Codemaster’s Dirt series has been around a stunningly long time, since the late 90s when it was Colin McRae’s Rally. Yet, in the modern generations of the racer genre, Dirt seldom seems to get the attention it deserves. Thankfully, Codemaster has been steadily updating the series, branching it out creatively, and just generally (mostly) improving on its particular brand of racing.
Dirt 5 skirts the line between two console generations, and buying it for the PS4 or Xbox One will automatically get you an update to the PS5/XSX versions. That’s hopefully a big enough perk to get a bigger audience for the game, as it’s a very solid update on Dirt 4 and a fun, distinctive racer compared to the competition.
While games like Forza play in the dirt too, few games have focused on down and dirty rally racing like this series.
Dirt 5 Review: Still So Dirty After All These Years
The core of the game is still focused on rough terrain full of challenging twists, turns, and jumps.
Granted, Dirt 5 is one step away from just throwing in the racing equivalent of the kitchen sink. The series has been branching out to be more mainstream since it changed its name, while trying not to alienate its original fanbase in the process. The game has come a long way from just stock time challenge dirt tracks though. As with Dirt 4, there is a metric ton of content here as a result.
Dirt 5 laudably focuses on giving players choices. The career mode is spread across five chapters full of branching events that cover a gamut of race styles. Race through dust, dirt, asphalt, ice, and mud tracks in Greece, Africa, China, Arizona, and other diverse locales. There are ice drifting races in the middle of urban sprawl and other locations and event types that don’t fit entirely within the confines of traditional rally racing.
Overall, there are around 130 different events, with each chapter ending in a “Main Event” race, but to gain access to it, you’ll have to earn enough stamps in the array of minor races.
The structure is pretty familiar to most career race games, but Dirt 5 allows players to skip events if they like. If you’re more focused on traditional rally racing, for instance, then skipping those drift-obsessed challenges might seem especially appealing, since there’s a heavy emphasis on them this time around.
But the core of the game is still focused on rough terrain full of challenging twists, turns, and jumps. There’s also a plethora of customization options to tweak the game to the exact level of challenge you’d like. From absolute easiest with plenty of AI assists to help brake and retain traction, to damn near sim-level physics, Dirt 5 is a very accommodating game.
One area where I suspect Codemasters tried to really increase mainstream appeal is the presentation of the career mode story. The developer has fully folded in popular racing YouTubers and gaming voice actors instead of the more sedate and straightforward narrators and assist voices of previous games.
Known gaming voice commodities Troy Baker and Nolan North lend their voices to characters, and the folks behind the racing enthusiast YouTube channel, Donut Media, essentially act as narration for the story. There are other known name inclusions from the sport and YouTube to be found here as well, but all this attempt at adding YouTube appeal is a double-edged sword.
Some players might enjoy the radio morning show-level commentary, which seems to be ad-libbed banter framed around canned stats for each racing type, feature, and location. Others (like, say, me) might miss the no-nonsense, less-banter-filled advice and guidance from earlier games.
Dirt 5 seems to have traded in its slower focus on building up skills, co-driver alerts, and, well, realistic approach to actual rally racing for more shine and celebrity (and we use the word loosely) endorsement.
There are actual corporate sponsorship endorsements to contend with as well, which is an interesting element. Choose from a variety of sponsors, each with specific rewards and requirements, which adds a kind of secondary challenge to the overall racing. Each race even has sub-challenges like air time, overtakes, drift lengths, and more that earn you more reward at the end.
Dirt 5 includes cleverly twisted takes on King of the Hill, Capture the Flag, and tag.
This constant layering of objectives helps Dirt 5 feel fresh the whole way through. There’s so much to do, so many options to tweak the events, and a great variety of officially-licensed cars that the game simply feels like a full experience.
The gorgeous graphics and soundtrack don’t hurt either. 4K HDR visuals provide the most detailed and impressive tracks the series has ever seen, but more importantly, it just looks great. The licensed songs fit the frantic speed and challenge of dirt racing, and the robust car effects are positively room-shaking.
Of course, there’s more to do beyond the career mode. Quick races, one-off throwdown challenges (the equivalent of random characters appearing in Super Smash Bros.), and the playgrounds mode round out the experience.
Playgrounds are essentially player-created tracks for not just straightforward races but obstacle courses and destruction derby-like spaces. There’s already a ton of content to try out, and the creation tools are simple to get started with.
Online play is amazingly robust. 12-player races let you race online through career mode tracks, but there’s a range of party modes as well. Dirt 5 includes cleverly twisted takes on King of the Hill, Capture the Flag, and tag. While the game doesn’t include true cross-play across different systems, you’ll at least be able to play with others across generations on the PlayStation and Xbox. So, Xbox Series X players can race against Xbox One players, for instance.
Multiplayer supports not just the usual online play, but up to four-way split-screen as well for all multi-car events, where human players just take over the spot of an AI car. It’s the sort of option I’d prefer to see in every racing game. The interface for setting up the split-screen options is annoyingly vague and confusing though, which made the initial set up a little frustrating.
Dirt 5 Review — The Bottom Line
- Huge racer with tons to do
- Gorgeous presentation
- Tight responsive controls
- YouTube-focused narration might not appeal to everyone
- Split-screen UI needs more clarity
Whether on current-gen or the next-gen, Dirt 5 is a robust and entertaining racer worth checking out.
Dirt 5 is out on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Stadia on November 6. The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S versions of the game will launch “later” in 2020. It will feature a free upgrade from the current-gen to next-gen.
[Note: Codemasters provided the copy of Dirt 5 used for this review.]