DIRT 5 takes the biggest upshift the franchise has seen in several years, one that’s a significant divergent compared to its predecessor, DIRT 4. This time, Codemasters is keeping the simulation physics and real-world rally tracks exclusive to its spin-off DIRT Rally series instead of trying to blend them all together in an arcade environment with little sense of overall direction. This change has benefitted DIRT 5 for the better, with a focus on fun arcade thrills and exotic, but fictional locations that are a delight to race on.
Players are taken on a globe-trotting journey across each of these environments, all of which serve up something unique. From the ruthless deserts of Arizona and the mud-slicked terrain of Brazil to a blizzard under the Northern Lights in Norway, the scale of these locales is simply vast. Dynamic conditions ensure each race feels a little different to the one prior and with 70 individual routes across all 10 worldwide locations, there’s plenty here to whet your appetite.
The structured Career mode brings all these tracks together across a range of unique racing modes, which can be similarly enjoyed and customized in Free Play or in the Multiplayer offerings. In terms of the latter, be warned that it boil down to a simple matchmaker for races or party modes with no tweakable options in-between, so if you’re looking for something more specific than a rotating selection of 12-player casual online races or fun minigames, then you’re out of luck. You can however invite up to four friends to join you before you begin matchmaking and there’s even four-player split-screen support! Remember that? It’s also worth noting that Codemasters plans to add private lobbies after launch, but we don’t know what form they’ll take.
DIRT 5’s Career mode also has some truly unexpected voice talent with Troy Baker and Nolan North both onboard. They guide you through the experience and whilst it’s a little surreal to hear them in a racing game, it’s a neat touch for those who value it. They also star on the DIRT Podcast by Donut Media, but if this all too much for you, then simply skip it and just head straight into the action. In-between the events, DIRT 5 is brought together through an artistically stylized interface that’s both a pleasure to look at and navigate. Each Career event is also brought to life with its own handcrafted artwork. Sometimes, it’s often the smaller details that standout most.
It’s hard to find the perfect blend of somewhat realistic but accessible handing in the arcade racing genre, but DIRT 5 is one of the closest to attaining such a feat. In terms of off-road gameplay, it’s the best demonstration of how an arcade racer should feel. Cars feel loose but easy to control, puddles will require your attention to avoid losing grip, and every vehicle I’ve tried slides as I’d expect it to around every turn. Besides the occasional hiccup, it’s hard to fault. Codemasters has done a mostly solid job of finding the right balance here, and I appreciate its pure pick up and play factor. They also sound great too, with every fart, crackle and pop from the engine whine humming in your ears almost like music. If you also want some banging tunes with that, DIRT 5 comes with a fantastic, licensed soundtrack which features the likes of Pearl Jam, Stormzy and The Prodigy. You’ll hear it booming as you zoom past speakers, which is by far the most atmospheric way to enjoy it, but it can also be changed to play constantly regardless of your whereabouts or switched off altogether.
With each of DIRT 5’s environments being so exotic, it only makes sense that the visuals are on par. I reviewed the game on PC and found Medium settings on a RTX 2080 Super to deliver a solid balance of graphical fidelity and performance at 1440p, 120fps. Your mileage will naturally vary in this department, but even at the lowest settings, it still holds up quite well and I applaud Codemasters’ artistic direction in DIRT 5. It’s a positive step forward for the series that feels heavily inspired by ONRUSH, as much of what I enjoy about that game also applies to DIRT 5. Each location is brought to life through a vivid colour palette as screen space reflections ensure each puddle and stream of water are realistically detailed. For a non-raytracing implementation, it’s surprising just how good it looks at times. As expected, the car models are lavishly detailed to the point of imperfections, and the cosmetic damage model means you can beat them up to the point that some parts will even fall off! Just don’t expect your engine to stall as mechanical damage isn’t featured in this game. Regardless, all of it can be captured using the built-in Photo Mode, which features a variety of useable filters, numerous sliders, adjustable time-of-day and even a movable spotlight that when all combined, help you to achieve that perfect shot.
