DIRT 5 Review
A roadside distraction, paved with good intentions
Codemasters have been playing darts with the DiRT series. Every few years they hit a different target. This is not a bad plan to keep the series from stagnating, but it can lead to some less-than-desirable results. Just look at DiRT Showdown, a destruction derby entry that did not quite work out. After Showdown, the developers made a shift back to simulation territory, producing a few brutal Rally spinoffs. Even DiRT 4 focused on rally far more than previous games in the main series. Now DIRT 5 has landed on a new target, trying to reproduce the glory days of DiRT 3 without that silly rally mode the series has built itself around. It might have been decent if it weren’t for some questionable arcade driving, barebones multiplayer, and a lack of exciting content. DIRT 5 is a dart throw that ends up being a foul.
How much does a Ford Fiesta weigh? Not enough to break the ice
Most racing games do not have a story but DIRT 5 bucks the trend with its career mode. Told mostly via podcasts between races, the hosts, James and Nolan, are occasionally funny although they try too hard and drone on too long. They’re joined by arguably the most famous voice actors in gaming: Nolan North and Troy Baker. Nolan plays the bad guy, Bruno Durand, who trash talks and generally acts like a smug jerk. Troy Baker plays AJ, acting as both a rival to Bruno and mentor to yours truly. AJ has a few repetitive lines after you win, like telling you that you spent so much time in first you nearly lapped yourself. After Bruno defeats AJ in a race (not seen), AJ takes it upon himself to ready the player for a scintillating Bruno showdown. This just means a few lame pep talks. The performances by Troy and Nolan are casual and cheesy—maybe how they act when one takes the others’ voice role. But regardless of the quality of the story, it is completely disconnected from the racing because only near the end do AJ and Bruno appear on track. You can skip the career podcasts by starting a race, and there appears to be no way to re-listen to them, not that you will desire as much.
The career is a series of branching events, broken into five chapters with a slightly longer race at the end of each one. The branching paths tend to group together similar locations or vehicles, so if you race something you enjoy and continue on, there is less of a chance of stumbling across an undesirable event. Outside of these main events, a couple of throwdowns appear and these are usually one-on-one races against ‘characters’ that have no personality. As you finish events, you earn money, XP, and reputation. Money unlocks vehicles and the other progression systems grant access to custom livery designs. Completing the career is surprisingly quick and easy. The requirements to unlock each chapter’s championship are low and so all up in might take less than ten hours. Double that if you want to do all events.
But there is no good reason to complete everything when it all feels the same. With no rally or trailblazer mode, there are too many different names for the same type of race; three laps against 11 AI drivers around circuits of similar length and breadth. The tracks are merely alright in this entry, with similar designs to DiRT 3. Some are crudely based on real-world locations, like the Brazilian favela. The courses through the Italian marble quarry are probably the best. Each location has a few routes and reverse options, so you might miss a couple if you beeline to the finale. But the main thing that changes across the career is the vehicle you drive and the fact that some tracks have icy surfaces, which basically means drifting all over the place. Sure there are some point-to-point races, and the chapter finale is a whopping five laps instead of three, but there is not enough variety here.
Path Finder driving is a bit rocky
Only two career events stand out: Gymkhana and Path Finder. Gymkhana will be familiar to those that played DiRT 3 and it returns without much fanfare. Players drive around small arenas, do some donuts, jumps, drifts and hit the required score. It’s all rather unexciting this time, and when you are forced to use trucks, it becomes awkward even with the trickster assist enabled that guides the vehicle around objectives. Path Finder is a race against the clock over hostile terrain in a specific buggy. You drive up steep inclines, bounce over rocky surfaces, and generally try to remain upright. Basic skill will get you to the other end but the vehicle is jerky and it’s not that pleasant to drive.
Many of the sixty-odd vehicles lack good control and speed. Sprint cars are the least user friendly, as they are designed to bank left around circular tracks. Counterintuitively, drivers must steer right along the straights and let the car do the work around corners—it is challenging. Trucks, SUVs, and buggies are more standard, but they’re sluggish to turn and slow off the mark. The most enjoyable part of racing these heavier vehicles is using the banks to gain speed in and out of corners, despite how infrequent these banks appear. The best vehicles in terms of zip and handling are those based on traditional rally cars, like the 90s Subaru Impreza or the modern Ford Fiesta, which makes it strange that there are no dedicated rally events.
