Since the Colin McRae series, Codemasters has been known as one of the masters of the rally racing genre. The near-annual series was heavily anticipated, and the British development house didn't disappoint. Since the series was rebranded to DiRT, however, it has experienced a slow transformation concurrent with the sport's popularity with a younger audience, due in part to the X Games. Rally racing was still the main focus, but, as evidenced in DiRT 3, events like gymkhana were included in the package. This year, Codemasters brings us DiRT Showdown, a side entry to the main series instead of a proper sequel.
At first, DiRT Showdown feels a bit like DiRT 3. The menu looks akin to an X Games broadcast, complete with heavy text graphics that seem to live in the same physical space as the arena. There are quite a few licensed cars, from Subaru Imprezas to Scion tCs. Each one is plastered in logos and heavily modified to look different from the stock consumer models.
The rest of the game moves into unfamiliar territory. Despite the presence of some licensed cars, a majority of the lineup consists of fictional vehicles that are cobbled together from random parts. Cash earned through events can be used to buy new vehicles or upgrade existing ones, though only the original vehicles can be modified. Vehicles also have an energy meter and a boost mechanism that fills up over time, but it fills up much quicker if you bash into cars. Those are some of the basic changes, but more are tucked away in the game.
The Showdown Tour is the crux of the experience. You'll experience all of the race types, which are split up into three different disciplines, each offering at least three modes. There are four legs of the tour to go through, each with at least 13 available events; some events take more than one round to complete. Like most racing titles, progression only occurs if you finish third or better in an event, and doing so opens up cars for purchase as well as new events. While progression is linear, there's a bit of wiggle room, so you can skip an event or two and still make it to the final round.
Of the three disciplines, Racing feels the most comfortable to genre fans, especially since two of the modes have appeared in other racing titles. In Race-Off, you're pitted against seven others in a multilap course, with the winner crossing the finish line first. Elimination is a quicker affair, where a timer counts down, and the person in last place at that point is removed from the race; the process continues until there is only one car remains. Domination puts an interesting twist on standard racing, as the track is split up into four sections, with checkpoints serving as the dividing markers. Points are given depending on how quickly you get through each checkpoint, so your placement can fluctuate depending on the performance of others. The winner is determined by who scores the most points overall, with bonuses being given for final placement in the race.
Unlike standard rally races, a good chunk of the tracks are on asphalt instead of dirt, so it looks like a regular race with beat-up cars instead of finely crafted machines. There are plenty of ramps and obstacles in your way that narrow down the track, so it feels like an imitation of rally racing in less harsh environments. It's a bit jarring, especially if you had standard rally racing in mind when picking up the controller. Even though the physics system from previous DiRT games is still present, it has undergone a few modifications to appease the casual set. Only automatic transmission is selectable, for example, and it's easier to get into and out of the drift. The racing is fine, but those seeking more simulation in their games will come away disappointed.
Hoonigan will feel comfortable to players of DiRT 3 and those who relish Ken Block videos. All three modes put some stock in speed, but it's coupled with showmanship since you're the only one on the track. Trick Rush is a pure gymkhana-style event that has you busting out as many tricks as possible within the time limit. In Smash Hunter, you bust through colored foam brick walls when the specific color is called. Head 2 Head is the only mode that puts you in direct competition with another racer: Ken Block. You have to get through half of an obstacle course and perform the required tricks as quickly as possible while your opponent does the same. The second round has you tackling the other half of the course, with the winner being the one who completed both in the least amount of time overall.
The modified physics system is a boon for this discipline since the learning curve for busting out tricks isn't as high as the previous game. The curve is still in place, though, so don't expect to perform perfectly on your first try. Beyond that, the trick system doesn't have too many moves to master, so you won't have to spend loads of time on it.
Demolition, the mode's final discipline, veers away from what was offered in the past, and it brings a type of racing that's been seen twice this generation in Mayhem and Flatout: Ultimate Carnage. It also has four modes to explore instead of three. The first is 8-Ball, a race with multiple laps that takes place in small arena tracks featuring lots of crossover pieces, increasing the possibility of cars T-boning each other. Rampage takes on the classic destruction derby, with points being awarded for hitting cars and forcing their energy to deplete. Knock Out takes the idea of Rampage and places it on an elevated platform, where bonus points are given for knocking opponents out of the ring. Finally, in Hard Target is a game of survival, as every other car is gunning for you and your leaderboard placement is determined by how long you can survive.
Both 8-Ball and Hard Target are loads of fun because they're dangerous. Anticipating a bad hit and then narrowly escaping it is always exhilarating. For Knock Out and Rampage, the excitement of bashing into other vehicles is dampened by a few things. Neither of these events follows standard rules. Cars that are knocked out simply respawn, so the thrill of escaping death is diminished since losing all of your health is a minor inconvenience instead of the difference between winning and losing. Also, the collision and scoring system can be flaky at times. Hit intensity is very fickle, so something that can be considered a heavy hit one time can be called a light hit later.
In Showdown mode, there aren't too many locales to visit. The tour legs ensure that each is comprised of completely different locations, but each leg goes through the same tracks often. The presentation of the different racing disciplines and modes is a different story, however, as the game presents just about every single mode in the first leg. It becomes a great way to show newcomers all of the different race types, but because everything has already been shown in the first leg of the tour, you don't feel that there's anything new beyond increased difficulty and newer locales.
