DiRT Showdown – Review
Some games are far more difficult to pigeonhole than others and Dirt: Showdown is no exception. The latest offering from the newly re-branded Codemasters Racing takes a full leap in a new direction, effectively cutting ties with rallying and the Colin McRae heritage that spawned it. This may upset some fans of the historical series but it’s clear from the outset that this game is more about mixing it up than being an out and out racer, bearing more of a resemblance to Burnout Revenge than trying to be a rally version of Forza.
For racing simulation purists this is not likely to tick a lot of their boxes. Gone is the ability to mess about with vehicle setups: you can no longer tinker with the car to increase airflow through the intake manifold by leveraging the flange crank on the flux capacitor (or something), and even basic driving aids like assisted braking and manual/automatic transmission choices have been completely stripped out of Dirt: Showdown.
I’m not sure of the reason behind the large change in direction that Codemasters have taken with the series. Perhaps it is because rallying has fallen out of favour with the masses (I don’t know if that is true), or maybe they feel that with Formula One they have the racing simulation covered and need to expand further into the arcade racing genre. Perhaps the gymkhana portion of Dirt 3 had the best feedback. Whatever the reasons, from the outset it is clear that Dirt: Showdown is something a little different – and I like different.
The core of Dirt: Showdown is the single-player Showdown Tour: five tournaments consisting of ten events in each. In addition to this there is a gymkhana-based mode called Joyride, which consists of two maps with three phases in each. Multiplayer is, of course, also present, and bolted onto the single-player is a basic, Autolog-inspired challenge system. The Showdown Tour will likely take up 90% of your single-player experience and is a mish-mash of different game modes, from demolition derby to rally-cross style races. Each event yields cash as a reward (which increases as you unlock and rise through the leagues) that can then be spent on upgrading or purchasing new vehicles. There are three archetypes of cars available: race, demolition or gymkhana, and in a similar fashion to Burnout Revenge, your class of vehicle is restricted to the type of event you are taking part in, so you can’t accidentally (or deliberately…) take a four ton reinforced vehicle into a race against dune buggies.
Starting with a small selection of two to three cars in each class, by the end of the campaign you’ll have a much wider selection available if you save up the cash to purchase them. Customisation is limited, with options to change the car livery and, if you have the cash, most can be upgraded in three areas: power, strength and handling to help keep up with the competition. Having said that, the selection of car decoration available is varied and although you cannot create your own custom paint-job, there is probably something you’ll like at hand.
As you make your way through the Showdown Tour you will encounter the following event types:
- Race - You vs seven others performing several laps of a track in racing cars.
- Domination - Same as above but the lap is broken into sections, getting the fastest time in each sector gets you maximum points.
- Rampage - All out destruction derby with eight cars smashing each other apart for points.
- Knock Out - The premise is the same as Rampage but this time it’s based on a raised platform and extra points are awarded for shoving cars off the edge.
- ∞ Race – This race involves a track that crosses over at certain points and is raced using the demolition vehicles. The key to survival is to get around without getting T-boned by a competitor at the crossroads.
- Smash Hunter – A timed challenge using a gymkhana car to knock down targets around an open course.
- Hard Target – You are the target and must evade the other demolition cars as they try and smash you to pieces. Hold out as long as you can, but when your health is gone the event is over.
- Face Off – You versus another gymkhana car in a race to perform a set number of tricks, such as drifting and pulling donuts.
- Trick Rush – A time-limited event on an open area littered with places to perform tricks. The more tricks you do in succession the higher the multiplier and greater your score.
- Elimination – A race event where, after so many seconds, the car in last place is eliminated. This continues until just one car is left.
With most events taking no longer than a few minutes and avoiding the typical racing game pitfall of just making you go around more times to elongate the experience, Dirt: Showdown has found the ideal sweet-spot with event length and maintaining excitement; in fact, this is the first racing game since Burnout Revenge where I’ve played solidly for hours without that feeling of boredom setting in.
If you think you’ve nailed the perfect set of laps or smashed up so many cars in Rampage that you’re the king of crashing, then you can send a challenge to a friend via the results screen. Accessing challenges, both issued and received, is done via the main single-player menu and if a friend fails a challenge you have issued then you are rewarded with a cash bonus to go towards your ever-expanding collection of racers. It isn’t quite the same level of integration as the Autolog in Criterion’s recent racing games, but it’s a nice feature to have.
