In the world of racing games, you have your simulation racers and you have your arcade racers, and then you have your games which are somewhere in between. To this point, I would have classified the Dirt franchise as a simulator with arcade tendencies… a very good simulator with arcade tendencies. With Codemasters' newest release, Dirt Showdown, however, I have to rethink my position.
One of the things I enjoy about the Dirt franchise is its ability to make me a better (videogame) racer by demanding precision in some of its courses and race modes (rally) while never sacrificing enjoyment. Well, except for modes like Gatecrasher in which you have to hit barriers while on your way for no particularly enticing reason. Gatecrasher exists as early as Dirt 2, and Dirt 3 adds "gymkhana" mode to its list of events which amuses me even less as it requires one to perform tricks (donuts and slides and what-not).
Dirt 3 (the game in the franchise which immediately precedes Showdown), with gymkhana, moves the needle slightly more towards arcade from simulation, but Showdown pushes it nearly all the way over. That's fine, if the franchise wants to go fully arcade, who am I to say that the franchise shouldn't go fully arcade. The problem with Showdown isn't the desire to go fully arcade, but its less than convincing execution. Put another way, Showdown suffers from a bit of an identity disorder – it's totally an arcade racer, except for the random ways in which it isn't (which are ways in which it ought to be).
Put a third way (because I'm writing this review and I can put it as many ways as I need in order to express my thought), Showdown fails to inspire the sort of freewheeling insanity that an arcade racer ought to bring about. Arcade racers, in their ideal form, make you go "whoa" in your best Keanu Reeves voices. They ought to be fast-paced and frenetic and cars ought to move. That just doesn't happen in Showdown, at least not regularly.
Too much of Showdown is devoted to the demolition derby (they could have easily title the game Dirt Demolition Derby… and who knows, they may have gone Dirt3 if the last game wasn't Dirt 3). There are several different varieties of competitions within career mode (a distinctly minimal affair in terms of layout and setup, not quantity) which have demolition at their center – be it on a platform or in a valley or in a situation where everyone is out to get you. And, damage could be handled in much better ways. Cars don't do anything exciting when they are crippled beyond the point of running, at best they just fade away into the ether and a new one spawns. More straight-up races still reward you for trying to wreck your opponent, even when said wreckage hurts your time, stopping you from winning the race and thereby getting the real money. Showdown doesn't care – collisions are possible and therefore they are encouraged.