When it comes to the world’s favourite interactive pastime, robots aren’t enough. Aliens aren’t enough. It’s got to be humans and they have to be bleeding.
Game development has been one huge display of visceral one-upmanship since the seventies, with flashes of violence and flecks of grit escalating in frequency every generation. Codemasters Southam’s biggest mistake in designing Dirt: Showdown was believing that, in this kind of absurd context, a virtual destruction-derby could ever be interesting.
Perhaps that’s harsh and, in fairness, perhaps that was never even the intention. There is a completely functional racing game below the surface, not that anyone would expect anything less from the ninth(ish) iteration in the Colin McRae Rally series.
On the other tyre, perhaps it was. Showdown is totally bombastic from the outset. The menus are composed of what look like large slabs of iron that body-slam down from the top of the screen. It’s a moderately entertaining menu system, as far as menu systems go, but there are a bunch of little pauses during navigation. It feels clumsy.
The cars themselves feel slightly odd too, at least in a game where the idea is to smash them in to each other. Roofs retain the Teflon coating from every other car game so that it’s nearly impossible for a vehicle to get flipped onto its back permanently. It makes sense in a racing game, where such a thing would quickly get frustrating, but in the game’s collision modes all the cars seem a touch floaty.
These are car-physics concepts that make sense at speed, but in the slightly slower derby context, where the player toggles between accelerating and reversing, it feels out of place.“Demolition” game modes make up a great deal of the playtime – the part of the game that is unique to Showdown. In the “Knock Out” mode cars are raised two stories off the ground on a steel platform. Cars can tip (not fly, not tumble: “tip”) off it literally dozens of times and keep-on-truckin’. It should feel chaotic and violent. Instead it just feels muted.
Collisions are anaemic and repetitive. The car destruction engine itself doesn’t stand out, in any way, from what is already well established. Panels crumple off, engines smoke and rubber is stripped from wheels leaving players with a metal ring that sparks against the tarmac. It’s as good as can be found in any racing game, mostly because that’s what Dirt: Showdown is.
Most cars are fictional, and the licensed few are beefy rally cars, so there isn’t even the enormous satisfaction that comes from destroying a multi-million dollar shimmering supercar in a matter of moments.
Races are packed with bright, bouncy obstructions, ramps and fireworks. Tracks look good, roughly as nice as anything else in the DiRT series, but there just aren’t that many of them. Even separate courses share vast limbs that are the same, just chopped and changed slightly. The garage is very limited too.
Codemasters’ attempt to break from its mould has to be commended, but this part of the game – the fun part – is extremely limited in scope.
The sound design is good. Commentaries, especially, are ridiculously hammy and self-aware. It’s totally "awesometacular".
Showdown begs players, cloyingly and intensely annoyingly, to play online and share videos. The online integration is all well and good, in theory - if gamers are incredibly desperate to watch a car door fall off after a mild side-on collision. Multiplayer collision games have limited depth inherently anyway; looping cars around an arena, hoping to bump into a friend, is a little too random to reach the pixel perfect competitive heights of a shooter or linear racer.
Racing, by nature, is an extremely narrow genre. That statement is sure to anger a narrow group of hardcore racing fans who embrace, quite rightly, the minutia of car handling, engine tuning and a comprehensive catalogue of licensed cars. Dirt Showdown isn’t for those people anyway. It tries to carve out a slightly new niche, a tributary of the Dirt franchise and it mostly fails on that front.
There is still an extremely functional, good, even, racer beneath the surface, but in this genre that isn’t enough to save the game.