DiRT Showdown Review
Posted by Sammy Barker
You get the feeling Codemasters has wanted to make DiRT Showdown for a while. Freed from the shackles of the mainline series, Showdown takes DiRT’s semi-reserved personality and steers into a head-on collision with Ken Block culture. With less subtlety than a shocking pink livery, this is a raucous, gnarly and, at times, downright exhausting racing experience, but it’s also host to a wealth of mindless entertainment.
Given the longevity of Destruction Derby’s appeal, it’s somewhat baffling that the Sony published series has remained dormant since the early PS2 days. But DiRT Showdown is, in all but name at least, the series’ long awaited PS3 successor. Shunning the precision rallies of previous entries, it's a chaotic affair, encouraging a crash-heavy mindset and serving up lashings of twisted metal in the process.
It won’t be entirely foreign to fans of the series. Codemasters has been engaged in a tug-of-war with its loyal following for years, controversially trying to break away from the sophistication of classic Colin McRae titles in favour of the extreme sports formula that’s been gaining traction in recent years.
As such, it’s no surprise to see DiRT 3’s Gymkhana events repurposed here, alongside a slew of other game types and objectives that otherwise wouldn’t fit in a traditional rally title. This is a different type of DiRT experience, and while it shares its stablemate's penchant for high quality presentation and slick game design, it’s unlikely to appeal to hardcore followers of the franchise.
But while that's arguably the title’s main caveat, it’s also its underlying brilliance. The safety of a non-numbered spin-off gives the developer ample opportunity to explore the rock-and-roll racing experience that it’s so clearly inspired by, while also providing extra time to ensure the inevitable DiRT 4 is as focused as fans demand. Furthermore, it offers those traditionally put off by the razor precision of previous entries the chance to find out what all the fuss is about, because DiRT Showdown is a fairly accessible game.
The handling model is evidently based upon previous Codemasters racers, but it feels much more forgiving. Cars are still heavy, but now turn with greater precision. It feels tamed, and tuned towards the requirements of less experienced players.
That’s not to say you’ll stick to the track with minimum effort – this is not ModNation Racers. Vehicles tumble and roll in a manner that’s befitting of real-world physics, and while it’s less likely you’ll end up tail-spinning into a ditch the moment you approach a hair-pin bend, there’s still enough depth beneath the hood to offer a rewarding racing experience.
Arguably the biggest tweak outside of the handling model is the introduction of boost. It works similarly to other arcade racers, with a limited tank restricting your usage to straights and corners. Smashing into other vehicles replenishes your turbo, giving you a good incentive to shunt your adversaries rather than opt for respectful clean passes.
The game is eager to get the most out of every crash too. There are standard race modes littered throughout the single-player and online campaigns, of course, but these are Showdown’s less interesting options. Much more notable are its 8-Ball Races, destructive circuits designed around dangerous overlapping junctions and hazardous chokepoints.
Showdown’s overarching emphasis on destruction can leave some of its modes to chance. You’ll never feel like your skills particularly improve in destruction derby, sapping it of the obsessive skill building appeal present in other racers. This also reduces the importance of Challenges, Showdown’s rather transparent response to the popularity of Autolog. But, while its appeal is limited, there’s more than enough novelty in Showdown’s offering to keep you engaged in the short-term.
It’s a game that’s perhaps best enjoyed in bite-sized chunks rather than leg-numbing sessions, and Codemasters seems to recognise that, replacing the epic tours of previous titles with shorter circuits and rapid events.
The single-player campaign – or Showdown Tour as it’s dubbed in-game – is masterfully paced, introducing new activities and tracks at an almost constant rate. It’s so well conceived, in fact, that it actually manages to disguise how little content there is hiding beneath Showdown’s muddied hood.
Indeed, the game is a bit disappointing when it comes to track and vehicle selection. Obviously the crash-heavy focus of the game has limited the number of on-disc licensed cars, with some pretty cool custom designs instead, but it’s the real lack of tracks that hurts. Stints in Baja, Tokyo and Los Angeles are enjoyable, but the limited number of routes, in addition to the sheer amount of recycled material, gives Showdown a bit of a budget feel despite its glossy presentation.
Thankfully, the game makes up for its cautious collection of tracks with an outstanding roster of gameplay disciplines. Smash Hunter sees you coursing through a pre-defined route of coloured blocks, while Trick Rush finds you boosting between trick objectives against the clock.
And then, of course, there’s destruction derby. The game divides its crash-heavy disciplines between two primary modes: Knock Out and Rampage. The latter is perhaps the more intriguing of the two, rewarding you for pushing vehicles off a raised podium at the centre of a walled-in arena. Here, the game’s boost button really comes into its own, as you ruthlessly charge into cars ominously poised towards the edge of the platform, hoping to make a connection and knock them onto the ground below. It feels heavy and chunky, and while the alternative Rampage mode – which sees you competing in less extravagant arenas – is similarly enjoyable, there’s a much more fantastical appeal to Knock Out which (ahem) elevates it above the game’s other activities.
Rounding out the single-player experience is DiRT 3’s Joyride, a sandbox mode packed with trick quests and tokens to collect. The industrial setting of Battersea Powerhouse returns, joined by the more claustrophobic and arguably less interesting backdrop of Yokohama.
Both environments offer a more laidback approach to the action, allowing you to drift beneath trucks and slide on container rooftops at your leisure. There’s no pressure to do anything at all really, and while the game does a good job of highlighting objectives on the screen, the real value of Joyride is the ability to experiment with your vehicles in a more relaxed setting.
But as enjoyable as the game is alone, it really comes into its element online. The net-code is flawless, allowing you to join a lobby within minutes and engage in a never-ending stream of rotating events. Different playlists are available in order to allow you to filter the action, but joining the appropriately titled “Everything” option really accentuates Showdown’s impressive variety. Multiplayer exclusive modes such as Transporter – a cheeky reimagining of capture the flag – and Smash & Grab – a hectic take on Oddball – serve up competitive experiences that are relatively unique for a racer, and enjoyable in both team and solo variants.
Showdown is a game that’s designed to be played with others, and whether you decide to do that in split-screen or online, Codemasters has put considerable resources into ensuring the experience is as slick as possible.
Underlining that is the outstanding visual presentation. It’s a testament to the quality of Codemasters’ EGO engine that it continues to impress even this late into the generation, and while Showdown does suffer from the odd frame-rate flicker from time to time, it’s an easy thing to forgive given the sheer amount of activity occurring on screen.
There’s a strong party atmosphere to Showdown’s appearance that’s reminiscent of MotorStorm’s distinctive festival feel. Baja, for example, has the overflow of a carnival loitering on the horizon, while the late night lights of Tokyo twinkle as you drift around its neon city streets.
The great visual presentation is accompanied by a well selected soundtrack, too. Sure, the guitar heavy music won’t immediately appeal to everyone, but it’s befitting of the game’s boisterous tone, and we guarantee it’ll grow on you within a couple of races.
Less likeable are the stocky chops of commentator Christian Stevenson, who somehow manages to take the Americanisation a step too far. His moment-to-moment assault on the English language is enough to make Dude Ranch-era Blink-182 cringe, and worse still, there’s no way to mute his abhorrent nonsense at all.
DiRT purists will feel put off by Showdown’s unruly sense of style, but Codemasters is clearly coveting a different audience with its latest jaunt on the race track. Slick multiplayer and an outstanding roster of activities make for an enjoyable ride, even if it is a predominantly exhausting one.