DiRT 5 Review – Let’s Get Dirty, Baby

With Codemasters being bought by Take-Two for a substantial £750-million ( a deal due to the be finalised in Q1 of 2021) it looks like we can expect more annual DiRT, GRID and F1 games since that’s a major part of Take-Two’s business plan. It should provide Codemaster’s with more financial security, but will it possibly lock them into doing nothing more than annualised franchises? Which is what they do now, really, so I guess nothing will change. The point is, DIRT 5 will likely be the last game to come from Codemaster’s without also being under the considerable shadow of Take-Two, so is DIRT 5 a suitable goodbye to Codies in their current form?

With the DIRT Rally series now firmly established as being the proper rally games, that leaves the rest of the DIRT series free to do whatever it wants, and in the case of DIRT 5 whatever it wants is an arcade racer with more colour than my nephew’s face after he’s found the box of paints. In fact, there isn’t even any traditional rally stages in DIRT 5. Nor is there any proper wheel support out of the box, with Codemasters promising to add it at a later date. The lack of VR support might just be the straw that broke the metaphorical camel’s back for the more hardcore racing fans out there, and honestly, that’s okay. I can understand the lack of VR support given how small a market that is and how much smaller a VR market for an arcade racer must be, but the lack of wheel support at launch is crazy.

DiRT 5 makes a pretty big deal of the fact that it has both Troy Baker and Nolan North in its cast, two amazing actors who between them have voiced roughly 99.9% of video game characters and could, in fact, sit down and give us a conversation between the Joker and Deadpool. It’s quite amazing to see a racing game featuring two of the most prominent actors in the business, especially because the last time racing games tried to have a story we ended up with that bloody Need for Speed movie which nobody watched.

Available On: PC, Xbox One, Xbox S/X, PS4, PS5
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Codemasters Cheshire
Publisher: Codemasters

Review code provided free of charge by the publisher

Sadly as awesome as Baker and North are, they can’t magically make a story good on their own. The idea is that the current champion AJ has started up a new driver academy and takes you under his wing, sending you out to compete in various events. But AJ comes under siege from Bruno who has jumped over from the DIRT motorcycle series ( a possible hint of a DIRT bike game in the future?) and is now dominating the racing scene. AJ and Bruno are essentially opposites, with AJ being the guy who races for the joy of it, and Bruno racing purely for the wins. The whole thing gets told via episodes of the in-game podcast called The Donut, hosted by real-life hosts James Pumphrey and Nolan Sykes.

It’s…it’s…it’s…I mean, it’s there. The story is there. It’s a thing that exists. Little more can be said about it, really. Because you never see AJ and Bruno in person and only ever race against them once each in events that feel like every other race, it’s impossible to get invested in any of it, leaving the inevitable showdown with Bruno feeling hollow.

But one aspect of the story that I did enjoy was how natural the dialogue was. It almost sounds like they just gave everyone some bullet point notes, sat them down and let them wing it. There’s ums, ers, pauses and little fumbles, all of which sound real. I haven’t done any research to see if this is right, but I get the impression that they had James Pumphrey and Nolan Sykes host the podcast and treat Troy Baker and Nolan North as actual guests who were firing off unscripted answers based on their characters.

The career mode is also a thing that exists. It’s a barebones offering where you’ll pick from a couple of events which will unlock a few more events and so on and so on until you hit the final showdown with Bruno. Perhaps the best evidence of how utterly “meh” the career mode is only 5.4% of players on Steam who own the game currently have the achievement for completing the final event. If you focus purely on reaching the final event you’ll blitz through the whole thing in a few hours, but you can get more time out of it if you go back and mop up every event.

The only bit of interest is that you can snap up sponsors who have objectives for you to compete which in turn bumps up your reputation with them. This is the only way to unlock special liveries, stickers and others bits and pieces for your profile. It’ll also provide a load of extra cash, but considering how insultingly easy money is to come by in DIRT 5 that means nothing. You can buy left, right and centre without even considering your bank balance, something I sadly can’t do in real life. A single race will usually earn you back the money you just spent on buying that Porsche 4×4 or the Lancer Evo.

