Developer: Codemasters Southam / Publisher: Codemasters / Played On: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB Everyone 10+ [Mild Lyrics, Mild Violence]
Compared to most off road racing games, which take a decidedly arcade approach, the DiRT series has long been the more serious cousin, employing far more realistic physics and handling. But with Showdown, the developers are taking a more light-hearted approach to off-road racing that won’t work for longtime fans but will appeal to those who’ve always found these games to be too sensitive.
Like other games in this series, Showdown is mostly an off-road racing game. Except that while previous installments had you running rally races — in which you drive from one point to another, and then from that point to another, with the winner being the one who has the best cumulative time — in Showdown, you’re instead doing laps on both asphalt and dirt tracks that are not only loops, but figure-eights and clover-shapes as well. But this just adds to the excitement, since you never know when you might find yourself getting t-boned.
Getting caught in the crossfire isn’t the only way destruction is a big part of this game. Much like the Burnout games, Showdown lets you bump and grind with the competition, knocking cars off the road, into obstacles, and in the way of oncoming traffic. You can even do it with a bit of force, since Showdown also adds some nitro for a bit of speed boost.
Showdown’s main event is the Showdown Tour, in which you engage in a variety of races, demolition derbies, and obstacle courses. Unlike some racing games, however, you’re not forced to follow a specific path, and instead can play them in any order, though you’ll have to unlock most of the events by beating earlier ones.
As with the other DiRT games, the races in Showdown have a good sense of speed, especially when played from the “strapped to the hood” view, though it really could use a cockpit view, as well as a third-person one that’s a bit further back from the car than the one included. Still, when you’re trading paint in a desperate attempt to cross the finish line first, these speed freakouts can be quite engaging.
Though not as much as the demolition derby events, unlike real ones, in which the last man standing is the winner, having your car destroyed in Showdown doesn’t end your involvement. Instead, you respawn over and over, and the winner is the one who’s gotten the most points when the timer runs out. These points are earned by hitting hard, hitting with style, and, of course, for delivering the final blow. There’s even some where you’re on a platform with no guard rails, and you get points for knocking your opponents off the side. It’s the most redundant of the three game types, even with all the different arenas, but it’s also the most mindlessly fun and exhilarating.
Finally, the game has a series of obstacle courses you can run. In them, you do donuts, drift around corners and objects, and smash targets, with the winner being the one who does all of that before time runs out. It is, however, the game’s most frustrating mode, though only because it requires the most skill and precision. But one of the nice things about the way the Tour is structured is that you can, and should, mix it up, and thus don’t have to do six demolition derby events in a row, then six obstacle courses in a row. Unless you want to.
Though what’s odd — and sure to annoy racing purists — is that the obstacle courses are the only ones that let you use such real cars as the Subaru Impreza, Scion tC, and Ford Mustang. Instead, you drive fictional, and rather stereotypical-looking muscle cars, vans, station wagons, and other crappy cars that can drive fast and take a beating. Sure, all can be upgraded with money you earn from winning events, but for someone wishing they could take such fine cars as a Ferrari, a Bugatti Veyron, or a Toyota Camry into battle, this is a bummer.
Oh, and before we forget, can someone please tell the developers that having skill levels that are called “Pro,” “Allstar,” “Champion,” and “Legend” is kind of confusing, baffling, perplexing, and bewildering. Though no matter which you chose, you’re in for a challenge, as your fellow drivers aren’t pushovers on any skill level.
Besides the Tour mode, Showdown also lets you drive the same events online. Not surprisingly, they work just as well, with the demolition derbies being the most fun when played against people you know, and the obstacle courses being especially frustrating when you’re trying to do better than your girlfriend. Especially since she’s so competitive.
There’s also an option to play these same modes as part of a team. But don’t. Unlike in a shooter, where Team Deathmatch is always more fun than Deathmatch, Showdown is decidedly more fun when played solo. While adding a team element to the races and obstacle courses doesn’t really add anything, the demolition derby modes are noticeably less engaging since you have half as many people to smash into, but will still slam into your teammates regardless.
The controls are the most obvious change from a normal DiRT game, as they’re far less sensitive and realistic, and more arcade-like and forgiving.
Which is not to say they’re overly simplistic. While it won’t surprise anyone that they aren’t cartoonish like Mario Kart or some other arcadey racing game, they’re still more grounded in reality than in such racing games as Need For Speed or Ridge Racer. Instead, they’re slightly more sensitive and prone to sliding, kind of like Forza Motorsport 4 with all the assists turned on.
Or, to put it another way, you will sometimes have to let up on the gas and use the brakes. Sorry.
While most of the cars are not real ones, they still have all the detail you’d expect in a game where the developers took hundreds of pictures of actual cars as reference. Granted, some of the paint jobs do make the cars look a little cartoonish, but only if you’ve never seen a real demolition derby.
Similarly, the backgrounds and tracks are also realistic looking, and this does a good job showing how the cars get banged up, though this is still far from the photorealistic of a Forza or Gran Turismo.
There is, however, one visual aspect that puts this above a lot of other games: the text in the menus and other spots is actually readable. One needs only to try and read the tiny captions in Max Payne 3 to understand why the readability of Showdown stands out.
As you’d expect from an arcadey game with sim roots, the sound effects in Showdown are quite realistic. Hearing two cars collide will have you wondering if your insurance is all paid off.
That said, the music selection is a pretty obvious mix of punk, hard rock, and metal, with none of it being particular good. Best to turn off the radio and keep your eyes on the road.
Sadly, though, you can’t do that to the annoying announcer, whose volume only goes down to 50%. Granted, he does give you important information as you’re driving, but since you can’t turn him down, it would’ve been nice if you could at least toned him down.
For longtime fans of the DiRT games, especially those who appreciate its realistic approach to rally racing, Showdown is an abomination, an overly simple sell-out, or a bad joke of a spin-off (though the developers have said that the upcoming DiRT 4 will be a return to form). But for fans of off-road racing games who want something more forgiving than DiRT but still somewhat rooted in reality, or someone wishing Forza Motorsport 4 had some off-road races and a demolition derby or two, Showdown is anything but a bumpy ride.