The Codemasters crew have long been known for some great gravel grinding off-road racers, but Dirt Showdown marks a move in a fresh direction for the company. The new game is still based on off-road racing and features the stunning looking Ford Fiesta piloted by American legend Ken Block as the centerpiece. However this time around the game eschews a more serious professional rallying approach and instead aims to deliver easier to access and often more spectacular arcade thrills.
Risky BusinessIn many regards the shift in focus could be seen as a risky move, as most people don't tend to associate "arcade" racers with high quality production values and top notch gameplay pitched at the hard core race sim fans.
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Thankfully Dirt Showdown bucks this trend, delivering a stellar racer while not taking itself too seriously. It is quite likely this new direction is a response to the stunning new game physics Codemasters has created with a new car damage model that makes its appearance in Showdown. Smashing your car into others and seeing the debris flying in all directions (leaving the remaining wreck on the track as a new obstacle for remaining drivers) is one of the treats the game serves up often.
The game has a decent, if perhaps a little simplified single player "career mode" and augments this with split screen multiplayer play and online play using RaceNet, an "always on" online system similar to EA's Autolog.
A word of warning for those who like to play their racing games as solo pursuits. Codemasters clearly wants Showdown to be its next "big thing" online and the game is constantly at you to connect, post videos to YouTube and add comments via social networking options. If you aren't interested in this it is like having your kid brother constantly tug at your sleeve when you are more intent on having fun on your own. The game would have been better served by a one off option to log on with a lot less interruption.
That said the online multiplayer is pretty good and at the heart of the game's appeal if you are interested in racing on the interweb.
Stunning SceneryAs a single player racer there are several great modes, and these are fun, but the game recycles track sections a little too regularly and the action ends up feeling too monotonous. The individual track decorations are quite stunning though, even if this environmental garnishing has no impact on the action on your side of the tracks' concrete barriers. It is just a pity that the imagination that went into creating some of the background scenery wasn't also employed when the track designs were being hammered together.
There are some good game options nonetheless. Elimination mode sees you hurtling around a track and as long as you are leading the cars behind they will be removed from the competition one by one. If you can remain in the lead, or at least not run last you will be able to prevail. This is at times tense and challenging. The game also features a time trial mode that requires you to set records for track sectors. Hold down the fastest time for enough sectors and you "dominate" and score the win.
Heart In Mouth
Dirt Showdown also has more conventional racing, but on less than conventional tracks. These often include ramps with exploding fireworks, lots of debris to crash through and heart in mouth moments courtesy of crossover sections of track where it is likely you'll hit cars coming the other way as they progress around the figure eight layout. These tracks are slickly presented and fun to drive, even if they could also have done with more variety at times. There is snow, bitumen, mud and sand, but none of these surfaces feel that different, which adds to the problem of feeling like each track doesn't have enough unique DNA.
On top of this more traditional stuff you also get a destruction derby option which is solid fun. Smashing other cars into scrap metal is one of the more satisfying things the game offers, especially with the stunning damage model, cool close ups and bone crunching sound effects. However this mode would have been better served by not being a timed battle and instead being a fight to the finish. Also, often you'll find the perfect t-bone of another competitor is followed up by a solid hit from behind coming your way. The computer controlled drivers obviously sat down before the event and entered into a pact where they'd work together!
Speedy SumoAnother mode I liked was the Sumo wrestling inspired platform mode. You have to try and push cars off a raised platform to achieve a victory, while making sure you don't get shafted and are sent hurtling off the edge. This is a nice idea which is worth exploring more as it is fun, if a tad simple this time around.
Aesthetically Dirt Showdown is up to the usual Codemasters standard. This means you get a slick front end with the transitions between action and menu elements looking incredibly artful. The music, sun flare effects, fireworks and other atmospheric effects are also industry standard. That said, someone should have muzzled the inane babble of renowned commentator Christian Stevenson. This is extremely annoying, as you feel like he is constantly trying to impress a five year old with childish descriptions of the on field action. “T-Bone tastic”?! Honestly ... and you can't turn it off.
SumptuousThe Ken Block inspired gymkhana mode also returns. Now called Hoonigan, this was one of the best features in the previous Codemasters game, Dirt 3, and we love it here. In Hoonigan mode you have to perform perfect pivots, sumptuous slides and other four wheeled acrobatics. The less challenging handling model makes success in Hoonigan mode easier than it was in Dirt 3 and some will perhaps find this mode too easy, but it is still fun to hurl the cars around the courses performing donuts and looking like a legend.
Block's car is one of the few real world models on offer too, as this time around the less than realistic approach means real world cars are for the most part missing from the roster. You can still drive some amusing rides though. Hearse racing anyone?
Dirt Showdown isn't necessarily going to appease more hard core Codemasters fans. Clearly this is a game designed to keep you busy while the guys continue to work on the more in depth action that Dirt 4 will no doubt feature. However if you like racing a mate and are a fan of accessible sideways shenanigans this is a polished offering, even if it feels more like fast food video gaming.
Check out Codemasters Dirt Showdown launch trailer below.
Version tested: Xbox 360