DiRT Showdown Review (PC)

Those of you that feared for Codemasters as they ditched action games in favour of a sole focus on the racing genre, you can be at ease. This is, after all, what Codies do better than anything else, and although DiRT Showdown isn’t exactly the first fruit of labour to spring forth from that corporate decision (we’ll have to wait until whatever they do next for those honours), it is nevertheless proof that - despite the potential for monotony - the UK developer is set to diversify and explore distinct new tracks for their greatest vehicular franchises.

This is no DiRT 4 then, although Showdown does inherit at least part of the Gymkhana focus from the rather brilliant DiRT 3. The thread that ties together those powerslides, donuts and jumps is no longer rally however, but rather that of an Americana-tinged demolition derby. Gone are the pristine, sleekly polished beasts that slid gracefully around the corners of Aspen, and in their place come throaty muscle cars held together with copious amounts of gaffer tape, rust and no small amount of spot welding.

Gymkhana events return

It’s a distinct change of pace for sure, to something altogether slower and intentionally less graceful. Point-to-point races now defer to figure-of-eight style crossover tracks with scope for pileups at every corner; circuit races are revamped to include ramps and bottlenecks designed to cause maximum disruption, and Gymkhana events now feature short checkpoint-based courses that face you off against a single vehicle racing a mirrored track (in addition to the open playground score-attack modes that many loved from 3). To match those disciplines, the selection of cars pulls exclusively from upgradeable powerhouses with stats that emphasise damage and defence as much as they do speed and handling. You race, you earn money, you plough cash into fearsome upgrades.

Indeed, maxing out that damage rating is essential, as Showdown delights in allowing you to ram other cars off the track whenever possible. Every swipe at a competitor is met with a points score and a description of the damage (“T-Bone!”, “Heavy Shunt”, “Siiiiideswipe!!” etc), along with an overly-enthusiastic quip from the commentator. The DiRT engine’s excellent damage modelling and replay mode features heavily here, with a quick jab of the right bumper allowing you to cut to a cinematic whenever more spectacular collisions occur. An ever-recharging nitrous meter allows for a quick burst of speed whenever you’re feeling particularly brutal, and an outrageous proliferation of trackside fireworks lends the carnage spectacular visual appeal.

The selection of vehicles is a suitable departure for the series

It’s no surprise then, that Showdown’s best game modes are those designed around the simple act of smashing every other car in sight, or avoiding a pack of vehicles intent on doing the same to you. Not since the heady days of Destruction Derby on the PS1 has car-based battling been this much fun, and the introduction of towering platform-based arenas and stadium-sized battleground lends plenty of scope for tactics, narrow escapes and ridiculous headlong charges into a pack of cars that may or may not be there a moment later.

And whilst the career mode does a good job of showcasing those events and allowing you to build up your stable of upgraded fender-bending behemoths (the interface is considerably less abstract this time around, and the events certainly varied enough to sustain the four tiers of content), Showdown really shines when you remove the AI and head online.

Although our exposure to the online modes was limited to 2-3 hours worth of play on the PC version in its pre-release state, that quick session suggested that Codemasters may have something special on its hands here. Although straight-up racing against live opposition will always have its own set of charms and competitive urges, nothing quite lives up to the sensation of barrelling head-on into your rival and shunting them off a platform into a crumpled heap below. It’s just spectacularly entertaining against real people, and the frustrations of having your car torn open are cleverly nursed by being able to leap right back into action no more than a few moments later.

Impacts are bone-crunching

Had Showdown simply come out as a downloadable online-enabled destruction derby title it would have been fantastic, but as it is, the rest of the event types lend themselves equally well to real-world competition. Regular races turn into carnage-filled pileup festivals, the various Gymkhana-themed events prove worthy showcases for those with nitrous-fuelled drifting skills, and the party modes are just as brilliantly entertaining here as they were in DiRT 3. The vehicles are nimble enough to allow for a real turn of skill if you’ve got the chops to handle them, and they’re quick enough to provide ample space for recovery should you get smashed at the first turn.

And whilst online might be the icing on the cake rather than the core of the experience for some, I’m confident that DiRT Showdown has enough to offer long-time fans of the genre or racing game newcomers alike. The likes of Flatout and Motorstorm have provided ample competition in the mud-filled Americana stakes previously, but there’s something about the driving model in Showdown that satisfies in a fashion that few other games manage. Whether that’s a result of simple expertise or just iteration over a number of titles is something only Codies can answer, but whatever the formula was for the success, you have to be happy they’ve gotten here.

Now, where next?

Best Game Moment: Ramping into the arena and smashing your opponent out.

Platform Played: PC