Single-player is rounded off with the Joyride events. Two large maps with many obstacles, ramps and open spaces. You can either hone your skills or look to complete the challenges set in each of the three areas of the map. Challenges are usually simple enough: donut a specific item three times, drift through a tight space or jump a large gap, etc. but some will take a few attempts to get right. In an effort to encourage a little exploration there are also 40 collectibles on each map, some more cunningly hidden than others. It won’t make or break your Dirt: Showdown experience, but if you fancy just dicking about jumping over things or testing the various gymkhana/hoonigan cars then it will prove a nice distraction.
Multiplayer mode is pretty much what you’d expect it to be. Each of the modes available in the Showdown Tour are on offer as up to eight players do battle for the top of the leaderboard. The roster of cars you have at your disposal is shared between multiplayer and single player so you won’t have to do all the hard work over again to unlock them in both modes. Depending on your position you are awarded a number of ‘fans’ (which effectively translates as XP) and a cash boost for those upgrades. As you gain fans you will level up in rank and if, like me, you find yourself constantly languishing in last place then it’ll be a long grind to the maximum level.
The multiplayer options have been carefully thought out, with options to play everything or specialise in one of the three areas such as racing or demolition events. On top of this there are three team game modes: Transporter, Speed Skirmish and Smash & Grab. Sadly the multiplayer lobby for those never filled when I was trying to play them so I wasn’t able to see what they are all about, which was sad as these don’t feature in the single-player mode. I found multiplayer to be practically identical to the single-player experience in terms of gameplay, with no noticeable lag or much longer loading/syncing time. A handy feature is the ability to mute all from the side-bar when in the lobby, it saved me having to start a ‘party for one’ to block those with verbal diarrhea or people with Kinect who forget they’ve got Kinect enabled, from which everything going on in their living room is constantly being broadcast…I really don’t need to hear that dog barking or that baby crying. There are options to mute individuals and everyone but your party too.
I did test the splitscreen mode, which worked very well and didn’t degrade the experience in terms of playability or the ability to see what was going on around you (note: splitscreen play only awards achievements to player one). Although the service wasn’t running, in addition to the standard multiplayer options there is a Racenet Event selection which, presumably, will be the host of Racenet community challenges and such. With the single-player offering most people between twelve and fifteen hours of content it is likely that the multiplayer, challenges and social media enabled components of the game are what Codemasters hope will provide the longevity.
The gameplay in Dirt: Showdown is very much aimed at the ‘pick up and play’ audience who are looking for a quick blast around a track or rampant destruction that won’t take over 20 minutes to complete. The controls are as simple as you can imagine for a racer, literally covering acceleration, deceleration and steering; on top of those is also a boost button, common to most arcade racers nowadays. If you prefer a steering wheel to the standard gamepad then that accessory is also supported by the game, although I was unable to test that particular feature myself.
Vehicles in the game feel responsive and noticeably different from car to car, depending on the power/strength/handling ratings, although some of the racers felt a little sluggish on turning but that is likely me lacking in driving skills rather than a slight against the responsiveness of the game. Setting the difficulty is done via the driver setup but can later be altered at any time. I found the intermediate difficulty fairly challenging but could usually rustle up a first place position after a couple of retries, whereas the drop to casual was too easy with no real challenge presented by the AI at all.
Drifting is easily achieved to get around corners and the boost comes in handy for getting up to speed afterwards. The boost recharges slowly over time but is further replenished by damaging other vehicles. Whilst not overly aggressive, the AI will occasionally try to spin your car out although more often than not I was the aggressor and tended to use the AI cars as a cushion when they were turning a corner so that I could plough into them at full speed, knocking them flying and decelerating myself enough to whizz around the corner taking their position in the process. As in Burnout Revenge the taking out of fellow racers is encouraged, and no matter which event you are partaking in, a bit of smashing into enemies here and there is rewarded with boost or points.
A number of the tracks have obstacles such as barriers or barrels and while most are just smashed into smithereens, leaving a harmless trail of detritus as you drive through them, a few of the barriers are far more solid and tend to get caught up with your car. Disentangling from them sometimes takes a lot of effort (involving reversing) and whilst I appreciate the reasons for their inclusion it feels at odds with the rest of the physics and gameplay. Damage has no effect on the performance and handling of the car, and such options to enable damage implications are non-existent. That said, the graphical damage cars take is impressively handled, with bonnets flying off, bumpers hanging loose and crushed/bent car frames. There is also a health meter for the car that sits above the boost indicator which, depending on the event you are playing, upon depleting will either knock you out of the running or, after a few seconds, respawn a brand new car.