As for little challenge’s you get on each track, they’re bloody useless. The idea of these randomly selected trio of goals is to earn you extra reputation, but they are the dullest, most generic objectives you could think of, containing such brilliantly imaginative things as “X overtakes” and “trade paint X times.” These add nothing to your race because they’re things you do anyway. But the most annoying thing is that since they are randomly selected, you’ll sometimes wind up with stuff like needing to get X amount of airtime on a track with no jumps. I mean, I’m good, but I’m not that good.

Compared to something like Codemaster’s own F1 2020 the career mode is about as basic as they come, but it does at least let you check out the game’s strong variety of events. There’s a lot of toys to play with, from the mixed-surface Ultra Cross events and the incredibly slidey ice-racing to the Land Rush races that take place on more gnarly terrain. A few of them blend together, such as Stampede and Land Rush basically being the same thing, but for the most part there’s a good amount of variety to enjoy. These events cover classic rally cars, buggies, trucks with more horsepower than is properly necessary and more.

Not all events are made equal, though. The standout new type of race is Pathfinder. Despite its name it takes place on a set track, but it sticks you into a rock-climber and tasks you with bombing up steep hills, over boulders and round tight bends. It’s a lot of fun and adds something really different into the mix, although the handling and physics take some getting used to.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are Sprint races. Whoever designed these should be made to sit in a corner and think long and hard about what they’ve done, because my God they are terrible. They take place entirely on oval circuits and attempting to control the damn cars is like corralling a suicidal lemming away from a fucking cliff. I did two Sprint events and then refused to even look at them in the menu.

Gymkhana events make a return, too, and will probably be as divisive as they’ve ever been. If you don’t know what gymkhana is then I can only assume you’ve never watched Youtube, but here’s the general idea: you take a car and blast around an area littered with jumps, narrow gaps, donut areas and more with the goal being to perform tricks for points. Simple stuff.

If you do well enough in a chosen event type you’ll unlock a Showdown with that disciplines reigning champion, people with names like…er, that person! And that one! I honestly can’t remember. These one-on-one battles should be exciting moments in your career, a chance to test your skills against the very best. Instead, they’re just another normal events. Aside from racing against a single opponent, there’s nothing special going on. The tracks are the same you’ve raced on, the A.I. doesn’t act differently. Aside from getting some special liveries or stickers for winning, Showdowns are a let-down.

All this yacking and I’ve not actually talked about how the cars are to drive. I’m happy to report this is where DIRT 5 shines, provided you realise that it’s purely an arcade racer with no time for any of that realistic physics nonsense. It’s easy to throw cars, trucks and buggies intro controlled slides. So easy, in fact, that using your regular brakes is entirely optional instead of just using the handbrake or just using the gas to kick the back end out. There’s not any depth to it or a high skill ceiling, but it is a lot of fun. And while the cars in each class feel similar to each other, the classes themselves have much more pronounced differences. The meaty trucks and their chunky engines don’t handle anything like the agile rally cars, and when you throw surface changes into the mix it’s even better.

Tinkering with a car’s setup can be a satisfying feeling but DIRT 5 doesn’t bother with that. I’m guessing they wanted to keep the game focused on the arcade racing thrills and felt that stuff like car setups would get in the way, but I’d like a few basic options even if it’s just gearing.

The tracks are another highlight along with the handling. DIRT 5 doesn’t abandon reality, but without the laser-focus on creating stages that are true to their real life counterparts the developers have clearly had a lot more fun designing the tracks you rip up. You’ll blast underneath a beautiful Aurora Borealis in Norway, slide under the Roosevelt Bridge and kick up mud in Brazil. The total track selection isn’t huge, something you’ll notice if you focus on one discipline, but each one is a joy to race, both in terms of the terrain and the visuals. Dynamic weather and time of day help add variety, and again the developers flex reality by having changes take place super-fast. You might start in the day, but a lap or two later and its pitch black and theirs a snow-storm blowing that makes seeing the track tricky. Bolts of lightening will occasionally flash across the the sky, briefly turning the screen white. I love how claustrophobic heavy rain and snow can be, especially if you use the cockpit cam.

