The story of racing games could perhaps be told by a mode, and that mode is Eliminator. Lap after lap of competition scraps the weak – or unfortunate – until just a handful are left. Skill, experience, strategy and brawn are what it takes to reach the podium, where Codemasters now sits after years in the race.
Surrounded by the wreckage of franchises and teams, Dirt Showdown is just the kind of redneck mudplugger you’d expect a tough developer to ride across the finish line. A battle racer, its pared-down chassis is now little more than a waistcoat around its engine, the same methanol-spewing beast that powered Dirt 3, F1 and Grid. It’s a game teased by years of tech demos where the rules don’t exist; cars shot into walls, and bounced end over end into oblivion.
First impressions are of a kind of B-sides and rarities collection bashed together from Dirt’s previous tours. Scattered throughout the five championship tiers are the same Baja: Edge Of Control endurance races and gymkhana events that have come to symbolise the series’ Americanisation. There are familiar venues, too, such as the Battersea sandbox playground. But they’re just fractions of a game that’s fundamentally changed, making MotorStorm-style nitro boosts key.
It says a lot that there’s no marquee feature here: all of the events have star quality. Knock Out and Rampage, though, are the most symbolic – both destruction derbies, the first adds a Royal Rumble-style objective of wrestling other cars off a platform that you then have to jump back onto via massive ramps. There’s also Hard Target, a survival event in which everyone’s trying to smash a single ‘life’ out of you, chasing you around the arena’s many obstacles.
All of these are perfect for showing off Codemasters’ knack for perceptual AI. We’ve seen it before in Grid, a game defined by the visible aggression of its opponents. Though its focus is really multiplayer, Showdown does a terrific job of convincing you, online or off, that if you stand still for a second you’re going to get rammed by just about everyone. And when you do, the impact will give you virtual whiplash.
Other events in the offline tour are more traditional, though the gloves are still off. The best might be 8-Ball, a race to the finish where the fun spikes deliriously whenever the track loops over a crossroads, given the threat of one or more drivers T-boning you off course in a shower of dirt and metal. And it, like Rampage and Knock Out, only gets better in multiplayer.
Of course, being mostly a battle racing game, Showdown is inherently pretty unfair. Even in the straightforward Race Off mode, it’s not uncommon for a nudge to the hind quarters to spin you into a tyre wall or a sudden pileup of traffic. The game’s trick, like MotorStorm’s, is to amp up the carnage to such an ambient level that no one is safe. Anything involving laps becomes such a minefield of smoking debris, entire car bodies included, that not every crash is avoidable.
This leaves modes such as Trick Rush and Hoonigan to round out the main selection, brilliant as they are at making an accessible handling model – which becomes a lot more nuanced at Advanced level – feel like some kind of art form. The object of these Ken Block-originated playgrounds isn’t to simply guide the car through a doughnut under a lorry, after all, but to chain and improvise to the point of near disaster.
Haters of Dirt 2’s ritualistic front-end will cheer not just this game’s no-nonsense approach, but also the degree to which its ancestor’s festival atmosphere has been transplanted into these races and events, sending fireworks everywhere; even the snow and rain seem to fizz across the track. The party play lobby is designed to get everyone into modes such as Transporter (a tweaked version of the Dirt 3 Capture The Flag mode with no capture points) with the bare minimum of fuss. For all its razzmatazz, it’s the most minimal Codemasters UI since the Colin McRae titles of the pre-Dirt era.
Much is technological here, and a lot comes down to experience. Ego has proved itself an engine built to run harder and longer on both PC and console, while Dirt especially has seen some spectacular trial and error in its design. While it may seem cannibalistic, ‘stealing’ elements from racers whose stars are fading, Showdown is very much a show of its maker’s own maturity.
Flashbacks, for instance, the rewind feature invented by Grid, only appear in events where the most minor mistakes are calamitous. Elsewhere, they mutate into ‘Crashbacks’, mere replays that inherit Dirt 3’s YouTube support. Showdown Challenges issued between players build upon the asynchronous multiplayer concepts of Dirt and F1. Enter the online fray with just a basic profile and, if you fight hard, you’ll get ‘underdog’ bonuses that mean upgrades come quickly.
There are times when the basic upgrade system feels superficial, and begs for the kind of deeper personalisation that would spice up the simpler ‘party’ modes. But Showdown is not just a party game, nor is it the limp refurb you might expect this late in a console life cycle. It feels like something as crucial to Codemasters Racing as any of its predecessors – less a spin-off than a deliberate change of tack.
In fact, what it hints at is the parting of a franchise that’s long seemed schizophrenic into two distinct threads – a much more intelligible split than attempted by Need For Speed. Knowing that Codemasters’ next-gen tech is already advanced, it clears the way for just the kind of ‘pure’ rally game that some fans have been hankering for. Still, Dirt has done more than just reach the finish line where so many others have failed; with Showdown, it’s now into the victory lap.
Xbox 360 version tested. You can discuss the game and review in the comments section below, in the Dirt Showdown Edge forum thread, or on our Facebook and Google+ pages.