Our review of Dirt 5, developed by Codemasters. Released on November 12, 2020 for PS5 (reviewed), PS4, Xbox X/S, Xbox One, Windows, and Google Stadia.
WHAT IS IT?
A very arcadey off-road racing game.
IS IT GOOD?
It’s okay in short bursts, but wonky physics and inadequate multiplayer modes undermine the whole experience.
WHO SHOULD PLAY IT?
People who drink Monster Energy for breakfast.
2 DIRT 2 FURIOUS
Dirt 5 is not Dirt 4, and it shows.
Dirt 4 was a highly entertaining, widely celebrated sim rally racer that basically let you relive The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift on repeat. Leaning towards the “sim” style of virtual racing without being alienating, Dirt 4 found itself a fairly substantial audience for what’s ultimately a niche racing genre.
Fast-forward three years, and Dirt 5 arrives on next-gen gaming consoles with better graphics than ever, but several unfortunate design choices that make it difficult to recommend. From the bare bones multiplayer to the slippery physics to the dreadful cocaine-hillbilly aesthetic, Dirt 5 is a pale shadow of its former self.
At least the ice levels are cool!
Dirt 5 is actually the fourteenth game in the long-running Colin McRae Rally series, which dates all the way back to the PS1. The “dirt” rebranding coincided in part with the too-young demise of legendary rally racer McRae, and in part with a design shift towards off-road racing. These games thrive in the mud and the muck, and the PS5 version has a lot of fun getting its vehicles all beautifully splattered by the end of each stage.
Dirt 5‘s problems are immediately apparent from the moment you start the game: instead of your traditional rally race, the tutorial forces you into a slog of a dune buggy circuit, the vehicles not so much bouncing as leaping across the environment. I lost the tutorial race – twice – and I’m not exactly a novice when it comes to these things.
Arriving at the garishly pink and green main menu doesn’t instil much confidence either. There’s a bare-bones multiplayer mode (of which more below), and a single-player campaign obnoxiously narrated by Nolan “Nathan Drake” North and Troy “Last of Us” Baker, starring as a pair of egotistical gearheads who really should learn to shut up. Honestly, just the fact that Codemasters went with the two most overused whiteboy voice actors in the business says a lot about their priorities with this game.
PINING FOR THE FJORDS
The game is definitely gorgeous. The cars look great, and the environmental effects believable, especially when the dynamic weather and day-night cycles kick in. Most importantly, the levels, set in locations like the deserts of Morocco, icy Norwegian fjords, or a not-quite-abandoned Italian marble mine, make fantastic use of the PS5 graphics processor.
Gearheads should be happy with the fleet of unlockable cars at your disposal, from classic rally cars like the unmistakably 1970s Fiat 131 Abarth Rally, through the golden age of 80s rally cars and on to more contemporary offerings in the “Modern”, “Sprint”, and “GT” categories. Of course, it’s not a rally racer without the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo and Subaru Impreza, both of which are here in fine form.
The problem is that none of these vehicles control very well. Even though the game is aggressively arcadey, it somehow manages to be more difficult to maintain control than its sim-style predecessor. I tried this out with my go-to rally guru, Forbes’s Matt Kang, and he dared to suggest that GTA V‘s car physics may well be better than Dirt 5‘s. I’m not quite sure if that’s true – and I’m sure some Redditor’s head just exploded – but the fact Matt would even suggest it indicates a serious design flaw.
HEAD TO HEAD TO HEAD TO HEAD
Speaking of Forbes’s Matt Kang, it’s time to talk multiplayer. I didn’t get a chance to try local co-op, but online multiplayer is shockingly lacking. To begin with, it’s impossible to host a private match: no matter how much we wanted to go head-to-head, Matt’s and my races were always populated with randos that Dirt 5 forced upon us. Which brings me to another point: the courses in Dirt 5 are busy, whether online or off. In the real world, much of rally racing is a solo affair, a single car racing against the clock, rather than opponents. It doesn’t make sense to pit a fleet of cars against each other when so many rally courses are built around tight turns and precision drifting. But hey, that’s what Dirt 5 insists upon: at any time there may be up to 12 cars on the course, turning things into a frenetic pinball match rather than a skill-based affair.
Back to multiplayer: it’s also completely, utterly random. No choosing the course, let alone the type of race, car class, or heck even the make of car. You just log on, hit “find match”, and cross your fingers for something good. It’s a baffling and lazy design choice. It’s also alienating: I struggle to find reasons to hop online when I know I’m only ever one RNG away from another god-awful dune buggy affair.
MONSTROUS ENERGY TO THE MAX
It’s not hard to guess the demographic Dirt 5 is aiming for. The loud visuals, the mediocre soundtrack (hey kids, remember The Prodigy?), the frat boy voiceovers, the dune buggies, the fact that you can actually spend in-game currency to stick a Monster Energy decal on the side of your virtual car. The game feels like it was designed by a college dorm, and it’s easy enough to imagine it sitting on a shelf next to a Fight Club DVD and a stack of Solo cups.
Clearly, I do not fall in that demographic, but it’s telling that my good friend Matt doesn’t either. Matt is the kind of guy who spends his California vacations in a rented Subaru Impreza, taking not the side road nor the scenic route, but the off-road with the hairpin turns and the worn-down guardrails. He’s the kind of guy who can pick up Dirt 5 and immediately tell that the physics are “off”. He’s convinced that the Fast and the Furious franchise ended after the third entry, and can’t understand when people keep making reference to Dwayne Johnson. Most importantly, he’s the kind of guy who played the heck out of Dirt 4, but probably will not be coming back for much more of 5.
It’s a shame that in the wake of such a brilliant and, yes, accessible Dirt 4, the next-gen entry should land with such a taurine-laced thud.*
*Note: Poochie died on the way back to his home planet.
Final score: 5/10 Red Bull hangovers.
Visit the official page for Dirt 5 here.