What is it? An offroad racer with a splash of Tony Hawk’s that doesn’t like braking.
Expect to pay $60/£45
Reviewed on i7 9700K, RTX 2080 TI, 16GB RAM
Multiplayer? Up to 12
Link Official site (opens in new tab)
Who and what is Dirt 5 for? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot, as I race stony-faced along its forgettable gravel. I don’t know the answer, and I’m not sure Codemasters does either. After all, this is a series that made a name by injecting a bit of extreme sports culture into the Colin McRae Rally series, which was itself beginning to feel a bit warmed-up by 2007. Colin McRae: Dirt was fresh and fun, chucking its pacenotes out of the passenger window and doing a donut just because it felt like it.
The problem, if you could call it that, is that recently Dirt Rally and its sequel came along. Lovely, straight-laced Dirt Rally. While Dirt’s deciding which snapback to wear for a night shotgunning beers in the motorhome with its bros, Dirt Rally’s finishing its geography homework and laying out its P.E. kit for the morning. And the thing is, it’s absolutely brilliant. So brilliant it reminded us how much we missed pacenotes, and ultra-realistic offroad handling, and drizzly Welsh lanes. Just like that, we like the old style of rally game again. The one Dirt was invented to revitalise.
Which leaves number 5 without a clear raison d’etre. All the core elements, its essential Dirt-osity, were devised as a deliberate departure from sim-minded, realistic driving. But right now, as Dirt Rally 2 enjoys a passionate community and sim racing esports gains momentum, sim-minded, realistic driving is exactly where the excitement is.
Of course, you might really fancy a non-taxing racer, where braking is genuinely optional and a familiar pyramid of events wraps itself around you from the career menu like a comfort blanket. We all fancy that sometimes, and Dirt 5 is those things, certainly—it’s just a very familiar version of those things.
The handling model doesn’t want to step out at the back and have you wrestling to find balance. It wants to comply. You can toss most vehicles into most corners with a quick lift of the throttle and emerge more or less on the pace. And, ah yes, there’s the wadge of race events in the career mode menu, each with medals for arbitrary tasks like trading paint while drifting, or catching 5 seconds of air. As you’d expect, cars can be daubed in colours and vinyls and sponsor stickers until they’re ready to detach a retina on sight.
While Forza Horizon’s creator mode seems to sap hours from you while you attempt the most basic design, Dirt 5’s tools are incredibly quick and easy. There’s less granular control over decal placement and dimensions than we’re perhaps used to, but I’ll take that if it means getting a 306 Maxi with glorious tricolore livery from menu to grid in a couple of minutes. From structure to track design to presentation to handling, it’s all exactly what you expect to find in a Dirt game, delivered without surprises or noticeable steps forward.
Surprises aren’t in abundance on the track either. There’s a lot of fireworks and confetti and pyrotechnics going off as you hit a jump, but AI drivers don’t mix it with you or with each other as they would in a GRID game. It’s all a bit civilised, even in ice racing events, which prove something of a highlight throughout career mode for the demanding low-grip balancing act they ask of you.
What you do get a sense of, as you plunge down the next hill or launch into an outrageously cambered hairpin, is geographical variation. There’s no missing the fact you’re racing in China, or Italy, or in Norway, or NYC—take a bow bamboo fields, Dolomites, snowcapped countryside and frozen streets, respectively. This sense of touring the world adds much-needed interest to your career since the different event types don’t distinguish themselves very clearly other than the infrequent 1v1 showdowns.
It’s at this point that it should be acknowledged that a team of hundreds of people worked tirelessly and adapted to working at home in order to put this game out. Doing so is an achievement in itself, and despite some minor performance issues in the Steam review build, Dirt 5 doesn’t bear the scars of an unusual development process. That’s worth saying, I think.
And as such it’s worth looking for the bits of great game in here, just underneath that old sock and these crumpled Sainsburys receipts. Yes—I can just about see a banger in here. Playgrounds, for example. Gymkhana has been a series staple for a while, and in Dirt 5 their hugely elevated level of challenge proves way more interesting than ticking off career events. These convoluted runs of perfection are like Trackmania on offroad tires, nerve-jangling to drive and at the whimsy of community content creators to bend in whatever shapes they like. In an alternate, and better, universe, Playground takes centre stage in Dirt 5’s career mode. In another one still, the current fantastical tracks of career mode remain intact, but it’s experienced through Dirt Rally 2’s super-demanding physics model.
Dirt 5 isn’t a bad game, then. It’s not a Project CARS 3. The two make interesting points of comparison, though. Both take the bizarre decision to distance their IPs from sim racing at a time when it has never been more popular, and possibly never will again, yes. But whereas Slightly Mad’s game seems to be jutting out its chin and actively daring you to find something of the franchise’s prior identity which you liked among its new mess of utterly characterless racing, Dirt 5 is guilty of the opposite. Instead of jettisoning its identity it’s playing too safe, holding onto it too closely in search of the apocryphal casual racing gamer who’s scared of brake pedals.