Driving games have traditionally sold themselves with a list of featured supercars, claims about just how accurate the exhaust sounds are, and occasionally customization options that make Pimp My Ride look subtle. Dirt 5 is trying something different, with a campaign mode - headed up by gaming voice actor royalty Nolan North and Troy Baker - that can weave a story beyond the traditional drive faster, get an even faster car.
"We wanted to have something that kind of pushed you through Career as well to make races feel special, to make you want to win, to make you want to beat a particular person," explains dialogue producer Olly Johnson. "One of the things we didn't really want to do – because it's a really fast-paced game – is that we didn't really want to hold you up too much. So we came about with this idea of having a podcast."
That podcast is where you'll hear North and Baker bringing their A-game banters, and get to hear all kinds of details about the upcoming race or your competitors. Development director Robert Karp describes it as a way of showing the player everything the game has to offer. "We were doing so many different vehicle types and so many different track types, it was really important for us to be able to give the players exposure to all of that."
The campaign also comes with some of the more traditional progression we've come to expect from sports games, like merrily selling your soul to corporate overlords. "The sponsor will pay you for racing for them," says Karp. "And you'll also unlock exclusive rewards for them. This is going to be real-world sponsors. We've got some really cool brands in there who we're really excited about, who are part of the Dirt 5 world. It really makes it feel like a real world."
If you're just getting behind the wheel for the sheer thrill of the race, Dirt 5 has you covered with an embarrassing number of events. "We have a wide variety of events types, some which aren’t just straight up racing. We want to give players a variety of gameplay choices such as events where two cars of differing model types and eras face against each other, amongst others."
Karp also wanted to make sure that the player still had agency over how they approached the events, and which ones they had to play to progress the campaign. "So we came up with this branching structure where players would, you know, play the same first event, and then they'll have a chance. And what they choose to do will open up paths where they can pick different types of events, and they can see what they are to try to figure out where they want to go, and what they want to do," he says.
"Throwdowns are like special one-off events that are kind of like palette-cleansers and are a bit different to your standard races. So it could be specific— you're in a buggy, and everyone else is in a truck, and you've got to get to the front. Or it might be that you're in a truck, and you've got to stop buggies getting past you."
Other cars on the track
Of course, the Dirt 5 development team has kept a close eye on its competitors when it comes to telling a story in racing games, and learning from its own history with the genre.
"We've just come off the back of Formula One 2019, which got a lot of positive praise for the use of cut scenes. We feel like we sort of put a lot of effort into having characters," he says. "You could say, you know, it's an overblown version of reality. They're a bit kind of snarky with you. There's a definite good person and a bad person. Nobody liked Devon Butler."
This time around they looked back at the heritage of Dirt 2 and Dirt 3, and wanted to be more than just voiceover at the right moments.
"We wanted this to be a bit more substantial and to actually mean a little bit more. So the podcast was this sort of perfect delivery method for us. And literally, as soon as we kind of uttered the word "podcast" in the meeting, it just clicked with everybody. Everybody could just sort of see the potential. You got the potential to get guests on. So all of a sudden, it was like… you know, we wanted Jamie Chadwick. We wanted SLAPTrain. We wanted to get all these people.
"It made us excited with the possibility of kind of having our cake and eating it, with allowing us to have a really cool narrative and characters that we all put a lot of time and effort into – and allowing people to sort of get on, and play a fast-paced game as well, with these little bits of downtime in between."
Once they had the idea, the challenge was finding podcast presenters that people would want to listen to for an entire game. Baker plays AJ, someone Johnson describes as a caring, Tony Hawk type mentor character for the player. North, meanwhile, is more of a trash-talking, sports personality type, an antagonist that you still can't help but like.
"With the podcast dynamic, we needed two people that were going to gel, and we needed it to sound realistic," says Johnson. "We needed two people that were going to be able to get face to face in a booth, and be able to talk to each other, and have a realistic conversation. Because the moment this podcast sounds fake is the moment that it completely fails."
North and Baker are known for their real-life banter, appearing in The Last of Us and Uncharted together, appearing together on North's Retro Replay channel, and basically bringing mischievous joy to any panel they appear on together. Codemasters wants you to get a real sense of that chemistry in the Dirt 5 campaign.
"We fed them so much detail. We created Wikipedia pages with their whole life story from the age of five to way after the game is even finished," explains Johnson of the recording process.
"It's an insane amount of information, but we needed to give it to them, because they needed to go into the studio and have real conversations. And to adlib, they needed to be able to answer any question that Nolan Sykes and James Pumphrey from Donut Media would throw at them. And they threw some real curveballs at them. And they just answered the questions as if they were AJ and Bruno."
"We needed two people who could beef with each other. Troy and Nolan were very happy to do that. It's cool."
It's rare to come away from details of a racing game just as excited about the performance as you are about the cars, corners, and crashes, but the Dirt 5 team has clearly put in the work, creating a fictional podcast that honestly sounds better researched than most of the things you'll download from the iTunes store. The Dirt pedigree is still there, but it's evolving for 2020 and next-gen, and that's exciting to see.
"I don't think there's a right way or a wrong way to do it. But I think there's success to be had as long as there's this sort of focus on the racing as well, to make sure that you're not taking too much time away from what people ultimately buy the game for," says Johnson.
Dirt 5 will be released on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and PC in October, and Stadia in 2021.