Is it possible to please everyone? For those in the business of making video games, probably not. Even for hugely successful franchises like Call of Duty--which have reached the kind of critical mass that many developers can only dream of--there are still people out there happy to complain about short campaigns, foul-mouthed 12-year-olds, and an overreliance on linearity. It's not just shooters, either.
While Codemasters' Dirt 2 was by all accounts an excellent game, there were some who lamented its in-your-face extreme-sports theme, craving a return to the simulation days of old. Then came Dirt 3, which began to lean back towards simulation, upsetting those who had grown to love the extreme-sports angle of its predecessor. It's a battle that seems impossible to win, but Codemasters thinks it has found the solution with Dirt Showdown, an arcade-style spin-off that takes the extreme-sports elements of Dirt 2, mixes in the Gymkhana events from Dirt 3, and then throws in some Destruction Derby action for good measure.
It's a mix that boldly differentiates itself from the main Dirt series (which will make a return with a renewed focus on simulation in Dirt 4), offering up three different types of anarchic racing, online multiplayer for up to eight people, and two-player split-screen play. The whole thing takes place in what Codemasters is calling a "theatre of racing"; that is, an extreme-sports theme that harks back to Dirt 2, with a festival atmosphere of cheering crowds, over-the-top pyrotechnics, and arena-based tracks. The handling has been changed too, eschewing simulation for a simpler arcade feel that should make keeping your car on the track and performing outrageous stunts much easier.
Stunts are integral to winning Hoonigan events, which make up one of the three types of racing on offer. There's Smash Hunters, where you have to smash objects within a certain time limit; Trick Rush, where you perform stunts for points; and Head 2 Head, a trick gauntlet where you take on an opponent and compete for the highest score. If tricks aren't your thing, there are standard races too, including Lap Attack, Eliminator, and Domination. Finally, there are the Demolition events; Rampage, where you try to destroy all the other cars; Hard Target, where you have to try to escape the other cars; and King of the Ring, where all the cars race towards a central point, meeting in a spectacular crash.
All those modes are available in Career mode and in multiplayer, either online or split-screen, as well as Joyride, which is a mission-based mode that ties in to Showdown's social features. Similar to EA's Autolog, Showdown lets you send challenges to friends, so if you've just run a stellar lap on your favourite course, you can challenge your friend to do the same. Standard leaderboards will also be included but will be more prominent in menus, so you'll be able to keep track of your friends' progress with ease, and no doubt get riled up when you see you're being beaten.
To ensure each race is action-packed, each of the courses has been designed with pinch points (areas of the track which close up and clump cars together), giving each driver a chance to catch up and. of course. encouraging contact between players. There are also numerous ramps scattered throughout each circuit for yet more destructive mayhem. The courses are based on popular locations from previous Dirt games, plus some new ones, and include Colorado, London, San Francisco, Yokohama, and Michigan.
There are three different vehicle types to take around each course, which are a mixture of licensed and fictional cars, trucks, and buggies. They're divided into three categories, each designed for a specific task: Racing, which includes muscle cars and SUVs; Hoonigan, which includes Ken Block's Fiesta; and Demolition, which is made up of strong, powerful vehicles. Though not every vehicle is officially licensed, most are based on real-world vehicles, just without the badges. There are some completely off-the-wall vehicles too, including a destruction-ready hearse-like car covered in skull decals and over-the-top exhausts.
We grabbed a brief hands-on with a very early version of Showdown, which featured a Baha racing circuit and a Destruction arena. Visually, there was little to differentiate Showdown from Dirt 3 at first glance, barring some enhanced details in the crowds and more in-your-face lighting effects from the fireworks that punctuated leaps we took off ramps. More noticeable was the handling of the cars, which felt very different. Whereas Dirt 3 required some practice just to get a car around a corner smoothly, here it was much easier to keep them on the track. The handling was very forgiving, even on the dusty Baha track, with our buggy hugging each corner and letting us pull off some impressive-looking drifts.
The Destruction arena let us get a taste of Showdown's multiplayer as we competed in an eight-player Rampage. Each car was launched into the center of a circular arena, where we inevitably smashed into each other, sending shards of debris flying through the air. Our goal was to smash our opponents as much as possible, with points awarded to us depending on how much damage we did. The small, enclosed circuit meant we were always in contact with another player, and before long our car had become a crumbling wreck, with a scrunched-up hood, missing wing sections, and a boot that flopped around as we drove around the arena. Eventually, our car gave out altogether, causing the wheels to fly off and forcing us to enter the arena with a new car.
Showdown certainly felt like a big change from the precision rallying of Dirt 3, but given the so-so performance of recent arcade racers such as Blur, Split/Second, and Motorstorm Apocalypse, it's one that could prove risky, even if it appeals to wider audiences on paper. That said, it was a lot of fun, with the vicious destruction modelling making Destruction mode in particular all the more exciting. Dirt Showdown is still in the early stages of development, so we're expecting a few more surprises from Codemasters before the game is released in 2012 on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. Look out for more on GameSpot soon.