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Dirt 5 hands-on: it's the racing game arcade fans have been waiting for

(Image credit: Codemasters)

Dirt 5 knows how to make a good first impression. Within seconds of racing around the pristine Nordic town of Henningsvaer in our incredibly '90s Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution V1, I'm treated to gravel and muck being dragged up off the road by my tyres, waves breaking over the bridge I screech across, and cars jostling with me while attempting to drift through muddy corners. It's an exhilarating introduction to the racer, all taking place at dawn with orange hues trying to burst past the clouds and the Chemical Brothers blaring on the soundtrack. What I didn't expect is that its second impression would be even better. 

Weathering the storm 

(Image credit: Codemasters)

You see, the Dirt 5 demo I'm playing puts an emphasis on the game's dynamic weather, and hopping straight back into Henningsvaer has me racing the same track, but this time with heavy snow. What starts off as something comparable, as the dusting of snow gets churned up by my tires inside of mud, completely transforms into a different race halfway through. 

The light from the sky gets snuffed as a thunderstorm starts to take over as the road disappears ahead of me, with thick snowflakes more noticeably whizzing past my car like I'm going into hyperdrive. Corners I had been judging pretty well become much harder, as only the warm hue of direction signs, my car's headlights, and the occasional flash of lighting give me no more than 50 yards of visibility ahead. 

This stunning sense of immersion aside (seriously, the lighting flash illuminating a bridge as I was about to jump over it felt like a step up from anything I've seen in a racing game recently) also affected how I played. As the race started to darken, I was in second place, chasing R. Martinez who was around two or three seconds ahead of me. 

In my first race, where the track was permanently visible, I was able to race aggressively, shunting cars to create space and taking corners tightly. Yet in the darkness, my risks had to be more calculated, knowing that a misjudged turn could be the difference between second and twelfth. That the dynamic weather has this much of an impact on the action is already a tantalising prospect for the full game.      

Subaru Impressed Us

(Image credit: Codemasters)

Of course, that wouldn't count for too much if the racing itself wasn't up to scratch, but Codemaster's latest racing sim manages to thread the needle between arcade delights and simulation bliss. Dirt 5 is a break from the recent focus of the series - realistic rally racing - to focus on an expanded menu of off-road racing. 

In the demo, this means that the slow burn pleasure of mastering the intricacies of cars in the Rally series has been sublimated with the instantaneous thrill of pushing cars to their limit, skidding around corners, and fighting in races with 11 other drivers. In many ways, this feels closer to the PS3 and Xbox 360 era of racers that gave us Motorstorm, Burnout Paradise, and (unsurprisingly) Dirt 2 than this generation's more realistic sim games. Cars don't judder and jolt with the slightest nudge of the stick, but they do require you to pay attention to racing lines and look for opportunities to overtake. 

In fact, it's hard not to think of Motorstorm Pacific Rift when racing through the verdant forests and bright favelas in Brazil, as I take part in a new event called 'Stampede'. These types of races feature steep hills and big jumps, and that last part is incredibly satisfying, as I discover halfway through when I manage to catapult my car over a poor AI racer underneath. That sense of breathlessly dancing on the edge of control lies at the heart of Dirt 5, and can also be seen in the expanded car classes that are in the game.  

While the usual suspects are here - Modern Rally, the nostalgic '90s Rally, and Rally GT cars will all feature familiar favourites - Dirt 5 is bringing some eyebrow-raising additions to the series. For instance, the Rock Bouncer is a large car that has huge tyres and a light roll cage that makes it ideal for tackling tougher courses, while the Sprint class is a beast unto itself. A kart-like contraption whose wheels are all different sizes, it also boasts a giant wing on top that makes controlling it like wrestling with a horse. Every time you think you get it doing what you want, it bucks up and veers off in a different direction. Naturally, it's a blast to race in.  

Sprint to the finish

(Image credit: Codemasters)

That's because the Sprint class is raced in a left-turn only oval in the demo, which ratchets up the potential for absolute carnage. In fact, these races are the shortest by far, each lap a 20-second blur as you fight 11 other Sprint class cars in both trying to drift it around the oval as well as trying to, y'know, win the actual race. Except most of the time, it feels like an accomplishment just to avoid the barriers, especially when you're dealing with the dust clouds that billow from drifts during the daytime races, and the headlight illuminated bends when driving them at night. Is this a way of saying I won only once out of the eight times I tried a Sprint race? Yep, but that didn't stop it being the one I returned to the most, as I really want to learn how to tame those tiny beasts.  

But they are also symbolic of the subtle shift in focus in Dirt 5. If the series in recent years has catered more to simulation fans, this now feels like the most welcoming Dirt game in years. There's the career mode with Troy Baker and Nolan North voicing your mentor and rival respectively, there's split-screen support for you and your pals to race against each other in offline races or with each in other with career co-op, and then there's the fact the game's vibrant style just screams "pick up and play me". Few racers outside of Forza Horizon this generation have attempted to make racing appealing to a broader section of the gaming community, but Dirt 5's lasting impression is that won't be the case for too much longer. 

Dirt 5 was previewed on PC, running on an Intel i7-5820k CPU, 16GB of Ram, and GeForce RTX 2060 Super GPU

Hello, I'm GamesRadar's News Editor. When I'm not moaning about being beaten on FIFA, I'm writing news and features for this wonderful site.