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.
Beyond that though, the sense of speed and living on the edge of your comfort zone which makes arcade racers so much fun isn’t present in Showdown. There is speed and there is some tendency for the cars to run wild, but this last bit imparts upon the player the sense that they’re not doing something right instead of the game being geared towards it.
Showdown, put one last way, is a set of arcade races placed within a racing simulation engine and it therefore ends up being neither (but not in a good way). It is a game that is pretty to look at, both in terms of cars and backgrounds. It is a game that is relatively enjoyable to play, but not something I would recommend over a true simulation or true arcade title (or any other title in the franchise).
The career mode here is exceptionally pared down in terms of presentation, just asking players to go through races and perform well enough to unlock more races down the line. This is, generally speaking, done by finishing in the top three – each race down the line requires “x” number of top three finishes. But, it doesn’t feel terribly well thought out in that losing a one-on-one battle (so, a race with only two cars) counts as a top three finish and gets you that much closer to your next unlock.
In the end, after playing Dirt Showdown one wonders if Codemasters wasn’t really just trying to make a demolition derby or assorted arcade game but ended up having to place it within the Dirt universe for some reason. With a more over-the-top feel, Dirt Showdown‘s demolition sensibilities really could have made the game something incredible—the various fields of play for them are definitely interesting—but it’s all too restrained, all too realistic, and never delivers on its promise.
Dirt Showdown is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Mild Lyrics, Mild Violence. This game can also be found on: PC and Xbox 360.