After spending a few hours playing Dirt Showdown, it’s hard to believe that this is what the Colin McRae franchise has evolved (or mutated, depending on your affinity towards rally games) into. Yes, this is just a crashes-and-donuts, summer blockbuster-ish detour for the franchise that will return with some semblance of rally in its next numbered iteration, but you can’t help but be amazed at how far developers and publishers are willing to go to appeal to the lowest common denominator. In this case, that’s the energy drink-fuelled extreme sports afficionado with the attention span of a goldfish.
On the surface, Dirt Showdown seems like the junk food equivalent of racing games - short events, thrills around every corner, and lots of crashes all over the place without any cohesive thread holding it all together. I love junk food though, and I was relishing the prospect of tackling Showdown’s brand of no-nonsense driving head-on. Look past the flood lights and pyrotechnics, however, and there’s plenty of evidence of the captivating off-road driving that made Dirt 3 a winner. The only difference is that rather than passing nondescript checkpoints in the Norwegian countryside, you’re smashing through fluorescent foam blocks in an X Games-esque festival in Nevada.
Dirt: Showdown the side scrape
If, like me, you thought this is just a case of Codemasters expanding the Gymkhana mode from Dirt 3 and turning it into a game by itself, you’re mistaken. Rather than simply putting you in an obstacle course and seeing how many points you can rack up, Dirt Showdown’s Hoonigan mode adds a bit of urgency to the proceedings. Similar to the head-to-head events in Dirt 3, you’re pitted against another opponent, but here, you must negotiate an obstacle course and get to the finish line as soon as possible. Obstacles here could mean anything from pulling off donuts and drifting to big air jumps and smashing through foam blocks. Miss one of these obstacles and you must either go back and complete it or restart the event, and the stakes are even higher when you find yourself in a two-part Hoonigan event, where making a mistake in the second leg could lose you the entire event.
Dirt: Showdown Crash Boom Bang!
New to the franchise are destruction events, which come in two forms. In Rampage, you’re dropped into an open bowl with several AI vehicles designed to crash into anything that moves. Your objective is to inflict as much damage on other cars as possible, while at the same time minimising the damage to yours. It’s as brainless as a driving game can get. The other destruction event – Knock Out, adds a degree of skill by replacing the bowl with an elevated platform. Here, the objective is to not only damage other cars, but to also shove them off the platform to earn a points bonus. Cars dumped off the platform must then use ramps to get back into the action.
The 8 Ball events mix racing and destruction by conducting races on tracks featuring an eight-shaped layout, which means that there are intersections within the tracks with the potential for lots of crashes. Even the lapped events aren’t the standard races you’d find in most games. Here, tracks are littered with ramps, obstacles and barricades to ensure that there’s lot more for you to be mindful of than your opponents. It’s not all mindless combative driving though. Aside from the aforementioned Hoonigan events, you’ll also come across skill-based events that require you to trace fixed paths around a track or drive through various coloured foam blocks in a set order. So while Dirt Showdown does let you break the shackles and drive around with reckless abandon for most part, there are times when it will test your skills and require you to bring some precision into your driving.
Dirt: Showdown taking it head on
In keeping with the game’s festival approach, cars are equipped with boost; a first for the franchise. Cars are a mix of fictional and real-world rides depending on the event. As you win, you’ll earn cash and unlock more cars for you to buy. You can also use cash to upgrade your car across power, strength and handling parameters. The tiered Showdown Tour mode will be instantly familiar to Dirt 3 players, and offers a ton of events to last you several hours. Then there’s Joyride mode, where you’re unleashed into an open space with various skill-based objectives thrown at you. Completing them opens up new areas.
All of the single-player modes – race, destruction and Hoonigan, are also playable online and in split-screen, and like Dirt 3, you also have the party event types, which are insanely fun. Doing well in events earns you fans, which helps you level up, and money earned can be used to buy and upgrade vehicles for offline or online use. The game introduces Codmasters’ new Racenet social platform, similar to Autolog, but each time I booted up the game, the connection to Racenet timed out even though I was able to play online just fine. As is the case with all Codemasters racing games, presentation is top notch, both in terms of visuals and the soundtrack. A lot of the environments and tracks are recycled from Dirt 3, but there’s a fair amount of new content in there to shake things up.
Dirt: Showdown night racing
While Dirt Showdown is a new direction for the franchise and introduces new elements to the series, such as destruction derbies and boost, there’s nothing that you haven’t seen in other racing games. There’s plenty of content, it plays brilliantly, and it’s all delivered with the signature Codemasters flair, but most of what’s on offer here was, in some form or the other, already in Dirt 3. And that’s probably all you can expect one year on. Dirt Showdown is familiar and satisfying without bringing anything new to the table, like junk food.
It's available at different prices for different platforms - 2,799 (PS3), 2,499 (Xbox 360).