Dirt Showdown Hands-On Preview -- Accelerate for DestructionBy Jake Gaskill - Posted Jan 31, 2012
As any Dirt fan will no doubt tell you, Dirt 3, the most recent release in Codemaster's high-gloss racing series, had a bit of a split personality. On the one hand, it was a finely tuned and deep simulator, giving gear heads all the bells and whistles they've come to expect from games in which tweaking a car's gear ratio is considered kid's stuff. On the other hand, it had plenty of extreme sports-fueled flavor and healthy emphasis on stunt driving (i.e. Gymkhana) as well. While these two styles fit fairly well in the Dirt 3 package, Codemasters received plenty of feedback from fans who wished the game had stuck to one or the other. Cue Dirt Showdown, a full throttled, arcade racer that is all about speed, destruction, and explosive fun.
Unlike previous Dirt installments, Showdown is all about the thrill of pick up and play action on wheels. The controls are more forgiving than past games, the car tuning has been distilled to three main components, which let you tweak your speed, handling, and durability. As the racing in Showdown is all about crushing metal at deadly high speeds, having a ride capable of sustaining large amounts of damage is obviously a smart move. Of course, having stronger armor could slow you down, so you have to be conscious of how you balance your car, adding a nice bit of strategy to the whole experience without overwhelming you with options.
Codemasters has made significant improvements to the series’ graphics engine, so expect to see plenty of gorgeous lighting and particle effects at play as cars kick up plumbs of dust and the sun glints off of gnarled fenders. Vehicle damage has also (obviously) been ramped up to devastating degrees. The settings are also packed with detail. Crowds are actually comprised of individual NPCs as opposed to a simple smattering of clones, and each track adheres to a particular theme, whether it be a Burning Man-ish, festival-inspired setting (complete with hot air balloons floating in the distance, a towering Ferris wheel, and fireworks) or a more traditional rally car setting.
On the track, Showdown is designed to be a much faster and more forgiving/accessible experience than previous Dirt games; not that they were Gran Turismo-esque experiences, but with a much more arcadey focus comes a more arcadey feeling when you get behind the wheel. Thankfully, the series’ graphical pedigree is more than capable of keeping up with the action, at least this held true for the three courses we were able to play.
There are three types of races that you’ll be competing in in either one off events or over the course of the game’s career mode: Race, Trick, and Destruction. Race is pretty self explanatory but will be much more about throwing your car around as you jockey for position as opposed to stressing precision and clean strategies. Trick will evidently bear some resemblance to Dirt 3’s stunt-centric Gymkhana mode, though we have yet to see it in action. Destruction includes a variety of ways to turn perfectly decent cars into crumpled masses of steel.
The first mode I tried out was Rampage, the game’s destruction derby-inspired deathmatch mode. The map consisted of a circular arena with off shoots where cars would spawn at the beginning of each match or after each “death.” Determined to make my presence known, I slammed on the gas and triggered my nitrous boost as soon as the match began, hurtling myself into the ring. I set my sights on the nearest combatant and slammed into them with full force, earning points and knocking off a solid chunk of their health bar in the process.
Knocking other drivers out obviously earns you more points, and if you manage to string together take-downs along with some close calls and some quality, full speed collisions, you’ll get a multiplier to help you earn even more points. The person with the most points at the end of the round wins. Simple; except for the little matter of trying to not be utterly demolished by the other racers in the ring of course.
One of the key focuses for Codemasters with Showdown is the sense of emergent gameplay that comes from having so much of the gameplay centered around physical racing. While the vehicular chaos doesn’t appear to reach the levels of a Burnout, there are still plenty of opportunities for big crashes. Combine this constant car battling with Dirt’s tight controls, and you have a game that looks to be on the track to successfully being able to deliver an arcade racing experience that is as deep as it is viscerally satisfying.
Perhaps the best example of this came during one of the 8-ball races. These short races take place on tracks laid out in a four-leaf clover-like configuration. The effect of this sort of layout is that it creates multiple intersections, which can lead to some truly jump-out-of-your-seat moments since you’re never quite sure if you’ll pass through the intersection unscathed or be t-boned out of nowhere. These sorts of tracks have appeared in numerous other racing games, but the idea fits especially nicely in the world of Dirt Showdown.
During our session, there were several moments where I let out a loud “Sweet lord!” as I watched cars fly just past my rear bumper half seconds after I had crossed an intersection. At one point, I was coming around a turn just in time to see a car ahead of me nearly get its roof ripped off by someone flying through the intersection from the other direction. Another time, I was the unfortunate recipient of an ill timed track crosser, forcing me to scramble for position in the final lap. This sense of surprise and variation looks to play a major role in the overall Showdown experience.
While hardcore Dirt fans will have to wait a little bit for the next “proper” installment in the series (and Codemasters indicated quite strongly that there is one in the works), Showdown looks as though it brings enough of that Dirt flavor to the table to satiate series devotees while also being fresh enough to entice newcomers. We’ll find out if the new formula satisfies gamers’ appetite for destruction when the game ships in May.