While Codemasters have promised Dirt 4 is on its way for the rally enthusiasts out there, the publisher has also attempted to offer something different. A more circus-style racer complete with crumpling metal, giant leaps and plenty of crashes. So many crashes. Showdown may not feel as accomplished as previous Dirt titles, but it is definitely a promising start for what could end up being a companion piece to the main series in the future.
As soon as you’re introduced to the main menu the game makes a loud statement with falling blocks landing heavily in front of you every time you make a selection. It’s over the top, it’s obnoxious but you can’t deny its ever so stylish featuring the same eye-pleasing aesthetic and smooth transitions we’ve come to expect from the developer. We’re off to a good start.
Handling has been simplified for Showdown from Dirt 3 with cars moving nimbly and easily while your brake acts as more of a last resort rather than a necessity to get by. A health bar informs you of the state of your car while boost can be used to give you that extra oomph to steal a position or batter an unsuspecting driver that might as well have a giant bull’s-eye on them. The game feels easily accessible which can prove both a strength and weakness. While this may be a big plus for those looking for something simple to get into, the simplicity can start to rub away the thrill after repeated plays on each event type. However you can’t quite beat the feeling you get when successfully landing a charge on another car effectively destroying them.
The game’s career mode is split into four increasingly difficult tiers, each containing a handful of different events and some even with multiple heats. The way you progress through the career is very linear with completing stages in turn unlocking the next one along until you reach a final. Beat this and it’s on to the next tier where faster cars and tougher opponents await. The layout as you can imagine doesn’t give you much freedom and results in pretty much every race needing to be completed in order to move on. Should you hate a particular type of event then tough. It needs to be done in order to move on. Overall the layout of the career feels uninspired and doesn’t leave much room for surprise as you go along making things a tad predictable.
Fortunately the events themselves are plenty varied and can be divided into one of three groups each with their own handful of variations. You have the standard racing-style affairs where crashing tends to take a backseat in favour of manoeuvring ahead of the pack for first place. Unfortunately these feel like the weakest of the match types thanks to a mix of frustration and to be quite honest lack of excitement. Due to the fairly limited arcade handling of your car overall it feels pretty much like any standard arcade racer. Nothing really sets it apart especially in tracks that offer little in the way of obstacles. Crossovers, ramps and barrels try to add some assortment and chaos to some races but can ultimately cause the biggest annoyance too. Crossovers for example often result in a helpless gamble as you speed through hoping you aren’t the victim of yet another T-bone smash from an opposing driver. At first it’s good fun, but the number of times I found myself first till the final lap only to be sent spinning out of control courtesy of a slower racer at an intersection grew far too many.
Then you have the Hoonigan stages that feel almost like an assault course for your car where on command you must pull off donuts, jump over gaps, smash through towers of blocks and more against the clock and an opponent. These are great fun offering a decent challenge as your timing and handling of the vehicle will be seriously put to the test. Fortunately five rewinds are also at your disposal should you miss something or careen into a wall.
The final and perhaps most spectacular of the lot are the Destruction events which as expected focus on the smashing and annihilation of other racers. Taking place in small arenas you’re awarded points for ramming your opponents with higher amounts for more brutal take-downs. Totalling your car does not result in elimination but instead simply respawns you allowing you to focus solely on the points. What you have is basically three minutes of metal grinding, bumper bashing chaos which only escalates further when a double point bonus is thrown into the mix in the event’s final moments. Sadly there is no elimination option for Destruction meaning matches aren’t the tense nail-biting affairs they could be. With no punishment for losing all your health, there’s no real feeling of suspense or fear of getting clobbered. The point system is fun and definitely works, however it would have been great to have both choices. A few other variations are included though that for example see you trying to push opponents off a raised platform for bonus points or attempting to keep your motor running as long as possible while waves of cars do all they can to stop you.
Winning events rewards you with cash that can be used to purchase more vehicles (as you unlock them) and also upgrade existing ones. Newer, stronger, faster cars (both licensed and unlicensed) are given to you at a decent pace providing a nice sense of achievement, however the upgrading system itself feels neither particularly deep nor like it has a real meaningful impact on your ride. Boosting the power and defence on one of the game’s earlier cars for example felt like it didn’t really affect it’s performance too much leading me to simply just invest in extra vehicles instead. Likewise for a game that sports unlicensed cars, you’d think a little more visual customisation would be included giving you the chance to construct some completely crazy creations. Sadly cars are limited to simple livery alterations leaving you with little to make your car feel truly yours and giving no real sense of connection with any of the selection on offer.
Also included for good measure is Joyride mode that takes you to one of two industrial playgrounds where you’re free to roam around completing missions or locating hidden packages. Think of it like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater but in a car. It’s a nice change of pace but is near identical to that found in Dirt 3 offering nothing particularly new or exciting.
When you’ve exhausted the single player campaign, there’s plenty to be explored in the game’s multiplayer. Two player split screen makes a welcome appearance (although four player destruction events would have been fantastic) but it’s the online where you’ll have the most fun. All event variations are included and instantly become a lot more fun with human opponents. Smashing your buddy off the edge of the platform in “Sumo” is so much better than a faceless AI opponent. The much talked about Racenet also allows Codemasters to post up challenges for you to tackle along with giving you the ability to beat a friend’s best times or vice versa. There’s plenty to love about online and it’s here where the staying power of Dirt Showdown will ultimately lie.
Visually Showdown impresses with tracks that offer a great amount of detail and cars that are crisp and colourful. It’s not often that environments are as bright and as vivid as these (unless you count Mario Kart) but somehow Codemasters have managed to combine tried and tested locations with fireworks, dazzling lights and slick cars to create a genuinely exciting look and feel. The soundtrack in keeping with the extreme theme of the game features loud, almost garish music between events that while may not be to some tastes feel perfectly suited for the atmosphere in Showdown. The commentary on the other hand just is downright awful. Phrases like “Awesometacular” and “T-Bone-a-licious” just sound ridiculous and result in the game’s most cringe worthy moments. Worst of all is there’s no option to turn this off instead only allowing you to lower the volume. You can switch the music off so why not this guy?
Dirt Showdown is far from perfect, but does manage to deliver some of the most excitingly manic driving moments I’ve experienced in a game in quite some time. Whereas racers like the Forza, Dirt and Gran Turismo series are trying to find the perfect balance of simulation and accessibility, Showdown says screw it, throws you into a pit of roaring motors and commands you take no prisoners. This ride may be missing a few parts, but it’ll still give you a fast, electrifying drive nonetheless.