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Platform(s): Google Stadia, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Racing
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Codemasters
Release Date: Nov. 6, 2020


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PC Review - 'Dirt 5'

by Cody Medellin on Nov. 5, 2020 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

DIRT 5 is a new heart-pounding off-road driving experience set against a sensory backdrop of vibrant visuals, an eclectic soundtrack, and dynamic weather conditions.

Buy Dirt 5

As a racing game series, Dirt has provided solid racing action with each new entry. It also happens to be a series that has had a constant evolution of identity. It may have started off as a traditional simulation, much like its predecessor the Colin McRae Rally series, but it didn't take long to add modern elements that made it more party-like. Dirt Showdown was meant to be the more arcade-style entry in the series, but the main series never strayed far from its arcade trappings. It wasn't until Dirt Rally that the series finally had a clean split to take on the traditional rally racing that purists craved, while the main series has completed its journey into more arcade territory with Dirt 5.

It only takes one race in Dirt 5 to see the arcade racing influence, especially since the game no longer has an option to switch to a simulation mode. Accelerating doesn't require you to constantly fine-tune your steering to stay in a straight line, and taking a turn doesn't mean you'll have a greater chance of fishtailing and falling the wrong way by the end. Collisions with scenery don't result in an absolute dead stop unless you've wedged yourself into a boulder, and collisions with other cars don't ruin your momentum. While you may have some assists like auto-braking, they're hidden deep in the options, so you don't accidentally turn them on, and you don't have the option to display a driving line to tell you where to go or when it's a good idea to brake.

The arcade-style handling means that tracks are wider by design to handle the multitude of cars in each race, but the game's off-road theme means that there's some flexibility for track design. Unless you specifically turn it off, every outdoor track has a dynamic weather system. Some are as simple as transforming day to night or vice versa, while others add a rainstorm or snow flurries. No matter what, the weather system changes the traction on your vehicle and the makeup of the race. While it rarely results in anything extremely drastic, it adds some unpredictability. The level of dynamism doesn't change, so players will quickly see everything the game has to offer.

Like many modern racing games, participating in any event earns cash and XP, and leveling up almost always unlocks something new. You'll unlock new liveries for your cars as well as a few stickers, and you'll also be able to earn new designs and lanyards for your player profile card. Unlocking them only means that you've unlocked the ability to buy them with cash, and while the price isn't ridiculously high, it is an annoyance that you need to unlock an item twice before you can actually use it.

When compared to other racing games, the car selection can seem rather limited. There are 13 different classes of off-road cars to choose from, including the classics, rally cars from the '80s to today, and even GT cars. Drill down into each class, and you'll find an average of five cars per class, although some classes have only one car. The move eliminates the idea of being paralyzed by choice, but the paltry collection might feel disappointing to those who are used to other arcade offerings from traditional racers, like the Need for Speed series or even this game's predecessors.

While you can't tweak your cars, you can customize their appearance with unlocked liveries as you play through the game modes. Each car gives you four slots for custom jobs, but there's no ability to download something that another player has created. That might be for the best, as the livery system isn't too robust. You have plenty of stickers, but you can only place one of them on each side of your car and the roof. You can buy more patterns, but they also can't be stacked, and sponsorship decals can only be placed in one of four different configurations. Like the car selection, this can feel very constricting, since you can't reach the level of design in some of the preset liveries that you can unlock later in the title.

Like many of the earlier entries in the series, Dirt 5 may have a standard list of expected racing game modes, but the focus is on the campaign. You start off as an up-and-coming rookie who, after winning one race, is taken under the wing of Alex Janicek, one of the megastars of the Dirt racing world.

Having a narrative in a racing game isn't new, but the game's approach is certainly novel enough. Instead of punctuating the big milestones with cut scenes, Dirt 5 uses personalities from Donut Media to deliver in-game podcasts to frame the narrative. The podcasts play between races, but they aren't frequent enough to become irritating. It's optional, since you can pause each podcast while you're selecting your next stage. With solid performances by the podcasters and the voice actors who portray the fictional and real racers being interviewed, it works to add an extra layer to the proceedings.

Beyond the story, the campaign is quite lengthy as you go through five chapters for a total of 130 events. Those events include ice racing, standard checkpoint, lapped races, hill climbs, races with sprint cars, and even a bit of Gymkhana. The good news is that you have some choice when it comes to how you want to go through the campaign; completing each event opens up at least two more events, so you have the freedom to skip races or events that aren't interesting. You also get a complete preview of the pathways for each event, so you can plan your route instead of being completely blindsided. You can always return to an event to open new pathways that count toward your cash, medal total, and XP.

As for the races, the campaign mode adds a few extra side goals to each event, such as overtaking a number of opponents or trading paint with others while airborne. Those optional goals are nice to change up your racing style, but they also open up side events known as Throwdowns, where you have one-on-one races or drive a big truck against a fleet of smaller buggies. The optional events don't have tempting rewards, but they add more variety to the mode.

