Dirt 5 foregoes nearly all of the formalities of rally racing for a full-on arcade experience, and a damn good one at that. The racing game has much more in common with Codemasters Cheshire’s previous racer, the criminally underrated Onrush, than other games in the series. Instead of racing against the clock on rally stages, most races have you take on 11 other drivers in circuit or point-to-point races featuring plenty of drifting, crashing, and high-flying jumps.
The star of the game is the branching five-chapter, 130-event career mode, which, along with the previously mentioned races, features a handful of time trials over tough terrain and gymkhana events where the key to getting a high score is big air and long drifts. All of this is accompanied by a surprisingly good story told in a series of podcasts between races hosted by entertaining real-life podcasters James Pumphrey and Nolan Sykes. They’re joined by your mentor throughout the career, Alex “AJ” Janicek, who is played by Troy Baker, and your rival on the racetrack, Bruno Durand, played by the incomparable Nolan North.
It’s weird to compliment the story in an arcade racing game, but all four of these performers do a fantastic job of setting up the rivalry with Durand, although sometimes the podcasts did drag on a little too long when I just wanted to jump into the next race. Along with the fantastic voice acting, Dirt 5 boasts one of the best and most varied licensed soundtracks in recent memory, with songs spanning multiple genres from the likes of The Chemical Brothers, The Raconteurs, and Chaka Khan.
Courses do eventually get a little repetitive, but with 70 routes set in 10 different locations, including New York City, South Africa, and Norway, there’s still a ton of variety. And since you’re free to choose your route through the career’s branching paths, you can switch locales pretty regularly. Don’t expect a roster of vehicles on par with Gran Turismo, but the cars, trucks, and buggies from manufactures like Porsche, Ford, and Volkswagen offer a good amount of options, and they’re almost all a blast to drive.
Each track terrain, whether its dirt, asphalt, snow, or ice, feels distinct. Any rally car is going to be able to run circles around the competition on the Manhattan tracks on a sunny day, while driving on the frozen East River is a struggle for even the mightiest racing truck. But the best part of these courses is the dynamic changes as you progress. The sun regularly sets or rises on many of them, completely changing the look of each track. That’s pretty cool, but what’s really game changing is when a sandstorm suddenly kicks up on a Monaco track, or a calm nighttime drive through Norway is interrupted by heavy thundersnow. Dirt 5 consistently keeps the experience fresh, even mid-race.
As impressive as the dynamic weather effects are, graphics are somewhat spotty. Cars are detailed well enough, but there’s very little happening on the sidelines during races. Trees barely move, and spectators are as wooden as ever. Of course, that’s difficult to notice when you’re speeding by at 90 mph. To Codemasters’ credit, Dirt 5 is scalable so that you can decide whether you want better graphics or a higher framerate. On ultra high settings, I was able to consistently to hit a stable 40 FPS with the RTX 2070 Max-Q GPU in my gaming laptop. On medium settings, the game still looked very good, and ran smoothly at about 70 FPS. I was partial to playing with a higher frame rate, but it really comes down to personal preference.
Release Date: Nov. 6, 2020
Platforms: PC (reviewed), XSX, PS5, XBO, PS4, Stadia
Developer: Codemasters Cheshire
While career modes in racing games are prone to repetition and grinding, Codemasters has found a nice balance in Dirt 5. Each race awards up to three stamps, and a certain number of stamps is required to unlock the final race in each chapter. The easiest way to get these stamps is to come in first place, but each race also has three objectives that can be completed to get one stamp instead. These objectives might include pulling of a certain number of drifts, staying in first place for a set amount of time, or crossing the finish line in reverse. You could come in last place, and still get an extra stamp so long as you pull off these objectives. It’s a nice way to ensure you’re still making progress even if you hit a patch of tough races.
Difficulty is handled quite well, though. I played through the career on the default medium difficulty level and scored podium finishes pretty consistently, but rarely won races by large margins. Races and objectives do increase in challenge in the last two chapters, but when there are so many events to go back to and choose from to get more stamps, grinding isn’t much of an issue.
One downside of the career mode is length. If you just want to get to the final race as quickly as possible, it only takes about six hours. But if you want to play every event, unlock the dozens of liveries, go one-on-one against tougher drivers in the bonus “throwdown” events, that’s going to take at least a couple dozen hours.
So far it does appear that the new Playgrounds mode, a surprisingly robust track creator, will help with Dirt 5’s longevity. While the tools limit tracks to either the desert of Arizona or South Africa’s Cape Town Stadium, the UI is intuitive enough to create some rather interesting races and gymkhana events. Already, a number of the community-created courses show off some impressive verticality not present in the tracks the game shipped with.
Dirt 5 is arcade racing stripped down to its purist form. There are no upgrades to fuss with and damage is purely cosmetic. It’s just one high speed thrill after another on gorgeous racetracks set all over the world. Yes, the career mode is on the shorter side and the vehicle selection is a little light, but what is here is an absolute joy to play.