Codemaster's DiRT series has always been known for offering gamers a rally racing series with a great physics engine and smart A.I. opponents that push back as aggressively as the player pushes them. Perhaps the greatest single aspect that has separated the series from other games of its ilk would be the damage modeling that accounts for some of the most exciting and visceral crashes experienced in racing games.
Since the first game in the current generation's iteration of the series (that began as Colin McRae Rally), I've had just as much fun racing or trying to beat the best track time as I have had rewinding the playback after a particularly gnarly crash and applying slow motion to watch my car's body realistically crumple, smash into rocks and trees, then bound over cliffs. Codemasters is well aware of this particular draw, as evidenced by later games' flashback feature as well as DiRT 3's stunt-filled Gymkhana events.
DiRT Showdown continues in that direction as its own fully fleshed game, offering players the chance to compete in several different events in giant stadiums filled with cheering crowds and lots of pyrotechnics. The thrills of stunting and crashing hard are amped up to levels beyond what the DiRT series has been known for.
DiRT Showdown (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Just to clarify, DiRT Showdown is not a direct sequel to DiRT 3. In fact, as the Codemasters guys were quick to tell me, after getting feedback from their fans on how jarring the differences between the Gymkhana events and the regular rally events in DiRT 3 were, the team decided on offering players two entirely separate games that focused on these different aspects. The next true iteration of DiRT will be focused on the deep rally racing experience while DiRT Showdown should appease the demolition and stunt junkies who appreciated where Gymkhana took the series.
DiRT Showdown isn't just some expansion, nor should it be considered DiRT 3.5. The game is a fully fledged beast with around 52 events spanning 19 locations and three different play styles -- Speed, Style, and Destruction. Many will be happy to know that pretty much every event can either be played via two-player split screen or online with up to eight players.
Speed encompasses DiRT Showdown's racing modes, which include Race-offs, Lap Attacks, and Eliminator and Dominator. I was able to get some hands-on time with a Nevada track in Race-off mode called "8 Ball" due to the figure eight shape of the track. Immediately after getting my hands on the controller, I noticed how much faster the game generally felt than previous entries, with boosting being an important part of getting ahead amidst aggressive drivers. The handling veers more towards arcade than simulation, so much so that I at first found myself swerving around the gravel track, kicking up dust, because I've been so accustomed to the weightier feeling of previous DiRT cars. The race itself was both fast-paced and thrilling, and at one point I got into a collision with several cars, causing my own vehicle to do several barrel rolls before somehow making it back onto the track to still come out in the lead.
Style introduces the new Ken Block-branded Hoonigan events that take place in large stadiums and allow a lot of exploration. Hoonigan events include Smash Hunter, Trick Rush, and Head 2 Head mode, and all generally focus on allowing a player to wander around a stadium pulling off awesome stunts or smashing a number of blocks with finesse. I didn't get a chance to check out any Hoonigan events, though from what I'm told, they're a much more varied version of the free-roam stadiums one could unlock in DiRT 3, each with their own specific goals and career progression.
Finally, Destruction is heavily influenced by the Demolition Derby events found in GRID. The modes include Rampage, Hard Target, and Knockout. I had a chance to check out a Rampage event on the San Francisco track "Golden Gate." Rampage is a pure Demolition Derby mode with a variety of interestingly designed vehicles (including a hearse) where garnering the most points involves smashing into cars with as much force and strategy as possible, then making use of the last 30 seconds of the match to garner even more points. While T-boning and colliding hard with other vehicles and causing massive damage to pretty much everything in my path, I could quickly see how this may be the favorite party mode for gamers, both online and off.
While the difficulty settings in DiRT Showdown can be adjusted to ramp up A.I. intelligence (i.e. cruelty towards you and others on the track), the real focus through the career mode will be on upgrading your vehicle so that it fits your play style. If you go with a heavier vehicle, you'll probably be focusing on speed and damage upgrades, but if you go with a lighter vehicle, you may find yourself along an upgrade path towards acceleration and agility. Succeeding in events earns you the cash to access these upgrades, so Codemasters wants to make sure the game is challenging and engaging enough for anyone on any difficulty level.
DiRT Showdown won't be the game to appease fans of pure rally racing, but it's gearing up to be an exciting spin-off for the stunt junkie who wants demolition, pyrotechnics, and awesome stunt-filled races to the tune of cheering crowds.