I think the developers missed a big opportunity by also focusing on delivering some awesome damage modelling. With packs of cars sharing the track there’s a lot of shoving, barging and slamming going on, but the damage model is very basic and you can’t wreck your car. Basically, it makes bouncing off the walls and using other drivers as brakes too easy, with no penalty for playing pinball with racing cars. Even back in the likes of DIRT 2 your wheels could pop off the car, yet in 2020 the most that can happen is your doors fall off.

It’s frustrating because the team that worked on DIRT 5 is the same one that did the criminally under-rated and overlooked Onrush (you should go read my review of that) which had a big focus on fun destruction.

The A.I. you race against suffer the same problem that existed in GRID last year: they’re an inconsistent bunch of tossers. Sometimes they present a good challenge, and other times they appear to swapped brains with a Labrador: all enthusiasm, no co-ordination. Watching them crash or mis-judge corners is fun, but sometimes they’ll just slam into a wall for no reason. You’re never sure if you’re going to get a nicely balanced challenge, a thrashing or lazy Sunday drive.

Heading online should solve the problem of idiotic A.I. by replacing them with idiotic people. There’s a good variety of modes on offer like Vampire, which starts with one player as the vamp who has to chase down and ram other players to infect them with a lust for…uh, metal? Meanwhile, King is essentially the opposite with everyone trying to hunt down the one player wearing the crown. And then there’s Transporter, or basically Capture the Flag with cars. Or you could just stick with the normal events like a boring vanilla racer with no imagination. God, you’re such a disappointment to your mother and me.

The multiplayer works well. I didn’t notice connectivity issues and the racing itself is fun, although given the style that DIRT 5 aims for you need to be okay with everything being a smash-fest like every single vehicle is being driven by the Hulk after he’s just been told Black Widow doesn’t like him that way. However, getting into a game is problematic. It’s hard to say if this is due to the game itself or due to the fact that, at least on PC, there’s not a massive amount of people playing.

While DIRT Rally 2.0 kept people coming back because of its handling, thrills and desire to get better, DIRT 5 might struggle to keep people engaged. The basic career, straightforward (but wicked fun) handling and simple multiplayer probably won’t keep players coming back for more. That brings us to the coolest idea in DIRT 5: Playground mode. Playground is community-driven, a basic toolset you can use to snap together gymkhana events or simple races. The raw assets you get to play around with are more limited than I’d really like, but the community is already coming up with some awesome designs that make the most of what they’ve been given. This is where I ended up spending most of my time, checking out the best new stuff and fiddling around with the editor myself. It’s easy to use, which is both good and bad: it’s quite limited and not very flexible, but just about anybody should be able to piece something together. Be warned though, no matter how good you are your creations will also look like Frankenstein’s monsters.

Finally, there’s some bugs to talk about. For the most part, DIRT 5 does look great, although occasionally it looks…flat. However, there’s a big problem at the moment with night races where distant lights will flicker, while other lights just ahead of you will suddenly pop into existence like someone’s just flicked a light switch. It’s distracting.

Crash physics can behave weirdly, too, with the cars bouncing strangely. When you combine that with the lack of detailed damage modelling crashes can look hilariously stupid.

As for the performance, it needs some tweaking. My (admittedly somewhat aging) GTX 1080 Ti did well, but no matter how much I fiddled with the settings I couldn’t get it to maintain a steady framerate. The dips were never huge, but they were frequent and pronounced enough to be irritating.

Based on a lot of the negative reviews haunting DIRT 5 on Steam I can’t help but think a lot of the problems come from expectations about what DIRT 5 was going to be, rather than judging it for what it is. That’s not the fault of the people who bought it, rather it’s a side-effect of the game bearing the DIRT name. DIRT 4 was a more relaxed rally game, for example, so the change to the pure arcade racing of DIRT 5 could catch a lot of people off.

I thnk if you go into DIRT 5 knowing what it actually is, there’s a lot of fun to be had hammering round angled bends, hitting big jumps, sliding on ice and spinning wheels in trucks. As much as I love a good racing sim that demands you setup a wheel and get serious, there’s a lot to be said for something simpler and accessible. If you want to arcade thrills and spills, DIRT 5 will do the job.

The Good.

  • Excellent handling.
  • Great tracks.
  • Playground mode.

The Bad

  • Weak career mode.
  • Naff damage.
  • Probably won’t keep you playing long.
  • No wheel support at launch. Seriously?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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