenging. The number “70” might be a little misleading, as some of the courses are just backwards versions of other courses—but they’re always exciting. The dynamic weather system can make a run even more exciting, with ran slowly getting the dirt tracks full of mud puddles—and snow accumulating on tracks during heavy snowfall.
I like to drive mostly in first person cockpit mode—and every cockpit is fully useable, and in great detail. Dirt 5 doesn’t currently have a VR mode, but it would be a shame if they didn’t’ implement one—the interiors look great, and I’d love to sit inside on of these cars in virtual reality. But you don’t need virtual reality to appreciate the weather effects, plus the slush and mud of the track being thrown onto your windshield.
While I played a pre-release version of Dirt 5 on PC, I did run into a few technical issues. It’s possible these will be ironed-out for the full release, they’re worth noting. I experienced crashes to desktop a few times, but without loss of progress—and usually at completion of a race. There was another bug that didn’t upgrade my position in the race, and another that exchanged my username with another generic racer’s name—though that didn’t change the outcome of the race for me. The strangest and most frustrating bug I had actually kept switching me between my main save, and another profile I thought was lost towards the beginning. The issue seems to be caused by switching between controller and keyboard mode while the game is quitting or starting. I thought I lost my progress once, until I figured out what was going on.
Dirt 5 is great. It definitely leans more “arcade” than “sim” but it does so with the perfect balance of fun and realism. The Dirt series continues to be my personal favorite series of racing games, and that’s because of its attention to detail, and its unparalleled driving: no racing game is as fun or satisfying to play. I would have appreciated more livery options and more robust management options during the career mode, but Dirt 5 is so spectacularly fun, I can live without them. If you’re a fan of the Dirt series, don’t mind the lack of pure rally racing, and don’t want a pure simulation, this is a must.
Dirt 5 is available November 6th for Xbox One, Playstation 4, and Windows via Steam, as well as Stadia, and will be available for Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 at release. And, If you purchase Dirt 5’s Amplified Edition, you can start playing November 3rd, for 3 full days of early access racing fun.
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