Dirt Showdown review: Not perfect, but plenty of bang for your buck
24th May 2012 | 09:00
Let's get something clear: this is not Dirt 4. Dirt 4 is coming - Codemasters have said as much to our faces - but this is not it. So that rather begs the question: what exactly is Dirt: Showdown?
Well, it's no Dirt 3.5 either. Instead, Showdown is the fix to a racing series that's become conflicted in recent years. Should Dirt stay true to its rally sim roots, or embrace the garish redneck excess which brought it so much commercial success with Dirt 2 and 3? By splitting their flagship series into two, Codemasters have enabled it to do both. So while Dirt 4 will concentrate on recapturing the pure rallying of the Colin McRae days, this off-road off-shoot gives Dirt's louder side a home.
It's going to prove an inspired decision for fans of either persuasion. Freed from the shackles of its simulation heritage, Showdown is a game liberated - free to drape itself in neon like a chavvy peacock and revel in obnoxiousness. And boy does it revel. If there's a jump that can't be celebrated by a plume of fireworks, Showdown won't attempt it.
If there's a collision that can't be soundtracked by an announcer screaming 'perpendicular awesomeness!', then Showdown will leave it on the cutting room floor. Even the palpitating menu screen had us scrambling for the vomit bag. It's the loudest, brightest, most in-your-face racer we've played in some time, and the on-track action matches the presentation.
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There's no room for anything as genteel as rallying on Showdown's itinerary. Each of the four initial championships are comprised of rugged off-road activities. These range from straight forward races to demolition derbies to stunt-based high-score challenges. The latter brings to mind the Gymkhana events from Dirt 3 and, as you'd expect, the renewed focus means Codemasters have the breathing space to properly expand the formula.
Racing against the clock is a recurring theme in the various Gymkhana challenges, but the similarities end there. While the 'Hoonigan' stages ask you to throw yourself around a tightly-constructed obstacle course, Trick Rush turns the tables by opening up an entire playground and asking you to find your own route to high-score nirvana. The final mode, Smash Attack, marries freedom with precision. Here, you have to knock down multiple-coloured barriers in groups of five, but while there's room for improvisation, only a perfect run across the optimal route will see you trouble the business end of the leaderboards.
While the generous progression system means you're unlikely to hit an impasse, it can be tough to nail first place in the Gymkhana-themed stages, and that's largely attributable to the typically 'heavy' Codemasters steering. For us the cars feel too weighty to enjoy performing nimble car gymnastics in, but fortunately the burly handling is far more coherent during race sessions.
On race days, collisions aren't so much something to be avoided as they are a way of life - particularly in the superbly chaotic '8-Ball' sessions, where the tracks loop back on themselves meaning that a colossal crash is rarely far away. Through sheer dint of mayhem the races are entertaining and competitive right to the finish, although the number of unforced errors that are programmed into the CPU drivers serves as an unwritten confession from the designers that, yes, all that paint-trading does give the races a somewhat random quality.
A health bar coerces you into racing clean, but Dirt's best asset is plainly the meaty, satisfying crunch of car-on-car, so why race against the tide? As such, the greatest part of Showdown's package are the arena-based demolition derby events, where there's literally nothing on the menu but crashes. Points double during the last 25 seconds of play, so there's a tremendous sense of escalation, with the entire field skulking around for the winning shunt right up until the whistle.
Variety of content has always been the Dirt series' calling card, and this remains so despite Dirt: Showdown's narrower field of focus. This carries over into multiplayer too. RaceNet - Codemasters' equivalent to rival game hubs such as EA's Autolog - makes its debut in Dirt: Showdown and will be compatible with all future Codemasters racing games to come. It's free, optional and offers structure and continuity to a game which otherwise would rapidly lose its online lustre. Although, for obvious reasons, we were only able to test out a pre-release version of the game, the idea is that RaceNet will offer fresh challenges every week, with in-game and real-world prizes up for grabs. Events which revolve around score-chasing, such as Marked Man and Hoonigan, are natural fits for the service.
In theory, Dirt: Showdown makes for a tremendous online experience - Demolition Derbies should be spectacular - but we wonder how well the 'crash, bang, wallop' nature of the races will translate once it's let loose on the wilds of Xbox Live and SEN. It's just an educated guess on our part, but we reckon races will inevitably be populated by bad eggs who are more interested in watching the world burn than racing fairly. Stick to private games with your friends however, and this will be an online experience to cherish.
Ultimately, this adrenaline-drenched racer truly has something for everyone - except, perhaps, rallying fans. But even they, soon enough, will be grateful for Dirt: Showdown's showboating.