DiRT Showdown, the latest entry in Codemasters’ long-running off-road racing series, isn’t quite the run-of-the-mill annual sequel. If DiRT 3 was the precise and professional office worker, Showdown is her fast and loose cousin, stripped of the pencil skirt, garnished in fake tan and ready to party. It doesn’t so much embrace the advancing Americanisation of the series as it does take it out to dinner and then back to its apartment after for a little extra.
• Developer: Codemasters
• Publisher: Codemasters Racing
• Reviewed on: PS3
• Also Available On: 360
• Release Date: Available Now
Any simulation-type elements of the series have been stripped out, like preparing an early stock car. Manual transmission, internal camera and the speedometer are gone; in place lies simplified, but nuanced driving controls and a boost mechanic, which lies somewhere between the worlds of MotorStorm and FlatOut, all strapped to the throbbing engine of a variety of scrapheap fodder and the odd licensed vehicle.
Showdown’s pitch is one of fun, rather than of precision driving: crashing into other drivers isn’t just encouraged but usually necessary in order to gain enough boost to push ahead in the pack. Traditional off-road racing modes are offset by cross-section tracks in which collisions are less of a possibility and simply an assumed inevitability. It means some races will be less fair than others but there’s a balance to be found — for every race ruined by a perpendicular collision, there will be one saved by an opponent suffering a similar fate.
Destruction derby modes make an appearance, and their ability to play fair is at times similarly questionable. Whilst all’s fair in love and war when the smashing and crashing is a free-for-all, the mode in which players are pitched against up to seven rampaging cars on a bounty hunt is frustrating at times. The AI is able to corner and target with superhuman precision, meaning that all too often successful runs are ruined by unexpected smashes. Series mainstay Christian Stevenson provides further voiceovers during the race through an appropriately reverberating tannoy and, to the credit of Codemasters, there are a lot of voice samples in there. And while the soundtrack is generic pop-punk and dubstep up to the eyeballs, it suits Showdown’s electric party atmosphere.
Ultimately, however, the game feels hollow when played alone. The event progression is nice, but the upgrade and unlock systems exist purely to give players something to spend earned cash on. It’s a little soulless — but, note, still excellent fun — but it simply highlights just how great the formula is in multiplayer. That the game feeds off of carnage is one thing; that human players are required to foster it is another matter, and multiplayer scraps are fraught with chaos and frequent, purposeful collisions that an AI car would probably never contemplate. Racenet, Codemasters’ proprietary online network, allows challenges and features a newsfeed of useless yet entertaining stats to foster the sense of community.
The split-screen mode is a great asset in a field where many games simply don’t bother any more. The already chunky graphics of Showdown are an asset to the conversion — even the cars appear to be wrapped in cling-film when examined under harsh light. Elbowing side-by-side on a sofa complements the on-screen action well. Showdown is designed to be played with anyone but yourself.
DiRT Showdown isn’t DiRT 4, which will no doubt agitate some. To the credit of those fans, the game does feel a little hollow, owing to how much has been stripped back. There has been surprised chatter at the game’s in-store release, as some expected it to be a digital release rather than a game on a disc. And while the game would function very well as a digital-only game, the fact that it is a technical step backward from predecessors should not and does not limit its ability to be fun.
It may be the tan-soaked, under-dressed cousin of its more mature stablemates, but DiRT Showdown is still great fun like a trashy night out. It’s a rum-soaked, lovebite-ridden tart, inviting you to take it for a quick ride for the fun of it, no strings attached. If you say no at 40 quid, worry not — we’re sure if you look in the right places, you can find the quick and easy thrills it offers for a little less.