As mentioned, there’s a multitude of racing modes in DIRT 5 and they all challenge the player in different ways. I particularly liked the Ice Breaker events that see you skidding your way across the finish line, but Pathfinders are undoubtedly the most difficult – requiring speed, but also patience and strategy as you climb some seriously rocky and vertical terrain. There’s also Stampede, in which drivers tackle unforgiving landscapes where the layout is unmarked, so it’s on you to decide the best route on the fly. Similarly, Landrush events will also take you on rugged terrain with unpredictable weather conditions. There’s also point-to-point races as experienced in Rally Road, each featuring split routes for the most extreme off-road vehicles, whilst Sprint events thrust drivers out onto a circular track in 900bhp machines! Ultra-Cross events should be familiar to rally cross fans, whilst those who enjoy going sideways and pulling off stunts should find themselves at home in Gymkhana. In fact, there’s so many race type variations I’m not even confident that I remembered them all! So, I do apologise if I missed any.
Each mode offers its own unique twist in DIRT 5, but many of them also share similarities. I often found myself not distinguishing between them as I went from race to race in Career mode, but perhaps that’s more due to DIRT 5’s insanely fast loading times, which meant I didn’t have a chance to think about it. Even when installed to a traditional hard drive, tracks would load in seconds for me. I’m not sure how Codemasters pulled that one off, but it helps blend the entire experience together and maintain the focus on what matters the most – the gameplay. In terms of races, I haven’t always finished in first place, nor do I feel the need to, because I’m rewarded for completing optional objectives and earning XP to unlock additional events. Being the first across the line only remains a necessary feat for those seeking absolute completion, but it won’t always be easy. Race opponents aren’t always predictable, with some events proving harder than others as the finesse of your competitors increase overtime. Practice is sure to make perfect, however!
Progressing through Career mode also unlocks unique throwdown events that invite you to compete in tight one-on-one battles with established drivers or participate in special challenges to earn special rewards. Meanwhile, new sponsors will want to partner with you along the way, unlocking various incentives and additional objectives. You’ll also experience a breadth of vehicle classes including some truly exceptional cars as you progress and play different events, and each within them can be quickly customized to your liking using the built-in livery editor. It’s extremely easy to use and simple designs can be mocked up within seconds. Just don’t expect to create any masterful designs here, this is purely for quick use and accessibility, a factor clearly visible across the entire game. DIRT 5’s livery editor might be simple, but I love using it and I especially enjoy unlocking and adding those silly decals onto my ride. This is the first time in ages that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed customizing my cars, due to how effortless and seamless the process is.
Playgrounds is DIRT 5’s very own arena builder with much potential to be tapped into. Players can create, share and discover their own racing arenas and Codemasters promises to highlight the very best on a weekly basis. We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out, but the early results are promising. Keep in mind that this is purely a solo experience and tracks cannot be built for multiplayer races. Playgrounds features its own unique modes based on time trials, earning skill points and collecting tags. It’s undoubtedly an ambitious feature and the editor features easy-to-use controls. Because of this, crafting a custom arena or track can be done relatively fast. Just know that the build area in the available environments is relatively small, but the number of props available to use are quite varied which should lead to many distinct creations. It’s a powerful tool that will hopefully be utilized to its fullest by the brightest people in the community.
In addition to its assortment of racing modes, DIRT 5’s multiplayer also serves up party games. These include Vampire, King and Transporter. Vampire is a return of the classic Outbreak mode from DIRT 3, or to the average gamer, Infected. Players must avoid the Vampire car distinguished by its red headlights. Meanwhile, in King the goal is to hold onto the crown for as long as possible without colliding with another driver, but there’s a twist – those with it will leave behind a trail of coins for players to collect, so even if you don’t possess the crown, you can still score points. Finally, the goal of Transporter is to capture a designated object and bring it to a marked location. Sounds easy, right? Well, everyone else will be trying to stop you so they can instead transport it for themselves. However, the longer you hold it before delivering it, the more points you’ll earn. So, do you try to deliver it quickly to win, or hold it out to earn more points? Decisions, decisions.
Whilst it doesn’t reinvent the wheel by any capacity, DIRT 5 proves that there’s still much fun to be found in a classic off-road racing game – especially when there’s a bucket-load of content to back it. Between all the racing modes, stunning locations and car classes successfully brought together in the Career experience, not to mention the more party-orientated online modes, there’s much to be dived into across DIRT 5. However, it’s the Playgrounds feature that I’ll be keeping my closest eye on after release. These tools in the hands of the player could lead to some amazing experiences and I’d love to see Codemasters expand on it in the future with larger arenas, new props, a custom games editor and multiplayer support. One can dream.
Alan is the co-founder and co-owner of FullThrottle Media. As someone who enjoys spending all his free time playing video games, he keeps the website updated with new and relevant content, including news stories, reviews and opinion pieces for the games he likes writing about the most. He also tweets too much, probably.