If DiRT 3 is an off-road game for the hardcore racing fan, DiRT Showdown is for everyone else. Automatic gears, forgiving handling and demolition derby races on lethal-looking figure-8 tracks make this a distinctly arcade-styled spinoff entry in the series. There's undoubtedly a gap in the market for a cutting-edge arcade racer, but if that gap is round, this game is a little hexagonal. It still fits, just with a slightly cross-threaded feeling.
The presentation style is much more similar to the sunshine-filled DiRT 2 than last year's DiRT 3, complete with that festival air that seems to make your telly smell of freshly-cooked hotdogs mixed with burnt rubber. That said, the game undeniably feels more compact than previous DiRT games, with no faffing about between front menu and startline, offering you a smorgasbord of race and combat events from which to choose from.
Wait – did we say 'combat' events? Sure did. There's actually not that much racing going on here, at least not if you play through everything in the order provided in the main career mode. Much less of the game is based on track events like races, or the returning Domination events which see you trying to top the split times on four sections of track during a three lap dash.
That's the brilliant Alan Partridge reference in the Achievement for triggering the replay mode, and it's in there with good reason. The bulk of the game is all about vehicular carnage, which is highly reminiscent of PSone classic Destruction Derby, right down to the announcer shouting 'fender bender', which is surely a nod to Reflections' vintage racer. Some events are straight arena deathmatches, requiring you to score points with aggressive moves like barges, T-bones and 360 spins, without wrecking your own vehicle.
Others like Hard Target see you trying to survive in a closed arena with more and more cars added to the fray, all hell-bent on destroying you. That one works particularly well as you fight to postpone the inevitable.
Above: Hiding behind those pillars works sometimes. Not this time
Also new is the Sumo-style event which sees you trying to push rivals off an elevated platform. There's no denying the compulsive 'restart til I win' gameplay, but with the constant stream of inane DudeBro dialogue from the announcer (who can only ever be turned down to 50% volume, unlike the completely mutable music), this game type can feel oddly throwaway – something I would never have said of any of the content in DiRT 2.
Then there are the 'Hooniganism' show-off 'Trick Rush' events, which don't really seem to fit the ethos of either branch of the series, being too showy for the serious rallying of DiRT 3, yet too finesse-heavy for the arcade crowd who just want to hold accelerate and look at pretty crashes. They probably make the most sense here, especially with the simplification of the handling across the game which means performing donuts and drifts in tight spaces is much easier than it was in DiRT 3.
Above: Trick Rush is a bit like Stuntman, giving you a set route to complete
Trick Rush also makes a lot of sense online. Starting at the same time as your online friends and seeing ghost images of their cars just ahead of you as everyone tries to complete the trick course as quickly as possible is superbly competitive. And that's true of the whole online aspect in general. Multiplayer races are solid and smooth, while dashes to pass through every checkpoint using the route of your choice in Speed Skirmish is gleeful stuff – especially when your route turns out to be fastest.
If you do lay down a particularly good time in any event, there's an option at the bottom of the results screen that allows you to challenge your friends, a bit like EA's exemplary Autolog system in Need For Speed. Just select 'Challenges' from the main menu to see how you're faring in any given match with your mates next time you log in.
Above: Unbeatable? Select 'Send Challenge' and throw down the gauntlet to your mates
However, it's not all brilliant online. Some of the capture the flag events like Transporter feel even less like DiRT, descending into what may as well be remote controlled car racing as everyone scrambles for the flag and the goal zones. This feeling is exacerbated by the collisions, which are probably the biggest area of consternation.
Firstly, let me say that the tech here is still impeccable. The EGO engine is the absolute best racing engine in terms of fluidity, versatility and spectacle on current machines, even outputting at 1080p on Xbox 360 (only 720p on PS3). But the impacts have inexplicably been toned down. Considering the whole point of populating the car rosters with many non-licensed vehicles was to avoid contractual limits on how much damage can be dealt, the amount of actual destruction is disappointingly feeble.
Above: The cars in the CG intro seem heavier and dent far more easily than the game's
Back on the original Xbox, TOCA Race Driver 2 let you rip entire corners off your car – something that carried over to Race Driver GRID. DiRT 2 saw doors, wing mirrors and more come off, complete with gorgeous crumple effects across the cars' bodies. So why are the vehicles in this deliberately arcadier offering so damn resilient? The crumpling is less pronounced, side panels warp but don't break and the wheels always stay on your car, no matter what you do – the best (worst) you can get is a puncture.
We've put together a crash montage from the highlights of our time with the game so far, which is still a tour-de-force for the 360 hardware, but not quite as dent-filled as we expected it would be.
As a result, the majority of impacts feel unsatisfying. Considering these cars have a health bar, replenishing nitrous and can respawn to the track when they flip, why can't we see terminal and spectacular smashes rip the car into two (or twenty) pieces? It's OK to then have the car flash for a bit before continuing along as before. Arcade gaming lets you do that, it's what makes it different from a sim. For whatever reason, DiRT Showdown seems unwilling to let you destroy the cars it's encouraging you to destroy.
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.
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.
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.
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
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