Unlike a lot of people, we didn't have a problem with the X-Games festival presentation style of DiRT 2. If anything, the deliberate distancing of DiRT 3 from that showy sheen was the reason the last game didn't get a 10 at review – it was just too po-faced and gloomy despite its obvious quality. Suffice to say, DiRT Showdown does not have that problem. And as we sit here pushing cars out of a giant sumo ring, watching 'Crashback' replays and drifting into piles of tyres, it's always clear what kind of game Showdown's trying to be. A fun game.
But then I realise what the over-excited announcer just said: 'Sick to the power of rad'. What to the power of what? There's not even a hint of irony - it's just like the 1990s stepped into the room wearing its baseball cap and hi-tops. Certainly, DiRT's identity has become muddied in recent years (pun intended) as X-Games and Ken Block-style Hooniganism are added to the remnants of the Colin McRae Rally series, so it's understandable that Codemasters has finally made the distinction and made the arcadey side a separate game. But let's be clear, there's absolutely no middle-ground in Showdown - it's Dude Bro all the way.
Above: DUDE that was so totally rad in an awesome, sick, heinous kind of way, bro
In the preview build we're playing, most of the career mode is locked away, but there's enough unlocked to get a taster for how the game's main mode is going to pan out. There are four main levels to progress through, from the Pro tour that we're playing through All Star, Champion and finally Legend. Each of these is split up into tiers in a grid. Four events per tier, three tiers per level and one final special event at the end.
Racing does take a back-seat to other disciplines, as we've been spending a lot more of our time in the arenas than actually out on the track. The scoring system for arena combat is almost identical to PSone classic Destruction Derby, rewarding you for spinning opponents, barging them and T-boning them (OK, that last one's new), each with different severity ratings for impact. Throw in a 2x multiplier that's triggered when the clock's running low and things get pretty hectic.
Hoonigan mode returns, only it's been streamlined into a set route that gives you a breadcrumb trail of stunt areas, leading you to the finish where you're ranked according to time. So you'll be smashing polystyrene blocks, doing donuts around poles and getting airtime – not to mention hanging insane drifts around long corners. Accuracy is the key to doing well here, the Stuntman-esque 'do this' mechanic makes it way easier to get through for beginners.
Above: So far, the show-off challenges are nowhere near as hardcore as DiRT 3's
Hooniganism is fine, but a far greater part of the game's appeal is the destruction. There are crashes and smashes everywhere you look, with sparks flying and bonnets denting. In slow motion, it's predictably amazing, although considering many of the vehicles are unlicensed, we're surprised the crashes aren't just a little more crunching. The cars feel a little too much like videogame cars right now, especially when they tip over. They still look magnificent, of course, especially when you hit the right shoulder button and trigger Crashback mode.
This is like the flashback mode of previous DiRT games, only now there's an option to upload a crash to YouTube. That's a very neat feature and one that we're going to be all over when the final game is released. Currently it's greyed out in our preview version, but it'll be a big selling point in the final game.
Above: These press shots may have been carefully set-up, but it's not hard to find similar spectacle
After the hardcore challenge offered by DiRT 3, Showdown offers the player instant gratification without demanding very much at all in return (at least at first). Crucially, it doesn't pretend to be anything other than a videogame with cars in it. In races, the handling is noticeably simplified compared to similar events in DiRT and GRID. That means controlling your car with accelerate/brake and left/right is easy enough that anyone can understand it. There's no barrier to entry here, and it's very refreshing.
That's not to say there isn't plenty of depth here for the more serious racing game fan – you just have to find it yourself. For instance, your car still has a handbrake button allowing for the series' traditional pinpoint control. It sounds like a contradiction to say that drifting is both easy and advanced, but it's easy to get into a drift – it's the quality of your control while you're in it that's going to make the difference on the scoreboard.
Above: Everything's still grounded in realism, but just brighter and louder than reality
You even earn money in nice round numbers, making it obvious which cars and upgrades you can afford. Upgrades are incremental and limited to three overall areas instead of installing specific parts. Power, speed and strength can all be boosted until you've got the balance between power and driveability that suits your style.
Easy to play, easy to understand, but not necessarily easy to be good at, this is aiming to be the ultimate low-risk purchase for parents and gamers alike. We'll reserve judgement for the final game, of course, but it's pretty clear what we're going to get: Spectacular crashes, beautiful graphics and sunshine-warmed festival-style presentation. Sounds delightful.
If we have any reservations right now, we'd say that some of the arena action can feel a bit too scrappy (and just the thought of trying to control it with a racing wheel makes us feel tired) and there's some rubber-banding in races, probably just to make sure the more rubbish games journos get to stay in the action for their previews. But this small taste has left us wanting more.
Check out the most recent trailer and look out for more info soon - the game's just been announced as being out on May 25 with a demo coming soon. Not long now...