DiRT Showdown is one answer to an important question: how do you make a multiplayer-focused racing game?
We've all been there. Heck, I was there just the other day - take a racing game online and it's more daunting than trying to play Counter-Strike and StarCraft II simultaneously while somebody rubs jam into your eyes. The mathematical precision required to excel in a straight racer presents a steep barrier to entry, and the fact nobody who plays racing games is happy with anything other than a podium finish means that, by virtue of numbers alone, there are far more sore losers than happy winners. To succeed in multiplayer, it seems, a racing game needs far more than just racing.
It could also be argued, though, that DiRT Showdown also answers the more pragmatic problem of how to wring extra value of a popular franchise and an expensive in-house engine. But by unceremoniously chopping out the sleek, nippy racing from the esteemed series, alongside the simply gorgeous cockpit views, and replacing them with bitesized events and team-based challenges, Codemasters is attempting to tap into our collective love of crinkled bonnets, battered doors and hyperbolic collisions.
It's a surprisingly natural direction for the series to take, and DiRT's damage modelling is more than up to the task of portraying the knockabout action and busted bonnets that the game demands and the hideous new announcer, whose ear-achingly xxxtreme voice sounds like an MTV presenter talking while being sprayed in the mouse with a hosepipe of pus, seems to be getting off on.
These full-contact automobile events, bucketed into racing, destruction and hoonigan disciplines, have you spinning around Baja, Miami, San Francisco, Tokyo and our beloved Battersea. Regardless of setting, they all live to be played with other people, mainly because the game's main focus -destruction derby style arenas - are far more engaging when played with organic life; the unpredictable nature of these scrimmages becomes entertaining instead of frustrating, as it is when you're matched against CPU drones.
There's your conventional rumble pits for rock-em, sock-em car battles, but Codemasters also adds in a few small twists to a traditional demolition derby format. Knockout is my personal highlight, which adds a sumo element as you all tussle on a raised platform, leading to frequently intense moments where you hope the boost doesn't run dry as your engine competes with a rival attempting to shunt you over edge.
Even the less aggressive match types, with many borrowing heavily off the Gymkhana inclusions from last year's DiRT 3, rely heavily on that canny mix of quick-thinking, raw skill and pure luck which always helps games thrive in a party environment. There are variants of tag, cone challenge and capture the flag, and one mode has you barrelling it around old favourites like Battersea and the Yokahoma docks as you attempt to hit an entire string of scattered checkpoints and zip to the goal before anyone else.
With so many quirky gametypes bringing out some of the best multiplayer racing I've seen lately, it's a bit of a shame to see that the attempts at a more traditional style of racing fumble and drag. 8-Ball racing has you criss-crossing around overlapping courses, pushed into central junctions where it's a question of when, not if, there will be a pile-up. But it's just a bit boring, even with other people - and while the AI does put up a good fight when you're on your own, it's a mode that doesn't sparkle like some of the others.
Still, nobody can accuse Codemasters of not attempting to cater to a wide variety of tastes - except fans of single-player racing, because DiRT Showdown in single-player is rubbish - and the amount of different game types on display is certainly impressive, though occasionally inconsistent. DiRT Showdown excels at giving you things to do, and even bolts in an Autolog-style challenge system, but it might have been more prudent for Codemasters to reduce its overall scope and intensify the game's focus.
Outside of these multiplayer-focused game modes, Joyride mode allows you a more freeform spin around Battersea and Yokahoma as you trick through a list of objectives while keeping your eyes peeled for hidden collectibles. It's a good place to kick back and relax, and I find myself often climbing to the top of a shipping container and seeing how many times I can spin the car around without falling off. It's not very many.
DiRT's signature blend of silky smooth drifts and ultra-responsive handling is another great strength for Showdown, though it does expose one of the game's biggest problems: DiRT Showdown feels an awful lot like DiRT 3, and the effect is so overpowering I genuinely assumed the game was a cheap and cheerful downloadable title rather than a full-priced release up until about three weeks ago. There's just not quite enough meat on Showdown's bones to justify its price tag, especially with memories of its superior predecessor still fresh in our minds.
There's a scrappy little multiplayer brawler to be had with this game, but the fact DiRT Showdown feels a lot like DiRT 3 with a new lick of paint is both the game's greatest strength and its ultimate downfall.
Version Tested: Xbox 360