Home Phone
ESRBE
ONLINE1-4 Players
INSTALL52.22GB (PS5 + All DLC)
RELEASE DATENovember 6th, 2020
PLATFORMSPlayStation 5 (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One/One X, Xbox Series X/S, Steam/PC
PUBLISHERElectronic Arts
DEVELOPERCodemasters Racing
ONLINE PASSYear 1 Upgrade: $40

I want to first preface this by saying: I’m not doing a Top 5 this year. Much like last year’s, I didn’t get to play much from 2021 outside of 1 or 2 games, and the games I did play were a lot of the same ones on the 2020 list already. It would pretty much be the same list again this year – with one or 2 alternate titles.

Instead, I’ve decided I’m going to talk about the game that I spent surprisingly the most amount of time playing and enjoying, other than the usual culprits. Even though the game came out at the tail end of 2020, Dirt 5 ended up being one of my favorite games this year.

STORY

It’s not too often that a racing game has a proper story of any kind. Even games like Need for Speed just barely eke out a cohesive plot to tie together their string of random races around the map.

Dirt 5 isn’t much different in that regard. Frankly, I don’t think anyone is ever going to give me what I really want again – which is a game like Gran Turismo, but a plot like Ace Combat. It’s why R: Racing Evolution holds a special place in my heart, even with its flaws.

That said – Dirt 5 does have a plot, for the most part. It follows you, a rookie driver in the long-running Dirt Championship Series (Though being called a rookie when you’ve been playing the Dirt series since it was still Colin McRae’s DiRT feels weird) – being guided and mentored by Alex ‘AJ’ Janicek (Voiced by one Troy Baker).

AJ is a very nice, chilled-out kind of racer who just enjoys racing at its core. He’s not really a guy out to win – he just wants a good race.

On the opposite end of that spectrum is Bruno Durand (voiced by Nolan North) – a person that would rather win by any means necessary than try to make nice with anyone.

A look at the career mode – broken up into 5 main events with dozens of events in each.

All-in-all, the story’s extremely clich√© but serves its purpose well enough. Durand is just enough of a smug asshole that you feel compelled to put him in his place. AJ’s just laid-back enough that you’re willing to hear him out and keep trying.

However – the Donut Media guys can wear a bit thin (It can feel like they’re trying a bit too hard to sell these personas. Forced.). Thankfully, you don’t have to deal with them that much – they introduce new events and essentially act as the framing device for the events of the plot. The primary bits of drama all play out over their podcast. There are no cutscenes and you never actually see anyone.

As I said before – the story that’s there works well enough to at least get you through the career. Just don’t expect a lot.

PRESENTATION

This.

This is the primary reason the game is so high on my list, and why I’d honestly consider it my GOTY if I properly did that kind of thing.

Visually, the game isn’t much to write home about. It looks fine – about as good as Rally 2.0 – although I think I like Rally 2.0‘s overall UI a bit more. It runs at a solid 60FPS pretty consistently (On PS5/Xbox Series X/S, at least) – PS4/Xbox One can also hit 60, but it’s a bit more inconsistent, and the fidelity mode there is 30FPS, which is disappointing for an arcade racer like this.

I can’t speak much on the 120FPS mode as I don’t have a monitor capable of displaying that framerate – but I did notice there seemed to be a lot more frame drops in that mode. I spent most of my time in Fidelity mode on PS5 because of that.

Other than those minor issues – the game looks fine. I especially appreciate the more Dirt 2-esque, vibrant and colorful aesthetic the game goes for. I’m glad more game devs are being less afraid of color these days.

Also – this game has some of the best weather effects I’ve seen since DRIVECLUB. You’ll understand why later.

Colors are bold, textures are relatively sharp – Dirt 5 is a fine-looking game.

That all said – it’s sound design that puts this game so far above most of the other things I’ve played. The soundtrack, the car audio – it’s all great. However, there’s one part that shines above all else.

The way the soundtrack is used while you’re racing. This is something I feel has been undersold in a lot of reviews that talk about the game. It’s one of the most clever uses of spatial audio I’ve ever seen.

See – where most games simply pipe the music directly to you, giving you a playlist that you can often control in some manner, almost like you’ve got an MP3 player in the car or something – Dirt 5 pipes the music through speakers around the track.

