DiRT 5 Review

Back in 2007, Codemasters tried to revitalize its Colin McRae Rally series by going in a more colourful and personality-driven route. The result was Colin McRae: DiRT, which we’ve always just called DiRT for obvious reasons. A game that sold very well during its first week, and continued to do so thanks to good word of mouth and some pretty great review scores.

In the thirteen years since, we’ve seen the release of several mainline DiRT games and a more difficult and realistic spin-off series called DiRT Rally. Both seemed to be separate, until 2017’s DiRT 4 surprised us by being very rally and realism oriented, marking a major departure from its predecessors. In fact, I always think of that game as being DiRT Rally 2. At least I did before DiRT Rally 2.0 was actually released.

We’re about to embark on a new console generation, and while PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S|X launch titles seem limited, racing fans have had a new Codemasters racer to look forward to. One they call DiRT 5. Don’t get us wrong, though: This thing has released on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, as well as PC. The flagship console versions just happen to be next-gen in nature.

We were able to get our hands on a review code for the game prior to it being enhanced for next-gen. As such, this review will talk about how the game fares on both Xbox One X and Xbox Series S.

This time around, Codemasters gave another studio the keys and let them drive this intellectual property of a vehicle. Thus, this is the first entry in the popular series to have been developed by what was once known as Evolution Studios, but has since rebranded as Codemasters Cheshire. They’re the folks who developed 2001’s World Rally Championship for the PS2, 2014’s DriveClub and a few Motorstorm games in-between. You’ve likely played something they’ve built if you’re a racing fan.

Thankfully, DiRT 5 returns to its series’ adrenaline and personality-fueled roots, leaving DiRT 4 as a surprising anomaly. That isn’t to say that this is a better game than its predecessor was. Yes, while DiRT 4 wasn’t what I expected it would be, I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t a better, and much more polished experience than its new sequel. If that makes this paragraph’s opening sentence confusing, that’s understandable. I just happen to prefer arcade racers over simulation racers, and find them to be a kind of interactive comfort food. Although the last game was certainly better made, this one brought the series back to the type of racing I expect from it. After all, we’re talking about the main/numbered games, not Rally. That’s its own thing, which I truly appreciate and respect. The first one just happened to be way too difficult and unforgiving for my tastes, and the resulting frustration turned me off of it after a bit.

In fact, DiRT 5 is very likely the worst out of all the titles released under its franchise name. It’s fun, somewhat addictive and quite accessible, but it’s not up to par with the previous releases in terms of quality, polish and gameplay. Perhaps it was rushed, or maybe it was finished by people who were working their butts off at home, I don’t know. Either way, it could’ve used more time in the proverbial oven.

That said, even if this is the worst game in its series, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. These games have reached such a high bar for so many years that we’ve come to expect greatness from every single outing. This particular effort isn’t great, but it’s still pretty good, solid fun, and that’s okay. Just don’t go into it expecting an shockingly great showstopper.

Thing are more exotic than ever now, thanks to a career mode that spans the globe over the course of approximately 130 different events. The player has agency to pick his or her path through this impressive amount of career races, and is often given two to five different options each time. The result is a branching path that is somewhat similar to a spider web, in that when you complete one race you’ll unlock the one or two next to it and so forth. It works pretty well, but results in a menu and mode that kind of feels lifeless, despite a fictional radio show and a made up rivalry between two fictional racers.

If you’ve been following this game, you’ll likely know that well known voice actors Nolan North (Nathan Drake and many others) and Troy Baker were tapped for this project. The former plays a jerk of a superstar named Bruno Durand, who practically defines cocky, while the latter portrays a much nicer and easier to like challenger named AJ. As an unnamed racer, who gets to go by a nickname like Champ or even Maggot, which is what I chose because I’m a Slipknot fan. It shocked me to see that it was even an option, let alone one that is voiced.

As you play through DiRT 5‘s campaign — which can be pretty short, or quite long, depending on how many events you wish to complete — you’ll hear the two argue and shit talk each other on what is presumably a made up public radio show. Host James Pumphrey also talks about racing in general, and speaks to the player to urge them on and congratulate them for their successes. It’s the developers’ attempt to infuse a bit of story into what is otherwise a quite basic and predictable career mode despite its many options. I can’t say I liked it, though, because I found the dialogue to be bland and felt like it was all just an afterthought. The radio stuff was just there to try to make us feel like underdogs becoming champions, as we ascended the make believe ranks and worked towards showdowns with these two superstars.

Of course, it’s the races that are most important, because they’re why we buy, rent, borrow and play these games.

In this particular case, the driving is fun but surprisingly dated feeling, although it does the job and becomes pretty addictive after a while. There’s no denying that DiRT 5 wished to be more than it is, but what it is remains a fun, arcade experience. The core racing mechanics simply aren’t as tight as they used to be, or are in DiRT Rally. At times, the vehicles feel floaty, making it seem as if you’re driving on ice when you’re merely driving on dirt or mud. Granted, this is an arcade racer where drifting is a major factor, and one in which some tracks are made of snow and ice. It simply shouldn’t always feel as loose as it does.