There are a few arcade sensibilities with the driving too. Roadside barriers do not hurt vehicle speed much; actually they sometimes help. If you take the Mini Cooper around the stadium track in South Africa and never use the brakes, you will find that grinding against the barriers results in quicker lap times than avoiding them. Despite these arcade leanings, most vehicles respond better without assists enabled, although, regardless of the settings, every vehicle has rather aggressive auto-stabilization system. This auto-correction is designed to get you back racing quickly after an undue flip, but it often leads to more calamity, and it will make you wish that DIRT 5 had kept the flashback feature from its predecessors instead.
You'd be forgiven for thinking the AI are cheetahs
The AI drivers offer a suitable challenge, despite some annoying quirks. There appears to be no aggressive catch-up or slow-down mechanic, so spinning out when behind will make it hard to reach the podium. The AI drivers somehow find extra speed coming out of corners, as though they have a hidden traction boost. It is also bizarre to see them speed up unrealistically just before jumps and then slow down while midair. Erratic behavior was more common at the start of races, as they can drive sideways or end up backwards. Unlike earlier games in the series, they are quite stubborn so nudging them rarely works in your favor. Plus with the pathetic damage modeling, crashes are boring anyway. It would be nice to see what is happening with the inconsistent AI but there is no replay feature to observe races after completion—another disappointing omission.
If you want to avoid AI drivers then multiplayer is available, but you should bring a friend or two. The current populations on the PC are small and fading, and with no crossplay available the online is unlikely to have the legs. Multiplayer is barebones, which might explain the lack of players. No lobby browser or game filter is available, and so you just join a random track / mode, but the same few tracks kept coming up. If you somehow find players, the good news is that it is fairly quick to get racing. Collisions during races are unpredictable although usually tolerable. After the race finishes, it has a minute of unskippable post-race malarkey before it throws you back into the menu, at which point you must manually search for another match. And the game doesn’t even tell you who had the fastest lap while you were waiting. Although online improvements are planned, DIRT 5 currently discourages people from playing together.
Maybe the game wants everybody to try the Playgrounds mode, which lets people make their own tracks and share them. A bit like Trackmania, there are dozens of primitive blocks to connect—cubes, ramps, barriers, signs, jumps, rings of fire, and tunnels—and all you need to do is put a start, a finish, and some checkpoints in between. The rest is up to you. Make a track using busses as barriers. Or put up checkpoints haphazardly to form a maze course. Already people have made some rather complex creations that snake high into the sky because thousands of blocks can be snapped together thanks to a generous item limit. Right now you can only race them solo to compete in leaderboards, but if the mode were to get some bigger pieces, and allow multiple racers, Playgrounds might keep the community running for a while.
Playgrounds takes you to the high grounds with some user built tracks
The DiRT series has generally been a leader visually and a good performer, but the latest entry stumbles a bit. Even on low settings, the game struggled to maintain high framerates, and the automatic preset makes the game look blurry. Although not leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessors, it does have some visual treats. The road surface is detailed, with tire tracks remaining in the snow, and cars look great in the rain. Volumetric clouds obscure the sun, and you will see plenty of leaves, confetti, and dust whipping across the road. There are even weather effects—rain, thunder, snow, dust storms, rainbows—which dynamically change. But some features are a bit overdone; the dawn sun looks like a nuclear explosion and the godrays are excessive. Night races have problems with the lights too, as they pop into existence from short range, which can be distracting. Some lights flicker and the entire screen can go dark at random. A few errant crashes were observed as well, so the game needs some patches before it gets a technical tick.
DIRT 5 is a return to arcade racing without a rally mode, but it is sadly one of the weakest games in the series. Most of the pieces are here, yet they are a few notches below Codemasters’ stellar efforts from nine years ago. The career is bland, with a phoned-in story and limited variety. The vehicle handling is not quite right and the AI has annoying idiosyncrasies. Multiplayer is poorly implemented and it already lacks competitors. Only the Playgrounds mode, where people can build and race custom tracks, is a welcome surprise, although even that is held back by some technical problems. If you are desperate for an arcade racer then DIRT 5 may suffice, but this is a missed opportunity, much like Showdown. At least now there is a litmus test to determine if a DiRT game is good—without rally, not really.