Considering its Colin McRae Rally origins, the Dirt franchise has come a long way. Last year’s Dirt 3 ramped up the series’ variety and appeal no end by including more extreme sports elements than ever before, most notably with the ballet-on-wheels Gymkhana events. Dirt Showdown, however, represents Dirt’s biggest diversion yet; focused on carnage and destruction as much as drifts and jumps, the game is likely to divide the current audience as much as it does re-conquer it.
Codemasters’ pre-release hype for Showdown has been squarely focused on the game’s destructive elements. Trailers and screenshots have almost exclusively featured cars smashing into one another, body work being dented, torn and ripped apart and displaying the kind of vehicular violence that would be enormously appealing to the red-neck good ol’ boy crowd.
While those elements most certainly feature heavily in Showdown, this is a game that’s about more than just zooming around in beaten up old bangers. The game’s primary single player mode, Showdown Tour, is a patchwork of incredibly varied events that constantly challenge you to adapt your driving style to achieve success. One minute you’ll be competing in the no-holds barred Demolition events, which reward the driver who has dealt most damage with the gold medal, and the next you’ll be racing around a more traditional lap-based rally-cross circuit.
And that’s not the half of it… 8-Ball events see you racing around figure-of-eight tracks that overlap in the middle and cause all kinds of interesting results, Elimination events in which the driver in last place is knocked out at timed intervals, Trick Rush tasks you with showing your style and command over your vehicle in dedicated arenas and one vs. one Gymkhana in which specific tricks must be performed in the fastest time.
Certain tactics are universal across events featuring competitors on the same course. Whether you’re racing or destroying, side swipes, PIT manoeuvres and a general blatant poor-sportsmanship is encouraged. More than that, it’s often required to win. Those of you coming to Showdown off the back of F1 2011, eager for another taste of Codemasters racing action, are going to be in for a shock.
The result is a game that pushes elements that we have traditionally dubbed as ‘arcadey’ to the fore, but this time they’ve been blended with the wonderful physics model and visual mastery that has always accompanied the Dirt series.
Those handling and game play mechanics have been altered slightly to allow them to fit more easily within the confines of this kind of game. A boost button has been added that provides an instant and impressive speed rush. Boost builds up continuously over time and, once you progress to the more difficult events, become a vital tool in your arsenal. AI rubber-banding (catch-up speed) also seems to be in effect, and the handling model has been made more forgiving which makes drifting and cornering that bit easier (and makes Gymkhana events a lot easier).
All of the above probably sounds like sacrilege to those of you dedicated to hardcore rally simulators, but for the purposes of Showdown it works. While it’s understandable that Codemasters would want to use the Dirt name to increase awareness of Showdown, it’s likely that some buyers are going to be disappointed by what they find here. If you liked previous Dirt games you won’t necessarily like this, if you didn’t like past Dirt games you just might.
That being said, I adore previous Dirt games and I’m also a fan of Showdown. So there is an overlap, but the advice for Dirt fans would be to try before you buy.
Where Showdown really thrives through is within the walls of its multiplayer component. Without question Showdown packs one of the most complete, varied and entertaining online environments of any racing game. And that’s not down to fancy car clubs, lobby systems or in-depth leaderboards, it’s because the modes on offer lend themselves brilliantly to playing with and against other real players.
The majority of the single player modes are available in multiplayer, and they’ve been joined by others that only expand and diversify what’s on offer in a meaningful way. All-out carnage modes such as Demolition and Knock-Out (in which you score points for knocking cars from a raised platform) are much more worthwhile against human players than they are when playing solely against the AI. The act of barging other cars around and being rewarded for it is perfect for loud bouts of trash-talking, swearing and rage-quitting.
Similarly, the aggressive nature of Showdown’s race modes and the comparatively chilled-out atmosphere of online trick-based challenges are equally suited to the online realm and offer a welcome (if slight) moment of relaxation.
The real jewels in the crown are the team based modes, though. Four vs. four races score each driver with points that are tallied up at the end of the event, with the highest cumulative team score winning. Demolition events played as a team offer a degree of tactical planning as you try to pick off cars that have left the safety of the pack, provided you can resist the urge to simply fly in with reckless abandon. It’s the variations on capture the flag that illicit the strongest sense of camaraderie, though, as you must work as a team constantly to grab the flag, protect the flag carrier and see it back to base safely.
Combine all of this with the usual Codemasters set of extras, such as in-built YouTube uploading of video clips, friend challenges, car upgrading and leaderboards, and Showdown is one of the most feature packed arcade racers I’ve seen for a long time. A very long time.
It’s not all perfect, however. In single player, Demolition and Knock Out events suffer from awkward scoring systems that often fail to recognise when you’ve hit a player or dumped them out off of the platform – sometimes awarding the points to someone else. The same problem exists in multiplayer, but the fact you’re having a laugh with other players means it’s more easily forgiven. Gymkhana, because of the tweaked handling model, is much easier than before. If you’re a veteran of Dirt 3 then you’re going to breeze through such events with incredible ease which can make them a chore rather than a highlight.
Despite that, Showdown works and is another success for the Codemasters racing team. Think of it as a mix between Dirt and Destruction Derby. If that sounds appealing, then this’ll be right up your exhaust.