Down and (not so) DiRT-y
Codemasters’ DiRT franchise has always been a strange beast, stuck somewhere in the gulf that separates serious sims from lighter arcade racers. Last year’s model, DiRT 3, blurred that line even further by introducing events focused on the stunt-heavy motorsport Gymkhana and a party mode that offered a host of eclectic, FPS-inspired game modes.
DiRT: Showdown, the latest installment, aims to put an end to that fence-sitting once and for all. In a decidedly bold move, Codemasters has ditched all pretense of simulation in favor of a pure arcade experience with all the standard trimmings. That means a dedicated boost button, a liberal interpretation of the laws of physics, and a much larger emphasis on trading paint with the competition.
Despite Showdown’s radically different approach to racing, the larger structure of the game remains largely unchanged from what we’ve seen in earlier entries. In the main mode, Showdown Tour, you’ll work your way through races, earning medals to unlock new events and cash to help you buy new cars. Die-hard racing fans will probably be a bit disappointed at the selection, which features around two dozen cars—only a handful of which are based on real-life vehicles. In addition, tuning options have been axed, leaving you with only three basic stats to upgrade on each vehicle.
Showdown’s other big shift is a diminished focus on standard, Point A–to–Point B races. They only comprise about a third of Showdown Tour, with two other disciplines, Demolition Derby and Gymkhana—inexplicably redubbed “Hoonigan” by Codemasters—making up the bulk of gameplay. Strange though it may sound, that decision is among the game’s smartest, as vanilla races just don’t mesh well with the game’s arcade feel. Handling’s incredibly forgiving, even on the bulkiest of vehicles, which means that you can breeze through most turns without ever having to touch the brakes.
As a result, the only real difficulty in races comes from your AI opponents, who have a nasty habit of sneaking up and nudging you into a spin at the most inopportune moments. At first, it’s a welcome challenge, but as the game goes on and the enemies get more aggressive, the scale gradually tips toward frustrating nuisance.
Thankfully, the other disciplines fit much more comfortably into Showdown’s new style. The three Hoonigan events are variations on DiRT 3’s similar offerings, requiring you to smash through paths of colored targets, combo together tricks for a high score, or navigate your way through an obstacle course faster than your AI opponent. Though the Hoonigan events are the most technically demanding of the bunch, the controls are precise enough and approachable enough to master with a bit of practice. And if you mess up in a clutch moment, you can take advantage of the helpful Crashback feature, which allows you to rewind time to quickly correct your mistakes.
At the other end of the finesse spectrum sit the Demolition Derby events. These are, predictably enough, all about brute-forcing your opponents into submission. The best of the bunch is easily Knock Out, a six-man vehicular sumo match that’s every bit as insane as it sounds.
Also included is Joyride, a standalone mode that expands on DiRT 3’s practice arena. The Battersea Power Station map returns from the last game, along with a new map set in the Yokohama docks. Each features 75 stunt-based objectives and dozens of hidden packages to find, but the relative simplicity of it all—you’re really only repeating the same six tricks at different places in the map—stops Joyride from being anything more than an occasional diversion.
Far meatier is the game’s splitscreen and online multiplayer component, which includes every event from Showdown Tour with some extras thrown in for good measure. As in single-player, the events that work best are those that ditch racing in favor of less-conventional objectives. In particular, the two Capture the Flag modes, Transporter and Smash and Grab, provide some excellent, hectic fun.
While DiRT 3 caught some flak for skimping on social features, Showdown fares far better on this front. The ability to upload replays directly to YouTube at the press of a button is back, accompanied by a robust new dedicated social network called RaceNet. Much like EA’s Autolog, RaceNet allows you to track your career stats, participate in special events, and stay up to date with what your friends are doing in-game. Codemasters intends to use RaceNet as a central hub for all their future titles; I’m curious to see what features they’ll be adding in the long term, but it’s off to a promising start in Showdown.
In the end, Showdown probably isn’t the sort of game you’d expect to bear the DiRT name. In an attempt to make the franchise more accessible to everyone, Codemasters has all but abandoned the focus on rally racing and technical ability. Longtime franchise fans will likely be disappointed by the departure, but there’s no denying that Showdown succeeds more often than not at what it aims to do. This is a charming, simple arcade racer with enough variety to keep you entertained the whole way through—just don’t expect anything more.
SUMMARY: Showdown probably isn’t the sequel DiRT fans were anticipating, but if you can look past the dramatic shift in tone and the overly aggressive AI, you’ll find plenty of unpretentious arcade fun.
- THE GOOD: Variety of clever game modes to keep things fresh.
- THE BAD: Annoying AI; gameplay that’s too simple for genre diehards.
- THE UGLY: The tragically unhip announcer shouting “epic win!” at the end of a race.
DiRT: Showdown is available on the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was on the Xbox 360.