If I’m ever asked what my favorite current-gen racing franchise is, I never have to think about the answer. It’s Codemasters’ DiRT series, hands down. Every installment has delivered incredible production values and racing that deftly toes the line between accessibility and depth. The variety of gameplay is always impressive, on top of that. So when I say that DiRT Showdown is my least favorite game in the series, I still think it’s way better than most racers out there.
DiRT Showdown, like its predecessors, doesn’t cut a single corner in its audio/visual presentation. This is a damn fine-looking racing game. It doesn’t look as good as DiRT 2 or DiRT 3, but not for the reason you’d think. Engine-wise, it’s pretty much identical. However, it’s all in the nature of the beast: Showdown features none of the natural beauty that its older brothers were so thorough in capturing. This is largely an arena-based driving game in which most of the tracks are completely man-made. It’s not bad, but it’s a far cry from snowy mountain passes and desert sprints. There’s more pyrotechnics in this game, and those are always welcome, as long as they are as well done as they are here. This game seems to hype its own destruction up quite a bit, and it unfortunately doesn’t really deliver. DiRT 2 and DiRT 3 served up the most spectacular crashes in any game that doesn’t have the word “Burnout” in its title, and I was expecting more here. Cars take quite a beating and rarely flip or even fall apart. All told though, everything looks really good.
Sound is also top of the line the whole way through. Cars sound nice and angry, and collisions sound nasty. The announcer isn’t annoying, though he is a bit overenthusiastic. But that’s okay. He’s not DJ Atomika, and that makes me happy. Codemasters sure loves them some dubstep, and there are some really good choices in here, the best of them being from English duo Nero.
DiRT Showdown takes the franchise in a new direction, one that DiRT 3 strongly hinted at. Much of the core game has been cut out in favor of this new direction. Were you hoping for more rally, trailblazer, rallycross, and other well-known offroad game types? If so, this might not be the game for you. DiRT Showdown seems to fancy itself a party game along the lines of Destruction Derby. The ideas are good, and the execution is largely solid. But longtime players will notice that it largely jettisons what the franchise does best.
So there’s no rally racing or anything of the sort — what makes DiRT Showdown interesting? Well, it’s got a tremendously diverse set of events to take part in. And very few of them settle into the format you might expect from a DiRT game, or any other Codemasters racing game for that matter.
Demolition events have a strong focus on destruction and physical competition. 8-Ball is one of the more interesting events; it’s a closed circuit race that features several perpendicular track junctions. Once you pass it the first time, you’ll swing around to cut across it. This is incredibly dangerous; drivers who are far enough ahead will encounter drivers making the first crossing. 8-Ball is often anyone’s game, as several of the collisions that occur are difficult to recover from. Rampage is a straight-up demolition derby. Knock Out is a bit more interesting: it starts as all the cars leap up onto an elevated platform. The object of the game is to force your opponents off of the platform while staying on the platform yourself.
Hoonigan events take the Gymkhana additions from DiRT 3 to a new level. Trick Rush sets drivers on an open course to trick around as they please. The one with the highest score at the end wins. Head 2 Head is more of a Gymkhana race; each driver must complete the course while completing the assigned tricks in order.
There are two Race events: Race Off and Domination. Race Off is a traditional closed circuit race, while Domination splits each course into sectors. Whoever holds the best time for most of the sectors wins.
Last but not least are the Party events. The objective of Smash and Grab is to grab the loot and hold on to it for as long as you can without being hit by another car. Whoever hits the loot carrier steals the loot. Transporter is similar, but decidedly more of a Capture the Flag type of game. Speed Skirmish lays a number of checkpoints out onto the course and doesn’t put them in any particular order. The first to collect all checkpoints and reach the goal wins. And then he/she can troll racers who have yet to finish. Fun.
DiRT Showdown’s main single player component is Showdown Tour, four sets of varying events that increase in difficulty as your progress. You earn cash for performing well, which you can then spend on purchasing and upgrading vehicles. It’s a tried and true template that still works very well with the racing genre. There are also a few exclusive game types in this mode. The most notable of these is Hard Target and Smash Hunter. Hard Target gives you a full health bar and looses a legion of vehicles on you. Stay alive. Smash Hunter lays a bunch of colored barriers on an open track. You must smash a certain number of the right color to succeed.
Joyride is an interesting throwback to the days when Tony Hawk games were actually good. You are set loose in a somewhat open environment to do what you want. However, that’s not to say this mode has no guidance whatsoever. There are tasks to complete and items to discover. If you liked hunting gaps in the earlier Tony Hawk games, you’ll be pleased to know that DiRT Showdown offers its own variant on that. Of course, you’re in a car this time around, so the game can’t be as demanding.
Multiplayer is probably where you’ll be spending most of your time. You can play over Xbox Live or locally, but if you sign up for RaceNet, you’ll be able to participate in special events. Multiplayer can consist of whatever you want it to; you can enter solo and team playlists that feature all or one of the game types. It’s a flexible model that will keep you coming back to net more fans and cash.
DiRT Showdown can be challenging, but sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether that’s because the computer is just that skilled or because the game is iffy about detecting certain things. For example, during a Knock Off event, I plowed my car into a tightly-packed group of vehicles. This action knocked at least three of them off the platform, but I was only given credit for one of them. Apparently, the game decided to give credit to the car that literally slammed into it as the result of my ram. I’m sure that’s hard to gauge, but it’s still kind of a bummer.
Most of the events offer a good traditional challenge. Sometimes it might feel as if most of your opponents aren’t really trying too hard, but it’s usually the case that you’ll have at least one of them hot on your tail. And frankly, most of these events have the element of chaos. You’re never too safe either way.
DiRT Showdown has the tried and true racing mechanics of the last three games in the series. Even if it’s not wholly realistic, the fact remains: driving just feels right. Cars are weighty and powerful; T-boning an opponent at full speed is almost as satisfying as making that perfect drift around a corner (or under a truck bed). The game gives you just the right amount of control over your vehicle, enough to the point where you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself and your opponents for your snafus.
There is a new mechanic for Showdown, and it’s in keeping from the series’ departure from its roots. I’m talking about boosting. You don’t earn boost by doing anything particularly impressive (like in Burnout). It recharges slowly on its own; the only thing you need to worry about is where and when to use your boost. It can be all the difference when you’re trying to cut a corner or spin an opponent into facing the wrong way.
Like in DiRT 3, Codemasters is trying their utmost to stay with the times: you can save video clips and upload them to YouTube. It’s a neat idea, but only time will tell if we’ll see any insanity on the popular video sharing site.
So no, DiRT Showdown is no substitute for a proper DiRT 4. That being said, it has established its own place in the racing genre; open-minded fans of the series would do well to give it a chance.