One additional feature is the crashback/flashback button, which was inherited from the previous Dirt game. Acting in a similar manner to the rewind function in Forza, one of the functions allows you to go back in time and re-attempt the prior few seconds to avoid that horrible error. Or at least it should do, as the second function this button has is the YouTube video creation and whenever I tried to undo a mistake I could only wrestle with the video creation tool before giving up. With little to no explanation as to how to select which function you require or how to use the playback stuff, I found it a little disappointing and, needless to say, there are still no videos of me repeatedly crashing into walls floating around the web…or maybe there are and I just didn’t realised I’d made them.
I’m sure there is a certain finesse involved in mastering the races, but Dirt: Showdown is all about accessibility and no-one will struggle to get to grips with the controls or the gameplay – a definite bonus for the series as it looks to attract a wider audience than just the racing enthusiasts, even if it may cost Codemasters a few of them.
Graphically, the game is one of the most stunning racing games that I have come across. Interestingly this isn’t down to the realism of the cars or the shine of their paintwork. While the car decals do look impressive, it is the background scenery that steals the show. One map, set at night, has you driving past an ocean liner in the midst of a full-on party with lights and fireworks everywhere, only to then drive you past a funfair with so much detail it’s easy to forget about concentrating on the road. Dirt: Showdown is, visually, incredibly striking, colourful and vibrant; relying not just on colour but actively filling the surroundings with animations and glorious views. Night stages, road stages, dirt tracks, city views, snowy vistas… you name it and Dirt: Showdown probably has a stage set there.
There were a few rare occasions during single-player and multiplayer where the system would freeze for a few seconds. If this was because I was using a USB stick for my saves or if it was a problem with the game I couldn’t be sure. The fact it happened randomly in the middle of racing was worrying, although it was rare enough not to damage the overall experience.
The game’s soundtrack is an upbeat affair, mostly comprising hyper-beat dance tunes. I spotted three remixed Nero tracks and a remix of ‘sweet harmony’, but there are more rock-sounding tracks and a couple of more urban sounding songs too. Sadly there wasn’t any way of selecting the song lineup or skipping onto the next track so I had to put up with a couple of awful songs full of rapping that invariably put me off and caused me to finish last. Yes, it was the bad music and in no way anything to do with my driving skills, okay! Overall though I did really like the music selection; incredibly loud and energetic which fits perfectly with the carefree, arcade action of the game.
In addition to music, a number of the races have a commentator who seemed to have ‘t-bone’ tourettes – particularly in the ∞ Race events, he was obsessed with screaming t-bone related comments every few seconds. The commentary overall is quite varied and can be useful on some tracks to know what is going on around you, but turning it off wouldn’t be detrimental to your game. One cool audio feature I noticed was on a city racing event,: as I flew by, the crowd were cheering, but when I collided into the barrier you hear a few cry out in horror which amused me enough to do it multiple times over. There could be others but between the engine noise and the soundtrack it’s hard for any other sounds to make themselves heard unless you dial everything back in the audio options menu..Pros
- Breathtaking graphics
- Pick up and play action with arcade-style racing gameplay to match
- The variety of events is something not even matched by Criterion in the Burnout franchise
- Multiplayer matchmaking is painless, provided there are players queueing for similar events
- Plenty of cars to match preferred playstyle
- Challenges for friends
- Not reliant on 50min races consisting of twenty five two minute laps
- Physics can feel a little off at times
- No speedometer
- Not even remotely a rally game anymore
- Compared to most racing games it is very short. Fun, but short.
The only bad points I can really hit Dirt:Showdown with are minor niggles at most regarding irritating barriers and not being able to skip tracks. Codemasters have made no bones about this being a fun, accessible arcade racing game that does something a little different and it does exactly that. It will likely be the nail in the coffin for rally game enthusiasts, however, who will have to go back to Dirt 3 or even Colin McRae Rally, but as a step forward into something new, and with wider appeal, it cannot be faulted. I haven't had as much fun playing and completing a single-player campaign in a racing game since Burnout Revenge and I really hope that Codemasters’ brave move to forgo a rally simulator and switch to an all-out funfest pays off for them.
Ultimately Dirt: Showdown will probably not appeal to anyone looking for an authentic feeling racer, or even a serious arcade racer because of the dumbing down of options and controls - let alone the fact that racing only comprises about a third of the game, due to event types. However, if you need something fun to fire up and play, or feel like smashing up some cars to wind down after a long day then there are few better ways to do it than playing this game.
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