Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Review: DiRT Showdown

Whereas its predecessors have focussed on rally driving and how the cars handle, Codemaster’s new slant on its DiRT series is an altogether different beast. DiRT Showdown is clearly aimed more towards the casual racer, with far more arcadey handling and events. Besides racing, you also get to try your hand at the good old Demolition Derby and the stunt-based Hoonigan events – similar to the Gymkhana modes in DiRT 3.

The main menu presents various options including the main Showdown Tour – a series of solo events where you fight for first place and earn money to buy and upgrade vehicles. Then there’s Joyride – consisting of huge arenas to show off your skills – as well as Challenge mode and the all-important Multiplayer.

Each event is quite a spectacle; sharp graphics and satisfyingly booming music spill from your speakers from the onset. There’s a decent variety of cars to control and batter, and a heady mix of pyrotechnics, a brash US commentator and varied weather conditions thrown in too.

All the backgrounds and environments are lush and vivid, lighting effects are great, and the music and commentary add nicely to the proceedings. The damage modelling is suitably satisfying, while the replays – highlighting bits hanging off your car and the crumpled bodywork - show just how close you were to retiring from a race early. If you’re particularly proud of your efforts, you can capture the action using the integrated You Tube functionality.

The controls are reassuringly simple with the obligatory accelerate, brake and handbrake buttons. A handy nitrous boost is also available whichever chariot you choose, and is slowly replenished during each event. A Crashback rewind feature gives you five opportunities per race to have another go should you really screw things up too.

The handling is very forgiving unlike some of the rally games of the past and each car feels suitably different, which makes skidding round corners incredibly satisfying. The controls are a piece of cake to master and everyone is quickly on a level playing field no matter how many hours you’ve invested into the game – again making this an ideal party game.

The Showdown Tour consists of more than 50 events, spread across four championships: Pro, Allstar, Champion and Legend. Only a small selection of races are available initially, with the others locked until you conquer a required number of events. Prize money is earned depending on your final position, which you can use to buy vehicles and upgrade their power, strength and handling attributes.

After picking your desired car and decals, you’re ready to participate in the diverse range of events. Race Off is pretty traditional fare, requiring you to shunt your rivals, catch some air over ramps and avoid obstructions to cross the finishing line first.

If it's more destruction you crave, 8 Ball should get your motor running. The track is laid out in a figure-of-eight with plenty of cross over points... collisions are inevitable and victory is as much down to luck as it is skilful driving; a well-earned lead can be easily lost thanks to a collision on the final straight that sends you awry.

Next up is Domination, where the circuit is split into sectors and you're awarded points for setting the fastest time in each. The racer with the most points at the end of the race wins.
Keeping ahead of your rivals is the name of the game for the Eliminator events, where the timer ticks down and kicks whoever is in last place out of the place. Careful use of the boost button is essential to keep you in front.

Then we get down to the really good stuff. Harking back to the good old days of Destruction Derby on the PSOne, Rampage puts in an arena with other drivers who are baying for your blood. Take the lead by outscoring your opponents by T-boning, swiping and head on collisions. More points are awarded for heavier hits or destroying a rival. As the event draws to a close, double points are awarded to keep things interesting – which means that even a decent lead can be overcome, keeping you on your toes until the timer ticks down.

Even better are the Knock Out matches, which place all the cars on an elevated platform. Much like a Japanese Sumo match, the aim is to push your rivals off the edge without plunging off yourself. Besides the huge bonuses awarded for nudging them off, you can also accrue a healthy score by smashing into them. You’re not penalised for falling off yourself but it does waste vital seconds as you make your way to a nearby access ramp to get right back into the action. It's great fun and probably the mode we revisited the most.

If you're getting pretty confident with your driving and evasive manoeuvres, then try out Hard Target where survival is the name of the game. You're the prey and start in the centre of an arena, having to avoid being destroyed by all the other cars for as long as possible. Tricky and addictive.

For those of you craving a little more skill to your racing, Showdown’s Hoonigan fixtures will satiate your hunger. Head 2 Head matches see you compete in a series of time trials with another racer, drifting, smashing and donuting your way round the obstacle courses in the quickest time. Trick Rush, meanwhile, requires as many tricks as possible to be completed within the time limit. Finally, there’s Gate Hunter, where it’s all about smashing coloured bricks in a certain order.

There’s plenty to see and do – but when you’re done with the career mode you can always turn your hand to Joyride – which as the name suggests allows you to drive around a bit and hone your skills. Featuring a couple of arenas, these are proving grounds that test even the most competent racers. The huge expanses feature barrels strewn about the place, carefully positioned cranes and handy ramps that are perfect for pulling off drifts, donuts and other tricks. Besides the lengthy list of objectives and challenges on each level, there are also hidden items to find. No game these days gets released without collectibles, eh?

When all’s said and done, games like this thrive on the multiplayer element and Showdown does a rather nice job in that department too. Besides two-player split-screen, you can also dip into eight-player online races. The lobbies are nice and full, and when you're waiting to join a match, you can watch the destruction as a spectator.

Arguably, the online modes will provide far more longevity than playing solo. Entering lobbies is simple and quick and no matter how skilled your opponents, you’ll never feel outclassed. The all-new RaceNet system allows you to track and compare achievements and statistics. What’s more, you can also throw down the gauntlet to friends and challenge them to beat your times.

You probably get the impression we were pretty keen on this game. Ultimately, DiRT Showdown will appeal to many – although it may upset a few diehard fans by straying from the roots of the series. Personally, the arcadey feel is welcome and the slant on destruction and carnage is refreshing. It’s perfect for dipping in and out, just as much as it is for a prolonged gaming session. There’s plenty to keep you occupied with oodles of replayability both alone with the decent AI or against real players. It's entertaining and recommended!