DiRT 5 review: testing the next-gen on Xbox Series X

Published: 24 February 2021

 DiRT 5 tested on cutting-edge hardware
 It looks great
 But is it fun to play? 

The next-generation of gaming has arrived – for some of us at least. Stock levels allowing, both the Xbox Series X and PS5 promise more processing power than ever – and a step change in how we experience interactive entertainment. Technologies like ray-tracing and faster refresh rates should improve games across the board – but they should be of particular interest to racing fans. 

Best racing games

Smoother, more realistic racing is what we all want – but does the next-generation deliver serious benefits? To find out, I tested DiRT 5 on the Xbox Series X, one of a handful of games already optimized for the new machines. Keep reading for my full review. 

DiRT 5 on Xbox Series X review

If you’re not familiar with the DiRT franchise, we’ll start with a quick history lesson. Once a rallying sim for hardcore racers, in recent years the title has branched out with the  ‘Dirt Rally’ and ‘Dirt’ series. The former remains hardcore, but the latter adds a dash of lifestyle, just like Forza Horizon compared to Forza Motorsport.

That means the UI and general aesthetic of the game looks like an interactive Nandos menu; there’s a podcast/radio show that talks you through the cheesy narrative, and there’s plenty of pumping EDM and colours to keep you awake throughout the menus. It’s an ordeal, if I’m honest.

Still, it’s far harder to be cynical about the car list, which features a great blend of old classics and new cars you’ll want to try out. From the Ariel Nomad Tactical to the Volkswagen Race Touareg 3, DiRT 5 features a surprisingly in-depth garage – which isn’t what you’d expect after booting it up. What’s more, the cars can be customized, if you’re willing to fiddle with paints and decals – though not tuned mechanically. 

The layouts of the tracks to go with them aren’t particularly memorable – it’s hard to have a favourite – but the graphics involved in them and the cars are truly impressive. There are moments that’re obviously next-gen; sunlight shimmering through tree canopies or massive moonlight reflecting on rain water, but there are extra details you only notice later. 

For example, the droplets of rainwater on windscreens look incredibly real, as do minute particles of pyrotechnics that are set off throughout night races. Night races, particularly those in poor weather look jaw-dropping. 

The visuals are backed up by a fun, arcade-style handling engine that means you can easily pick up and play with a pad: I won my first 20-odd races without upgrading to a better car, and many of them were won by a few seconds. Not particularly challenging, but still enjoyable for those that like racing games. 

The difficulty ramps up a little, and after a while you’ll need to start using techniques such as countersteer and handbrake turns to continue to win. And the drifting stages and larger 4x4 cars – in which you have to navigate tricky topography in races – keep things varied content-wise. After a while though, even the graphics aren’t enough to keep you playing. 

However, it’s clear this game caters towards very casual fans; its career system is easy to dip into ­­– but so shallow, it’s hard to enjoy for sustained periods. I found myself skipping the narrative, selecting the next race, winning it and repeating until my eyes began to burn. Not the rewarding experience you get from similarly upbeat titles like Need for Speed. 

Simply put, games like GT Sport, Project Cars 2.0 and Forza Horizon 4 are able to foster a sense of momentum throughout – whereas DiRT 5 gets monotonous pretty quickly. The handling is fine, though can be mastered quickly, but it’s the threadbare narrative that really lets the game down. That’s a shame, because it has the processing prowess and polish for a much more than a visual showcase. 

It's available to buy now and prices vary.

By Curtis Moldrich

CAR's online editor and racing-sim enthusiast