This creates a feeling of your race being part of a big event – it makes it feel as though you are actually on the track, hearing these songs playing as you race. The direction of the song changes as you go around the course. It gets muffled as you enter tunnels or get far away from the speakers. If you come close to the speakers, it almost feels like you can feel the sound waves rattling your chest. The game sounds God damned amazing.

And understand – I’m describing this based on a pair of Audio Technica studio headphones connected to an Astro MixAmp. They don’t support the PS5’s proper 3D audio at all, so I can only imagine what it sounds like with a proper pair of 3D-capable headphones connected to the DualSense.

This is the part that made me keep coming back to the game, over and over. It’s proof positive, for me, that audio can elevate something that would otherwise be pretty bog-standard into something far better.

And while it’s not exactly taking full advantage of the PS5’s hardware – the game loads blisteringly fast, and the DualSense adds a fun touch to the races – feeling the resistance of the adaptive triggers on the accelerator and brake is nice.

GAMEPLAY/MECHANICS

Now, this is likely to be the point of contention for a lot of people.

Dirt 5 is not a rally game. At all. There is not a single rally event in the entire career or any of the DLC. The closest thing you’ll get are the Rally Raid events.

Personally, that’s fine. It’s clear to me that after the poor reception of Dirt 4, Codemasters wants to do something different with the series. It has now been split – with Rally taking over, well, the rally side – including rallycross. The mainline Dirt games, it seems, will focus on arcade pack racing – stuff like Land Rush.

There is not a single simulation element in this game – it’s arcade racing at its purest.

I’m fine with that and ultimately kind of prefer it if that’s the way they want to go. It allows the rally side to have proper focus without having to compromise on realism for the sake of having more content.

Dirt 4 ultimately suffered by trying to cater to both worlds. While I appreciated there being 2 handling models with their own leaderboards and competitive servers – it still leaned harder into the simulation aspect and didn’t really feel like Dirt, which isn’t a simulator (And that’s not counting the weird, randomly-generated courses that lacked much variety). It just…lacked something. It felt sterile.

Dirt 5 doesn’t have that problem. It sits squarely on the arcade side of the arcade-simulator line – channeling games of old, like SEGA Rally, Motorstorm, ATV Offroad Fury, and others.

I’d like to note that I mentioned Motorstorm for a reason – because there’s a spirit that you can feel throughout this game. It becomes readily apparent early on that Codemasters’ acquisition of Evolution Studios has been paying off for them. You can feel Evolution’s presence here – from tracks set in the Arizona Mesa (IE: Motorstorm) to the photo mode and the DRIVECLUB-Esque weather effects and optional, random challenges (No Face-Offs, sadly). A note: these challenges can be a real pain – sometimes they feel nigh impossible. Thankfully, they are entirely optional and only serve to grant some extra rewards – like currency and XP.

It’s clear that the devs brought in from Evolution at least lent a helping hand here.

Now, as far as the actual gameplay goes – it’s a lot of fun to actually play. It’s extremely easy to just jump in, get to a race, and drive. There’s not a lot in your way. Dirt 5‘s controls are much more relaxed than Rally 2.0 and even Dirt 4‘s “Gamer” handling. There’s much more focus on drifting around big corners and taking huge jumps than being precise and clean.

The game’s called Dirt. If your car’s not beat to hell and covered in mud by the end of the race, you did something wrong.

That said – while the game is a ton of fun, there isn’t exactly a lot of variety in the actual events. It’s a bit of the same problem that Gravel had. There are different event types – Land Rush, Stampede, Ultra Cross, Sprint, Pathfinder, Ice Breaker, and Gymkhana (The DLC adds Multi-Class events, DRIVECLUB-like Time Trials as well as bringing the previously Playgrounds-only Gate Crasher & Smash Attack events to the career) – but a lot of these feel extremely similar to each other.

The only real difference between Land Rush and Stampede, for instance, is the track choices. Stampede events tend to have a lot more massive jumps on the course, while Land Rush is a lot more traditional.

Gymkhana, Ice Breaker, and Pathfinder are the most unique events overall. Sprint is also fairly unique in that they all take place on small oval tracks of either dirt/mud or ice. They also feature the most annoying vehicle to use in the game – the Sprint car (Also known as a Funny Car). These cars early on were a pain to use. Patches have since alleviated some of the frustration – but it still will take some practice to get used to.

