The rally racing series takes an arcade-sim turn in its next-gen debut. It's not the most impressive thing, but we've been playing it on Xbox Series X.
Dirt 5 isn't the rally racing sim you may know from the series' past; no more listening closely for your co-driver's callouts for upcoming turns or carefully whipping your rally car around in nature's dirt tracks by your lonesome. With Dirt 5, the simulation aspect has taken a backseat in what feels more like a Forza Horizon (without the open world). It's adopted an attitude in its presentation and gameplay style, and through all its flourishes and changes to become a more approachable style of rally racing game, the early hours have been a fun ride, though fairly basic.
I've been able to put a few hours into a preview build of Dirt 5 through Xbox's Insider Hub as I continue to also preview the Xbox Series X--this is one of the first actual next-gen games we've had access to in order to put the console to the test. So far, I've cleared what shakes out to be about a quarter of the career mode and while there's certainly more to experience as the game continues to open up, it's been fairly standard fare even if this entry represents the Dirt series breaking out of its shell.
Career Mode And Playground
A decent variety of race types fills out Dirt 5's arcade-sim offering, such as the Ultracross with speedier cars and Land Rush with hulking off-road vehicles, both of which are circuit-based races against other drivers. But you'll also take part in the more off-beat competitive races like Icebreaker, which has you slipping and sliding across icy tracks as you control your drift to take first place--or Sprint, which is another drift-focused race with tiny single-gear vehicles on a small circular dirt track. Dirt 5 also includes Gymkhana, which is all about style as you showboat in a makeshift arena to flex your drifting, donut-making, and precision driving skills to earn points.
All these modes, and a few others, make up the career path, which branches at certain points so you can choose which race types you want to focus on in order to progress, in case you're averse to a particular racing style (I'm always gonna pass on Sprint, but that's just me). Folks who keep up with the real automotive world may also recognize Donut Media, who do an in-game podcast that narrates the events as you progress through the Career mode. There's supposed to be some drama between your mentor AJ (voiced by Troy Baker) and your rival Bruno (voiced by Nolan North), but at this point in the career, this story element hasn't really surfaced much yet.
A feature that can help Dirt 5 sustain long-term interest is Playground mode, a track creator system that gives you the tools to wild out by making your own arenas for the more outlandish styles of play. Although I've only dabbled in it, Playground offers what seems to be a toolset that's intuitive to use, akin to creating your own skatepark in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. I'm still trying to get a handle of racking up points in Gymkhana, but having user-created courses could be what elevates the mode and offers something more than crossing finish lines.
One thing to note is that this is a preview build and driver AI has not been properly tweaked yet. In the gameplay video above, I was able to take first place in each race fairly easily with difficulty set to very hard, but we expect that to be tuned properly by the time it launches.
Xbox Series X Revving Its Engine
You're probably wondering specifically about how the game looks and runs on the Xbox Series X, and I would say Dirt 5 isn't going to blow you away. That doesn't mean it's not using next-gen power to enhance the experience--this is a Series X-specific game after all.
Like many other Xbox One X-enhanced games, Dirt 5 offers a few options in its settings menu. Three enhancement modes are available for the Xbox Series X: Image Quality, Frame Rate, and 120Hz Mode. Setting the game to Image Quality mode prioritizes visuals and appears to be able to hit 60 FPS most of the time. However, there were some frame drops when dirt, snow, and other particle effects kicked up on screen alongside multiple other drivers. Frame Rate mode, of course, brings down visual quality to hit higher FPS more consistently. If you have a 120Hz display properly set up, you'll have the option for 120Hz mode--you'll take a bigger hit to graphical detail, but this is what you'll want to choose if you want to take advantage of next-gen's 120 FPS capabilities for Dirt 5. Note that if your display does not have variable refresh rate (VRR) or Freesync, you may experience screen tearing.
Overall, I wouldn't say Dirt 5 is a graphical powerhouse with either enhancement option. Some tracks look impressive when heavy weather starts to kick in, like the snowstorm that sometimes hits the Norway track or the New York ice drifting circuit, all while maintaining a high frame rate. And it is nice to have the game running 4K without having to limit itself to 30 FPS, and also see a console that can use a higher refresh rate and go beyond 60 FPS. But don't expect Dirt 5 to be the next-gen showcase with its somewhat simple aesthetic and track design.
As a long-time racing game fan and former amateur racer, I'm likely to enjoy a game where I can collect cars, deck out their livery, and build reputation and earn money through a decent single-player campaign. And if I can get sideways in a Subaru WRX, I'll take it. However, there's still more I want to see from Dirt 5, including a ramp-up in stakes through the Career mode, what multiplayer feels like when that's live, and what the community can come up with in Playground. So far, the structure and challenge of the game has felt rather basic.
Dirt 5 may also not be the most impressive thing to come out of the gate to flex next-gen console power, though I do think it's a good example of how 120 FPS can improve the gaming experience (for the few who will take advantage of it), and that 4K 60 FPS is attainable.