Codemasters couldn’t have picked a more challenging time to release Dirt 5. Not only is it smack bang in the middle of triple-A game release season, but also close to the launch of the PS5 and Xbox Series X, not to mention all the complications that come with launching a game across across five platforms (eight if you want to get technical) amidst a global pandemic. And with the racing genre seemingly in decline, Dirt 5 could have used all the help it could get to stand out from the crowd. Microsoft did its bit by propping Dirt 5 up as an Xbox Series launch title, but neither Microsoft nor Codemasters did a good enough job of showing the game in its best light pre-release. Unfortunately, the game itself doesn’t do a whole lot better at making a first impression.
And that’s a huge disservice that Codemasters has itself done to Dirt 5. The game begins as just another mundane arcade racer, putting you through race after race of predicable off-road racing events with some hammy and not-funny narration in the form of the game’s radio station. But once you drudge through the first hour or so of the career mode, Dirt 5 shows its true self – a thrilling arcade racer that is a blast to play and looks stunning too (surprise!).
Codemasters is to racing what Infinity Ward is to Call of Duty – It does one thing and it does it better than most others in the industry. So like every other Codemasters racing game, Dirt 5 impresses immensely with its gameplay. Playing the game at its default gameplay settings, Dirt 5 is one of the most accessible pick-up-and-play racing games out there. You’ll rarely find yourself having to slam the brakes, as most tracks will allow you simply drift around corners with a tap or two of the handbrake aka the drift button. Within the Codemasters arcade stable, it falls nicely between Onrush’s Burnout-esque frenzy and the more stoic Grid. The addition of split-screen and the many tweaks you can apply to customise races in Arcade mode make this a fun game to boot up for quick 15-20 minute sessions, which is not something we can say for most of the big-name arcade racers.
The structure of Dirt 5’s career further lends itself for short action-packed bursts of racing, although at the expense of innovation. This is not an open-world game, so the career mode comprises simply of a laundry list of events, most of them under five minutes long each. These are spread across various race types, and depending on your personal tastes, you’ll likely prefer some over others, but they’re mostly just circuit races or point-to-point sprints. I thoroughly enjoyed the Land Rush, Rally Raid, Ultra Cross, Stampede modes, which are essentially races where things can get pretty frantic. Path Finder is another event type that is a lot of fun in short doses. It’s you against a clock and an extreme rocky terrain that will have your car bouncing around all over the place. Think of it more as a puzzle platformer than racing game, and it’s reminiscent of the sort of challenge a Trials game might throw at you.
I was less thrilled with some of the other event types. Gymkhana mode stands out here. It can best be described as Tony Hawk Pro Skater in a car, but not nearly as much fun. You essentially have to drift and donut your way around an arena littered with trick zones and obstacles to rack up maximum points. After the first few events, I just skipped this mode entirely. New to the game is the Ice Breaker events, which are standard races that take place on ice-covered tracks. While I appreciate its addition, I didn’t quite enjoy the way the cars react to the slippery surfaces, and this too became one of the event types I chose to skip later on in the career.
Thankfully, Dirt 5’s career gives you the freedom to skip events you don’t like and still be able to progress, which is another tick in the accessibility column. As you progress, the career also unlocks Throwdowns, which are special head-to-head races; and Sponsors, which give you additional objectives and rewards for completing them. They’re nice additions, but there isn’t really enough incentive to chase down sponsor objectives. The game is generous with cash payouts for completing events (even in Arcade mode), which you can spend on buying cars and designs for them. Popular off-road cars from all the world’s top manufacturers are here, including rally classics, but there isn’t too much incentive to go and buy more than two or three cars per category. It would have been nice if certain objectives or events were tied to specific cars, but this again was probably sacrificed in the interest of accessibility. That being said, different cars do switch up the experience quite a bit, whether its improved handling or just amping up the sense of speed.
