30 Nov 2020
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Game review: Dirt 5 PC/Xbox Series X

By Darren Price

Codemasters’ Dirt 5 gets down and dirty with some off-road racing. This time taking the franchise in a slightly different, but understandable, direction.

If ever there was a game franchise with an identity crisis it’s Codemasters’ Dirt. Its initial games carrying the name of the legendary rally driver Colin McCrea were pure rally games, with a bit of rally X thrown in for good measure.

Then came 2012’s Dirt: Showdown. This arcade-style take on rally driving came packed full of over-the-top “awesome” and featured the antics of US rally driver Ken Block. The game alienated rally fans so much that Codemasters' next Dirt game was the back-to-basics Dirt Rally.

Dirt Rally and Dirt Rally 2.0 are both aimed at the more serious rally gamer prepared to put in the hard yards. I enjoyed 2017’s Dirt 4 as a mixture of timed stages and off-road, more arcade-style racing.

For Dirt 5 Codemasters have effectively split the franchise. The Dirt Rally games are now the for purists and the Dirt games being more in-your-face arcade off-road racing games. 
And I think this is a good idea.

Whilst I baulked at the over-the-top arcade flavour of Dirt: Showdown, we didn’t have the Dirt Rally games back then. With Dirt Rally catering for the serious rallying, there’s no reason why we can’t have an off-road racer joining Codemasters’ Dirt Rally, Grid, F1 and now, Project CARS games.

If the frantic off-road action feels like a (slightly) more grounded MotoStorm, there’s a good reason for that. Many of the development team are veterans of Evolution Studios, the people behind MotoStorm and Driveclub. Fresh from the so-so Onrush, Codemasters Evo, rebranded as Codemasters Cheshire, developed Dirt 5 using their own engine rather than Codemasters’ own Ego Engine that’s powered the series since the beginning.

The result is a game a lot less serious than its predecessors (Dirt: Showdown accepted), and perhaps a little too “bro dude” for my taste. But it is still a competent racer in its own right, which is how the game is best judged. This is effectively a new Codemasters franchise and Dirt 5 in name only.

So here we are with Dirt 5, an unashamed off-road arcade racing game and, most definitely, NOT a rally game. 

The game features all the modes that you’d expect. You’ve got a career, online, arcade and playgrounds.

The career is a tiered collection of events unlocked by collecting tokens from preceding races. The system allows for a steady progression even if you are a novice. The events unlock pretty easily without players getting stuck and having to re-race (unless you do a particularly poor job.

The game features a number of different event types across ten locations from the jungles of China to the frozen landscape of Norway. Each location has a few different circuits, so even if an event is in the same place, it’s likely to be a very different race. Races can also have dynamic weather, clear skies, rain or snow. The time of day also offers up some variety.

The event types are a combination of point-to-point races, circuit races and time trials. These could be on mud, dirt, snow, ice, tarmac or a combination. Events such as Path Finder are on particularly rugged terrain and more about vehicle control that top speed. Ice breaker events are on frozen lakes and rivers and all about controlling those slides. Sprint races utilise special vehicles with air dams creating a challenging to control left turn bias. 

Fans of Dirt: Showground will recognise the stadium-based gymkhana events. These involve racing cars around courses collecting signs before the timer runs out. 

I wasn’t a great fan of (or any good at) sprint races and I found gymkhana an acquired taste. Thankfully, you don’t need to master all the event types to progress. 

The race vehicle selection depends on the event type. New, faster vehicles can be purchased using funds gained from winning races. All the vehicles can be customised with unique paint jobs and decals.

Players can select sponsorship deals. Each sponsor has their own expectations and challenges for extra rewards. Every now and again a throwdown is unlocked. These one-on-one races unlock special rewards.

The online mode allows players and up to 3 invited friends to compete online in races or some party games. The game allows for 2-player split-screen in most game modes, as well. 

The arcade mode opens all the locations and race track combinations for either time trials or custom races. Races can be set up with a chosen number of opponents, location, circuit, time of day and weather.

Playground allows players to create their own gymkhana-style events or try one that someone else has created. As you’d imagine there are a load of rubbish circuits, but there are also some absolute gems as well. This mode really adds limitless replayability to what is already a feature-packed game.

Car handling is, as you’d expect, more arcade than a punishing physics simulation. Drifting is easy, as is threading the needle between the other cars. Damage is cosmetic, so smashing into opponents is fair game. The various surfaces all feel different to drive on. I didn’t find much difference between each car in the various classes, the more powerful cars are more powerful, but otherwise have all the same characteristics. There is, however, a lot of difference between the road car class and the rally raid vehicles, though.

Running on PC, the game is spectacular. High-end machines should see 120 frame-per-second at 2560x1140 with the setting on ultra. 

Running on Xbox Series X 4K/60 HDR, the game looks great and is also very smooth. I did notice a few frame-rate drops, though, when the action got a bit too intense. The game is optimised for Xbox Series X and does look a lot better than on its Xbox One X counterpart.

The mud looks wet and the puddles reflect the environment realistically. Dust and leaves blow across the tracks. The lighting, whilst never really photoreal still looks nice, especially as it starts to get dark.

Dirt 5 is a follow-up to Dirt 4 in name only. It is an unashamed off-road arcade racing game. And a good one at that. The game looks good and there’s lots to do. The addition of split-screen local multiplayer is a great addition as well. As long as Codemasters continue with their separate Dirt Rally games, I’m very happy for the Dirt games to go off at this more forgiving, arcade-style, tangent.

Verdict: 8.5/10  

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