Man, it’s not a good time to be a fan of realistic racing simulations. Just months after fans of Project CARS series were dismayed to learn that Project CARS 3 was eschewing its realistic approach for a more arcade-like one, fans of the DiRT racing series are now suffering a somewhat similar indignity with DIRT 5 (Xbox One, Xbox Series X / S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PC), which is replacing rally racing with more straight-forward racing (and a capital “I”). But while DiRT fans will hate this sequel, those into more traditional racing games (like me) will have even more fun with this than we did with, well, Project CARS 3.
Like the real sport of rally racing, most of the previous DiRT games had you driving point-to-point races on narrow courses, with you trying to beat your competition’s best time instead of racing on the same track. And while DiRT 4 allowed players to use assists for the steering, braking, and traction that made it feel somewhat arcade-like, the game still had a decidedly serious and realistic approach.
Conversely, DIRT 5 is not a rally racing game, isn’t terribly serious, and can feel rather arcade-like if you want it to. Even when it does have you running a point-to-point race — which isn’t uncommon, but is in the minority — you’re still racing against other drivers, not the clock, and there’s just the one leg, not multiple like they do in the real sport.
Instead, DIRT 5 is decidedly more conventional. Sure, you’re still driving street legal but structurally reinforced cars, as well as trucks and buggies, but most of the events are multi-lap races. Even the aesthetic of the menus, fonts, and winner circle are different, as they’re decidedly closer to the colorful approach of Forza Horizon 4 than the more serious one of Forza Motorsport 7.
But while this might have some saying that DIRT 5 is similar to 2012’s DiRT: Showdown, which took a similar approach, and was just as hated by longtime DiRT fans, people who enjoy this kind of racing will enjoy this deviation from the norm.
For starters, there’s the controls, which are especially good if you’re not looking for an authentic driving experience. While this feels as real as DiRT 4 when the assists are all off, turning them all on makes this feel even smoother and arcade-y. Even when racing under slick conditions, like when it’s raining or there’s snow on the ground, your vehicle grips the road like your tires are brand new. Which isn’t to say this ignores road conditions, just that it’s a bit more forgiving than most serious racing simulations.
The tracks in DIRT 5 also keep things interesting. While they have the same kind of curves you find in every decent racing game, and are wider than in previous games to accommodate all the other drivers, there’s also a fair bit of variety in the terrain and elevation, often within the same event. What starts out as a dirt path can quickly devolve into mud, only to become a paved for a bit before becoming dirty again. Still others have you driving gravel roads up and down the sides of mountains.
Point-to-point races in DIRT 5 also have their own variables, including changes in the weather or time of day during the race, as well as tracks with crazy jumps that would make the Duke boys yell, “Yee-ha!” (and rally fans yelling curse words).
DIRT 5 also has a good number of courses; not so few that they become redundant, but not so many that you never become somewhat familiar with them. The same is also true for your choice of viewpoints, which let you decide if you want to play this while sitting in the driver’s seat, up and behind the car, or strapped to the hood like a stoolie in a mob movie. In fact, this gives you two options for each. All of which, most importantly, give you a good sense of speed.
It also helps that (if I may be so cliché) the competition is fierce, whether you’re playing the career or a one-off race in “Arcade.” mode. Your opponents are no pushovers, though they aren’t dominators, either. They seem fairly evenly matched to your skill set.
Fans of previous DiRT games will also lament how the career mode in DIRT 5 isn’t just about winning. Sure, you still want to come in first, or at least in the top 3. But every race also has optional secondary objectives, and you need to complete some of them to unlock other races. They’re also randomized, and can be changed if you feel like spending the money to “roll again.” For instance, my first run of the Kalabaka Town Uphill race in Greece gave me points for overtaking two competitors within 10 seconds and for trading paint with another driver. But my second run wanted me to me to hold first for 10 seconds and drift around 3 corners.
Also, because DIRT 5 isn’t about rally racing, it does away with the navigator. Y’know, the guy in DiRT 4 who told you there was a sharp left turn coming up. But then, with these race tracks being wider, it is easier to see which way the course is going.
Sadly, the lack of a navigator in DIRT 5 doesn’t mean you’re not listening to some guy yammer away. What’s also different about this installment compared to its predecessors is that the career is narrated by these guys James and Nolan — and man are they annoying. So much so that after about the fourth or fifth race I started jamming on the “skip” button like I was playing a fighting game and didn’t know the combos.
This, unfortunately, was not the only issue I ran into while playing DIRT 5‘s career mode. For starters, the music is just atrocious…though it does, admittedly, fit with the game’s pseudo “extreme” vibe. Thank dog for volume controls.
DIRT 5 also has a problem so common that I paste this paragraph into every relevant game review: some of the text is too small. If you sit at a reasonable distance from your TV — y’know, like your mama told you to — you’ll have trouble reading some of the menus and the secondary objectives during a race.
While the career mode is clearly the main thrust of DIRT 5, this does have other modes…that won’t make rally fans happy either. In the aforementioned “Arcade” mode, you can set up one-off races with your choice of venue, vehicle type, weather, time, number of competitors, and the latter’s skill level — but none are rally events. Still, this is fun if you want more say over where, when, and in what you drive than the career mode offers.
Then there’s multiplayer, which is playable both online or against three friends via split-screen. While it won’t annoy DiRT 4 fans as much — since this is how multiplayer worked in that game, too — it really only works well when you’re up against drivers of comparable skill (which is not unusual, but also not a given).
And then there’s “Playgrounds,” where you get to be a race track architect. Sort of. Rather than let you design and build (and, of course, share) courses like the ones in the career mode, this instead has you making tracks for checkpoint race courses inside a football arena. You can also build out a space to do car tricks like if Tony Hawk joined The Fast And The Furious franchise, or cover the arena floor with large objects that drivers can smash. But while the mode has a lot of options, and easy to use, the end results aren’t that interesting.
In the end, fans of the DiRT games are going to hate DIRT 5 the way they hated DiRT: Showdown. But as someone who prefers to race against other drivers, enjoys going around and around as well as from one place to another, and who has a driver’s license and thus doesn’t need racing games to be realistic simulations, DIRT 5 is an engaging, nicely varied, and ultimately super fun racing game…even more than Project CARS 3.