As you’ll discover, the career’s numerous events span real world locations like China, Greece, Italy, Norway, Morocco, Africa and the United States of America. Each location has at least one track to offer, but often it’s more like two or three. There are also reverse routes that change things up and make it feel like you’re racing on a different course.

Variety can be found in more than just the tracks’ exotic locations. It’s true that quite a few of DiRT 5‘s career events are lap-based affairs, but many aren’t. Others task you with point-to-point rally racing (with several other AI racers), ascending rough terrain in Pathfinder challenges, speeding on frozen rivers in ice races, going all out on score driven Gymkhana courses and driving super fast sprint trucks around an oval. You’ll quickly identify favourite types and tracks, and will make your way through the career picking the events you’d prefer to do as a result of that.

I enjoyed almost all of the included event types, but there were a few that didn’t do much for me. First up is Pathfinder, which is fine but basic and way too easy, since you’re just driving one big truck up a mountain. Next would be Gymkhana, which was done much better in previous entries, like DiRT 3 and DiRT Showdown, which I loved. It lacks the fluidity and precise controls that we’ve become used to, and can be annoying as a result. It’s surprisingly hard to drift as efficiently as one would like, because the controls just aren’t as tight as they used to be.

Lastly, there’s the all too quick sprint trucks, which are awful to drive. I don’t know if this was done intentionally, but those vehicles are unruly to the point of being awful. Every time I entered into one of these races, I knew that I was going to end up in twelfth place, because I simply couldn’t control the vehicle I was driving. The AI racers would go around corners effortlessly and speed ahead of me, all while I was struggling to get the thing to turn while driving with speed. Those things are almost impossible to drive well, and the result is a number of races that are less than fun.

Although I play a lot of games, I have a thing for completing what I play and it bugs me when I don’t finish games. I also try to do as thorough of a first (and often only) play through as I can. In this case, I ended up completing every single one of DiRT 5‘s 130 or so career events, as well as each of its several unlockable, and completely optional, one on one throwdown events. The latter are basically just boss races in each of the game’s different racing disciplines.

If you care about achievements or trophies, which some still do, you’ll find it interesting to know that this particular list is quite easy. You’ll be able to complete DiRT 5 in maybe 10 to 20 hours depending on how much you do in its career mode, and should be able to unlock all but one of its achievements or trophies during that time. I don’t normally talk about these things in my reviews because they don’t matter, but I wanted to point this out for those with interest. I also wanted to mention that the last and most difficult achievement has to be one of the worst I’ve ever seen. Reason being is that it tasks you with driving 10,000 miles during your time with the game. Don’t expect to unlock it unless you spend over a hundred hours grinding, because even after completing every event in the game I was merely at about 5% of the 10,000 goal.

Getting back to things that really matter, it’s important to note that most of the tracks are well designed and quite enjoyable to race through. Some are obviously better than others, and some feel lacking in comparison to their peers, but for the most part the quality bar is pretty high. I did, however, find that some of the cars you’re able to choose are too fast for their corresponding events and courses. For instance, driving a super fast Porsche through a winding and mud-filled exotic location is a recipe for disaster. Thus, speed isn’t always the answer. It’s good, then, that Codemasters allows you to purchase and choose your own vehicles for most events. You’ll do this using earned DiRT Dollars, and will be able to see how each one is rated in speed and handling categories. They’re actually ranked using letters, from C to S.

The good thing about this game is that it rewards you even if you do poorly. This is good, because DiRT 5‘s catch-up AI may be the most aggressive I’ve ever faced. More often than not they’ll stay glued to you until the end, and will sometimes even fly by you as you’re about to place first. It’s almost as if their cars are souped up sometimes, because of how easy they can pass you. If you crash, you will more often than not be saying goodbye to a good finish, because there’s no rewind feature in the latest game from the series that — if I remember correctly — invented it. I know that purists don’t like it when racing games allow you to rewind when you crash or fail, but it’s always been optional, and it would’ve helped a game like this where speed and unruly AI can result in some really frustrating crashes that can lead to even more frustrating losses.

This problem is made lesser by a progression and rewards system that generally doesn’t care if you come in first, second, third, sixth or twelfth. For better or worse, it still rewards you if you do poorly, because DiRT 5 isn’t about coming in first in every race. You see, this particular racing game ties its progression to a stamps system, and tasks you with completing objectives as you race to unlock stamps. This is a really easy thing to do, because the repetitive objectives rarely stray from things like trading paint 1-5 times, trading paint while drifting or jumping, overtaking a certain number of cars, staying in first for 20 seconds and things like that. You can also spend one to two thousand Dirt Dollars, which is nothing, to change both event and career objectives if the ones you’re seeing don’t suit you. Your chosen sponsor will set some out for you, and these will give you extra money, sponsor appreciation and that sort of thing. Plus, once you get to your sponsor’s highest level, you’ll start unlocking themed liveries based around them, with them being companies like Monster Energy and Michelin.

