I’ve spoken much in past reviews about how games in long-running genres or popular series need to do something unique to stand out. Put a twist on a formula, introduce some new mechanics, something to keep fans coming back entry after entry.
Admittedly, that’s a personal preference. Some gamers prefer to stay in their comfort zone, continuing to return to games that do one thing consistently well. There’s a reason why “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is such a cliché phrase.
The Dirt franchise of racing games does have its unique twist in the genre, with its focus on arcade-style off-road rally racing. Aside from a few experiments here and there, this has been its lifeblood for over a decade now.
Despite how long it’s been running, the newest entry in the franchise is my first experience with it. How well does a long-running franchise with an established player base endear itself to a new player? Does its core racing gameplay still hold up to fresh eyes?
Developed and published by Codemasters, Dirt 5 was released on PS4, Xbox 1, and PC on November 6th, 2020. The PC version was played for this review.
Rally to the Top
The plot of Dirt 5 is a simple one. You play as a new rally racer, being mentored by racing star AJ Janicek on your way to become one of the best racers in the world. With Janicek’s help, you take part in various kinds of races to catch the attention of the rally world…and eventually the current “king” of them all, Bruno Durand.
It’s an excuse plot if I ever saw one, but it’s tight enough to somewhat explain the core gameplay in career mode. Jetsetting around the world, participating in dozens of different racing styles with tons of varying cars – the simple idea of being mentored and led on your way by a world-famous racer gives some fleeting justification to it all.
What “storytelling” there is here is very minimal. There’s no real cutscenes or anything, everything is instead carried on Janicek’s voice-overs while in menus and during pre- and post-race screens. It’s shallow, but inoffensive.
Kickin’ Up Dirt
As mentioned, Dirt 5 is an arcade-style racer. Pick a car, pick a track, and go. The racing is mechanically simple (especially if you opt for automatic transmission like I did, since I simply don’t know how manual transmission works…), with an emphasis on drifting hairpin turns and getting some air off jumps.
I will admit, I’m not extremely well versed in racing games. When I hear the words “arcade racer,” my first inclination is to treat them like Mario Kart: full throttle all the time, ’cause I can drift with a simple button press, right? Proceed to me riding the wall through most of my first few races.
While not complex, there’s still some nuance to controlling your car of choice without smashing into guardrails. The biggest (and what took me a while to master) was throttle control. Of course you can’t take a sharp turn at top speed – silly me – so knowing when to let off the throttle and maybe apply a bit of brake to take a turn without losing ground became the lynchpin to finishing in the top three, rather than spinning out and falling behind the pack.
Handbrake drifting is also a key technique, and another which took me embarrassingly long to figure out…and I still can’t quite do it successfully every time. Many of the tracks in Dirt 5 feature numerous hairpin turns, and slowly putting your way around them is a sure way to fall behind, so grab that handbrake and kick up some smoke. These hard drifts are satisfying to do once you get the mechanics down – something I assume longtime fans of the series already know how to do.
While you can boot up the game and jump into single races all you want, if you want to unlock more tracks, cars, and customization options (as well as experience the vague story), you gotta jump into Career mode. This mode has you working though as series of races laid out on a web chart – complete one race, and a couple others unlock, allowing the player to choose their own path through the career.
Each event in Career mode has its own unique twist to it. There’s basic multi-lap races, long-form rally runs, events focused on drifting and performing tricks, races on frozen ground, and the event everybody should avoid (sprint car races). While the former two make up the majority of events, there’s enough variety on offer here to keep the feeling of repetition at bay. The frozen track races were probably my favorite, requiring a totally different style of handling to navigate the sharp-turn-heavy tracks.
Dirt 5 wouldn’t be a car game without numerous unlockable cars, with a little over 60 available to add to your garage. However, I rarely felt the need to try and unlock anything. You start the game with a stable of beginner cars – one or two for each event – and all of them are perfectly capable of handling the track and pulling you into first place without any trouble. The extra cars seem to be more for car fans who just really want to drive a particular make or model.
Of final note is the track creation mode present in Dirt 5, known as “Playgrounds.” We’ve already covered this mode in depth in a pre-release preview, which you can find here.
Max Horsepower Recommended
Dirt 5 is a game poised as a release title for the upcoming PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, and Codemasters seemingly spared no expense pumping up the graphical details for the new generation. The various environments you’ll find yourself racing through are beautifully detailed, from the cityscapes of Roosevelt Island in New York City to the forests of Brazil.
On PC, unfortunately, maxing out the graphics is going to take a powerhouse of a build. The recommended specs to run the game at max settings require some of the most recent Intel or Ryzen CPUs, and either a GTX 1070Ti or Radeon RX 5700 XT…both top of the line GPUs (at least until both Nvidia’s and AMD’s upcoming top-spec cards release).
My system lands somewhere in the middle of minimum and recommended – with a Ryzen 2600X and Radeon Vega 56 – and I ended up playing with medium-to-high graphical settings to maintain a steady 60FPS at 1440p. Even at those settings, though, the game is impressive to look at – especially the shifting weather effects that can occur during a race.
Audio wise, when one thinks of a sports or racing game, the immediate thought is “what songs were licensed?” In Dirt 5‘s case, the artist lineup seems to skate by major popular artists (aside from a couple like The Killers and Pearl Jam), opting for some slightly-more-underground choices. There’s quite a lot of indie rock and rap here, and many more hits than misses.
I was, admittedly, excited when I heard a Twin Atlantic song start playing in game. While they’re definitely not “underground” in their home country of Scotland, the haven’t quite hit the big time yet here in the US.
Codemasters also didn’t skimp out on the voice acting, with main story characters Janicek and Durand being vocied by Troy Baker and Nolan North respectively. Both turn in great performances, although I wish they could have been utilized more…they’re victims of the game’s shallow story.
Overall, Dirt 5 is just a plain solid racer with very little I can complain much about. It’s a series that has been going on for quite some time, but it doesn’t seem to have lost its spark…at least, from the eyes of a newcomer.
I do wish the storytelling was handled better, but…really, most of this game’s audience isn’t coming here for a story. It’s a nice touch to tie together the game’s Career mode, but completely forgettable overall (aside from Baker’s and North’s performances).
The core gameplay, though, just feels great. The variety of different racing styles keeps things from getting too repetitive, although some styles are a swing and a miss (sprint car racing in particular).
If you’re already a fan of the Dirt franchise, there’s little to take issue with here – jump right in. If you’re a racing fan who’s new to the series, though, I can definitely say Dirt 5 is worth a look.
Review copy provided by Codemasters for PC. Screenshots courtesy of Codemasters.