Dirt 5 on PlayStation 4 & PlayStation 5
Update: We have added our post-release thoughts on the PS5 version of Dirt 5 at the bottom of this review.
Codemasters‘ Dirt series has seen its fair share of changes over the years. From the Colin McRae beginnings through to a separation into two sub-series, it’s a franchise with a lot on offer. For Dirt 5, it’s more accessible than ever, leaving traditional rallying to its sister, but still ensuring you hit the asphalt for more than a second or two.
With the introduction of the Dirt Rally series, the core Dirt series is now more casual by design. The former is the home of long, intense events that test your focus, precision driving, and tight control. Rally is now the hardcore simulation series, leaving Dirt to offer the more traditional, pick-up-and-play racing experience.
As a result, Dirt 5’s gameplay has been tweaked from what Dirt fans might expect. It’s not nearly as punishing, with throttle control and precise braking things of the past. You can hurtle around every track at full pelt, flooring the accelerator between each corner.
Cars also stick to the track perfectly, allowing you to satisfyingly get the back out around corners – as it should do on dirt tracks – yet not forcing you to contend with too much under or oversteer. Every vehicle in Dirt 5 feels sturdy; you can throw them around and be confident that they won’t bite back.
It still feels like a Codemasters game though. Driving isn’t floaty like it is in the likes of Need for Speed; you still have to correct steering and fight around icy corners at times, but it’s not demanding. A great balance has been found between making the gameplay engaging but accessible.
Codemasters’ standard 100 point difficulty scale and bevy of assist options are also nowhere to be seen. Dirt 5 is clearly meant to be a sit back and relax kind of racing game, and it does so well, without losing much of what makes the series great.
The move away from classic rally racing also brings more variety to Dirt 5. Throughout its long career mode, you’ve got plenty of event options.
Ultra Cross is standard off-road racing, kicking up mud in any weather, Path Finder is a time-trial event focused on verticality and wrestling with a high torque buggy, and Ice Breaker is short lap races on slippy frozen lakes or rivers.
By shuffling the pack and sprinkling each event type throughout the career mode, it never feels stale, throwing different surfaces that act in unique ways, locations, and times of day at you in each event.
It keeps the action exciting, even if you’re doing little more than racing from point to point in any of them.
You’re also able to choose a path in career mode, with you almost always having the choice between up to six different events at each stage. This allows you to stick to those you feel more comfortable with or enjoy the most and skip over those that don’t appeal, removing any frustration from the career mode. If there’s an event type you don’t enjoy, there’ll be a path past it, letting you reach the end without getting bogged down by single, tough races.
There’s also a light story sprinkled in that you’ll want to get to the end of. It’s presented in a way I’ve never experienced before: a podcast/radio show that runs intermittently for the entirety of the mode, but it works.
It’s not deep or extensive, but listening to chats between what are cheesy ‘bro radio’ hosts and other racers every few events is a nice way to break up the relentless drifting.
Sometime the chats will last minutes at a time, but they’re made engaging by the excellent voice acting work, particularly from Nolan North as rival racer Bruno Durand (who initially sounds like he’s doing his Cristopher Walken impression) and Troy Baker as your fellow-racer-turned-manager, AJ.
Their performances sound so genuine, full of every inflection and pause that you’d hear from a real radio show. They’re not cliched or awkward, making the segments something you actually want to listen to.
Presenting a story in that way does limit the feeling of progression somewhat though. You’re talked about as this up and coming rookie racing star, but that’s never really showcased in the events. There’s no fanfare before races, no personality flair from the drivers you’re facing, and no celebration of a win beyond being given some XP and cash to spend on new cars.
That feeling isn’t helped by the only upgrade system being buying new cars with the cash you earn. There’s no customization that isn’t cosmetic, and deciding on which car is the best for each event is relegated to looking at their handling and performance rating, which will be between C and S.
The reward for doing well is limited too. You’re given three tasks to complete in each event (some of which inexplicably don’t fit the event they’re placed in) and can earn up to three stamps for winning, but you’re not stopped in your track for failing.
Some will find that freeing, and it fits the casual nature of the game somewhat, but you can progress through the whole career without paying much attention to the tasks and whether you win or not. There are some stamp requirements for the ‘Main Event’ at the end of each day and separate Throwdown events that have mysterious unlock requirements, but earning the cash and XP rewards don’t unlock anything bar some new skins for your cars.
