Codemasters Dirt series of games has always confounded me. I've enjoyed them greatly while reviewing or previewing them, but never felt particularly compelled to play them afterwards. They have great pedigree - coming as they do from an off-shoot of the Colin McRae Rally games.
But they have increasingly "mixed it up" adding new styles of racing to the thoroughbred Rally gameplay of the original title, and this has been with mixed success. It has added variety for some gamers, but for others it introduced game modes that they were either not interested in, or not good at. I personally suck at the stunt driving sections.
But with the latest title Dirt: Showdown
, the focus has changed once again, and the result is, for my money, a more enjoyable game. We've only enjoyed a cut-down preview at present, and while the game engine is running soundly - as you would expect for a game based on the EGO Platform previously used in Bodycount
and Operation Flashpoint
- only a few races were available for testing. The races fall into three categories, with an emphasis put on Demolition Derby style smash-'em-up action.
As well as the smash-'em-up game style, there are conventional track races, and the Hoonigan Gymkhana stunt driving event too. You'll need to excel in all three in order to progress, since you have to gain podium places to unlock new events, and use prize money won to buy car upgrades in order to remain competitive with the field.
The courses are of the purpose-built variety, rather than "real world" recreations, and as a result, quite incredible features are possible, which don't add to the realism, but do ramp up the action and excitement. One course in the preview has a Demolition competition on an elevated platform... There are points awarded for knocking an opponent off the platform, and eight giant ramps to enable you to jump back onto the platform if you are unfortunate (or unskilled enough) to get rammed off.
Even the race circuits have had the nitrous treatment, and rather than the straightforward track designs of many racing games, ramps, barriers, roadblocks and chicanes are all thrown in the make the racing line more tricky to stick to. The tracks used for Demolition race events have crossovers which are perfect fro T-boning your opponents. Unfortunately, they are just as good for opponents to T-bone you too!
This is not a game about clean lines and smooth style, it's all about playing and driving dirty. Shunt, slam and t-bone your opponents out of the way, and out of the game.
And where would any Dirt game be without the racing surface of the title? That's right, you won;t find yourself racing just on smooth black asphalt, Dirt challenges you to take to mud and snow as well. The tracks span the world from London to Tokyo, via Nevada and Miami.
The game is divided into four tiers of twelve events and a Showdown final. Our preview enabled us to play each of the game styles, and Demolition quickly became out favourite, despite Racing being the easiest of the challenges on offer. Hoonigan Gymkhana remained as fun, but as challenging - and hence as frustrating - as ever.
Let's be clear, Dirt: Showdown is not Dirt 4. It's a remix or a re-imaginationof the franchise. Although the original Colin McRae and early Dirt games had a more arcade/sim feel to them, Showdown is fully into the same Burnout/Need for Speed-style arcade territory that the recent Ridge Racer game now inhabits. And that's a good move in our book, because it exhibits a pick-up-and dive in learning curve that makes it easy and fun to begin with, but which remains challenging as you progress.
As you would expect, there are a selection of vehicles for you to race in. Some are licensed models of real cars, especially those used in the Hoonigan sections, others are clearly real world inspired but have had the hot-rod treatment and others are chop-shop creations, specifically aimed at the Demolition game modes in which they are most used. Each vehicle has a Speed, Power and Strength rating, and you'll want the former for racing, and the latter for Destruction stages. Each car is available in a selection of outrageous paint-jobs.
Handling is progressive and predictable, while being decidedly unrealistic and arcadey. Which might not be what you want on a racing simulation, but it fits perfectly into the game styles on offer. While deft directional control and careful throttle will get you rewards in the Hoonigan sections, winning races and Demolition stages relies on liberal use of the boost.
Like previous games in the Dirt series, Showdown is easy to enjoy. But moreso than the other games, we found it much harder to put down. That's surely a good thing, because the previous games have been far from commercial failures, and Showdown is all but guaranteed to continue the series success.
The finished game will have challenges to complete, which not only give you a chance to laud it over your mates, but also offer more in game currency to blow on vehicle upgrades. You'll be able to upload your best performances to YouTube, and to go on-line to race in solo or team based multi-player events for up to eight players.
The preview game didn't offer any local two-player modes, but the finished game will, and while we'd love a four-player split screen for demolition events, we'll gladly live with the Two-Player Split Screen that is going to be a feature of the finished game.
Dirt: Showdown sprays onto our PS3, 360 and PC in May, watch this space for SPOnG's full review sometime before then.