It must be tough iterating on an established formula, especially in racing games. Across the spectrum of styles within the genre, from Need For Speed Underground to Gran Turismo and Forza Horizon somewhere in between, I’ve loved but also felt burnout to some degree. Rally racing is one area I hadn’t experienced much until Dirt 4, but having known about where the series has come from, Dirt 5 noticeably takes a turn in a different direction.
I got hands-on with a preview build of Dirt 5 on PC, which features four tracks for brief circuit races with a handful of cars to select. One track mixes street and off-road racing, two are purely muddy off-road endeavors, and one is a hectic drifting loop with sprint cars. It’s quite a small piece of the game, but it’s immediately clear that–based on the demo–the emphasis is no longer on keenly following a co-driver’s course instructions in a time attack. The game is trying to tap into the excitement of head-to-head competitive racing with a bit of attitude.
The experience is reminiscent of Forza Horizon 4 in that it controls in a manner that bridges the gap between arcade and sim (by default, all driving assists like traction control were set to low). But similarities are also found in the courses’ environmental stylings. For example, the Ultracross event-type on the Norway track is laid with equal parts pavement and dirt, and features dynamic weather patterns–all of which remind me of the Horizon 4’s races and changing seasons. Over the course of the race, the sun began to and ultimately finished setting, leading the race to continue in an enjoyably chaotic nighttime snowstorm. The rapid snowfall emphasized a sense of speed and reinforced that my sloppy driving and tendency to trade paint with other racers wouldn’t be met with dire consequences.
In the Brazil and China courses–Stampede and Land Rush event-types, respectively–it’s all muddy terrain sloshing about as your tires glide through each lap. Here is where Dirt 5 goes in on the wild off-roading aspects. Brazil features gap jumps and China has widened lanes and harsh terrain, throwing any notion of a buttoned-up rally sim out the window. In the demo, you choose between burly off-road trucks or nimble superlite cars that handle much differently, but induce the same feeling of looseness in gameplay.
I did find the Sprint event on the Arizona course lacking, though. It’s a small left-turn loop with high-powered single-gear sprint cars where you have to maintain your drift better than the others to get through the course efficiently. Although a fresh idea for the series, it might not be the best showcase for the new direction or event-type.
From a presentation perspective, Dirt 5 also shows a shift in style by leaning into a low-key irreverence for the professional-ish disposition of past games and a Rage 2-like use of a neon color palette. The change in attitude seems to carry into the single-player story. Although it’s not part of the demo, developer Codemasters gave plenty of detail on its new approach to the career mode (see the video above). It stars two rivals: your mentor AJ (played by Troy Baker) and ascending racing superstar Bruno Durand (played by Nolan North). There’s also an in-game podcast network that’s used to narrate and drive the story, which also reminds me of the radio hosts who push you along in Forza Horizon’s campaigns. Throughout the career mode, you’ll choose which events to complete (said to offer branching paths) and which sponsors to represent as you gain a better reputation.
So as we transition into the next generation with another wave of racing games and Dirt 5 in the spotlight, we see it both departing from traditions while also moving closer to the established arcade-sim hybrid–changes which may attract an audience that probably hasn’t given rally racing much thought. Dirt 4 did feature a Land Rush mode for buggies and trucks, and Rallycross as a circuit-race alternative, but Dirt 5 is putting those styles of racing front-and-center while clearly dialing up the bombast.
Based on time with the demo, I’m not sure if Dirt 5 will necessarily overcome my fatigue with the racing genre as it seems to draw from others in many ways, but it’s certainly a fresh approach for the core Dirt series regardless. With Dirt 5, the series isn’t all about rally racing anymore; instead, it’s embracing the chaos of off-roading, and at least that’s still staying true to its name.
Again, what I played was a brief preview build and there’ll be much more to unpack when the game comes out on October 9 this year for PS4, Xbox One, and PC, and on PS5 and Xbox Series X when those next-gen consoles launch.