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Platform(s): Google Stadia, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Racing
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Codemasters
Release Date: Nov. 6, 2020

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PS4 Review - 'Dirt 5'

by Andreas Salmen on March 2, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

DIRT 5 is a new heart-pounding off-road driving experience set against a sensory backdrop of vibrant visuals, an eclectic soundtrack, and dynamic weather conditions.

Buy Dirt 5

Codemasters has been going strong with its Dirt and Dirt Rally series. Whereas Dirt Rally catered to a simulation-craving audience, Dirt went into an arcade direction with simpler physics and vehicle behavior. Expectations were set for Dirt 5 long before the game appeared on store shelves. Whereas its direct predecessor, Dirt 4, tried a new path with procedurally generated rally tracks, Dirt 5 abruptly turns toward its competition. Dirt 5 takes cues from Forza Horizon to create a racing festival in which you rise in the ranks as a driver through several events and across 10 worldwide locations. While the colorful design and flashy visuals do their part to support the festival vibe, Dirt 5 often feels like a mediocre arcade racer wrapped in AAA production design with little substance to offer once the first few races are in the bag.

I'm a huge fan of the Forza Horizon series, so the prospect of Dirt 5 stepping into the ring and competing with one of my favorite racing games is a great move. Dirt 5's focus is different, though. There's no open world to cruise around in, and the game design is rather traditional, with 75 tracks in 10 locations around the world, including Greece, Nepal and Norway. On paper, that might look like an advantage to show off more diverse climates and environments. That isn't wrong, but like many things in Dirt 5, there is more an illusion of diversity than actual tangible depth. Dirt games were always about the terrain, so the road and weather conditions had to be taken into account and could impact vehicle handling and the approach to driving. Dirt 5 continues in that vein with a versatile approach to weather and road conditions — at least visually.

Every track in the game can be experienced in the rain, snow, sun, or all of them together. During various day and lighting conditions, each track looks visually distinct. The course selection supports that, with many tracks going across different terrains that can change based on the weather; a previously dry road segment may evolve into a mudslide halfway through a race as puddles form and your car gets increasingly dirtier with every lap. It can be somewhat hit-and-miss in terms of visual fidelity, since some weather/day combinations don't work as well as others, but there are moments when the game can look absolutely stunning as well as decidedly mediocre. There is a versatility that I appreciate, and it often made the early races more interesting.

The hope is that Dirt 5 can capitalize on its strong technical foundation and variety with actual gameplay, but that's exactly where the game falls short, starting with the basic career mode. The career mode is a branching tree of interconnected race events that need to be completed to unlock the path forward. Each event earns experience, money, reputation and tokens based on your performance and whether you complete extra objectives. An event podcast in the background introduces some tension and stakes as two hosts discuss your performance and how you stack up against other racers, but overall, it feels like a bare-bones career racing experience. You'll eventually go from race to race, get your prize money, and move on. As you do, you'll unlock new cars and visual upgrades for the vehicles, and since the game is generous in handing out money and rewards, funds were never an issue when I needed to buy a ride for an event.

There are a few more nuances, such as throwdown races against a rival once we've won enough races and generated buzz. A sponsor system can provide extra unlockables and benefits if we satisfy their objectives. No matter what the game throws at you, it feels shallow. Objectives are repeated quite often and aren't demanding; you'll likely complete the extra objectives with a few drifts and overtakes. Sponsor objectives rarely deviate from getting first place or on the podium a certain amount of times, so the sponsorship mechanic feels tacked on and devoid of a meaningful payoff.

Even with unique objectives, impressive weather mechanics, and good-looking visuals, the gameplay experience is rather lean. It doesn't reach the necessary level of engagement and fun to carry the player through the entire game. Starting with the terrain and weather, it often feels like the game only cares about wet roads or dry roads, so you'll either slide or you won't.

The racing experience feels oversimplified to a point that it's at odds with the game design and presentation. It's obvious that the intent was to have Dirt 5 go further into arcade territory, but Codemasters may have oversteered too far into that direction. There is a decent amount of braking, drifting, and sliding to stay on the track, but it seems that whatever you do, it's easy to persevere through even the most difficult track designs unless you make several grave mistakes. The racing enclosures often ensure that you don't go off track in the first place, so it can almost feel like it's on rails — something that doesn't mix with the rally and terrain-heavy presentation.

Dirt 5 also doesn't do the greatest job with track diversity, including many reverse tracks, and different events at the same location often look similar. Of course, there are the usual driving assistance and difficulty settings that can make the experience a tad tougher for those who want it. Even then, the difficulty levels seem heavily weighted toward a more casual experience. There are a few rare exceptions, such as special drift events that I found tough to control and provided something of a challenge. Given the game's branching events tree, it also means that such events can easily be ignored or skipped, so progression isn't affected.

Dirt 5 excels at being a complication-free racing game that you can quickly jump in and out of. Every track can be replayed in time trial and free racing modes, and the adjustable weather and time settings can be fun because they look quite stunning. If you've been through the campaign mode, there is little reason to revisit the tracks unless you're aiming for a time record.

What makes Dirt 5 more interesting is racing with friends. The game has complete local split-screen support (including its campaign), which I have been missing in racing games, and its implementation is solid and runs well enough, even on the PS4.

The online multiplayer is lackluster — mostly due to a lack of players. Dirt 5's release was a few months ago, and that has had a significant effect on the player count. In all of our efforts to race online, we waited for ages to find a match, and when we did, we were often matched with the minimum number of participants instead of a full roster of 12. We gladly would've dabbled more online, but the online matchmaking was inherently frustrating, and that mostly came down to the much-reduced player base on the PS4 since launch. It's a shame since it includes some fun minigames that we're unable to play in other modes.

Another online component still works rather well: Playground mode. In Playground, players create obstacle courses with tokens and track designs that accommodate drifts, jumps, and player skill. If you're not in a creative mood, all tracks can be played by anyone online, including an online leaderboard that features high scores and best times. Some of the created arenas are tough to race and hypnotizing to look at, so they provide some much-needed variety.

Dirt 5 looks impressive on my PS4 Pro, so technically and presentation-wise, I don't have much to clamor about. The game offers two distinct modes: resolution or image quality. Resolution mode is locked to 30fps, while image quality seems to tone down some visual effects and unlocks the frame rate. While it's noticeably smoother, I've seen some cases of screen-tearing and regular fps drops that hampered the experience. Overall, the game looks rather impressive on the previous-gen console, so you're not sacrificing much compared to playing Dirt 5 on a next-gen console. The prospect of getting a free upgrade if you can locate a PS5 is a nice bonus.

Dirt 5 also has remarkable sound design. Different cars and effects sound amazing across the board, from revving an engine to the sound of gravel hitting the underside of the car as you drift around a narrow corner. The soundtrack for licensed songs also deserves a shoutout because the song selection goes incredibly well with the overall presentation. It's a constant barrage of upbeat yet diverse songs to hum along to.

As great as Dirt 5's presentation may be, the gameplay is lacking. It looks and sounds incredible at times, but there isn't too much engaging content here to challenge players to do more and perform better as the driver. That changes if you're primarily racing against friends online or offline, but as a single-player experience, it feels flat once you peek under the flashy hood. It's fun for a few races at a time, and it's easy to jump in, but it's even easier to drop once you've had your fill.

Score: 6.8/10

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