You don't normally hear AAA voice talent attached to racing games, much less names as omnipresent as Troy Baker and Nolan North. But with the latest entry in the long-running Colin McRae Rally series, titled Dirt 5, Codemasters shifts into all-wheel-drive and treads a largely unbeaten path for the racing genre with a dedicated career mode and story.
With that goal in mind, it's no surprise that they turned to actors with near unparalleled experience leading casts in narrative-heavy games. Still, Baker was humbled when the studio approached him to help spearhead the initiative.
"It's the greatest compliment to be thought of as a solution to a problem," Baker told me in a recent video chat. "Anytime someone goes, 'we got a problem and we've never done this before, and if we're gonna try something different we think you can help us pull it off. That's a good feeling."
Dirt 5 marks a departure not only for the series, but for Baker's career. This year alone, the prolific actor played Joel in The Last of Us 2, Bruce Banner in Marvel's Avengers, and John Jones in Fortnite. But despite his prominence in the industry, his role as Alex "AJ" Janiček and the bigger focus on storytelling in Dirt 5 is something Baker approached with reverence.
"I'd rather do something that's different, that I've never done before, and that ultimately I just look back and go 'I'm glad that I made time for that, and I'm glad that they let me do that," he says. "I applaud them because anyone that goes 'we know what we can do, and we can just go 'this next console generation is fancy enough, and it's good enough, this is the 5th game, let's just stick to the formula. It's working. We're able to consistently crank out titles. This can be enough.' And for them to go, 'how much can we shake it up?' That's a scary place to be, and it takes a lot of trust and it takes a lot of respect."
Baker's role is that of the seasoned mentor to the player character, but as someone without a ton of experience in racing games or off-road rallies in general, the actor felt a responsibility to study up himself. Speaking specifically to the impassioned fans of the Dirt series, which began with Colin McRae Rally in 1998, Baker recalls the pressure involved in approaching a character that's infinitely more versed in the sport than he is.
"I went through a rabbit hole of YouTube clips watching and learning about a sport I knew nothing about," he says. "There's a whole brand, and sub-brand of that, that we're specifically speaking to. The people that are into it are crazy people. They're insane, passionate people that understand the science of the sport. And that is what unlocked who AJ was, the fact that he was born where he was, where this thing is so deeply entrenched into the culture, and he was born into that culture primarily. And now he moves away from that place, but it still informs who he is. That's character work, man. That's the stuff that I want all the time."
Dirt 5 is available now on Xbox One, PS4, and PC, releasing on PS5 and Xbox Series X at launch. A Stadia port is also underway with a 2021 release date.