Growing up as a kid, I had a varied exposure to racing games. From the ripe age of four, I started playing the original Midtown Madness and its sequel, Test Drive 5, Grand Turismo 3, and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (the original). While some of those releases have a special place in my heart, Dirt 2 is undoubtedly one of my favorite racing games. The high stakes feeling blends well between the realism and arcade handling. So when Codemasters announced that Dirt Showdown was going to be a demolition derby blend of sorts, I was cautiously optimistic about their ability to pull it off, and I feel the same caution walking away from the controller.
When you start the game, you’ll instantly feel right at home if you’ve played either Dirt 2 or 3. The style of the menus, loading screens, and the slightly-obnoxious camera pans are all reminiscent of the previous games; even the announcer that talks over the menus is back albeit with a new voice actor. You are presented with a few options when you start the game: career mode, joyride, and multiplayer.
We’ll start with the career mode first since here you’ll find most of the things that make Showdown special. The career mode is broken down into four tiers, which the player must progress through to beat the game. Each tier contains its own set of locations spread across sixteen events and a final heat. Two events are available at the beginning; earning a medal, which requires first, second, or third place, on one of those two opens up a new event. This continues until you unlock the final event, meaning you'll have an opportunity to skip one event without a podium finish and still proceed. The actual career setup feels fine since story isn’t something that the Dirt series is known for, and the ability to skip an event helps when you get stuck at the really aggravating ones, although you’ll probably never have to do so.
Johnny, get the shotgun! The hooners are back!
The events are the real meat of the game. These showcases of dirt, metal, and oil are broken down into three types: Racing, Demolition, and Hoonigan. Each competition types comes with its own set of cars used only for that specific event type. Cars are unlocked as you progress through the career and can be upgraded to cement a higher position in the winner's circle. But buying cars already unlocked is made nearly unnecessary in the racing mode. Because of the upgrade system in place, I found that I could simply better one of the default vehicles and use that to win all the races. In the demolition mode, buying new cars has more incentive because a bulkier car can take more damage, but again, modifying the first car was good enough. It should also be noted that the cars used for the racing and demolition modes are fakes. None of them actually exist although inspiration can be seen (similar to the Grand Theft Auto). The exceptions to this are the hoonigan cars such as the Ford Fiesta, the Subaru Impreza, and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X. These scrapheaps cannot be upgraded. To get a better car you actually have to buy one, but the differences seem minute. Overall, the vehicle variety is pretty good, although you’ll never be forced to see any. Halfway through the game, I bought my first cars for the racing and demolition modes for the sake of experimentation. As for the Hoonigan mode, I actually like the car selection, which again ranges from standard rally-mobiles that were mentioned before to cars such as the original Mini Cooper S.
The Racing, Demolition, and Hoonigan modes contain sub-events each with their own objectives. The race events are what we’ve seen from previous Dirt games; there is Race Off, Domination, and Elimination. A Race Off is just a typical rally cross that has eight drivers burning around a track to complete a certain amount of laps. The Domination and Elimination events are just spin-offs of that concept. Domination has the track split into four separate sections. Drivers compete for the best time on each section with points being awarded to your corresponding position. Naturally, the player with the most points after three laps takes the gold. Elimination is self-explanatory. Challengers blast around the course as the player in last place is eliminated every fifteen seconds. These fun-enough events all work well, although I expected them to be since they’ve been present in the last few Dirt games. One of the newest additions is boost, which allows you to get a bit of extra speed. While it doesn’t change the gameplay drastically, the extra boost does make it a bit easier to come out of corners at speed or shank a first place finish from the leader of the pack.
Pentagrams versus alligators. Go!
