I’m what you’d call a casual racing fan. I really enjoy racing games, but I find it hard to devote my time to more than one or two every year, so I tend toward known quantities – Forza, Burnout, Need for Speed, etc. As such, I’ve always been intrigued by Codemasters’ popular Dirt series of rally racing games, but I have yet to take the leap into trying one out. The publisher hopes to pull in people like myself with its new spin-off game, Dirt Showdown, which I was able to go hands-on with last week.
According to Codemasters, the decision to create Dirt Showdown came from a recognition that by the third Dirt game, the series had expanded from its pure rally racing roots and into the realm of "action sports." Dirt 3 featured a major addition to the series called gymkhana, an obstacle and trick course for cars.
To help clarify the game’s focus and calm fans who might be annoyed by the dissonant modes, Codemasters decided to create a branching spin-off. In other words, Dirt Showdown is not Dirt 4. This is a separate, action sports-focused version of the Dirt series that will coexist alongside continued iterations of the regular Dirt games.
As an example of its action focus, this is the first Dirt game that will feature a boost mechanic. Like in the Burnout games, you’ll build the boost meter by drifting, passing, and generally driving successfully. Well-placed use of boost can get you into the lead or allow you to pull off a devastating crash into an opponent’s vehicle.
The first mode I checked out in Dirt Showdown is called 8 Ball. This race takes place in a looping track that crisscrosses in the middle (i.e. basically in the shape of an 8). Because the track is relatively short but has several laps, this middle area is certain to be home to some major accidents as players driving in different directions cross at the same time.
In addition to the boost mechanic, 8 Ball shows off another change to Dirt Showdown: health bars. In the demo, my health has been buffed up so that even after major accidents I have about three-fourths of my bar left, but in the final game players will be able to completely knock opponents out of the race by draining their health bars.
I enjoyed my time with 8 Ball mode, but couldn’t help noticing a surprising similarity to the feeling I get from racing in Mario Kart games. There may not be any blue shells here, but each time I tried it out, I entered the final lap in third place with a healthy lead...and ended the race in second, third, or fourth. Because of the over-the-top nature of the event, spots change suddenly and painfully, even if you’re playing well. This makes for a fun party game, but I could see regular racing fans getting annoyed at the uncertainty.
The much more interesting mode, in my opinion, is Destruction Derby. As the name implies, these events drop you into arenas and focus completely on taking out other cars. In addition to crazy rule sets, Destruction Derby events have more room for crazy locales. For example, the one I played was set in an enclosed space with San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge in the background.
I played the Rampage variant of Destruction Derby, in which players are given points for hitting other cars as well as destroying them completely. I had infinite respawns and was able to continue building my score until the timer ran out. The game ranks the power of each crash in order to determine how many points you get, and you even get double points in the final 30 seconds.
The few rounds of Rampage I played were an absolute blast. There’s something undeniably fun about an arena full of eight cars just smashing into each other recklessly, and as I got a better feel for how the scoring system worked, I really began enjoying myself. The visible health bars on opponents strongly encouraged me to hunt down foes who were the closest to death, but I knew they would do the same to me.
Despite the chaos, there was a satisfying loop of strategic decisions to make. Can I make it to that near-dead car across the room and take him out if I boost? Or should I focus on the guy with half health to the left of me? It’s a mode that seems like it will be fantastic online with a group of friends.
Beyond Rampage, there are a couple other Destruction Derby modes that I wasn’t able to check out. King of the Ring has all of the vehicles starting in a raised platform that they must knock each other off of. Hard Target is a survival mode where only one car is marked as the target, and every other car must chase after it. Players only get points for taking out the target or taking out other vehicles as the target.
The regular racing in Dirt Showdown didn’t blow me away, even with the new boost and health bar to worry about, but Destruction Derby seems like a wonderful, fun way to set this spin-off apart from the Dirt series. I’m still not convinced that this will be one of the only racing games I spend my time on this year, but I’m eager to set up some chaotic online matches with friends soon. I shouldn’t have to wait too long, as Codemasters is currently planning to release Dirt Showdown in May.