If there’s a genre that should benefit particularly well from the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller, it’s racing games. It’s one of the many reasons why the prospect of Gran Turismo 7 has got so many series fans salivating – I mean, the stunning graphics from its reveal also helped – but there could be a little while to wait before we get to play Polyphony Digital’s next sim racer.
In the meantime, and for the launch of the new generation, we have WRC 9 and DIRT 5, a pair of strongly contrasting racing games that show just how much DualSense haptic feedback and adaptive triggers can add to the racing genre. While both games focus on off-road and mixed terrain racing, one’s aiming to be a rally racing sim, while the other is all about over the top arcade action, and that’s led to two very different approaches.
WRC 9 lives up to its sim rallying aspirations, giving us a pretty straight forward interpretation. The right trigger, your accelerator, is kept loose, but as you pull it back and your rally car rockets forward, you’ll immediately notice the little clicks and nudges it gives to your finger as gears shift up. The brakes, meanwhile, are kept almost as loose, but add tension and resistance as you reach the bottom of the left trigger’s travel, mimicking some of the feel of a real brake pedal or a loadcell in a high-end racing wheel set up. Its one other bit of information to impart is when you’re slipping to a halt, angrily clicking at your finger and making a bit of a racket as the game tells you off.
The rest of the feedback is reserved for a combination of the haptics rumble and the built-in speaker of the DualSense. You could immediately tell the difference between different surfaces if you needed to, but there’s a great variation from the smooth asphalt’s non-existent feedback, to light gravel giving a steady thrumming buzz as you drive over it, and then heavy gravel where there’s jagged, violent and unpredictable rumble from the haptics. You can add to that the sound of stones kicking up and bouncing off the car’s floor, the sounds conveniently coming from the controller held below your head.
Of course, that’s if you’re managing to stay on the incredibly twisty and narrow of the technical rally stages found throughout this game. Dip some tyres into the rough and you’ll feel it fed through that side of the controller… most of the time. There’s some inconsistency here, where I’d expect cutting a corner to rumble my controller harder and finding it remaining absolutely consistent with the rest of the road. Obviously, smashing into a wall or something similarly definitive never failed to get some angry buzzing, and I was delighted when my right trigger suddenly became heavy to indicate engine damage, but KT Racing could work to fine tune the feedback the game is outputting further. No mean feat for a cross-gen game that’s building off a lot of iterative content, as WRC 9 is.
By contrast, Dirt 5’s approach is more surprising. As soon as you start playing, you notice that Codemasters Chesire have ratcheted up the tension of the right trigger, your accelerator, while leaving the left trigger completely loose. It’s surprising and initially jarring to say the least, and the polar opposite of realism, but it allows Codemasters to use the triggers for more feedback alongside the vibration of the controller’s grips.
As you’re racing, bouncing around on track, jostling for postition, there’s obviously variation in the vibration you’re getting through the haptic motors, but the triggers also shift and alter their tension. Braking heavily while turning will have the left trigger do its angry clicking wiggle back at you, but the same effect is also used for other big impacts, like landing from a jump. Both triggers are alive as they try to add to the immersion of the game’s action.
Yet, that’s not really what I’d want from a racing game in terms of actual feedback. Dirt 5’s all about big arcade action, and that can be a lot of fun to have piped through the controller, but analyse it a little deeper and it feels like there’s a lack of finesse here, on a similar level to the four point assault on your tactile senses that the Xbox controller offers in this game.
The DualSense can do more than this. The haptic motors in particular are merely on or off, failing to really communicate a difference between surfaces or an intense additional impact, when the DualSense can modulate the motor strength as shown in WRC 9. The best trick Dirt 5 pulls in terms of communicating what the car is doing is in releasing that accelerator tension when the rear steps out for a drift. It’s a great effect and a kind of feedback that can really inform you about how to control the car.
For a long time now it’s felt almost mandatory for those who want to step into the world of sim racing to pick up a decent racing wheel to enhance the force feedback and their understanding what their car is doing in-game, and that’s certain to remain the case through the next generation. However, there’s a chance that the DualSense can help narrow that gap, to give you a better understanding through the triggers of when your tyres have grip and when they don’t, just as a racing wheel’s force feedback can.
WRC 9’s more realistic interpretation of what the DualSense as a whole can simulate feels the more essential experience of the two, but Dirt 5 still feels more vibrant and lively than on DualShock 4. They’re fascinating first attempts though, and I can’t wait for a racing game to fully realise the DualSense’s potential.