Though I freely admit I came into Dirt with a preconceived notion about what to expect based on decades-old dabblings with Colin McRae Rally, it was soon evident that this is a series that has undergone a real identity-shift. Though there are still moments where you’ll be tasked with tactfully managing hairpins during a bleak, midwinter snowfall, the responsive arcade-feel of this newest Dirt coupled with a youthful aesthetic make it one of the most accessible, welcoming entries the series has seen.
Even if the driving itself and the cars remain the main event of Dirt 5, Codemasters has knocked together a career mode that’ll serve as background noise for players who’ll work their way through the game’s exhaustive list of events. I say background noise because, even though the talents of both Troy Baker and Nolan North were enlisted, their performances are voice-only and are relegated to infrequent in-ear exposition and spatters of trash talk with the game’s pair of radio jockeys who fill the airwaves with the goings-on of our driver on the rise.
There’s no shortage of events to pick from in Dirt 5’s career mode. The first chapter offers sixteen races, the last chapter offers almost thirty, and there are so many more within the game’s middle acts. There’ll be no shortage of globetrotting as the career takes you to plenty of the world’s beautiful corners, with each offering several circuits that best showcase each of the game’s eight event types. So even as the scenery grows increasingly familiar, the experiences manage to feel fresh throughout. That said, even though it’s bound to be on the to-do lists of completionists, Dirt 5 doesn’t funnel you through each of its hundred-plus events, instead, it allows players to pick a path through the bracket and have the experience that suits them.
You’ll gradually unlock Showdown events, once-off clashes with other up and coming drivers of repute—they ultimately feel inconsequential to the career and exist to serve as a challenge greater than that already on offer but, by offering one lone rival who’s no more cunning than those you’d already left in the rearview, they miss the mark. Sponsors also help flesh out the career experience, giving players that repetitious dopamine through completing race objectives, racking up the rep, and unlocking stickers and liveries to kit out your cars with.
The career is broken up into five chapters and, although you become the voiceless middleman in a sour rivalry between your mentor Alex “AJ” Janicek, voiced by Baker, and Nolan North’s cocksure Bruno Durand, it’s clear the two are having a little bit of fun with it even if they’re not turning in the calibre of performance they’re capable of. Considering the last thing you see before the credits roll is a short, sharp farewell and kudos from AJ that’s nearly compressed into oblivion, it feels a little lacklustre.
Dirt 5 feels like a distant departure from the Colin McRae games of old, it drastically lowers the skill ceiling needed to take the wheel and have a bit of fun. It’s far less tactical, instead opting for a simpler arcade feel that does remind me of MotorStorm, which makes sense, given the underrated off-road racer appears on the resumes of several developers that worked on this game. That said, despite having that pedigree, I don’t feel Dirt lets its hair down enough. The game is at its best and most fun when it leans into the unconventional and you’re soaring through the air or taking to the rock faces of Mesa Valley like a mountain goat. Each of the game’s car classes handles distinctly, from the lighter built classics to the far finickier sprint cars but the biggest tactile difference comes from the many different surfaces you’ll take the cars screaming around. Of course, there’s bitumen, dirt, ice, and everything in between, especially once the game’s dynamic weather blows in and transforms the track in the middle of a race.
Unfortunately, although there’s a neat Garage where you’re able to browse the cars in your collection, as well as those that aren’t, the game doesn’t offer any real, meaningful under the hood customisation. It exists as a means to inspect, study the set performance and handling stats for each car and customise the livery—not being able to tune and tinker keeps Dirt on that tier beneath games like Forza Horizon which have offered deeper, more mechanically-minded features like this for a long time now.
One area where Dirt 5 makes the most of user creativity is in Playgrounds. As a map editor, it’s primarily limited to the game’s spectator events so while you can make a traditional little race circuit with it, I wouldn’t say they’re the focus of the tool. There are only a few playgrounds you’re able to create with—and two of them are in the Mesa Valley, so there’s not a lot of variety just yet—but there’s an impressive breadth of placeable objects. Like most editors, Playgrounds will live and by on user engagement but it appears as though there’s enough here to keep people occupied and the stuff I’ve played even pre-launch has been super fun.
In an attempt to appeal to a younger audience, the game has adopted a real vibrant, pastel colour palette that looks as though a paint bomb has exploded all over the in-game menus. All of the player profile unlockables share this fresh vibe, with hundreds of cool stickers, lanyards and cards to mix and match. Although the indoor drift events share in the multicolour spectacle, the game outdoors is an otherwise straight-laced beauty. There’s a lot of stunning scenery to drink up on tour, from the bamboo canopied roads of China to the breathtaking northern lights that blanket the night skies of Norway. As the game has a focus on all of the off-road debris like dirt and mud—it’s in the name, after all—Dirt 5 has some terrific particle effects, from the way a fine-powdered track becomes one with a car’s body kit to the way autumnal leaves surf the wind currents that run across the track.
Although it’s beautiful for much of the time, there are some small visual hang-ups that often accompany these smaller flourishes. On occasion, the same windswept debris, like leaves, balloons and even confetti if you’re so fortunate to enjoy the spoils of victory will simply become stuck in midair. It’s a passing inconvenience, but it does distract briefly from an otherwise gorgeous presentation. I also noticed instances of screen tearing and artifacting in the peripheries of my screen, but it was limited to my sampling of the game’s frame rate setting rather than the one tailored for graphical fidelity.
The game has a pretty standard serving of rock tracks to accompany the traction-packed ride that is Dirt 5—the kind of pub rock your dad probably listens to. However, the game strangely defaults to a 3D audio setting where the currently playing song can only be heard when passing populated spots on the track. For the most part, this makes it impossible to hear a song when you’re far from spectators and areas where it’d make sense for in-house speakers to be, leaving only the sounds of nature, the churning of engines, and burning of fossil fuels. Fortunately, it’s as simple as popping into the menu and switching it over to 2D audio, the only appropriate option for a soundtrack that includes The Killers.
Dirt 5 isn’t at all the game I thought it would be. Far from a clinical rally sim, what it is is a simple, fun off-road racer that has a big personality. While it doesn’t dive too deep underneath the hood, it still tears up a huge number of tracks across a great number of race types—it does more than enough to keep players firmly in the driver’s seat.