As a guy waiting at a bus stop once told me, DiRT as a game series is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. Will it be about sim rallying? Will it be a smorgasbord of arcade smashing and bashing? Will it be all about rallying, or head-to-head racing? It’s swung wildly from one extreme to the other over the years.
From the introduction of head to head racing with the original DiRT, to Gymkhana in DiRT 3 and the outright arcade excess of DiRT: Showdown, it shifted so far toward arcade thrills that DiRT Rally had to come along as an Early Access experiment to prove that, yes, people do still want sim rallying. DiRT 4 swung back in that direction as well, with more accessible handling and randomly generated rally stages, but was outshone by the Rally games it was sandwiched between.
So where to for DiRT 5? Well, a little bit more north, for one thing. DiRT 5 is now in the hands of Codemasters Cheshire, the studio formerly known as Codemasters Evo (OnRush), and even more formerly as Evolutions Studios (Driveclub, MotorStorm). It’s another fresh start for the studio, after OnRush’s bold but ultimately failed racing game hybrid, but can also be seen as a fresh start for the mainline DiRT series. With DiRT Rally (and the upcoming WRC license), Codemasters already have a game and studio working on super serious rallying, meaning that Codemasters Cheshire can put the outright rallying on the backburner and focus on those more arcade spills.
It’s safe to say that there’s some real MotorStorm vibes here, but viewed through the lens of the somewhat more serious and realistic DiRT franchise. So yes, there’s a broad range of different vehicles, from buggies to classic rally cars and up to Crossraid trucks, but you’ll be racing within a class, instead of being able to pit a motorbike against a monster truck.
There’s a bunch of different event types, though these are all still about crossing the finish line first, and seem to largely determine the setting and vehicles you race more than anything else. So Ultracross is like Rallycross, but weaves through a Norwegian town (for example) and without the fiddly Joker lap rule. Land Rush is more fully off-road racing, while Stampede takes that and amps it up further with more extreme terrain and jumps. For the Americans out there, Sprint cars come with their outrageously big asymmetrical wings for the DiRT oval tracks.
Each location can play host to plenty of different tracks and weather settings, so Henningsvaer in Norway is generally quite frigid, but changes tone as night falls and a blizzard rolls in, or you race under the Northern Lights with lasers shooting into the sky as you come to the start/finish line. Xiamo Run set in China feels like a park turned into an extravagantly spacious track for Crossraid trucks to chew up, while Tijuca Forest feels like it’s truly been carved into the landscape, with banks of exposed roots, sheer drops down the mountain, and your track made of slick, shiny mud.
You can race at different times of day, setting time progression up to 120 times reality (so two hours pass in one minute), and experience extreme snow storms, thunder and lightning and heavy rain that affect the event’s look and feel. Sure, it’s all been done before, but it’s still looks fantastic with all the settings ramped up. This will be a treat on next-gen consoles, even without ray-traced fanciness.
The racing here is nice and accessible, with a certain looseness from racing on muddy tracks, and the circuits giving plenty of width to accommodate the dozen racers all jostling for position. The exception from the handful of classes and vehicles in our demo were the Sprint trucks, which I simply could not get a handle on. That’s fine. DiRT 5 is intended to be a broad game that has a little bit of something for lots of different people. You see that through the career, with over 130 events, but the ability to skip events that you don’t like the look of and still earn enough Stamps elsewhere to progress.
It’s going to be jazzed up with a story – not usually a racing game’s strong suit – featuring Nolan North and Troy Baker as rival and mentor respectively, while an in-game podcast natters away about events and features a number of real life racer and pundit cameos. The story’s going to be split up into five chapters, with you needing to earn enough Stamps from events in order to progress, and having to sign and keep your sponsors happy to keep earning new cars and unlocks. Sprinkled throughout will be Throwdown events, bespoke challenges and head-to-head duels to spice things up.
But again, you might not be a master of every discipline. You might have a friend who is though, and with four player local co-op through the whole campaign, they can dive in and help out, the best finisher going toward the career progression. It’s a neat feature to include, with them taking the place of one of the twelve racers, but especially impressive when you learn that this isn’t just a next-gen feature. Four player split-screen features on every platform, all the way down to Xbox One! The only fly in the ointment is that it is local only, with no online co-op. Then again, the focus will surely be on head to head competitive racing for the online modes.
With DiRT 5, the pendulum of DiRT has swung back to a more arcade brand of off-road racing, but since DiRT Rally 2.0 is catering very well to the sim-rallying crowd, I think that’s the right move for the series. There’s space for both kinds of racing here, with Codemasters Cheshire having free rein to cook up all manner of sensational race locations, find some of the crazier racing vehicles out there, and throw it all together with gorgeous lighting and transformative weather effects.