Dirt 5 (Xbox One X) hands-on: A faster, flashier arcade off-road racer

Codemasters continues to evolve its Dirt off-road racing game series, heading into the next-generation with this eye-popping, action-packed arcade racer.

Antuan Goodwin Reviews Editor / Cars
Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and electrification to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.
Expertise Reviewing cars and car technology since 2008 focusing on electrification, driver assistance and infotainment Credentials
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Antuan Goodwin
6 min read
Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Dirt 5, the eighth entry in Codemasters' Dirt off-road racing franchise, officially launches this weekend on Xbox and PlayStation game  consoles , as well as Steam for PC. I've spent a week behind the virtual wheel exploring the various vehicles, tracks and game modes of this, the series' arcade-iest title yet.

The history of the Dirt series is a smidge complicated, so here's a quick TL;DR: The first title, Colin McRae: Dirt (2007), was itself a spin-off of the Colin McRae Rally series of off-road racing games. In 2012, the franchise again forked, with the arcade-style spin-off Dirt: Showdown and Dirt 4 (2017) on one branch and the dedicated racing sims Dirt Rally (2015) and Dirt Rally 2.0 (2019) on another. Dirt 5 is the newest (and wildest) member of the more fun-focused action-arcade side of the family.

Let's talk about cars. There are about 65 vehicles in my Amplified Edition of Dirt 5 to unlock, with more promised in post-launch updates and DLC. The selection includes the usual rally suspects -- your classic and modern Evolutions, WRXes, and VW Baja Beetles -- as well as many rides you may not expect to find playing in the mud, like lifted Rally GT versions of the Aston Martin V8 Vantage and BMW M2 Competition. Trucks -- like the Ford F-150 Raptor -- SUVs , buggies, sprint cars and rock bouncers round out the roster. There are also a few interesting fantasy concepts, including the electric Volkswagen ID Buggy, Mitsubishi e-Evolution and the Audi AI:Trail Quattro, my personal-favorite concept car from the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show.

Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Many of the vehicles have a slightly too-glossy look to them when viewed on the selection menu, and their models are nowhere near as detailed as those you'll find in the Forza Motorsport or Horizon franchises. Fortunately, the cars and trucks tend to look much better in motion with a coat of dust and mud tearing around the game's tracks.

Customization has been simplified to a livery editor where players can paint and pattern their cars, as well as apply decals and sponsor stickers. Most cars also have a few bespoke liveries unlockable by progressing to the Career mode. Vehicles are ranked by "Performance" and "Handling" scores with S-A-B-C tiers for each metric. And because there are no tire, suspension or performance upgrades to even the playing field, this leads to certain vehicles, like the Laffite G-Tec X-Road, simply dominating their class, which is kinda the opposite of what you want in an arcade-style racer.

Dirt 5 goes all in on wheel-to-wheel, arcade-style action. Tossing drivers into a series of circuit and point-to-point races on across 10 locations -- from Brazil to Greece, Morocco and more. With multiple courses and race types for each locale, Dirt 5 launches with just over 75 unique tracks to choose from.

Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

The tracks themselves are the star of this game, not to mention your true opponents in Dirt 5, throwing a variety of surfaces at the player. There are, of course, dirt courses, but also mud, tarmac, snow, ice, gravel and rocks, each with their own levels of grip and slip. And these aren't just static tracks; changing weather and track conditions will constantly keep you on your toes. Rain turns dirt into deeply rutted mud. A sudden blizzard can cover the course in snow drifts, reducing grip. Day becomes night, reducing visibility. Sometimes every lap of a three-lap race is unique, forcing you to adjust and change your driving line on the fly.

The AI drivers you'll trade paint with are… less-worthy opponents. They treat each race like a demolition derby; crashing, bumping and ramming the player and each other at every turn. The best strategy is to get ahead of them early and build a big lead, but even then, the AI will occasionally "rubberband" up to your position, just in time to knock you into a rock or barrier in the last corner.

This is even more annoying considering the way the game handles collisions with the rocks, trees and small outcroppings along the road edge. Unlike Forza Horizon, where you can sort of crash through certain objects with a speed penalty, Dirt 5 treats these obstructions as immovable objects. At best, this brings the car to an instant and unceremonious stop -- which can send you from first to worst -- but often enough to bear mentioning, these collisions resulted in my car being launched straight into the air. And once they're ahead, the AI becomes frustratingly difficult to catch, so it's either restart or accept defeat.

Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

The single-player mode is tied together with a loose audio podcast-style narrative that plays between the races, voiced by actors Troy Baker and Nolan North, and Donut Media's James Pumphrey and Nolan Sykes. The story is compelling enough, but it's also easy to accidentally miss and is a pale substitute for the Rivals system found in Codemasters' Grid and F1 racing franchises.

The simplified Career mode also ditches the team management element of previous Dirt titles, as well as many of the race-day rituals like practice and recce laps or maintaining and repairing your vehicles between heats. These were elements that I really enjoyed in Dirt 4, adding a bit of simulation legitimacy to the arcade action. Without them, Dirt 5 feels a bit less unique.

Of the various race modes that make up the campaign, three stood out as my favorites. Ice Breaker races take place on a frozen lake. In the Gymkhana showcases, drivers chain together drifts, spins and stunts for high scores. And during Pathfinder challenges -- by far my favorite mode -- you race against the clock, picking a careful path through the huge elevation changes of a rock bouncer course. Sadly, there are only two or three Pathfinder courses (and only one rock bouncer truck) to choose from, so I ended up repeating them quite a bit over the course of the Career mode.

Dirt 5 is the first racing game for next-gen consoles

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In addition to Career, Dirt 5 also features Arcade, Playground and a variety of Online racing modes. Arcade allows players to choose from any of Dirt's tracks and customize the conditions, weather, time of day, AI cars and more to set up whatever race they please. 

The Playground will probably be the game mode with the longest legs and most replay potential. This repository of user-generated stunt tracks and requisite track builder tools allows players to create and share their custom courses with the community. It's not unlike the custom track builders found in GTA V Online, Trackmania or the Trials series, though presumably not nearly as extreme. During the preview, I was able to sample a few developer-built courses that were a fun distraction from the Career mode, but it'll be more interesting to see what the community comes up with as Dirt 5 matures.

In motion, the Dirt 5 looks amazing with bright, supersaturated colors, smoke effects and lights and pyrotechnics. On the Xbox One X -- where I did my testing -- the player is given the choice between two visual settings. There's a 30fps mode that emphasizes image quality and 60fps mode emphasizing frame rate. Looking closely, I noticed slightly nicer shadows and sharper details in "Emphasize Image Quality" mode, but the difference is small enough that it can be difficult to tell the modes apart once the racing is underway. I did notice a bit of screen tearing during graphically challenging moments in both modes and occasional frame stutters, but nothing too distracting.

Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

It's not a perfect game and in many ways I still prefer the previous title. That said, Dirt 5 is a huge visual and stylistic leap ahead of its predecessor and an enjoyable romp that kept me coming back for race after race. Before I knew it, I'd jumped, bumped, drifted and slid my way through all of the Career Mode's five chapters and its final showdown. That I'm still eager for more means that Codemasters is doing something very right.

Dirt 5 lands on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Steam starting at $59.99 for the Standard Edition or $79.99 for the Amplified Edition, which includes three extra vehicles, in-game currency and XP boosts and access to all of the post-launch DLC. Dirt 5 will be one of the first games to be optimized for the next-generation with free upgrades for Xbox Series S and Series X consoles on Nov. 10 and Playstation 5 on Nov. 12. The next-gen versions will boast better graphic fidelity, faster loading and a 120fps mode.