Dirt 5 - particles and lighting.
Here we are again, with the evenings getting longer and the end of the year approaching. This time of year brings with it a couple of gaming traditions - one is a playthrough of an Assassin's Creed game, with Lachesis and I passing the pad between us on the sofa, usually while drinking and chilling out. This year, in spite of the launch of Assassin's Creed Valhalla, we've gone back to Assassin's Creed 3 Remastered - but that's probably a topic of conversation for another day. The other tradition is that I end up playing a racing game. Usually it's a Forza game of one description or other - but this year, with no new game in that series to give me my fix of high speed videogame prettiness I've ended up looking elsewhere.
Fortunately, Codemasters have come to the rescue with Dirt 5. It's the first Dirt game I've really played... and if they're all like this one, I've really been missing out - because it's insane. I've had an Xbox Series X since the day it came out, and this is the first really 'next-gen' game I've played on it. And, if this is what next-gen is all about well, I'm pleased to be along for the ride. It's all in the particles and the lighting, and I've not seen another game that comes close to it on a console.
The overall structure of the game follows that of most racers - you move from track to track competing in an overarching competition, while some social media influencer types prattle on about your progress between racers as if their opinions are relevant, or something. Apologies - there's a rant down there about the pointlessness of (and by extension my general dislike of) influencers, but this blog post probably isn't the place for it. Quite why so many racing games decide to use this kind of thing as a narrative development plot thread is beyond me though and, to be honest, I'm bored to the point of frustration with it. Ultimately it's a peripheral thing, and it can be skipped with the A button - which I find myself tapping between races like the irritable old man that I am. The games really about the races, and those races are interesting and varied enough to keep me coming back. They take place in different locations, follow different styles (laps vs sprints), come with different sets of challenges and take place on different surfaces. It's a racing game; you know how it's going to work by now - and Dirt 5 follows all the existing rules without really adding any new ones - and in the best "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" way, it's all for the best.
The real highlight of those races is in how the track you're on evolves over the course of the race. Every step in that evolution is a demonstration of the raw power of the new generation of consoles.
As the tracks are spaced out across the entire globe, you're going to see everything from muddy quarries to sandy desert tracks, frozen lakes and snow covered Norwegian country roads. On each of these, weather conditions and time of day will become a factor in the race as you progress through it. A rainstorm in a quarry turns the dry scrabble to a quagmire of mud and puddles. Not only can you see the transition of the track from the first state to the second state as you race, you'll feel it in changes to how your car accelerates, brakes, and corners. The tracks themselves are made to feel alive, and the phenomenal lighting and particle systems available on the new systems go a long way toward making it all feel cohesive. In the dry, wind blows gusts of sand across the track while circling planes throw out smoke trails and flares light the track limits. As the rain begins, those effects give way to splashes and mud tracks with the back of your vehicle slowly buried under a layer of filth that cakes it as you race.
Later races throw in blizzards and sandstorms, and a transition from day to night that sees the track illuminated by fading daylight on one lap followed by headlamps and markers flares the next. At the end of the race, fireworks light the sky and confetti rains down... all of this still running at a flawless 4K/60fps on the Xbox Series X. They're all comparatively small flourishes, but when combined together they really make an impression.
Racing through the tracks unlocks more tracks, while additional levels earned unlock new vehicles and decoration options that you can purchase with the in-game currency you earn. The difficulty ramps up fairly gradually with the occasional spike - but with how the game unlocks new tracks I'm yet to hit a dead end and be forced into doing better on a race I haven't enjoyed. Everything about it leads into it being a game you can either fire up and have a couple of races on, or sit down to a lengthy session with - and you're going to have fun regardless of which you choose.
If you're a racing fan lamenting the lack of a Forza Horizon game this year and looking for something to fill the gap, you should be seriously considering this. It's got the attitude, it's got the soundtrack, and it's got a lot of options. Most importantly though, it's absolutely tons of fun. I've found my winter racer, and I couldn't be more pleased with it.