Despite the grumbles over damage, the option to hit R1 and trigger 'Crashback' mode and immediately relive your best smashes is most welcome, not least because you can now upload your best efforts straight to YouTube - so long as you've got the VIP pass that comes with the game or have bought one off XBLA/PSN.
Above: That's a keeper. Expect YouTube to be full of this sort of thing very soon
Incredibly, these mid-race replays don't let you use a rewind function like every other Codies racer game this side of DiRT 1 (at least outside of the free roam 'Joyride' areas). A surprising omission, but one we don't really miss, especially as the chaotic races are never unsalvageable, even after coming to a rest deep in the wall.
Call me by my name
Little touches like being addressed by name in the in-game commentary in previous entries have gone, not only replaced by a selectable nickname (which you only really get called once when you load the game up each time), but replaced with an incredibly impersonal 'they'. 'They did it' and 'they rear-ended them' sounds ludicrous. What's wrong with 'you'? 'You did it' has always worked before.
Above: It doesn't really matter what you choose - you'll mostly be called 'They'
All of the above probably sounds unfairly harsh on what is still a higher-quality game than most. And on the occasions that you find yourself in a close race in one of the better-looking environments, the game feels like a 10/10. Just look at this race (edited for length), which was arcade racing heaven and had us all cooing at the TV in the office:
With the close, aggressive racing and downright spectacular physics, the racing is by far the best bit of the game, running like a deluxe version of DiRT 2. But then you find yourself in another arena event, getting squashed between a concrete wall and a van travelling at 60mph and emerging with barely a dent while the announcer says "It's like watching two cars drive into each other… oh, wait – they are." That's when you start to wonder where the 'DiRT' in the title has actually gone.
Tough acts to follow
As a compare and contrast exercise, I loaded up DiRT 2 and even Race Driver GRID – and was very surprised. Both of those games are faster, for a start. Much faster. Showdown feels almost leaden in comparison. Also, it turns out DiRT 2 is almost impossible to play after you've been playing Showdown for hours and hours. The inertia and sense of sliding around the dirt tracks is far more pronounced than Showdown, which makes the new game feel like it's got the stabilisers on. I understand why they've done it, and it's arguably a plus point for the 'post pub' drunken play sessions it's undoubtedly aimed at.
But the other thing I noticed is that the feeling of quality is higher in the older games. Not in terms of overall graphical oomph (though GRID is still incredible, even almost four years to the day since it first came out), but in terms of attention to detail. On-board cameras look phenomenal in replays as you watch your driver go through his animations with sensational fluidity.
Above: This is Race Driver GRID - a four-year-old grandaddy of DiRT Showdown. Note how it still looks amazing and has 12 fully-destructible cars on the track
And GRID's helmet-cam racing has far more drama, especially when you hit the car in front and the windscreen smashes, simultaneously clearing your vision and making the race louder. By comparison, Showdown doesn't even have on-board cameras – presumably rendering all those interiors was deemed unnecessarily time-consuming. Despite all this, GRID has far more cars on the track at any one time.
You're also referred to by name in both the menus and the races, have context-sensitive commentary that extends beyond dudeisms and there's a sense of rivalry with named competitors, again referred to by the commentary by name. And while I appreciate Showdown is intended to be streamlined and uncomplicated, GRID's option to race for other teams to try new things but earn less XP is a very neat idea.
Finally, there are the crashes. One car spinning out, hitting a tyre wall and flipping in Race Driver GRID is more exciting to watch than similar incidents in Showdown, despite the extra gloss. Maybe it's the clouds of smoke, or perhaps the greater sensation of weight as it heaves through the air, but it's unquestionably better. And, to cap it off, all of this could happen in GRID's own full-fledged Destruction Derby figure-8 track - one of the biggest selling points of Showdown.
Better in isolation
Nonetheless, taken on its own merit, DiRT Showdown is a fantastic-looking game that's player-friendly and slickly presented. Its heart beats with the slickest version yet of Codemasters' phenomenal driving engine, ensuring every single new play gives you something amazing to enjoy. But it feels too reined in, so instead of being absolutely mental, it only feels 'pretty crazy'.
Above: We're still talking about a class act, technically far in advance of most racers
You're left with an enjoyable and highly playable racing game with loads to do and, just occasionally, some of the most exhilarating action in any racing game, ever. If only Codies had ramped up the damage and placed a bit more emphasis on racing events, this would be essential.
As it is, it's still a quality purchase for casual racing fans and undoubtedly a perfect gift for a child (and we mean that genuinely without any hint of derision). But for everyone else, it fails to surpass the still-incredible DiRT 2.
We played the Xbox 360 version of the game for this review