I really like Dirt 5. Codemasters made a good call in spinning off Dirt Rally as the sim-focused off-road racing series, letting Dirt 5 go all-in on arcade racing thrills. For those who haven’t played it yet, I reckon the Cheshire team’s work on Dirt 5 should delight anyone who fondly remembers the studio’s previous efforts for Sony under the Evolution banner, namely Motorstorm and Driveclub.
There’s a huge dearth in big-budget arcade racers these days, and Dirt 5 nearly scratched that itch for me.
I say “nearly” because while I love Dirt 5's imaginative tracks, varied selection of cars, unrivaled weather effects, immersive sound design and enjoyable physics, it is still missing one core attribute that every modern racing game needs: Functional multiplayer.
Dirt 5 launched in November on both last-gen and new consoles as well as PC. I can’t speak to the game’s development, though I have to think the team was firing on all cylinders to get it out in time for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S launches. Alongside WRC 9, Dirt 5 was the only racing game available on Day One for both systems, and launch titles have the unique opportunity to cash in on an installed base starved for choice.
Unfortunately, in meeting that all-important deadline, Codemasters underdelivered on the multiplayer. An update was released this week, and while it brings some classic liveries, fixes bugs and adds content to the user-generated Playground mode, it does little to make racing against other people easier.
As it stands, Dirt 5's multiplayer consists entirely of public lobbies. You can party up with as many as seven friends, though you’re presented with but two event types: race or party game. Say you select a race — from there, you’re randomly placed into a lobby with no say in car class or track. The race is chosen for you; you can’t even vote on one class-and-track combo among several options.
What typically follows is a lengthy wait to find a lobby, before the race begins. When the game first launched, it’d spit you back into the party menu after a race was completed, rather than cycling you automatically back into the hunt for another lobby. This was annoying, though it’s thankfully been patched in an update, so now at least Dirt 5 throws you and your friends right back into the mix.
Waiting in that queue still takes a while, though. In my experience this week, I’d average between two and four minutes to land in a race lobby. At one point I tried to find a party game, but gave up after six-and-a-half minutes of waiting.
When you do eventually find another race, don’t be surprised if it’s the very same predetermined car class-and-track combo as the one you just ran; also don’t be surprised if there’s just one other person in your lobby.
There are a couple of problems at work here. First, I suspect, is a general lack of active players and no cross-platform play to bring people on different hardware together. Cross play is extremely important for racing games, because this is somewhat of a niche genre. Unless you’re a platform-exclusive titan on the level of a Gran Turismo, Forza Horizon or — on the hyper-realistic side — iRacing, it’s extremely difficult to cultivate a thriving player base. Dirt Rally 2.0 can get by on asynchronous play because it’s a traditional point-to-point rally game where you’re ultimately just comparing leaderboard times; Dirt 5 is not. Failing to include cross play on Day One really set it off on the wrong foot.
But even then, it’s critical to give players some control over their own destiny, and the lack of race choice is crippling. There’s nothing more agonizing than being forced to run the exact same race around the Manhattan Island ice circuit again, and again and again with little variation in event type to spice things up. And that’s if you can get into a race at all, which, almost four months since the game’s launch, is still much harder than it should be.
The development team promised private lobbies for later this year. That’ll certainly help players run races they actually prefer, but at the risk of further dividing the player base, and I’m not entirely sure if Dirt 5 can sustain that right now. Personally, rather than private lobbies, I’d like to see a daily rotation of three or four public races that players can select among, sort of like what Gran Turismo Sport has. That would funnel everyone into the same events, keeping grids stocked — or, as close to stocked as possible.
But even then, perhaps it’s too late to even bother at this point. Dirt 5 has been confirmed for Xbox Game Pass, which will certainly lift active user numbers — albeit only on Microsoft’s platform. Without cross play, it won’t mean much for those of us playing on PC via Steam (like yours truly) or PlayStation.
As someone who recalls many joyous games of tag at the Battersea complex in Dirt 3, I was really hoping Dirt 5 would be the exactly the fun rally racer to bring my friends and me together again. That hasn’t happened, though, and by the time the multiplayer situation improves, I wonder if anyone will still be waiting.