Dirt 5 review – rallying for everyone

Codemasters’ latest rally game is less concerned with being a simulation and more with ensuring it’s accessible and fun for all.

Rally driving isn’t a sport known for its subdued gentility but, despite its name, a light spattering of mud isn’t nearly enough for Dirt, the driving game series with a lineage that stretches back to Colin McCrae Rally in the late 90s. Each instalment seems to want to distance itself even further from its more staid earlier variants, so there’s no more poker faced co-driver saying ‘left three over crest, tightens’. Instead you’ll simply find 12 massively powerful cars piling at maximum speed towards the finish line.

Eschewing the nerdiness of Gran Turismo, there’s no upgrading or modding in Dirt 5, although you can customise your cars’ paint jobs. And while some races feature rally cars from decades past, there’s no sense of completism about it, or painstaking recreations of long forgotten racetracks. Dirt 5 is none too concerned with authenticity or history, it’s all about goofy knockabout good times.

Unfortunately, the front-end of that comes with video game voiceover legends Tory Baker and Nolan North as a pair of dudebro podcasters, narrating your rise to racing fame. Their scripted banter bookends races and includes cameos from motoring YouTuber SLAPTrain and racing driver Jamie Chadwick. It’s not quite toe-curling but it is remorselessly dull, although luckily easy to skip with a single button press.

Skipping ahead is something you’ll need to do a lot as you progress through career mode, which as tradition dictates sees you work your way up from plucky outsider to becoming the king of rally, via a range of different car classes, event styles, and courses. With 70 routes through 10 locations around the world, you’ll ping pong between China, Norway, Greece, Nepal, South Africa, and more. It makes even Lara Croft’s travel itineraries look pedestrian by comparison.

All the tracks are big, bold and colourful with each of the world’s regions recreated with an emphasis on fun. Brightly painted favelas, Greek ruins, lush jungles, and the frozen Hudson River await your screeching tyres, but as always Dirt wants to push things further. To add to the visual spectacle you’ll find blizzards, thunderstorms, sandstorms, rainbows, and appearances by the aurora borealis, while on the tracks themselves there are tubes belching plumes of fire into the air, low flying aircraft trailing smoke from their wing tips, and jumps galore.

Dirt 5 also specialises in changing conditions during the course of a race, so you might start in the dry before encountering a rainstorm, which dries up by the third lap. Or frequently you’ll start a race in daylight, before the sun sets in the second lap leaving the latter half of the race in darkness. It’s successful in keeping things feeling fresh and surprising, even when you’ve driven a course multiple times.

Events are similarly diverse, even if ultra cross, rally raid, stampede, and land rush appear to be functionally identical, their reliance on different classes of car helps give them a distinct feel. It also means that when you don’t enjoy a particular event, for example one with lots of rocks and a narrow track where random collisions can drop you into an irretrievable last place through no real fault of your own, you know that the next race will be completely different. The continual breathless renewal suits the game’s brash, in-your-face styling.

It’s just as well, because there are some events that don’t always work very well. Sprint racing is one such acquired taste, its cars’ huge, lopsided wings obscuring your view of the track and, like a broken shopping trolley, constantly forcing you slightly to the left. It’s really not much fun at all, but it’s over so quickly that there’s no time to feel bitter before you’re swept off to the next multi-coloured location for something completely different.

With generous winnings and an easy trajectory of unlocks, you’re given one of your possible three trophies in each event simply for finishing, even if that’s in 12th place. It means that if you fancy a new car, you can almost always just buy it, with even the most expensive cars easily within reach after just a few races. You also earn experience points and reputation, although neither of those seems to affect anything whatsoever.

Outside career mode, there’s the usual online multiplayer, along with a wonderful four-player split screen mode, a boon to those in shared accommodation during lockdown, and a huge rarity these days. There are various party game modes to play around with, and a set of tracks designed specifically around multiplayer. It’s a significant improvement over Dirt 4’s procedurally generated courses, which always felt bland and forgettable.

There are downsides though. Because cars are so accessible and realistically priced, you’ll run out of new ones to buy long before the end of career mode, and although there are a reasonable number of courses – further disguised with day and night, varying weather conditions, different vehicle classes and reverse races – you’ll still be seeing a lot of each one.

Alongside races, Dirt 5 sees the return of free styling arena-based gymkhanas, where you perform drifts, jumps, and donuts to rack up a high score against the clock. Plus, there’s a new path finder event, where you drive point-to-point in ultra-rocky, twisty and hilly locations that require active navigation as well as raw speed. They’re the only events that have just one available car, but given how varied and extreme the terrain is, that doesn’t spoil the entertainment.

You can choose between more detailed graphics or 60 frames per second, and whichever way you go it’s a decent looking game that does the job without blowing any minds. The racing is eventually a tiny bit shallow, but the rapid changes of scenery, cars, and racing styles just never let up. It’s a bombastic, over the top approach that gives Dirt 5 its own appeal, and one that’s quite different from its more traditional competitors.

Dirt 5 review summary

In Short: Loud, brash, brightly coloured tracks with a rousing selection of cars and racing styles in a game that’s much more about fun than serious simulation.

Pros: Great variety of events and vehicles, beautifully orchestrated weather and lighting changes, and a handling model that’s consistent throughout.

Cons: Mildly annoying scripted bants between races. You fairly swiftly acquire all the best cars and it all eventually starts to feel a bit lightweight.

Score: 7/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PlayStation 5, PC, and Stadia
Price: £54.99
Publisher: Codemasters
Developer: Codemasters Cheshire
Release Date: 6th November 2020 (XSX on 10/11, PS5 on 12/11)
Age Rating: 12

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