The DIRT franchise has gone through a lot of change over the years. The second and third entries deviated from the pure rally experience, going big on personality with more varied events. Codemasters pivoted to a more serious rally focus in DIRT 4, but with the DIRT Rally games already catering to the purists, it left the series in an odd position. The solution: pull another U-turn, and bring back the fun factor. We're pleased to say DIRT 5 really benefits from this approach.

Presented like an off-road racing festival, the game has a lot of style. Booting it up, you're introduced to the pair of podcast hosts who accompany you throughout the career, and dropped straight into a race before you see the main menu. It's made immediately clear what the intention is here — this is a return to the more arcadey roots of the series. With colourful, eye-catching presentation, a great licensed soundtrack, and a forgiving handling model, this is the tonal opposite of the previous game in the series.

That handling model, by the way, is wonderful. Though you can tweak driving assists if you like, the default settings deliver super satisfying controls. With all the events taking place on loose or slippery surfaces, drifts are easy to initiate and maintain; you can really throw all the vehicles around without worrying about it impacting the race results too much. There are lots of car classes, and they all handle differently, but the overall feel is fantastic.

You'll get to wrangle all kinds of vehicles in the lengthy career, which can be played in optional split-screen co-op. Divided into chapters, the main mode doles out a series of varied events. In addition to regular off-road circuit races, you'll drive through point-to-point stages, tackle seriously rough terrain, fling a car around a Gymkhana arena, and much more. Some of the event types bleed together a little, but they're consistently fun to play. Mix them up with different vehicle classes, and there's plenty here to keep you going. Fortunately, if there are certain races you're not interested in, the career path is flexible enough that you can ignore them and play the events you enjoy. That being said, the more events you complete, the more money you'll earn and the more cosmetic items you'll unlock. You're constantly rewarded for playing, and it doesn't take too long before you can start buying some more cars to fill out your garage.

As you make your way through the career, podcast-style moments of dialogue help contextualise the action. Alongside notable characters like Troy Baker's AJ and Nolan North's Bruno Durand, these brief conversations provide a sliver of narrative. It's nothing earth-shattering, but it serves to make the game's world that little bit more real.

Elsewhere, you can play time trials and single events in the Arcade mode, and online multiplayer gives you access to races or a suite of party modes to play with others. The likes of Vampire and King add some more casual ways to enjoy the game if you're not feeling up to a regular race.

Then there's Playgrounds, DIRT 5's level editor mode. Here, you can build your own arenas outfitting them for checkpoint time trials, stunt events, and more. It's very easy to put something playable together and, once you've verified it's completable, share it with other players. You can of course browse other user-made content, and given how simple it is to make decent tracks, we're confident it'll populate with worthwhile creations.

So, there's a lot to be getting on with — it's just a shame that loading screens pop up so often. At their worst, they aren't too long, but they're dotted throughout the experience. Preparing an event takes longest, but there are loading screens when you finish a race, when you've spent some time in photo mode, when you customise a vehicle's paint job. Thankfully the game is fun enough that it's worth dealing with.

There are some other technical issues, too. The game's visuals are generally very good — we love the vivid colour palette, and the weather effects are great — but every now and then we noticed some small graphical bugs. Additionally, telling the game to prioritise performance is a double-edged sword. It means the action runs at a smooth 60 frames-per-second, which feels excellent, but it comes at the cost of a noticeable hit to image quality. It's worth mentioning this occurs on a standard PS4; it's likely those with a PS4 Pro won't have the same problem. Again, none of these things are deal-breakers, and we're assured a day one patch will make some last-minute tweaks.

Conclusion

DIRT 5 sees the franchise drift back to an arcadey experience, and it's a great success. Despite some technical issues here and there, this is a rock solid off-road racing game from top to bottom. Brilliant handling, festival-style presentation, and a wide variety of ways to play make this one of 2020's standout racing games. If you've missed the showy style of DIRTs 2 and 3, you're in for a treat.