UK REVIEW: There's a spectacle to Dirt Showdown that flies in the face of racing tradition: the jumps, the drifts, the squealing doughnuts, and the blinding flash of fireworks. With each crumpled bumper and shattered windscreen, a vast arena crowd roars, eager to be wowed not with the shaving of valuable seconds from a lap time, but with pyrotechnic-laden displays of driving that are as much about showmanship and destruction as they are about skilful precision. It's an intoxicating mix that forgoes the difficulty of simulation for a thrilling and beautifully presented arcade ride.
The biggest difference between Showdown and its predecessors is that the handling is surprisingly forgiving. You can whip your car around the tightest of corners without ever easing off the accelerator, while even the most dramatic twirls of the steering wheel don't send you hurtling headfirst towards a barrier like they used to. But there's still a balance to be found. The skill lies in the timing of your turns and the judicious tapping of your hand brake and boost to perform impressive drifts and show-stopping doughnut rings. It's a dramatically different feel, but one that lends itself beautifully to the events at hand.
Some, like the Hoonigan events, are all about precision and showmanship in licensed cars. The destructible blocks of Smash Hunter are intricately arranged to reward delicate turns and tight drifts, while a timer for high scores keeps the pressure on, and your speed up. There's more challenge to be had in Trick Rush events, where drifts, doughnuts, and jumps are scattered throughout cleverly designed environments. With each trick your multiplier climbs ever higher, resulting in a mad dash to rack up points before the timer runs down.
Most challenging are the head to head Gymkhana events, where you take on the mighty Ken Block in a trick-filled arena course. The turns are tighter, the jumps larger, and the pyrotechnics even wilder. But while the bright, neon fireworks and explosive confetti cannons certainly add excitement to the proceedings, it's the process of improving bit by bit, drawing ever closer to success and perfection that makes such events so entertaining and incredibly addictive.
But there's another side to Dirt Showdown, one that sheds the skill for mindless and supremely satisfying displays of destruction: Demolition events. The licensed cars are ditched in favour of made-up machines that are turned into crumpled heaps of scrap as you're launched into the centre of an arena to ram, slam, and boost your way into opponents, doing everything you can to whittle down their health bars and to score points. Enclosed arenas give you barriers to ram them against, while open arenas mean mistimed boosts send you spiralling out of control onto the surrounding sandy ground.
It's all very dramatic, and heaps of fun, despite the incredibly cheesy and quickly grating quips from the commentator. There's a sick satisfaction to be had from tearing into cars and ripping off bumpers, but of course, your competitors can do the same to you. And when a whole gang of them are chasing after you at once in Hard Target events, it becomes a tense battle for survival. There are more conventional events on offer, such as Lap Attack, Eliminator, and Domination races. But while cleverly designed figure-of-eight circuits and ramp-filled tracks keep the racing firmly in the arcade, these events are unremarkable when compared to the bombast of Gymkhana or the all-out carnage of Demolition.
A mix of all events makes up the Showdown Tour career mode. There are four stages to play through, each consisting of 15 events that take you on a tour of the world. There are the colourful lights and sharp corners of Tokyo; the dusty roads and sweeping drifts of the Baja California circuits; the slippery snow-covered slopes of Colorado; and the wide-open industrial spaces of Battersea. All are beautifully presented, showcasing the typically great circuit design that Codemasters is famed for. The ability to purchase new cars or upgrade their basic stats such as power and handling using money you earn is a nice incentive to progress, but without a narrative or character to develop, it can get a little tiresome.
The events really come into their own when you take them online or compete via two-player split-screen. Smashing AI opponents is one thing, but when it's your friend's car you've turned into scrap, that's a whole other level of satisfaction. Even the race events are more enjoyable, thanks to the inevitable smashing of opponents' cars as you drive around a circuit. There's also the option to split into teams, thrusting you and seven other players into epic battles for destruction domination. It all comes together brilliantly, giving you the feeling that perhaps Showdown always was intended to be an online experience, even if the single-player is hardly a rush job.
That said, Showdown has one more single-player trick up its sleeve in the form of Joyride. Its large, free-roaming levels offer up a range of fun quick-fire missions for you to complete. Some are in the form of tricks like performing death-defying leaps or tight drifts. Others are speed challenges where you race through tight circuits as quickly as possible. There are hidden Showdown icons to collect too. With all there is to do, you can spend lots of time simply enjoying a drive around a Joyride level and picking off missions. Plus, your scores and times can be sent over to friends as challenges for them to complete, which is a nice touch.
Competing with friends really is the best way to enjoy Dirt Showdown. Sure, the single-player campaign is pleasant enough, but it's nothing compared to the joy of online destruction and the satisfaction of nailing those most impressive of skilful driving tricks in front of an audience. And when it's delivered via some of the smoothest and most stunning visuals in the racing genre, it's easy to see how you can get lost for hours in Showdown's bombastic world. If you're looking for the next great rally simulator, you won't find it here. But to ignore Dirt Showdown because of its arcade styling would be to deny yourself one of the most satisfying of pleasures: that of mindless, over-the-top, and--above all--deliciously addictive destruction.