Trackmania's worst enemy has always been itself. The root of the game is simple, straightforward driving, prizing a Hot Wheels-style sense of speed and physics. Laid on top of that foundation is a robust community of user-generated content. The problem is that community is largely a splintered mess, pulled towards different iterations of the game, mods, and hacks to make certain features even work.
Dirt 5 is looking to compete against Trackmania with the series' first course-creation mode: Playgrounds. In Playgrounds, players will be able to enjoy user-created arena and obstacle courses. "Arenas" is the key word here, as this isn't a full course creator for traditional Dirt racing tracks. Like Trackmania, you begin within the confines of a stadium and can only design and tweak within those confines.
In the preview build I played, there were three course types to enjoy. There's Gymkhana, based on the motorsport of the same name, where you race around drifting, jumping, and smashing through billboards in order to send your score skyrocketing. There's Gate Crasher, which tasks the player with driving through checkpoint gates on the way to the end of the obstacle course. Finally, there's Smash Attack, which is supposed to have the player smashing through certain objects while avoiding others.
Gymkhana will probably be a blast for the trick fiends among you. The available courses are mostly flat, a smorgasbord of distinct areas where the player can drift around corners, take smaller jumps, and tire spin in place. Admittedly, I'm not inclined towards pure score attacks. Pushing myself to get a spot on a leaderboard has become less enticing to me over the years, so doing so within the confines of the preview build wasn't my jam.
Likewise, I spent less time on Smash Attack than the final option in the preview. I found more enjoyment within Gate Crasher, which allows the creation of tracks in the style of Trackmania. It's here that the "Playgrounds" become meaningful, as course creators play around with wild jumps and loop-de-loops, or more unique track items like giant dominoes and flaming rings to leap through. Sure, you're just racing through checkpoints, but it's a ton of fun to try and retry a course, trying to shave seconds off your time.
Dirt 5's Playgrounds largely resemble Trackmania 2's Canyon expansion, with more realistic handling of the vehicles. Your cars are still Dirt cars, bouncing on small out outcroppings, flipping over, drifting and turning realistically on roads and dirt surfaces. This changes how you approach every turn and twist in the course, as opposed to Trackmania's arcade-y physics that stick you on the track like a magnet and make turns very easy. One player-created course in the preview build has the entire course high in the sky above the stadium floor, forcing you to go slowly to survive. With the physics, small bumps saw me careening off the side, or having one tire off the track had my car slowly sliding into the void.
In terms of arena backgrounds, you have the choice of the shining lights of a Cape Town stadium, or the desert tracks of Arizona. Trackmania 2 Canyon also allows the creation of what feels like much larger courses than Dirt 5. That's because it was another entry in a long-running series of improvements, so the tools at your disposal had more depth and variety. In contrast, this is just the beginning for Dirt 5's Playgrounds.
But my main point is Dirt 5 will have focus that Trackmania is lacking. The course browser in Dirt 5 is easy and straightforward, allowing you to browse popular courses and tracks highlighted by the developers, or search for different course types and tags. Across PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4, there's a single game and single community making or playing courses, rather than the shattered glass of the Trackmania community. That adds to the possibilities in my mind; Dirt 5 is doing what I've wanted Nadeo to do for years.
I did try the course creator myself, but it's early days and I was dissatisfied with my creations. I couldn't wrap my mind around object placement and getting course items to snap into place properly. (The developer is working on a tutorial, but it wasn't available in the preview.) I also had some issues with the camera in course creation, with it snapping too close or too far depending on the object I was trying to place. Like Minecraft, Dreams, and Trackmania before it, I'm more interested in enjoying player creations rather than making my own.
Regardless, it's another option for an already impressive racing series. Dirt 5 is coming to PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Google Stadia on October 16, 2020, with additional launches planned on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.