Platforms: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC (reviewed), Stadia

Dirt 5 is the product of a truly bizarre set of design priorities. It looks gorgeous on a powerful PC, but the actual driving feels floaty and weight transfer physics seem like an afterthought. They licensed a ton of different cars but utilized a lackluster physics model. They hired Donut Podcasts, Nolan North, and Troy Baker to goof around together in-game, but neglected to implement racing wheel compatibility. This review is a bit late because I was hoping wheel support would arrive shortly after release, but no such luck.

The flaws in Dirt 5’s core gameplay are even more baffling when you consider that this is the sister series to Codemasters’ Dirt Rally 2.0, which is everything you could want from an off-road racing sim. I’ve put in more than a hundred hours into DR2.0, but I can’t imagine playing Dirt 5 again.

Core physics and gameplay

The game’s arcade physics miss the point of dirt racing. Braking is too quick and easy on every surface except for ice. Cars don’t feel like they have much weight or inertia. The chaotic struggle between your car’s weight distribution, tires, and road surface is the beautiful alchemy of dirt racing. Managing those three things is the core of the experience, and Dirt 5 doesn’t simulate it well.

The game’s weak AI turns the early part of every race into bumper cars. But if you can get past that in the first turn, it’s way too easy to make up six or seven places, tear away from the pack in the first lap, and never look back. While the tracks are beautiful, with dynamic weather and lighting, each race only lasts about three to five minutes, and in most modes, your only job is to fight your way from last to first. Doing this in 2-3 laps requires the AI to be dumb and thus a bummer to race against.

How did this happen? Dirt Rally 2.0 had a fiercely competitive rallycross AI that wasn’t afraid to tap you, but drove smart and well. It’s an absolute thrill to play against that AI. Why is the Dirt 5 team reinventing the wheel and doing it badly?

Dirt 5 lacks even Dirt Rally 2.0’s minimal car development, customization, and progression. I don’t expect to be able to adjust the toe angle and limited slip differential in an arcade racer, but being able to throw on an aero kit or improve the turbo would’ve been nice. Even the much-maligned Project Cars 3 had that. On the plus side, the game doesn’t slow-roll your progression the way that PC3 does - you can buy a new car pretty much every other race if you want to.

The Gymkhana obstacle courses are a nice addition. Think Tony Hawk Pro Skater, but for drift cars. You ride up and down ramps, do donuts, and hit targets with your car. These are fun, but they’re not enough to justify a $60 price tag.

The game is brand new but it’s already difficult to find an online race. On PC, it’s dead on arrival during a pandemic, when there are record numbers of people stuck inside with nothing to do but play games. I can’t say I’m surprised though: I had to ask myself whether I wanted to play Dirt 5 or watch The Great British Baking Show, and the cupcakes won, y’all.

Steam Charts should always be taken with a grain of salt, but as of writing, the all-time peak player count for Dirt 5 was 659, with a 24-hour peak of 477. In comparison, Dirt Rally 2.0 is almost two years old and has an all-time peak of 3286, with a 24-hour peak of 1951. This is not a good sign for the continued health of Dirt 5’s online modes. And with a player base as small as this, we can’t expect a steady stream of user generated content to keep the Gymkhana modes alive.

No wheel support as of the time of writing

Why did Dirt 5 launch without wheel support? I know this isn’t a hardcore sim racing title, but without wheel support, folks who dig more realistic racing games will write it off immediately. Why close off the game to an entire portion of your audience?

This is even more confusing when you consider that Dirt Rally 2.0 had a perfectly good physics model, great wheel support, and damage modeling. Applying a wacky arcade vibe to DR2.0’s awesome physics engine and wheel support would’ve been an awesome usage of an existing engine and assets, but nope. We don’t get any of that. I’m still puzzled as to why. I get that DR2.0’s handling model might not be for everybody. But racing is a genre of choosing assists and building your own experience. Why not let us do that here?

A lesson for racing game devs

Screenshot from Forza 4

Devs need to realize that you can’t out-Forza Forza. Forza Horizon 4 has all the off-road arcade races you could possibly ask for, with better physics and more challenging AI. It’s a free-roaming open-world game with tons of races, a battle royale mode, and wacky races you can only get in Forza. And it’s got a giant selection of on- and off-road cars that all drive differently.

Forza Horizon is the World of Warcraft of the arcade racing genre. The genre itself is a victim of its standard bearer’s success - everything in the genre is compared to it, and everything else comes up short. It’s a tough situation; smaller developers like Codemasters can’t compete with Microsoft’s massive budget, and Microsoft’s lead is only getting bigger, as evidenced by the lackluster 2019 GRID reboot.