Since 2007, the DIRT series has been my personal favorite rally-centric racer on the market. The successor to the legendary Colin McCrae games across many platforms over the last 20 years, DIRT has been a shining example of a way to go in bold, new directions for a genre that would seemingly be a bit limited in that regard. The series has gone from a slickly-designed rally racer to something that wound up going for a bit of a Forza Horizon-esque festival vibe with DIRT 3, while 2017’s DIRT 4 changed things up and went back to basics with a more serious team-based approach. This resulted in some of the soul being sucked out of the series as it went back into a more rote race-to-menu and back again formula that hurt things a lot.
Thankfully, Codemasters went back and injected some fun back into things because there is a seriously fun vibe to this game that is about on-par with things like SSX On Tour with its brightly-colored and notebook paper-style menus. DIRT 5 uses a brightly-colored presentation with some film grain-esque filters on the loading screens and a punchy rocky soundtrack to bring back the fun and inject more life into the overall presentation that was lacking in the last title. DIRT 5 feels like a return to form for the franchise and it’s not like the fourth entry was bad – it just lost its way a bit when it came to presentation. DIRT 5 keeps what’s made prior entries great while adding some new things to keep the experience fresh and encourage track replayability in new ways.
Beyond just having a goal to get in the top three positions, you’re rewarded for completing any one of three objectives. They aren’t essential, but will net you more XP. This is great because maybe there’s a track that tests your mettle a bit too much with a tough turn and you just can’t get a pole position finish with it – but you want to progress through the campaign at a brisk pace. Knocking out the objectives helps keep you from having to grind through races and that alone helps make going from race to race more fun since you do have the option of redoing races if you want and sometimes, that’s best.
There are certainly some tracks, especially the ones on muddy, wet surfaces that test you in ways that go beyond what the series has done before. You have to be more mindful of your handling and that can work for or against you. Drifting is more important now than ever and plays a large part in a lot of the secondary objectives. Generally speaking, these objectives are a mix of things that will help you get better with one thrown in for fun. You may have one that’s a stealth way of teaching you something – like drifting three times on a tough track – alongside another that’s more fun to just see happen since you can’t predict it. Something like trading paint mid-drift or in mid-air isn’t something you can just force to happen and trying to do so could hurt your track position.
The completionist side of me definitely wanted to tackle every race with not only a first place finish but also taking care of all of the objectives; but over time, it was clear that this wasn’t the most prudent use of the game’s tracks. An either/or approach is probably the best mix because you can’t really force some of the objectives into being, and feeling that you have to play a track a certain way is the exact opposite of what I want to do in a racing game – especially that is as fun to play as DIRT 5 is. From a minute to minute perspective, the racing action has never been more exciting or more fluid in the series than it is now.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s always been varying degrees of great, but it’s more polished now and that goes a long way to ensuring that the fifth entry will be a fun endeavor for years to come. It’s rare that racing games have a long lifespan, especially one with a built-in follow-up nature baked into it like DIRT, but I could easily see this being the last non DIRT Rally-branded entry for a bit and just being used as a base to expand upon later. The Forza Horizon games have had long lifespans to them in part due to post-launch content, but truly shined years after release due to finely-tuned gameplay – and that’s where DIRT 5 shines the brightest. No matter what kind of race you’re in, you can’t help but have a good time in it.
DIRT 5 is the best-playing entry in the series to date and it’s brighter and more colorful style bleeds into every part of its design. Menus are more bombastic, with bolder text choices and brighter logos adding a sense of life to things. Cars have also been given more livery options to add more personalization, and it’s also the best-looking entry in series history. For console users, you can now enjoy either a lower-fidelity performance mode or a higher-fidelity look with a lower framerate. Given how important a high framerate can be in a racing game, I preferred to play with the performance mode and found that my on-track timing was better there than playing with a lower framerate.
I found that the bump up in visual quality wasn’t worth the dropoff in framterate since if you’re playing with a behind-the-car view, you’re not losing much. Using an in-car view, you are going to get crisper details on things like the wheel and dashboard – but even without that being maxed out, it still looks fine and never gets distracting. On-track details like dirt and mud kicking up look great either way and absorb you into the action more as you see the vehicles get more caked in it as time goes on – which makes races seem harder-hitting and more action-packed as a result.
Past-gen players can have a lot of fun with the game – but next-gen offers some nice improvements to the overall experience. The PS5’s SSD helps with loading times – although there is still some texture pop-in for cars, so it’s not quite perfectly-tuned just yet. You can still choose between a higher-fidelity mode or a slight drop in graphical quality and a better framerate, so even the power of the newer hardware isn’t enough to get it to run at both a super-high framerate with the highest-fidelity graphics. As a cross-gen experience, the lighting is a bit better and more organic on the PS5 – especially with regards to the lens flare effect – and the dirt itself on the ground looks better and moves more realistically.
In playing DIRT 5 on the PS5, the Dual Sense adds a whole new layer to the controls. The resistance in the triggers makes proper acceleration and braking more immersive, and the haptic motors in the controller offer up different levels of vibration for when you’re just racing and for when you get into a crash. For the latter you’ll feel more intense vibration, and for constant car rubbing to gain positions you’ll always feel it and it switches from side to side on the controller. So if you’re rubbing a lot of cars on the left-hand side to gain a position on the right, you’ll feel it in the left side of the controller. It’s a fantastic effect and one that makes tight races even more exciting.
DIRT 5’s soundtrack is something of a throwback as it’s full of early ’00s-sounding alt rock that honestly wouldn’t be out of place in a modern-day Crazy Taxi game. It’s all super fast-paced music that gets your blood pumping and I found that it led to me racing with more reckless abandon than usual. Normally, in a game like this, I take a more measured approach – but when you’ve got rock blaring and cars all around you, it just turns every race into a balls-to-the-wall spectacle no matter what. That feeling is amplified when you’re using an in-car view and can get a better feel for the action as cars smash into you, and in those viewpoints you do get louder sound effects than just the normal behind-the-car views. It’s an immersive experience and the best-sounding DIRT game yet.
Overall, DIRT 5 fixes everything that was iffy about the prior entry and does so in a way that breathes new life into the long-running series. DIRT 5 has smoother controls and more versatile framerate options than prior entries have had – at least on consoles, and the addition of non-position objectives helps make races more replayable and a bit more fun since you may have to step outside of your comfort zone, or more accurately, increase your comfort zone over time, to fully embrace it. DIRT 5 clicks with the player faster than any prior entry and is an absolute must-play for anyone who has loved the series before – or who hasn’t and wants to start fresh. There’s no better rally racer on the market than DIRT 5. While it looks and plays better on newer hardware, owners of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 don’t lose out on much of the overall experience.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
This review is based on a digital copy of DIRT 5 for the Xbox One and PlayStation 5 provided by Codemasters.