Dirt Showdown is one more entry in what is shaping up to be an evolutionary year for the racing genre. First came Ridge Racer Unbounded, which reinvented the classic franchise into a grittier and more aggressive racer. Later this year, Forza Horizon (the franchise’s first entry not developed by Turn 10), will experiment with an open world setting. Codemasters isn’t content to let Dirt Showdown rest on the series’ laurels, either. Showdown moves the series from simulation to arcade, often demanding destruction over finesse across unconventional race modes. Though far easier than any Dirt entry before it and lacking memorable tracks, Showdown is an entertaining racer that series fans and newcomers will likely enjoy.
The bulk of Showdown’s content is found in the career mode, which offers over 50 races across 4 championship series. Typical multi-lap races against a field of competitors do pop up from time to time, but most race types are unlike anything you’ve seen from Dirt before. Many incorporate demolition, either tasking you to wreak as much damage on your opponents as possible or to simply survive as murderous hordes of competitors hone in on you. A sumo-themed event has you push your competitors out of the ring, and Crazy-8 events feature lots of collisions as the track weaves around and intersects itself.
It’s certainly different. Where Dirt 3 demanded flawlessness very early on, Showdown isn’t nearly as rigorous. Though the games share similarities in their driving, vehicles here feel lighter in comparison, and tend to bounce around the track like pinballs after collisions. Showdown’s garage offers licensed and unlicensed choices, but no matter which maker you choose, most cars feel about the same thanks to the game’s heavy arcade leanings. In keeping with the arcade leaning, customization is limited to stat upgrades and paint jobs.
Alongside the career mode is Joyride, which is essentially an evolved version of the Gymkhana events from Dirt 3. The player is given two playgrounds for cars, subdivided into three areas, and told to complete tricks and stunts. The 150 objectives task players with high-speed drifts, spins in tight corridors and are easily the most rigorous, skill-based part of Showdown. It takes some time to figure out how to successfully drift across a narrow path made out of shipping containers, or how to spin around a support beam inside a warehouse, but it’s an addictive and compulsive mode that’s very satisfying. Sometimes though, the game will reward you with having completed a particular challenge even though you didn’t complete it properly, which takes some of the joy out of it.
Showdown substantially improves upon a lot of Dirt’s minor annoyances. Its menus are very logically designed, straightforward and the fastest to get through in the series. Rubber-banding is nicely balanced and not too obvious, giving players a chance to build a solid lead on opponents but almost always keeping things competitive. Showdown also very effectively mixes its races, never lingering too long on one mode or leaning too heavily toward one race type. It’s also a far simpler game for non-fans to get into, a good entry point for those curious about Codemaster’s racing stable but intimidated by their simulation-grounding.
But it’s that very point that gives me some pause with Showdown. It is a decent racer, but I’m not sure who it’s for. As a series fan, I blazed through the game without much challenge, and though I enjoyed myself, the game just isn’t as memorable as my previous Dirt experiences. Track design, which has always been a strength of the series, is fairly standard and uninspired, despite the opportunity to do some really wild stuff considering the unique gameplay modes. The Joyride elements are excellent, but this mode is the least Showdown-y aspect of Dirt Showdown.
Series fans may find the game a too easy, and I’m not sure Codemasters has done enough to position the game as a Dirt game for non-Dirt fans. In chasing after a new audience, Codemasters may have very well alienated both. Dirt Showdown might be a decidedly different entry in the franchise, but it shouldn’t be overlooked (by series fans or newcomers). It still looks, sounds and feels like Dirt (albeit with an arcade-orientation) and I compulsively played it to completion. Dirt Showdown, is a curious deviation for the series, and one I happily experienced, but I was left hankering for what came before.