Preview: Dirt 5 – Playground Mode

Despite the name, Dirt 5 is not actually the fifth installment in an epic JRPG series about the soil beneath our feet. I know, I was a bit disappointed too, but that was tempered by the fact I totally just made that up. No, it’s a game in which you race about with other cars as you try to become the best possible racer on the road.

Wait, sorry, I said “roads” there. Dirt 5 isn’t about that. It’s about off-roading, sawing through dirt, mud, snow, and anything else that you are normally not supposed to be driving a car upon… which is taken up to the next level with the “Playground” mode that I got to test out.

See, in Dirt 5‘s Playground mode you aren’t racing around a preset track. You’re building your own track. Where you’re going, you really won’t need roads.

You also don’t have the option to use them anyhow, so that works out all right. Dirt 5’s playground mode isn’t about building a track so much as an arena, which means that you set one of three competition styles: performing stunts, collecting score items, or driving through checkpoints before hitting the final ending gate. And that’s fine. This feels more like a freewheeling sort of demolition derby match, with all sorts of bizarre options for how you want to arrange your track.

And oh boy… are there ever a lot of things for you to arrange on there.

Let’s get the downsides out of the way first and foremost. There’s no real option for size controls, sadly, so any given object will always be the same size once you place it. Similarly, the game’s height controls are rudimentary at best. I couldn’t find a reliable way to place something on two separate layers without making sure that anything I wanted was placed on a lower layer, then placing the platform I wanted above. It’s also a touch clunky to select multiple objects on your controller, and the fact that you have to place the cursor where you want and then place the object is also a touch clunky.

You might be arguing that some of this clunk is… well, a result of building things with a controller. That’s fair. Other issues do occur with the various snap-to bits sometimes not snapping quite where you want them to be and no clear sense of what will actually line up in the right way. Oh, and you really need to pick out an objective and then make the map, but the guidance for that isn’t there until you try to test it, which is a bit of a pain to cycle through every time.

But those are the main issues that the mode has, and when you consider that this is a series first and meant to be done (again) with a controller, that’s all pretty impressive. What matters is whether or not you have the tools to create some fun stuff, and in that area this mode delivers wonderfully.

You have access to a variety of different barriers, ramps, platforms, and general stunt features like massive bumps in the terrain. There are also fun stunt show staples in there like trailers to jump over, multi-direction jumps to have cars leaping over other cars, and concrete pipes for driving in bizarre corkscrews. You also have a fair amount of freedom to place the aforementioned objectives wherever you’d like, so you can make point-scoring objects hard to find or place them in abundance in dangerous supercollider spaces.

Furthermore, the parts all play nice and create a real sense of space, and you have a rather generous-seeming limit in terms of memory. I can definitely see people putting together ornate towers or strange uses of horizontal or vertical space, challenging players to not just compete for objectives but also learn the almost kart-like mechanics they’ve cobbled together.

Having said all of that, there are also some unfortunate limitations by the very nature of the mode – or, at least, some things it’s not trying to be. While not trying to be any sort of track creator, it does have the slight problem that the three options for where you go are essentially just three dirt boxes. You can work in some insane elevation changes and design opportunities, of course, but there’s no real distinction between them. I feel like the fact that it’s three versions of the same dirt is something of a missed opportunity; how much fun would it be to have one arena that was more muddy, for example?

It also clearly doesn’t want players to go too far into fanciful weirdness. The game’s physics appear to be a bit reality-light, but it stops well shy of moving platforms or direct hazards in a truly kart-style display. You may be designing a car arena in a world where flipping your car seven times doesn’t result in crushed wreckage and wailing audience members, but that’s as far as the unreality goes.

The final version also promises to have a full tutorial to help players get a handle on how these things work. This is good. There is a walkthrough of creating a very basic arena available, but I suspect a more detailed tutorial in-game will help players know what can be done.

Lest all of this seem overly critical on what’s on display, understand that that’s not my point. Rather, my hope is more along the lines of tempering enthusiasm with what is actually possible within the game. Creative modes are great things in any game, and I think it’s important to keep in mind what you’re not going to get before you assume something never intended.

And the fact is that this mode, totally as its own thing, would make for a fun enough little foundation for a game. Maybe not a full-price one, but there are enough options that you can pull together a lot of tracks even with the limitations, and I assume people with more practice will find some amazing things to do with it.

The fact that some of the building mechanics can be a bit clunky based on the interface doesn’t change the fact that it’s a slick package with a lot of options on display, and I can see fans of the core game really having a great time with it. Whether or not you’re a fan of the core game is something that will come down to you… but it’s a great bit of added value if you’re eagerly anticipating the base game.

Preview copy provided by Codemasters. All screenshots courtesy of Codemasters.