It’s not that they’re broken – Funny cars are just notoriously hard to control. They are built for turning left and pretty much nothing else.

Dirt 5's career menu.

There are a ton of events in Dirt 5 – especially if you have the DLC.

Because so many events feel similar, they can kind of bleed together in the career – lending to a feeling of repetition. This is only furthered by tracks within the same “area” feeling like mild variations on each other. You’ll end up seeing a lot of the same parts of a track across multiple events, even though they’re different tracks.

Still, I had a ton of fun playing Dirt 5 overall.

There’s also an online component – but you’d be forgiven for not realizing it. It’s pretty barebones. You can join a random public game that’ll match you against up to 3 other opponents in a random event on a random track with a random car class, or you can set up a private game for your friends.

The biggest part of the online is in Playgrounds – which is the game’s track creation mode. This is like creating a level in a Tony Hawk game. You won’t be creating any full race tracks – but you can create courses for Gate Crasher, Gymkhana, and Smash Attack events.

Dirt 5's Playgrounds mode.
You won’t be running out of these tracks anytime soon.

Gate Crasher is a pretty standard checkpoint event – hit the checkpoints in the fastest time possible. Gymkhana is a classic – score points by doing various tricks around the course, like drifting through gates, smashing obstacles, or doing donuts around a target. Smash Attack has you driving around a relatively open course (It depends – some players make tracks that follow a line) hitting targets of varying point amounts to try and hit a target score as quickly as you can.

You can make your own courses and upload them for others or download ones made by other players. If you ever get tired of just standard racing, give it a try.

I haven’t had much playtime with this as I’m terrible with level creators – but it was easy to use and I can see others getting a lot of enjoyment out of this. There’s very little in the way of limiting what you can make. There are some crazy tracks out there already.

REPLAY VALUE

And here we come to the area that is the toughest to really nail down.

As I’ve said with many other reviews for this kind of game – it’s a racing game. Ultimately, that comes down to finishing career events and then either playing online or split-screen or playing time trials for yourself.

Playgrounds mode definitely adds something to the table for those of you who enjoy level creation – and provides a near-endless supply of new courses for 3 race types.

Trophy/achievement-wise – this is probably the easiest of the entire series. The most difficult trophy is just a time-consuming one, requiring the player to drive 1,000 miles total. Everything else will either come naturally or take a little bit of extra work – like completing every career event (You don’t even have to earn all the medals).

If you enjoy racing games, then there’s plenty to do here and it’s all pretty enjoyable.

FINAL VERDICT

Dirt 5 very quickly became one of my favorite games this year. From the absolutely stellar sound work to the high-octane, super fun gameplay that feels like an old Dreamcast/PS2-era arcade game (In the best, most flattering way possible) and the decent use of the DualSense controller.

I’ve missed games like this – that didn’t care about being super realistic. That wanted to give you races in less than usual locales on over-the-top courses. While you aren’t going to be driving through an active volcano or flying off the top of a dilapidated skyscraper, these tracks still feel a bit larger than life, with massive jumps quite often and a focus on speed and drifting more than anything else.

Sure, it’s not perfect – its events can blend into each other making for a somewhat repetitive career mode, it’s not the best-looking game (But far from ugly) and it can certainly do with a bit more event and track variety – but it’s fun. I had a blast for the entire 40+ hours I spent with the game. I still come back to it to get a few races in every now and then when I’m bored.

Racing games have been focusing on realism for a long time now – even those on the arcade side of things – so it’s nice to see games like Dirt 5, Cruisin’ Blast, and Forza Horizon lean more heavily into the fun aspect. I hope to see more of this trend – because I truly miss the days of games like Hydro Thunder and SEGA Rally.

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PROSCONS

  • Fun gameplay that feels like the great arcade racers of the Dreamcast/PS2 era.

  • Stellar sound design.

  • Easy to play and jump into.


  • Event types can blend together.

  • Online is a bit barebones.


James Headrick
James Headrick

Gamer & Fractal Artist. // Lover of giant robots & Fighting in Streets. I've been gaming for over 20 years, and writing reviews for over 10 now. ReviewHaven is my baby.

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