The upgrade system is a nice touch, but the increments are so small that the vehicles don't seem significantly better until you upgrade all of the stats to the maximum. For most people, they'll feel better purchasing new vehicles before upgrading their existing library. Finally, the aggressive nature of the AI ensures lots of frustrating, controller-throwing moments. There's no hint of rubber band AI to artificially keep races close, and it doesn't necessarily feel like the AI cars are following one racing line, but you will often find them messing with you during the races. Whether it boxes you in or causes you to spin out or forces you to ride its bumper for long stretches, the AI pushes your patience.
In Joyride, players can take any available licensed rally car and do whatever they want in a wide-open area. Should you desire more guidance, you can take on a list of challenges that range from doing donuts around specific poles to taking drifts around corners to jumping off ramps. You'll also get the opportunity to find hidden packages throughout the level if you find some of the challenges too daunting. Both the challenges and package collecting aren't there for busy work, however, as completing a number of each opens up bonus items. This mode is strictly for solo players, so those hoping to see local multiplayer are out of luck. There are only two levels to explore, and while that feels small, it feels like an even smaller selection when you learn that the Battersea level was lifted straight from DiRT 3. It's a nice level ,but having a completely different stage to complement the Yokohama stage would have been a better move.
Challenge is the last solo mode, but there's actually lots of online multiplayer attached. Taking a page from Autolog from the more recent Need for Speed titles, Racenet has you constantly connected online, so you always have an active leaderboard against your friends and can instantly upload cool crashes to YouTube. Codemasters' alternative isn't as smooth as Autolog, however, since you have to manually upload your times at the end of each race. You also have to issue a specific challenge to specific players who have already played DiRT Showdowninstead of doing a general automatic challenge to your whole friends list, and you have to go to the Challenge menu to try to beat the challenge instead of doing so from the Showdown mode. Nevertheless, the challenges are an ingenious way to provide the thrill of multiplayer gameplay without everyone syncing up at the same time. For those who don't have friends who own the game, developer-made challenges are issued every week.
Challenges aren't the only component of online gameplay the title has to offer. Just about every event in the offline game is available for online play, minus Joyride arenas, with up to eight total players involved. While the racing events are nice, the destruction derby events are the most exciting, especially since there's nothing like it available now with a healthy online community. Aside from these events, online multiplayer features three different Party games, two of which are team based. Transporter is the equivalent of Capture the Flag but with cars crashing into each other instead of soldiers with guns. Smash & Grab also takes a page from multiplayer modes like Oddball from the Halo series as you and your team try to hold on to a package for as long as possible before time runs out. Then there's Speed Skirmish, which acts like a traditional checkpoint race except for the fact that you can take any route you want. This is the only other mode in the game that allows for licensed vehicles, so one has to wonder why they were allowed here and not in the other game modes.
Gameplay aside, there are lots of things done right in online mode. Like most other online games nowadays, this features an online ranking system where fans are the determining factor for level upgrades. The gesture is nice, but what will encourage more people to play online is that the cash earned can be applied to your cars offline and vice versa. The unified wallet ensures that upgrades and purchases are universal and gives players alternate avenues for getting those new vehicles and upgrades. Online play is made more fun by the fact that there is a currently a healthy community attached. Finally, the online experience is relatively lag free and smooth enough that the only time you'll see anomalies is if you have too many people with bad connections in the match.
The sound is the final piece that shows how this entry is a departure from the main series. The music evokes more of a party atmosphere than any of the other entries before it with a mix of British hip-hop, dubstep, electronica and rock music blaring from the speakers at all times. The effects evoke those of the older games, with engine roars being very distinct and metal providing just the right pitch when crunched against other cars or concrete barriers. The music and effects provide a compelling reason for you to turn up your speakers every time you play the game. The only thing that discourages you from doing so is the announcer that plays every time something happens. The bad puns and jokes are expected, but the real crime is in the delivery. He sounds bored, even though some exciting stuff is happening on-screen. Your best bet is to play with the options to eventually drown him out so you can focus on the game.
Once again, Codemaster's Ego engine is impressive despite its age. The hastily put-together nature of most of the vehicles is well pronounced while the same could be said of the more polished, real-life rally machines. The tracks are nice to look at, but since you'll see them often, you'll appreciate that you can admire them in different lighting situations. The abundance of particle effects becomes the real sight, as you're constantly bombarded with fireworks at night and pyro spewing from every ramp. The look hasn't changed much from previous DiRT titles, and that is problematic when it comes to car damage. For a game that emphasizes vehicular destruction without using firearms, the damage modeling hasn't seen any changes beyond the series' first entry. Glass cracks, hoods fly away, and metal bends, but it won't do so to the point that you feel like the crashes are substantial. This is noteable when you wreck and observe that the car looks no worse for wear, robbing you of any satisfying visceral crashes.
DiRT Showdown seems like it wasn't made for the die-hard DiRT enthusiasts. The DiRT physics give the game a more realistic slant, but the de-emphasis of more traditional rally racing will drive away series fans. It feels like a game catering to an audience that's heavily into car carnage, something that's rarely been done this generation. For them, this title is done well, and despite some frustrating moments and a bad announcer, it delivers on the fun. Considering how long it has been since there was a quality destruction derby racer, DiRT Showdown is recommended for that niche audience as well as racing fans who want to try something new.
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