The Demolition events differentiate Showdown from previous Dirt titles. There are four types of demolition events that all focus around a single idea: smashing other cars. As you’d expect, your typical demolition derby event (called Rampage) has players facing off in an arena getting points for every hit/totaled. If you are taken down, you at least get to respawn. Knock Out is similar to rampage, except it takes place on an elevated platform and you get additional points for shoving players out of the ring. Both of these events are timed (usually three minutes) and the last thirty seconds are double points. Personally, I dreaded having to complete these spectacles of motorized bumper cars to continue my career progression. Even if you are in first place when double point time activates in the closing moments of the match, you can easily lose that lead. Also, the game wastes precious seconds while you wait to respawn. Speaking of bad times, Hard Target is probably one of the worst events in Dirt Showdown. Hard Target has players avoiding other drivers as they try to accrue the longest survival time in a sealed-off arena while more opponents enter the match periodically. In theory, Hard Target is sound, but the problem comes from something that plagues the whole demolition concept. Once you get hit, it is extremely difficult to recover before you are hammered again by another driver. This mode, essentially, boils down to luck because once another competitor puts a good spin on you, they pin you to the guardrails without hope of escape.
There is one great addition to the game though: 8-ball. 8-ball is similar to the Race Off event. The objective remains the same: finish first by any means necessary. However, the cars used are of the demolition category because the tracks cross over themselves. So while you’re trying to come in first, you are also being wary of other drivers speeding past your peripheries. While this seems like it would be frustrating, it actually is a lot of fun. Even when you do spin out, you can usually regain your position before too long, although it does have the same problem that once you total, everyone behind you collides as well. When you hit another driver, a huge alert appears, yelling “SIDE SWIPE!” or “T-BONE.” These obnoxious warnings obscure the road ahead. This is a problem present in the other racing type events, too, and can be extremely annoying, especially going around a bend with another car breathing down your exhaust pipe.
Finally, there are the Hoonigan events, which are probably the best part of the game. The first type of Hoonigan event is Trick Rush. Here, players complete tricks within the allotted amount of time to win the match. The second event is Head-to-Head, which has two mirrored courses that players drive through completing certain tasks at designated points while blasting towards the finish line at the same time. Finally, there is the Gate Smashing event, which places players in an open arena knocking down certain colored gates against the clock. I found all of these events enjoyable, and they also have the distinction of being the only events that get rewinds like the previous Dirt games, although I can’t name these as a huge positive for Showdown as they have been ripped straight from Dirt 3, levels and all.
This is what happens when you don't pay school bus drivers.
Moving on, we also have the Joyride events, another example of some hoonigan fun ripped straight from the Dirt 3. There are two levels in Joyride, one being a DC factory and the other a shipyard, both of which served as Gymkhana proving grounds in the prior game. On both of these levels, there are 75 missions to complete which have you jumping through the air, doing donuts and spins around the maps, and speeding around obstacles. Collectibles littering the environments unlock extra rewards when you collect them all. Again, these are both fun to play, but they have no real staying power after the first thirty minutes once you burn them out.
Finally, there is the multiplayer with a few additional modes exempt from the single-player portion. Smash & Grab, an oddball-type game, forces players to gather "the loot" by impacting the carrier vehicle. Whoever holds onto the loot for the longest wins. There is also Transporter (CTF), and then there is Speed Skirmish, which has players driving through six checkpoints before heading to the finish to win.
A few odds and ends: for one, the graphics are very pretty, and the cars and dust look great, although this isn’t surprising given Dirt 3's appearance. The soundtrack is also not bad. There are several tracks that I’d honestly listen to outside of the game. The load times tip the scale towards the poor side of the scale though. Even on a high-end PC, the races took at least a 30 to 45 seconds to load. The Racing and Hoonigan events weren't too taxing, but the Demolition events always caused the game to lock up and go into “not responding” on my PC until it finally decided to work again. This becomes an even bigger pain when you’re restarting a Rampage event for the fifth time in a row amid minute-long loading screens.
In conclusion, Dirt Showdown isn’t a bad game, but it isn’t a good game either. Most of the Demolition events that make the game unique from its predecessors lack the associated entertainment (save for 8-ball), and the stuff that is worthwhile in Dirt Showdown can be found in the previous games. One of the biggest problems, though, is the game's cheap downloadable feel. If you are really itching for a new Dirt game, then I’d at least wait until this drops in price, and if you weren’t a fan to start with, then stay away from Dirt Showdown and buy a cheap copy of Dirt 3.
Developer: Codemasters Southam
Release Date: May 23rd 2012 (PC), June 12th 2012 (Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3)
Number of Players: 1 (Career), 2-8 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC (Reviewed)