The DiRT series has had a bit of trouble settling on an identity, with DiRT Rally being the pure rally sim and DiRT 4 trying to juggle more forgiving rallying and a bunch of other stuff on the side. Then came DiRT Rally 2.0 which again focused on delivering a realistic rally experience. But now it seems like Codemasters might be settling into a rhythm because DiRT 5 is on the opposite end of the spectrum from DiRT 2.0. The colours are vibrant, the music is loud and the focus is on jumps, bumps and wheel-to-wheel racing. DiRT Rally can stick with hardcore action, while the DiRT games can aim for the more casual fans. With around a month until launch, Codemasters offered me a preview build of their newest DiRT 5 mode: Playgrounds, a place where you can make your own events and share them with the world.
At the moment there are three types of events you can make. Gate Crasher is about driving through checkpoints, so it’s perfect for making a straight race course, although you can make a nice, open map with obstacles and let players try to figure out the fastest route through all the gates. Block Smasher is pretty much what it sounds like – smash the blocks, score points, win. Hit a penalty block and you have to live the rest of your life with the knowledge that you’re a terrible driver. Finally, Gymkhana is back and is all about scoring points by doing stuff like donuts, drifting through gates and pulling off sick jumps while yelling, “cowabunga, dudes!” No? Just me?
Unsurprisingly, when I first logged in the user-created content was mostly supplied by Codemasters employees who have been fiddling with Playgrounds for ages and know what they are doing. Every track you make is contained within an arena, so the Codemasters levels were a crash course in how to use verticality, jumps and serpentine layouts to create flowing, complex courses in which I could crash my car repeatedly before rage quitting.
Piecing everything together is simply a case of snapping things into place, although you can choose to disable snapping for a finer degree of control, if you prefer. If you’ve ever played the Tony Hawk games or the Skate series, it feels instantly familiar. You can cobble something together in 10 or 15 minutes, if you like.
According to Codemasters the selection of items I got to play around with is pretty close to what the game is going to launch with. There are basic dirt and tarmac platforms, banked corners and simple ramps, along things like tyre barriers so that you can coral enthusiastic players who have yet to learn about the concept of braking. You also get a few corkscrews, pre-made hairpin bends and some Gymkhana setups, too. Or you can get a little more flashy by popping down a ring of fire or a couple of buses to jump over.
Right now, my one complaint would be that most of the premade stuff leans heavily toward squarish designs. If you want flowing curves you have to grab something like a little concrete barrier and patiently pop it down over and over. And no matter how hard you work, the levels you create never manage to look professional or even cohesive. Even some basic options for playing around with colours could help players bring everything together.
Likewise, I’d like some more flexibility in object placement. You can’t sink things into the ground or place stuff on top of other things in Playgrounds current form. Nor can you do something like take the premade hairpin and tilt to create a banked hairpin that reaches into the sky.
With your masterpiece (or disaster) finished it’s simply a case of hitting the upload button and then validating the event by completing it, just to ensure that you aren’t uploading something where the finish line is sitting on top of a skyscraper. Players are then free to check out your creation and give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. I’m pleased to say that even in this early preview build levels load in nice and quick on PC, making browsing for something good a doddle.
Whatever vehicle you opted to validate the track with is the exact one that everyone has to use in order to keep the leaderboards fair. For this build only a couple of cars, trucks and buggies were available, but it did let me get to grips with DiRT 5’s handling model which is considerably more forgiving than Dirt 2.0. Cars can be slid around with relative ease, and smacking into walls doesn’t equal totalling your ride. With just over a month until launch, though, it’s hard to say how the handling will be tweaked.
Overall, Playgrounds is a fun new addition and I’m eager to see what madness the community can create in DiRT 5. I do have concerns over the longevity of the mode, though – will it have enough depth in its simple tools to keep people coming back in the same way that other editors do? Will we see some creative brilliance, or will the editor not allow for it? When you look at the editor in the Trials series it’s amazing what people have managed to do with it. If DiRT 5 could come close to that, then Codemasters will have a real hit on their hands. The key to that potential success will be continuing to support Playgrounds with new items and modes so that the community can flex their creative muscles. With that strong support in place, Playgrounds could end up being the beating heart of DiRT 5.