Just like Dirt 4, Dirt 5 features the ability to build your own courses, whether they're traditional checkpoint races, point collection races, or Gymkhana arenas. This time, it mimics Dirt Showdown, so you can craft them by hand instead of relying on procedural generation to do it for you. It seems limited at first, since you can only choose between two backgrounds and two playground sizes, and the number of pieces that you're given don't seem too plentiful. While you may not be able to build too much horizontally, you can build vertically if you wanted to create something lengthy and elaborate. You can also share your levels, and even in this pre-release state, there are a ton of levels online that range from really short affairs of jumping over buses to a large skyscraper that takes 10 minutes to speed through. The good news is that it is easy to make and find these levels, giving an already lengthy game even more legs.

When it comes to multiplayer, Dirt 5 has the option to go online for both traditional races and party games for up to four people. For the latter, that involves modes like King, where you have to hold on to a crown for as long as possible; Vampire, where you tag every other car so they also become vampires or outlast everyone until the sun rises; and Transporter, where you grab an item and try to deliver it to a spot on the map before others take it away from you. Unfortunately, we were unable to enter any online games during the review period, so we can't say whether it works as well as expected.

The game supports split-screen multiplayer for up to four players in any mode, from free play to the campaign itself. The multiplayer is of the drop-in/drop-out variety, so you can easily swap players any time between races, and if you're doing this in career mode, the best performance of any player benefits everyone, so there's no reason to hold back to ensure that the first player wins all of the time. The limitations of Steam mean that everyone inherits the user name of the first player with a number on it, but local multiplayer is a big plus since it's still a rarity on the PC platform.

As alluded to earlier, the graphical presentation is quite impressive. The car models are tremendously detailed, whether they're pristine at the start of the race or smashed and caked with dirt by the time you cross the finish line. The environments are lush, with details such as bunches of flies near large tufts of vegetation or the various colors of favelas flanking the track. Reflections are everywhere, and while this isn't all ray-traced (as far as we know), the detailed reflections in glossy paint jobs and puddles of water look quite spectacular. Dirt 5 also makes it a point to flood the screen with loads of particle effects, whether it's the sparklers and colored smoke when crossing a finish line or the torrents of rain and snow during a storm.

It looks nice and busy in a good way, but be prepared to either do some tweaking or invest in some high-end hardware to squeeze the most out of the title. Using a Ryzen 5 2600 and a Geforce RTX 2060, we were able to hold 60fps most of the time at 1080p but only when using the high preset, as ultra would've cut down the frame rate to 30fps. Admittedly, that is fairly mid-range stuff, but it should give you a good idea of what it might take to play these new AAA titles in a way that matches the new generation of consoles.

Interestingly, the graphical options for the PC version are extensive but limited. On the one hand, various stages range from ultra-low to ultra-high for geometry quality for models, global illumination, and tessellation for track deformation, to name a few. You can also change the resolutions for the temporal anti-aliasing, internal rendering, and final output separately, and you get results in real time since everything changes automatically when you change a setting. While this is perfect for those who are trying to fine-tune their setup, some basic options are missing, like a full screen or windowed setting and vsync. You can activate the latter via your video card software or play on an adaptive sync monitor to rid yourself of the tearing, but the omission of basics is odd.

There's also the issue of technical bugs. For starters, booting up Dirt 5 for the first time requires you to wait more than a minute before the game reaches the first legal screen. It gets a little better upon subsequent boots during that same session, but reboot the PC, and the long loading time occurs once again, regardless of whether you're on a regular SATA SSD or even a NVME drive. The game suffered from quite a few silent crashes during our time with it. No progress was lost thanks to the game's aggressive auto-saving system, and nothing was bad enough to bring up a blue screen to force a system reboot.

The audio is also quite good. In keeping up with the game's theme, the soundtrack is filled with rock hits that play continuously as you travel between menus and races, giving you the feeling that you're playing a game with a different audio source on top. The engine roars and crowd noises are as immaculate as ever, while the vocal performances of the racers and podcasters are superb. It all mixes fine when you're playing with default settings, but change the output to 3D audio, and the soundscape becomes more expansive. The ambient noises of the engine, tires gliding over terrain, and crunching of metal become front and center while the music volume fluctuates greatly. It never disappears, but it is more prevalent when you're close to spectators and sounds muted when you're surrounded by nature. It is a neat effect and does well in long game sessions, when you aren't likely to notice the same songs being replayed.

Dirt 5 maintains the tradition of being a solid racing title. The campaign is quite deep thanks to the various events and tracks you can choose from, while the inclusion of local multiplayer for just about every mode gives it a huge advantage over almost every other non-kart racing game on the PC platform. The title requires some pretty beefy hardware and other software to make the game shine, and there are still a few things that need patching, but as a whole, arcade racing fans who aren't looking for a bevy of top-of-the-line sports cars will get a kick out of Dirt 5.

Score: 8.0/10

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