If you want to just hit the tracks for some fun, perfect! If you’re looking for something that sees you progress as a racer, developing a garage of highly tuned machines, though, Dirt 5 might not be for you.
Thankfully, the tracks that you do hit look incredible. Dirt 5 has been given the neon glow treatment, bathing most of the tracks in bright purples, blues, and yellows that make every location pop.
From the detail on the often water-soaked dirt tracks in the likes of Brazil and China, to the beautiful backdrops in Norway and South Africa, there’s always something to marvel at.
The locations are varied, detailed, and stunning, with more emphasis being put on lighting and weather than in any previous Dirt title. Racing at night in Norway as the Northern Lights flicker in the night’s sky, or hurtling around a frozen Hudson River in New York as lightning crashes around you are pretty incredible sights to behold.
We’re yet to test Dirt 5 out on next-gen systems, but the icy events will surely be the perfect showcase of how ray-tracing can dramatically enhance a game’s visuals.
There are some technical issues that distract occasionally, unfortunately. Frequent shadow pop-in and lighting flickering, the occasional severe screen tear, and gaps in the floor that let you see through to the never-ending beyond don’t ruin the experience, but are significant enough to take your eye off the beauty of everything else.
The final significant feature that’s new to the Dirt series is PlayGrounds, which let’s you build and play small arena-set events. Choosing between Gymkhana (which also pops up in the career), Smash Attack, and Gate Crasher, you’re able to build events from the ground up, focusing on racking up points from drifts and jumps, or smashing particular objects.
If you’re a creative person, there are a load of options, letting you build an event worthy of the career mode if you have the time and patience. The tools are easy to use and understand, but the challenge comes from figuring out what needs to go where to produce an event that’s fun.
You can then share them online, producing a potentially never-ending library of events to add to the fully customizable Arcade mode, which lets you build your own race events by choosing everything from location to how quickly time passes and the weather changes.
Add the very welcome splitscreen and drop-in online multiplayer, the latter of which we’ve not had time to test fully pre-release, to the proceedings and you’ve got a game that’ll live on long beyond the career mode.
The addition of PlayGrounds is the perfect example of just how different Codemasters’ approach to Dirt 5 is. It’s not supposed to be a hardcore off-road sim, it’s designed to be a game that weaves the series’ traditionally excellent racing mechanics into a package that’s accessible and focused on fun before everything else.
That lack of challenge and sense of progression won’t be for everyone, and might even put off Dirt veterans, but Dirt 5’s a varied and beautiful racing game that’s a blast from event number one.
PlayStation 5 Impressions
Since publishing this review, we have had the chance to play a lot of Dirt 5 on PlayStation 5 and, while the differences aren’t particularly substantial, those that are there are worth mentioning.
First of all, most noticeable is the visual upgrade. The technical issues are certainly reduced in their frequency, racing is silky smooth when on the ‘prioritize image quality’ setting, and the lighting is even more spectacular. There are still some pop in and lighting issues, particularly during nighttime events, but the overall experience is much better.
Elsewhere, the other thing you’ll immediately notice when playing the PS5 version of Dirt 5 is the use of your DualSense’s haptic feedback abilities. The accelerator trigger is slightly firmer, while the brake almost clicks as you pull L2. There’s a tangible difference between the two triggers, as there is in their impact in game, and it really affects immersion in a positive way.
The change in how the brake trigger reacts is so significant that you’ll hear a click from your controller as the mechanics inside ready the impact of different surfaces. You can also feel the difference in the controller on ice, dirt, and as you go through water. The implementation is impressive.
Dirt 5 also supports 120hz monitors, but I don’t have a set up to test it out myself, but it’s good to know that it’s there. And finally, the load times have been improved, but since they weren’t an issue at all in the PS4 version, it’s not something you’ll really notice.
Overall, the Dirt 5 experience isn’t particularly different on PlayStation 5 compared to on PS4. It’s still a great arcade racer, but the smooth and improved visuals, alongside the well implemented DualSense features, ensure that it’s at least a noticeable step forward.
- Accessible, easy to pick up Dirt racing experience
- Driving is still engaging, even after being simplified
- Varied Career Mode with interestingly told story
- Great voice acting work
- Incredible visuals at times
- Sense of progression is limited
- Technical issues that distract throughout