The Dirt series has always been a kooky marriage between Codemasters’ Colin McRae roots and the extreme (and extremely marketable) excess of ESPN’s X Games. Dirt Showdown dispenses with rallying altogether; instead it’s a showcase of arcade racing and trick-based showmanship, topped off with an overzealous announcer and wobbly dubstep.
Yet despite the focus on speed and destruction, Showdown is the most schizophrenic Dirt to date. The excellent car handling model that has evolved over the previous games – realistic yet accessible – sits uncomfortably against such arcade trappings as the purely cosmetic damage system or rechargeable nitrous. Boost slowly builds up as you drive, but to get a bigger increase you’ll need to ram, shunt and T-bone your way through the field. The problem is that bone-shattering crunches into another racer are as likely to put you sideways into a wall. The AI cars have a tendency to cluster together, so you’ll find yourself at the back of the pack before you’ve had time to adjust.
It’s a problem compounded by the lack of flashbacks, which in previous games let you rewind mistakes to have another go. In Showdown, when those mistakes are as much about luck as your own skill, losing this feature can frustrate. In the figure-of- eight circuits of 8-Ball mode, wrecking out at the last corner from a side-on hit is infuriating.
It means that in races, your best tactic is to ignore the additions and just race, using Boost in the few occasions that it’s available, but otherwise concentrating on a clean run to the finish line. Despite a lacklustre start on the bland Miami track, once you progress to later seasons and get to race on the snowcovered Colorado or neon-lit Tokyo, it’s a lot of fun. But this is ground that was covered before and better in Dirts 2 and 3.
Two other event types are included, each with their own set of cars to unlock and upgrade, and both feel more at home in Showdown’s roster. Demolition, including the destruction derbies of Rampage and Knock Out, and the Hard Target assassination mode, are romps of vehicular violence. Meanwhile, ‘Hoonigan’ events favour precision and skill, and as such are the only modes to feature flashback rewinds and licensed vehicles (including, brilliantly, a classic Mini Cooper). Gymkhana trick-runs make a return appearance, but the highlight is the Smash Hunt challenge. Here you target specific coloured foam blocks in a strangely compelling mixture of Simon Says and a driving test.
In all it’s a lot of game modes, spread out over multiple courses. But even with the variety, Showdown’s ultimately lightweight: you’ll fly through the campaign. It’s good, and at times even great, but comes across like an expansion to tide you over until the next proper release