With one of the most highly regarded racing pedigrees in the gaming scene, Codemasters have continually pushed the boundaries of what fans of the genre demand. With the F1 scene all but sewn up by their developmental brilliance in F1 2020, it could be said that they are the current kings of the racing sim. But move away slightly from that, pushing the envelope towards the more arcade-styled racer, and things get a little trickier, with the likes of the Forza Horizon series continuing to evolve and compete. Thankfully Codies have the DIRT franchise to work wonders with, and even though it’s all now a far cry from the simulated aspects found in the original source material that was Colin McRae, it still happens to be a name that gets racing fans excited, even more so when you consider the team behind the latest iteration is the same one as those behind the hugely underrated ONRUSH. That said, whilst you’d expect this to be the best DIRT title to date, DIRT 5 just fails to take the podium top step – but it’s certainly not through the fault of the actual racing.
I’ll start with the positives of DIRT 5, and they most certainly revolve around the on-track racing that takes place. No matter whether you are playing online, or rolling yourself across the offline scene, through the deep career or into the Arcade or Time Trial settings, DIRT 5 excels in the racing. Everything is pretty much on point with not a hint of lag or stutter, full of glorious visuals and audio that bring cars and environments to life, and complete with vehicle types which handle well – each with a slightly different feel and vibe. The opportunity to go from hero to zero no matter which of the multiple car classes and events you partake in, in just the blink of an eye, is real.
Yep, make a mistake when hammering down a straight or trying to nail a turn at 100mph in DIRT 5 and you’ll know about it, with cars rolling and spinning as they flip out of control. But get a grip with their feel, and begin to understand how each handle, and it really won’t take you long to find your feet at all. With multiple race types and a decent number of vehicles included, DIRT 5 will keep you busy for a while.
Obviously it is the Career which is the main draw in any racer and that is the case here, with a star-studded voice cast helping dictate the on-track racing and why it all takes place. It must be said that the career isn’t the trickiest to work through, and even though I’d like to think that I know what it takes to find success in a racer, it’s been a bit of a breeze to blast through the events here. For the most part you’ll be found picking off certain event objectives, pleasing sponsors and earning a huge amount of XP, Rep and in-game cash in the process – hell, all three of these are thrown at you in gargantuan amounts. It is the latter of these which allows you to gain access to faster, better handling vehicles in each class, yet even though I’ve had cash coming out of my ears pretty much from the get-go in DIRT 5, I’ve rarely found the need to splash out that cash on new vehicles, mostly due to the lack of real variety in each category. Instead I’ve happily moved through events with whatever comes my way; it’s certainly not like in a Forza title where you want that Subaru Impreza or sporty Merc – here you’ll find yourself content with what you’ve given, left to get on with it.
The Career is supremely tight, letting you work your way through a variety of paths, picking and choosing your race types without the need to tackle a strictly linear route. It works well too, and just as you may find yourself tiring of completing specific brackets, you’ll realise that there is absolutely nothing stopping you from heading back to earlier moments in time and pushing forth with a different route too. This ensures that the Career is constantly kept fresh, never failing to excite or let you enjoy personal favourite events. Yet this is a game that continues forward when you’re looking for even more of a test, with DIRT 5 bringing online racing into play. Split across either ‘races’ or ‘party games’, showing your driving skills off to the entire world is simple; even if there is a bit of a wait as matchmaking processes kick into play. Thankfully, as you would expect to hear, there are a plentiful amount of racers enjoying what Codies are providing with the online scene, and you’ll never fail to find a match at any point in time, particularly if you decide on the straight-up racing route. It does however all come into its own when you have a party of friends though – the sheer joy found in the party games with friends in tow is what has always made the DIRT series what it is, and things are no different here.
DIRT 5 looks good, sounds great and, frankly, plays brilliantly, but as I hinted at with the start of this piece it isn’t the go-to racer it really should be. Why? Well, that is pretty much due to the bits and bobs that have been added in order to complement the on-track affairs. If I’m honest, they don’t really work for me and the cultural vibe it tries to deliver gets really old, really fast.