As you progress you will also earn experience that adds to your driver level. There’s an achievement for getting to level 50, which is pretty easy to do if you take your time and complete at least most of the events, and it becomes difficult to increase you’re level after that. This is true, despite the fact that there are player icons, stickers and liveries that unlock at levels as high as 98, 99 and 100. These aren’t very important, though, and you can always create your own liveries through a pretty easy to use paint and decal system.

Now that career mode has been discussed in detail, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that DiRT 5 has numerous other modes. For starters, there’s the arcade where you can compete in custom events and time trials. Then, there’s the Playground, which is where you can play challenges and courses that have been designed by other players, or create your own through a pretty robust and accessible creation suite. There’s also online play that offers racing and more colourful event types. During my time online, I noticed that the game looked almost as good as it did during single player, and that things ran quite well. It was also pretty fun, until I suffered a massive crash.

Needless to say, the online modes and Playground creator add a good amount of replay value to what is a solid racer. I’m generally not a fan of playing racing games online, but I know that many people are. I simply find them to be frustrating, because skill levels vary wildly and some people just like to cause chaos by crashing into and ruining others’ racers. While I always hope to just have fun while playing online multiplayer, there’s something about most racing games’ online play that doesn’t do much for me. I love playing them in single player though!

As mentioned earlier in this review, I played DiRT 5 on both Xbox One X and Xbox Series S. We were provided a review code at the end of October, and while it wasn’t supposed to unlock until the 6th of November, I was able to play it as soon as it finished downloading. My intention was to just play a bit on One X, but I had a hard time putting the game down because I find these games to be comfort food. I finished almost everything on Xbox One X, then went back and played for a while on Xbox Series S once it was optimized for next-gen.

Prior to beating the festival like career mode, with its radio show, fireworks, and effects going off during races, I hadn’t installed any updates. Maybe one was packed in with the install file, since I was a bit late downloading it in comparison to other reviewers, but I don’t know. What I do know is that the Xbox One X version had a lot of technical issues at that time, including some of the worst screen tearing I’d ever seen. This has been addressed through a patch, and the game obviously looks and plays quite a bit better on next-gen hardware, which is what it’s truly meant for. Well, that and PC.

The lighting and tracks definitely look better on the Xbox Series S, and the cars’ textures look a bit better too. Some still don’t look amazing, though, especially during the car select screen, which takes place inside some old hut. Sometimes the lighting is off and makes them look muddy.

Don’t expect DiRT 5 to be an absolute showstopper, though, because it’s unfortunately not the game you’ll wow people with when you get your new hardware. It can look quite nice at times, but texture inconsistencies, pop in and some strange physics hold it down. Things often look quite nice and colourful during bright, daytime races, but nighttime races can look quite muddy and it can be hard to see where to go at times. This is sometimes affected by the game’s otherwise pretty impressive dynamic weather and time systems. Sometimes the shadows are too dark, and sometimes it’s hard to see where you’re going at all because of a dirt storm or a blizzard. Those things are intentional, but the occasional lack of visibility doesn’t always seem intentional.

The audio is also unspectacular. The car, truck and buggy sound effects are boisterous, but they’re also understandably repetitive and don’t feel varied enough. Despite changing the car and effects volume levels so that I could hopefully hear the music better, I found that it was still difficult to really hear the included soundtrack as clearly as I would’ve liked while racing. It was loud and easy to hear during the menus, but was barely audible at times during actual events, partially due to the boisterous sound effects and engine sounds. Meanwhile, the voice acting from Troy Baker and Nolan North leaves a lot to be desired. Not because they’re bad actors, but because the script is unoriginal, boring and repetitive, and the game’s story offers very little in the way of memorability or engagement.

There is a good soundtrack to be found in DiRT 5, so it’s unfortunate that it’s often dwarfed by the effects. I was surprised by how many of the included songs I liked, and always looked forward to hearing the Arkells’ new single. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like there was an option to skip tracks.

With all that being said, I must reiterate that while DiRT 5 is a fun and solid game, I feel it’s the worst in the series thus far. Although I became pretty addicted to it, it never ended up being the incredible racing game I’d hoped or expected it would be based on the previous several titles. However, given the franchise’s pedigree and the high expectations that come with it, calling something the worst of this series doesn’t mean it’s bad. The other games are just that good, and this is merely a bit of a stumble.

This review is based on the Xbox version of the game, which we were provided by Microsoft. We played it on an Xbox One X and an Xbox Series S.

DiRT 5 is a solid arcade racing game, which can become pretty addictive. However, it isn't up to par in comparison to the rest of its series, and isn't the amazing next-gen showpiece we'd hoped it would end up being.
Reader Rating0 Votes
The Good Stuff
Lots of events, in addition to a create a course mode that offers some solid replay value
Can look really nice at times
Playground mode lets you create and share challenges and courses
The Not-So-Good Stuff
Visual issues and strange physics
A very forgettable story that feels shoehorned into a rather basic, but enjoyable career mode
Lacks the polish, precision and quality of its predecessors