Dirt 5 is a very different game to the previous three entries in Codemasters' off-road racing series. Dirt Rally and its sequel spun the series off in a simulation-based direction, appealing to rally purists with its authentic approach, uncompromising difficulty, and steep learning curve. Dirt 4 followed suit with another smattering of point-to-point rally races, but crucially made the experience accessible for casual racing fans by introducing a more forgiving handling model. With a third Dirt Rally already in development, Codemasters is looking to diversify the series' mainline entries by returning to the arcade spectacle and histrionics of Dirt's early years with Dirt 5.
This much is clear from the outset, as Dirt 5 latches onto the same jovial festival vibes that permeated throughout Dirt 2--complete with a customizable lanyard, vibrant colors, and an upbeat soundtrack. The career mode takes you on a globetrotting adventure that encompasses a variety of different racing disciplines, but there's no sign of any co-drivers relaying pacenotes, nor are there any traditional point-to-point rally events. Dirt 5 distances itself from the series' recent past by being an unabashed arcade racer that's made up of short, action-packed skirmishes where you're constantly trading paint with a pack of other drivers. There's an infectious energy to the whole thing that's reflected in a handling model that sees you hurl its cars around the track with relative ease.
Dirt 4 may have featured a driving school that provided lessons on weight transfer and how to execute pendulum shifts, but Dirt 5 renders that knowledge unnecessary. Getting around most corners is as simple as slowing down before pulling on the handbrake to lurch your car sideways and drift around each mud-swept turn. There's not a lot more to it than that, trading any meaningful depth for approachability that veers too far toward simplicity. Collisions are tame, especially when combined with a listless damage system, and the physics model often throws up some oddities whenever a car goes airborne. This isn't enough to sap the fun out of the experience, but there's always a nagging feeling that Dirt 5 isn't extracting the most out of these vehicles. Any rip-roaring moments are weighed against others that are just a tad dull due to its facile and uninspired handling. As such, the plethora of tracks, and their diverse weather systems, gain added importance throughout Dirt 5's career mode.
You'll drive around the hills and favelas surrounding Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, hurtle through the picturesque fishing village of Henningsvær with the Northern Lights as a stunning backdrop, and drift across the frozen East River beneath the Roosevelt Island Bridge in New York. There are also excursions to China and its dense bamboo forests, races through the scorching Arizona desert, and treacherous visits to the Himalayas. This medley of locales is essential, not only from a visual point of view--what with their impressive scope and exaggerated depictions--but because of the variety of surfaces and weather you'll encounter during your travels.
There isn't a discernible impact on your vehicle's handling when racing on gravel, mud, or dirt, and that remains true whether you're darting around the track in an iconic Subaru Impreza S4 or sitting behind the wheel of the electric Audi AI:TRAIL quattro--which both looks and sounds like it should be in Death Stranding. The only outliers are heavy snow and ice, with the latter having its own dedicated event type, Ice Breakers. Heavy snow causes your vehicle to understeer as the tires get bogged down in the slush, while the opposite occurs on ice, where a lack of traction makes the handbrake superfluous. These surfaces force you to alter your approach and add some much-needed subtlety to Dirt 5's handling model.
They're also complemented by a weather system that has the studio's DNA written all over it. Dirt 5 is the first game in the series not developed at Codemasters' Southam headquarters. Instead, development duties have fallen to the company's Cheshire studio, which previously flew under the banner of Evolution Studios and developed the likes of Motorstorm, Driveclub, and most recently Onrush. Extreme weather is a staple of those games, and that remains true in Dirt 5, with electrical storms, heavy snowfall, and torrents of rain all being frequent occurrences as you bounce from one track to another. It's boisterous and over-the-top but adds the sort of white-knuckle drama that hasn't been seen in racing games since Motorstorm Apocalypse.
Aside from being a feast for the eyes, weather sometimes has an effect on the surface of a track, too. As snow continues to fall, you'll see it gradually build up on the road with each successive lap, making the latter stages of a race very different from the earlier ones. Rain and snow can also impede your vision when racing at night, forcing you to use the lights dotted around the track for guidance. By the end of most races, your vehicle represents a busy canvas of your most recent exploits, covered wheel to wheel in the remnants of whichever element and surface you were just driving through. It's inherently fun, and makes it easy to forget about the limp handling when you're battling for first place as lightning strikes illuminate the night sky.
There's a decent variety of events on offer as well, even if it's difficult to tell some of them apart. Ultra Cross offers circuit-based races in rally cars, featuring classics such as the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI and Ford RS200, and modern machines like the Citroen C3 R5 and WRX Peugeot 208. Stampede, meanwhile, will put your hefty 4x4's suspension to the test, with races taking place on rugged terrain filled with jumps and undulating obstacles like boulders and mounds of mud. Dirt 5 even introduces American Sprint Cars for the first time in the series. These ludicrously overpowered machines are outfitted with enormous spoilers to prevent them from shooting off into the stratosphere, and guiding them around an oval track isn't as simple as it sounds.
If you don't fancy certain event types, the career mode also emphasizes player choice, giving you the option to choose branching paths that focus on the events you want to play. Outside of this, however, the career mode is fairly hollow. You can select different sponsors that reward you with cosmetic items like liveries and stickers, but that's as far as it goes. The somewhat surprising inclusion of a story rounds out the career, as Nolan North and Troy Baker face off as rival rally drivers. The narrative is told via brief podcasts hosted by Donut Media's James Pumphrey and Nolan Sykes, and they manage to capture a conversational tone that's both natural and believable. Listening to these soundbites while sitting on the event select screen comes across as an inelegant way to tell a story, though. Your role is also inconsequential, and it wraps up with an anticlimactic finale that makes you question why this story was even included.
Dirt 5 distances itself from the series' recent past by being an unabashed arcade racer that's made up of short, action-packed skirmishes.
Outside of the career mode, Playgrounds is new to the series, offering a Trackmania-esque level creator and sharing tool that shows some promise. There's already a convincing recreation of an X Games track, and the necessary inclusion of Mario Kart's Rainbow Road, just to name a few. Hopefully there's an audience for it that will eventually grow and put its tools to the test to construct some fascinating tracks. Aside from the usual slew of online races, there are also a number of party games that can be played either online or with up to four players via split screen. This sees the introduction of Vampire, a new variant on Dirt 3's Outbreak mode that tasks one player with infecting the others by bumping into them.
It's this lightheartedness that helps to differentiate Dirt 5 from the hardcore simulation of Dirt Rally. Splitting up the two disparate sides of this series with such a bold line feels like a smart move on Codemasters' part. It allows Dirt Rally to head in a more authentic and uncompromising direction, while the mainline entries continue to indulge in the series' arcade sensibilities. Dirt 5 doesn't quite stick the landing due to its simplistic handling model, but there's still plenty of fun to be had when racing door to door in an excessive snowstorm or throwing a Porsche 911 R-GT down the side of a mountain in a frenetic race to the bottom. It doesn't reach the heights of Dirt 2, but that game's influence is keenly felt in Dirt 5. If the series continues along this path, it won't be long until it's soaring high again.