Given the affection PlayStation fans still have for Destruction Derby, it’s surprising no one’s attempted to recreate the smash-heavy vehicular formula on PS3. It may be late to the party, but DiRT Showdown is exactly that: a game that can’t be pitched without referencing Psygnosis’ 1995 hit, like its inspiration it’s hard to put down once you pick it up.
It’s clear that developer Codemasters has been compelled to explore Ken Block culture since the release of Colin McRae: DiRT 2. After facing a backlash from hardcore rally fans, however, the developer toned down the in-your-face Americanisation for last year’s DiRT 3, despite the introduction of radical new game modes such as Gymkhana.
DiRT Showdown – pitched as an “arcade spin-off” to the mainline series – is Codemaster's attempt at turning up the volume without irritating its faithful fans. Firework displays, strobe lights and thundering basslines underline the game’s presentation style, which has a hint of MotorStorm’s trendy festival feel to it. We took on the game's Destruction Derby mode, and it’s as gratuitous and satisfying as you might expect.
Starting on a podium – set against the backdrop of a late night Battersea Power Station in our demo – you must ram your opponents off the elevated stage to earn points and cause as much damage as possible. The handling has been tweaked to give cars a more accessible arcade flavour, though vehicles are still noticeably heavy, making collisions wonderfully intense. A new boost mechanic underlines the game’s arcade leanings, and encourages you to slam into other vehicles at high-speed. Competing on the podium is a balancing act though, as you attempt to muster enough acceleration to damage cars without throwing yourself off the platform too.
By design, the stage is extremely small, making bouts claustrophobic and tense. Excellent damage modelling means you can pick out a weary target without even examining its dwindling life-bar, but the AI is no pushover and can be extremely challenging to overcome.
Playing in split-screen prompts a long-forgotten sense of camaraderie, and ensures a brilliantly vocal experience. Wrecking a car with seconds left on the clock is a fist-pumping experience, and it’s easy to imagine Showdown resurrecting old emotions that have been buried since the original Destruction Derby.
The game copes with the split-screen format incredibly well too. DiRT Showdown is a visually dense title, with numerous eye-catching lighting effects adding to the party atmosphere. Should you get knocked off the aforementioned podium, you’ll need to haul your vehicle back on by leaping off a ramp, triggering pyrotechnics to fire all around the stage. It’s fantasy stuff, but it looks amazing, and apart from a few minor frame dips in our unoptimised demo it seems to run smoothly.
We approached DiRT Showdown with some scepticism, but departed with a perma-smile plastered across our face. The raucous nature of previous releases may have rubbed some the wrong way but, removed from the traditional rallying, it feels well suited here. Codemasters has made a smart choice by spinning the franchise off, allowing the festival nature of previous games to exist, while letting the mainline series stick to the hardcore rallying it was originally conceived for.
You’ll be able to take the title for a dizzying run yourself when it releases on PS3 in late May.