When Codemasters’ Dirt 5 launches this October, hardcore racing sim fans may be surprised to find its suite of modes contains Playgrounds, a brand new experience that operates like an Evel Knievel simulator. Using massive ramps, tunnels, platforms, and even rings of fire, the Dirt series’s newfound appreciation for color and flair shines through every section of the user-generated content found within Playgrounds, even as frustration can sometimes seep through too.
Offering a totally different cadence from what one would expect to find in Dirt 5‘s Career mode, Playgrounds is built around stunts and time trials straight from the minds of its own players. A sizable library of assets available in my preview allowed me to come up with my own obstacle courses across three different sub-modes within Playgrounds.
Gymkhana has players freestyling for tricks and combos like a very heavy Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Smash Attack sets up obstacles that, rather than stylishly dodged, are meant to be crashed into for high scores. In my favorite of the three modes, Gate Crasher asks players to make it through all checkpoints as fast as they can. Gate Crasher is great because levels can be built with linear design, or they can be more open-ended, allowing for players to experiment with speedruns where shaving tenths of a second can mean the difference between leaderboard glory or another failure.
In my hands-on time, there were already several custom levels ready to go from the Codies team, and as you’d expect, these were some of the best on offer throughout the preview. The polish on display in these dev-built challenges served as an effective proof of concept for Playgrounds. Hitting ramps and crashing into piles of wrecked cars is fun in equal measure, and resetting a run is quick and easy, meaning mistakes don’t feel too costly.
As the preview period went on, other players and I got to build our own creations, and it surprisingly ended up being the area where I expect to spend most of my time post-launch. In most user-generated content-led games and game modes, I tend to dabble with the tools before settling into just playing the top-rated creations of others. However, the Dirt 5 Playgrounds tools were so fun and, more importantly, intuitive that I found myself liking the act of building as much or sometimes more than driving. Though you can turn it off, Playgrounds has a helpful feature that snaps disparate track pieces into place like the orange Hot Wheels tracks of my youth. This guidance prevents at least some of the problems of user-generated messes from springing up.
Having said that, it’s not a cure-all, and as with any UGC toys, Playgrounds is still vulnerable to clunky community contraptions. A mandatory testing phase before publishing a level ensures it’s possible to complete each one, but some of the levels I played were put together so sloppily that I wouldn’t ever want to play them again.
Brutally hard challenges have their place, no doubt, but some levels weren’t hard by design, but rather by disarray. Assets that didn’t blend well together were nonetheless pieced that way, and sometimes the acceleration or slowdown of different levels’ raceways didn’t invite experimentation or mastery, instead encouraging a swift exit and hope for something better. Thankfully, there’s already a community rating system that will surely see good use separating the community’s best efforts from its forgettable ones.
In one somewhat poorly made track nostalgically titled “Ski Free,” another player built a ramp descending from the outer atmosphere, something no Codemasters-made track offered to that point. The downhill slope was too bumpy to be enjoyable, but it was this absurd vertical descent that still made me smirk thinking about what’s to come when the full community gets its hands on the creation station.
In all, Playgrounds reinforces the perception of Dirt 5 I’ve had since its reveal. With so much emphasis on more colorful environments, arcadey systems like those in this new secondary mode, and even an overall presentation rich in fireworks and vibrant style, Dirt 5 feels like it’s become the Forza Horizon to Dirt Rally‘s Forza Motorsport. As we know from teases, the team is still planning on another Dirt Rally sequel in the future as well, so it seems Codemasters has taken some cues from Playground Games (including its name, for what that’s worth).
Dirt Rally will likely continue to be the more hardcore-focused racing series, while Dirt 5 will continue experimenting with features like Playgrounds, things that, while not necessarily “casual,” don’t require the depth of knowledge of a true-to-life rally racing simulation. But modes like Playgrounds appeal to a much wider base, a la Forza Horizon‘s open world or its Lego DLC. In that way, Playgrounds makes for a wonderful ramp for the series’s future.