In the world of racing games, there lie two neighbouring kingdoms. One is the realm of sim racing, ruled by the likes of iRacing, Assetto Corsa, and Gran Turismo. The other is the land of arcade racing, home to your Need For Speeds, Burnouts, and Ridge Racers.
One side values the immersion and depth of ultra-realistic cars and racetracks, the other just wants to ramp those cars off sweet jumps and powerslide round every corner like you’re an eight-year-old in charge of the shopping trolley. Speaking as someone who enjoys visiting both kingdoms, I can confirm that trying to please fans of both at the same time is a very tough thing to do.
Imagine a family dinner where your uncle Jim is trying to tell your cousin Simon about model trains, when all Simon wants to do is chug your mum’s wine and listen to EDM. They’re more likely to end the night pelting each other with cutlery than politely exploring their enthusiasms, but that’s what the Dirt series attempted.
Starting out as Colin McRae Rally back in the 1990s, the Dirt games managed to straddle the line between realism and arcade for many years, in a similar manner to games like Forza Motorsport. They combined being fun to pick up and play for the arcade crowd with intricate handling and an extensive roster of real-world cars and tracks to please the sim heads.
Then came a curveball in 2015’s spin-off Dirt Rally: a hardcore rally simulator, and a brilliant one, but which left the main Dirt series in an identity crisis that ultimately hindered 2017’s Dirt 4. The sim racers wanting a full-on rally game had Dirt Rally now. And everyone else had Forza Horizon, which mirrored Dirt’s journey in spinning off from Forza Motorsport to deliver open-world arcade racing funtimes, revolutionising the genre in the process.
And so we arrive at Dirt 5. With the burden of pleasing the hardcore crowd now falling on the Dirt Rally games, the main Dirt series is free to chug wine and blast EDM with cousin Simon all day. But does it achieve arcade racing nirvana, or does it wind up chundering in the toilet at 1am?
Playgrounds mode lets you design race and stunt tracks like a cross between Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and Trackmania - I'm all over it like cheesy chips
Well, if you are reading this review just to see whether Dirt 5 is A Good Game (TM) or not, you can stop right here – it is.
Free of the burden of trying to be all things to all people, Dirt 5 feels like a game imbued with fresh confidence and a clean slate – and the first words written on said slate are ‘FORZA HORIZON’. Right out of the gate, the bright colours, brash presentation, and pumping soundtrack give strong Forza Horizon vibes, as does the central premise of the game’s career mode: competing in an international racing festival. In fact, on more than one occasion I have to stop and remind myself that I’m not actually playing Forza Horizon 4, right down to details like the look of the race venues or the background music blasting on trackside speakers while you race.
But is that a bad thing? Absolutely not. Crucially, it never feels like a straight rip-off – Dirt 5 has not been sitting behind Forza Horizon 4 in the exam room. It feels more organic, even cyclical, given the tone and style of previous Dirt games. It’s less a case of copying the latest fashion to fit in with the cool kids, and more being inspired by contemporaries to express yourself and live your best life. The presentation overall is really nice and fun; the Dirt Podcast hosted by the Donut Media guys provides a running commentary of your career mode adventures in a way that really gave me vibes of those DJs on ‘Crash FM’ in the Burnout games. Or maybe I just really miss Burnout.
Related: Check out the best racing games on PC in 2020
Said career mode is a standard choose-your-own-path quest that’ll be familiar to players of many Codemasters racing games down the years, and this one works especially well with the mix of race types. Admittedly most of them come down to ‘drive around this dirt track and do some sweet jumps’, but a wide variety in vehicle types and course styles – from steep mountain trails to ice rinks via gymkhana stunt arenas – keeps your motivation to continue playing bubbling along nicely. Given a common complaint of the Forza Horizon games was that their open-world nature meant little sense of progression after a while, this Dirt 5’s more structured approach helps alleviate that.
There’s an in-game currency known as Dirt Dollars, which is used to unlock everything from cars to individual decals, but thankfully there’s no sign of microtransactions and nor was it in any way a grind to earn Dirt Dollars – they, along with XP and various other rewards, are practically vomited upon you at the end of every race. There are also bonus objectives to achieve in each event – things like ‘jump and trade paint’ or ‘drift and overtake three cars’. These add a nice extra level of challenge; sometimes I find myself slowing to let the next car pass because I’m still one drift overtake short of ticking that one off the list. In a race where ordinarily I’d have just driven off into the distance, this extra challenge was appreciated without it feeling like a chore.
The car and track roster itself is a vast pick ‘n’ mix of goodies. The game promises over 70 routes across ten worldwide locations, all of which are gorgeous to look at and a lot of fun to race around. The car roster is similarly deep, with all sorts of rally cars, off-road buggies, and raid SUVs to yeet sideways around every corner. And while there’s no real car tuning, the livery editor provided is fairly simple and intuitive, as is the in-game photo mode.
This brings us nicely to the graphics, generally an area in which Codies have excelled in recent years. And while in F1 2020 the only time you’d get to see the gorgeous weather effects is if it starts raining mid-race, the off-road-centric Dirt 5 can showcase them brilliantly. Water splashes, driving rain and snow, and mud splattering up the side of your car all look fantastic, and for the most part run very smoothly even on a mid-tier PC; I only encountered a few brief hangs when certain background objects were loaded in, and one crash during my playtime.
Dirt is rediscovering its swagger, inspired by younger contemporaries to come out swinging
And the handling? It does the job and exemplifies the term ‘pick up and play’ to a tee. I felt very little need to adjust handling or control settings, and all cars were an absolute breeze to fling around. My only niggle in this area isn’t with my car, but with those of the AI; annoyingly they seem to have infinite mass and velcro for bumpers. It’s very easy to run into an AI car and get stuck there, slowing to a crawl in the process as if you’re being boxed in by the police following a bit of grand theft auto. This was a problem in 2019’s GRID reboot, and while for the most part the tracks are wide enough to avoid this issue, it does get annoying on narrower mountain paths.
I’m also not sure how much longevity the career mode will ultimately have. Despite more structure than a Forza Horizon, motivation to keep doing races and unlocking things could run thin after a while. At least there are plenty of things to do in the game outside of career mode – there’s the standard suite of multiplayer race types and party modes, and the frankly awesome Playgrounds mode which allows you to design race and stunt tracks inside an arena. The feel is somewhere between Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Trackmania, and frankly I am all over that like a bag of cheesy chips.
How’s the kid doing? Check out our Dirt Rally 2 review
Ultimately, I enjoyed my time with Dirt 5 a lot. It’s a game that feels like a series rediscovering its swagger, inspired by younger contemporaries to come out swinging once more. It might not be the deepest career mode experience, or in some cases the most challenging, but you know what? That’s okay. Not every game has to be Dark Souls, and not every racing game has to be a hardcore sim experience. If Forza Horizon is a big open toy box full of cars to play with, Dirt 5 is a series of playsets for you to shove cars into the launcher and ramp off of high things. And hey, in the current darkest timeline we live in, that sounds like a damn good time to me.