Prior to release of DIRT 5 there had been huge hype behind the fact that Codemasters had drafted in both Troy Baker and Nolan North – two of the very biggest names in the voice-over scene – in order to push along the Career narrative. In my eyes though, they would have done well to save a bit of that cash and pump it into more of the important stuff. Even though the script that has been created for them is well-written and, as expected, extremely well-delivered, it’s just all a bit too, well, in your face. I take on a racing game in the hope that I can spend the majority of my time behind the wheel of some of the fastest, best looking, most intense vehicles on show, and that’s usually the case here and now with DIRT 5. But in between that racing, I really care very little for the reason and rhyme behind it. Let me work between classes, let me enjoy multiple categories and let me have the opportunity to spend time honing racing skills. I don’t want to be sat there listening to some gumpf in between. And even though Codemasters have fixed and patched initial audio problems that frequented my early time with the game, switching the podcast hosts off and just getting on with the racing has been my preferred playstyle.
This narrative is however just one part of the DIRT 5 audio aspect, and thankfully sitting in place alongside the – quickly muted – storytelling is a cracking soundtrack. It’s one that fills the space when you decide to do away with the script, and the tunes which have been included are of the highest quality. Expect to hear the likes of Stomzy fresh from his stint in Watch Dogs: Legion, and some of the best tracks from The Prodigy, New Found Glory, Pearl Jam, Foals, Chaka Khan and more. It’s a really good mix and is easily one of those soundtracks that you could sit back for hours listening to; in fact, I have done on multiple occasions. Again though, there are issues with this audio and whilst you can’t debate the quality of the tunes, there is the occasional hold and freeze of audio as you move between menus, backing out of races and the like. It’s just all a bit slack.
Whilst I’m on the hunt for negatives and I’ll have to also admit that I’m not a huge fan of the way the Playground elements have been tacked on to the DIRT 5 experience. Even though the brilliant Career holds a few little Gymkhana events alongside the host of other race types found in the Ice Breakers, Stampedes, Ultra Cross, Land Rush events and more, they are too few and far between, with players instead forced to come out of the immersion, into the menus and across to the Playground element itself – either then finding a single event to enjoy or taking time creating their own masterpieces. As a huge fan of the Gymkhana aspect in previous games, it’s a shame to see this is pretty much relegated to a side hustle. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if this one event type had a more considerable presence in the Career, helping to break up the standard racing, but as it stands, ‘tacked on’ is the overriding feel.
Furthermore, call me boring and unimaginative, but I’ve never really been a fan of the allowance of creativity in games such as this. For instance I don’t think I’ve ever created a livery in a Forza title and even though it’s a cinch to find plenty of Gymkhana action in the Playground, the whole ‘creative fun’ aspect fails to provide much appeal here. Designing your own imaginatively designed playground is nice and all, but it’s too clunky for more liking. That’s not to say I don’t think there should be a place for it, as for many I’m sure there is, but personally I could quite easily give that a wide berth.
Thankfully, at the end of the day DIRT 5 is a racer, and racing is what it does best. If you go into it looking to pound through a deep Career, learning the handling characteristics of a multitude of vehicles and wishing to understand the quirks of a variety of courses, it utterly excels; Codemasters are at their very best when they stick us behind the wheel of a vehicle and let us get on with it. Really, that racing should be enough to sell a purchase of DIRT 5 to anyone, even those with only the slightest bit of interest in the motorsport scene. With the standard genre staples of Online racing, Time Trial and Arcade Free Play elements thrown in, there are a host of racing opportunities to embark on, leaving just the left over bits, bobs and sillier culture-fuelled filler being of use to just a select few.
DIRT 5 on Xbox One isn’t the best DIRT title there has ever been but it definitely deserves a place in the line-up. Just involve yourself in the racing, forget about the faff, and you’ll be sure to have a jolly good time.