Outside the career, the game offers a Playground mode, which allows players to create their own events and share them with the world. If you’d like a break from the career mode event types, Playground offers plenty of fun and challenging events that you can filter based on your preferences. The game offers online modes as well, broken up into Race and Party event types, but after numerous attempts, we were unable to find a match on PSN. The game also offers up to four-player splitscreen, but there is a significant lowering in visual quality as well as frame rate even in two-player mode. Also, the sheer frenetic action and on-screen effects in Dirt 5 make it quite a challenge in split-screen mode. That being said, it’s great to see Codemasters go the extra mile here. Arcade mode lets you set up single events, where you can customise pretty much every aspect, from track and car class to weather, number of laps, number of opponents, time of day, and even how quickly time progresses. It’s pretty cool to speed up time and have a race cycle through an entire day as you go from start to finish.
That brings us to one of the most notable aspects of Dirt 5. This time around Codemasters has done a tremendous amount of work around the visual experience, and this includes a dynamic day and night cycle, dynamic weather and an abundance of visual and particle effects that go a long way towards elevating the racing experience. The game comes into its own once the career mode really throws you deep into these frantic races that cycle through all these dynamic effects. The feeling of racing through a rainforest as you transition from dirt to muck in pouring rain with thunder and lightning, or through a meandering village as autumn leaves fly across the road and day turns to night never gets old.
Fans of Evolution Studios’ (a large part of which was absorbed by Codemasters when Sony shut the studio) Motorstorm series will feel right as home here as the extreme weather and terrain and the frantic racing action they deliver are reminiscent of the beloved PlayStation franchise. It’s a shame that Dirt 5 takes so long to expose this brilliance to the player, and it’s almost criminal that this is not the aspect of the game that Codemasters led with for its pre-release promotions.
But there is a downside to these new visual and particle effects that Dirt 5 throws at you thick and fast. I reviewed this game on PS4 Pro and performance is all over the place. In the game’s ‘Prioritise Frame Rate’ video mode, the game wasn’t able to hold 60 fps, too often dipping to what seemed like half that. Moreover, the frame drops seemed to occur no matter what is going on on-screen. The ‘Prioritise Resolution’ mode fares much the same. It looks only marginally better and also doesn’t succeed at sticking to a locked 30 fps. I should add, however, that these PS4 Pro performance issues haven’t been widely reported, so there is a (small) likelihood that these issues are unique to my console. That being said, other performance-intensive games such as Spider-man: Miles Morales continue to run flawlessly on the same console. Unlike the PS4, Dirt 5 plays like a dream on PC. Check out Avinash’s views on the PC version of Dirt 5 at the end of the review.
Despite the performance issues on PS4 Pro, I cannot get enough of Dirt 5. It’s a testament to just how fun the game is that I continue to spend hour after hour progressing through its career mode despite its grating performance issues on my console. Once Codemasters formally becomes part of the Take-Two behemoth some time next year, the future of the Dirt series could look a lot different. If that is the case, I couldn’t have hoped for a better way for Dirt 5 to have ended up. That being said, the fact that online matches are hard to come by on PSN and that Steam player counts for the game are steadily dropping post-release suggest that not too many people are giving Dirt 5 a shot. If you’re in the same boat, I’d urge you to reconsider. Whether during a sale or once the game inevitably makes its way to Xbox Game Pass, Dirt 5 is not to be missed. It’s the arcade racing game you’ve been waiting for, and there’s genuinely nothing quite like it out there.
Dirt 5 PC performance
Dirt 5 plays like a dream on PC. After cranking up the resolution to 1440p and locking the in-game frame rate to 120hz, we had no issues with stability whatsoever. The game ran extremely smooth no matter what location or time of day or the amount of particle effects thrown about as you blaze through grimy/muddy tracks. Cars in particular look extremely well detailed and really showcase the wear and tear they go through during a tough race. The environments you race through may not look as stellar, but they’re still very presentable, and given that you’re constantly moving around them, it shouldn’t be a deal breaker.
Our test PC powered by AMD
- CPU: AMD Ryzen 7 3700X
- Graphics card: Sapphire Radeon RX 5700 XT 8GB
- Motherboard: ASUS ROG B550-F
- AIO: NZKT Kraken M22
- PSU: Cooler Master Silent Pro Gold 1200W
- SSD: Samsung 860 QVO
- Memory: 16 GB DDR4