DIRT 5 is Codemasters’ fourteenth game in the Colin McRae Rally series and marks one of the biggest shake ups in the franchise’s history. Does it build on its excellent lineage and deliver a great racing game that ends one generation and kickstarts the next? Let’s find out.
DIRT 5 is a particularly tricky game to review as it spans two generations and in the sake of transparency, we’ve only had a chance to play it on the Xbox One X so that’s what we’ll be basing our review on. We can’t wait to test the game on the Xbox Series X next week which offers higher resolution graphics, a better frame and the option to sacrifice that graphical fidelity for 120 frames a second if your TV can handle it. It might not sound like a big deal, but in racing games, that really helps you feel connected to your car and the road ahead.
Now with that out of the way, let’s talk about the game. DIRT 5 sheds the somewhat stuffy atmosphere found in DIRT 4 in favour of a Forza Horizon style festival atmosphere with tracks located around the world, strewn with laser shows, screens and fireworks to make the world feel more alive. Tracks shift as you race and you can transition from day to night, from sun to rain. You’ll get to watch sunsets or even the Northern Lights, you’ll even race in blizzards which really makes you concentrate on the road ahead as blizzards at night can reduce your visibility to near zero. Thunder quickly flashes the screen, almost like a flashing. It really does add variety to your races. The terrain is also quite special here in DIRT 5 as tracks get muddy and waterlogged quite quickly (especially if it’s raining) and you really feel it in the car’s handling. Sound design is also excellent as you can really hear how your tyres react to different road surfaces.
The game is absolutely pushing every inch it can out of the Xbox One X and personally, I think DIRT 5 pushes it a bit too much. We played multiple builds of the game in the run up to launch day and found that while performance improved, the game as it stands on launch day still suffers slowdown and dropped frames especially when there’s a lot going on. There was also significant screen tearing while racing which makes it hard to concentrate on the road. Framerate drops, in racing games, is a big no no. It can lead to issues in handling, acceleration and breaking and if I’m honest, it surprised me given Codemaster’s heritage of absolutely solid racing titles.
The game does away with a lot of the innovations from the last outing so there’s no algorithmically generated tracks for example that always gave you a reason to come back. Instead, the career mode this time leads you through 130 races of different types. Though the game might try and differentiate them with different names it really boils down to just a few options:
- Few laps around a track versus opponents
- Point to point versus opponents
- Hill climbs on your own
- Gymkhana (aka drift challenges in arenas)
- Takedowns (Unique events e.g. a race around manhattan 1:1 with a legend of motorsport)
My personal favourites were hill climbs and gymkhana events which gave me something I really haven’t experienced with other racing games. Hill climbs will absolutely have your heart in your mouth! While the game does its best to give the player control over how they progress through and does its best to weave a story in there with its DIRT Podcast, the career mode starts to become a grind through how similar 90% of the events are to each other and other issues with gameplay. I’ve put 10+ hours into the career mode and I can’t quite remember what happened in it, it feels very tacked on to make it feel more than just a playlist of races. The saving grace for me in DIRT 5 is ‘Playgrounds’ – the mode lets you design, create, edit and race on your own custom racing arenas across three modes – Gate Crasher, Gymkhana, and Smash Attack. It’s great to download creations and play them yourself, we wish we had the ability to invite a few friends in to race around different creations.
DIRT 5 wants to be a fun arcade/simulation game but it often takes the fun away through simple gaming issues. One small move, 5 minutes into a race, can put you right back in last place because a small tree or rock you collide with might end up stopping your car dead in its tracks or throwing you into an air spin. You can’t flashback and fix your mistake or reset the car, even if you’re in first place so one little slip up will put you right at the very back of the pack.
The game felt unfair and stopped me from having fun – which I thought was what the game was trying to introduce more of. The AI as well will either be completely behind you the whole time or racing off into the distance based on the car you pick (and can afford), not necessarily your driving ability. The game throws in challenges mid-race but these often feel poorly picked (if not random) based on the event.
DIRT 5 is no doubt a technical marvel from all of the next-gen previews we’ve seen but I can’t help feeling that Codemasters have prioritised that over this gen based on the performance of the game and the lack of depth to the game. It feels like a game that’s trying to let its hair down but never quite gets there.
What makes Forza Horizon special is its depth in its open world, endless challenges, sense of community and variety. There’s absolutely a space for an off-road arcade game in the gaming world and I think Codemasters would do well to go back and play Motorstorm, Burnout Paradise and even its own predecessors like GRID and DIRT Showdown that really nailed having fun in racing games. I think doing this would then give the DIRT Rally series the space to own the simulation side of racing.
By trying to straddle the line between simulation and arcade racing, DIRT 5 doesn’t make either gamer happy. Frustratingly, every issue I had with DIRT 5 is fixable – adding a flashback mode, polishing performance issues and adding some meat on the bones of the single player with an enhanced ‘team’ you have to build or cutscenes for example. The reality is, the game feels rushed to launch for next-gen which feels like a shame as there is a good game in here. Here’s hoping that, over time, or going into DIRT 6, Codemasters can deliver the experience they set out to.
DIRT 5 was reviewed on Xbox One X with a code provided by Codemasters