Video games often strive to give the player a sense of place for somewhere in real life. Dirt 5 is the only video game to give me the sense of place in another video game: MotorStorm.
Sure, the pre-race countdown (a succession of closeups) is a straight lift from the PlayStation 3’s MotorStorm: Pacific Rift — one of my all-time favorite racers. But there is a steep uphill right turn on Dirt 5’s Lion’s Head course that gave me mind’s-eye recollections of Razorback, a great run in Pacific Rift. Lion’s Head also has a fork in the trail that spits you into an immediate hard left, which made me think of a terrible bottleneck in Mudslide, also from Pacific Rift. And then scrambling uphill over the loose rock strewn around Foci di Giova in Dirt 5, and sweeping an ultra-long right at full throttle absolutely felt like peeling around the crater’s rim on Pacific Rift’s Caldera Ridge.
Sure, there’s no nitrous boost, nor any shortcuts on the course. And these comparisons are by no means dead-on matches. Like I said, it’s just the feeling of being back in MotorStorm, a festival-type, arcade racing experience I’ve been badly missing.
And it makes sense: Codemasters Cheshire, the developers for this entry in the series, is the descendant of MotorStorm maker Evolution Studios. Codemasters absorbed Evolution in early 2016 after Sony announced plans to close it down. Two Evolution developers — albeit DriveClub alumni, not MotorStorm — are among the senior design credits.
If Dirt 5 is an homage to Evolution’s best work, then it’s a beautiful one. The demanding Dirt audience is somewhat divided, though, and I can understand it. The arcade/action tack the series has taken is a sharp turn away from the tough rallying sim they got in Dirt Rally 2.0. And that game was a response to the more mass-market Dirt 4, which feathered in accessibility concessions and appeal to its core rallying feature set.
Taken together, however, I think they’re a library of three titles serving distinct needs and interests, and just as playable today as the day they launched. It’s sort of an off-road Neapolitan: Dirt Rally 2.0 for the chocolate; Dirt 4 the vanilla; and Dirt 5 is your strawberry, brightly colored and very sweet.
I saw MotorStorm most in Dirt 5’s uphill sections, most of which are at a stupefying grade you’d simply never find in real life. Pacific Rift made great use of severe elevation changes, particularly to add suspense to the course and deliver the sense of blasting into the unknown, even if you’d memorized the layout.
The themed locales are also pure MotorStorm. There’s even a trip out to Monument Valley, the setting of the first MotorStorm. You can tell the designers had a lot of fun building out all of these settings. My favorite, Marmifera Valley in Italy, wends through the support arches of a towering aqueduct; (Foci di Giova races beside the excavation of some ancient ruin.) I seriously doubt a real-life racing series would get permission from an antiquities commission, much less environmental regulators, for that one. But that was MotorStorm for you, all-out haul-ass action around a no-way-in-hell setting.
There’s even this, a big-and-stupid specialty vehicle that looks like a front-end loader bred to Galoob’s The Animal. Folks, the WS Auto Racing Titan is a MotorStorm vehicle for sure. It’s got F1-level straight-line speed on dirt, and the handling of a battleship on pavement. When braking, you really have to plan ahead, like a day or two. Naturally, Codemasters Cheshire puts it on mixed-surface events, just to make things interesting.
The career mode, which features the voice acting of Troy Baker and Nolan North, conforms to MotorStorm’s progression, too: Events are gated by the number of stamps you’ve earned. Some race types can be avoided (I’m ass at gymkhana, and since I drive without traction control, the sprint cars, too), but it means replaying and acing the parts you’re really good at.
As an arcade racer, of course you can forget about tuning and setting up the vehicle — this may be where core rally drivers are really off-put. I know I’d lengthen the gear ratio on everything if given the opportunity. But vehicles are rated according to the event you’re about to enter, and that’s it. Find the right one for you, and win.
All of this takes me back to Pacific Rift, which I think was my first video game review, and I was happy to give it high marks. I still have my PlayStation 3 connected, specifically to play MotorStorm: Pacific Rift, and of course I went back to it after playing Dirt 5 for a few hours. And while its visuals have aged well, considering their origin, the handling has not — certainly not when you’re accustomed to Codemasters’ state-of-the-art blend of responsiveness and grip.
Dirt 5 is just enough MotorStorm, in other words, enough to remind me that my current video game motorsports diet of technical setups and time trials needs a big scoop of ice cream, too.