Historically, the Dirt series of rally games have offered a cornucopia of all things racing-while-moving-sideways-at-high-speed in a semi-sim fashion. They were the mud-spattered crash-helmet of the racing scene, encompassing every discipline from straight up timed runs, to buggy-wrecking Landrush and Rallycross events. You came to expect some degree of credibility from a series once named after the world-class rally driver Colin McRae, and for the most part, it was some of gaming’s most solid racing.
Then, Dirt: Showdown lumbers into view. Carrying a can of Monster Energy Drink in one hand, and sporting overall-skids that are an eye-twisting confab of colour and conflicting brand logos. As it waves a greasy looking urban-dictionary around, it declares in broken American-surf-speak that “gymkhana” is a real word. If you were to then politely point out that it usually refers to an equestrian event, ie. involving horses, it would then snort a crude joke about horsepower and your mother’s eating habits.
If you thought Dirt 3 was too mainstream and glitzy, I would strongly suggest you stop reading at this point – what follows may induce a stroke.
Everything in Dirt: Showdown is spectacle. The music is the typical brand of indie and pop-rock, the menus all fall from the sky in dramatic fashion, and cars do doh-nuts in the background to scintillating effect. Jumping into an event (I refuse to use the term “race” as it just isn’t), the sparkle continues with dramatic camera-work, fireworks and the kind of paint-jobs that don’t turn the eye so much as sprain it. Gone are the myriad of rally setups, as D:S sticks its heels firmly into the grease of Gymkhana-style events – demolition derbies, knockout challenges and the strangely-named 8-ball. Rising through each… event, you gain cash with which to purchase new cars, upgrades and unlock paint-schemes. There is also a hell of a lot of crashing into other cars and scenery.
So far, so Flatout.
The cars feel and sound like what they are – hot, dented lumps of metal with a train engine stuck up their arses – all speed and almost no finesse. If you enjoy the challenge of using manual gears, you will be disappointed here as it simply isn’t an option. The various cars on offer all follow the traditional arcade-racer stereotypes – the easy-handling-but-slow cruiser; the super-tough-but-turns-like-a-dead-cow monster; the small, fast accelerating hatchback that’s made of paper etc. Each and every one feels like it should, and if you are a fan of Mario Kart, you will have no trouble finding a car to suit your tastes. As mentioned earlier, you can buy numerous upgrades for your favourites, and make your little nippy bullet a little less prone to being smushed up against a wall. You can also drive a hearse, so yeah. There is that.
There are a number of tiers to climb in the career mode, as in Dirt 3, with each subsequent tier granting access to faster (and bigger) cars and some very hard events. Not hard as in “challenging”, but as in whatever passes for luck when several other cars are trying to punt you off a rather high platform. And this is where Dirt: Showdown really falls on its silly flat face – it just isn’t fun. Destruction derbies? Fine, but don’t make it a points-race with re-spawning. The frustration of losing another game because you suck at crashing is just unpleasant, and a win being plucked out of your grasp in the last few seconds because of a random pileup? Broken. The few actual races involved in the game become quickly hilarious as two things become apparent: 1. The rubber-banding in this game borders on involving actual rubber bands, it’s that obvious. And 2. There is actually a boost button.
Now, as one who enjoyed the semi-serious nature of the previous Dirt games, I will hold my hands up to the fact that – no, this is not a real Dirt game. It barely even manages as a “racing” game. However, there are those out there who have fond memories of the old Destruction Derby games, and who still play the various Flatout games occasionally (except the last one, that was utter garbage). You may find Dirt: Showdown’s daftness a good thing. You may also be pleased to note the addition of extensive online modes, leader-boards, challenges, and the cute little YouTube plug-in that allows you to save and upload bits of your groovy driving/crashing skills directly, last seen in Dirt 3.
The handling, while easy-going and slightly numb, is occasionally fun. Cars turn in and drift with a pleasing weight, and the whole thing flatters you outrageously. There is almost no effort involved, but even I couldn’t help but smile at some of the perfect corner-drifts I was pulling off as my opponents were left in the dust/firework-debris. The damage-modelling is superb; during the demolition events, the cars get ripped to shreds and crumple with every smash. Great to watch, until they re-spawn all shiny and new again, that is. There are moments when all the pieces of Dirt: Showdown seem to be coming together, and you are actually having fun.
And that is what a proper arcade racer should be all the time – daft as a brush, and great fun to boot. They should ditch any vague semblance of reality and focus on being as enjoyable as possible. Sadly, Dirt: Showdown simply isn’t consistent enough to satisfy this criteria; the demolition events are twitchy and later ones are all down to luck, the actual races are short and boring, and about the only things going for it is the damage-engine and handling it inherited from its forebears. The only things it inherited, I might sadly add. And those just aren’t enough to justify a £30 price tag.
Dirt: Showdown is a confused beast. It seems to want to stand as the perfect game for those who enjoyed Dirt 3′s Gymkhana events, a full-on arcade experience with all the best bits of the wonderful Dirt engine intact. Instead, it ends up being random, silly, and frustrating. If you are looking for Dirt 4, this isn’t it. Not even close. If you are looking for a daft, arcade racer, try the Flatout series – they are far better.