DiRT Showdown Preview (PC)
In 1998 Codemasters released Colin McRae Rally and with it started down a path which has seen them become a hugely significant player in the driving genre. As the series has evolved and moved away from the original brand to the newer "DiRT" naming we have seen the gameplay evolve significantly to the point the most recent game, DiRT 3, included some rather fun arcade game segments based on gymkhana. These served as a nice change in pace from the racing and showed that when Codemasters are not creating more serious racers, like the excellent F1 2011, they know how to have some fun.
Being released on the new Codemasters Racing label, fun is what the focus of today's preview is all about and in DiRT: Showdown we dispense with the normal time trials and rally gameplay associated with the franchise, moving to a much more arcade experience which focuses on destruction.
As mentioned above the Showdown steps away from the off-road action of DiRT, the street racing of GRID or the more serious F1 franchise and carves its own niche in the Codemasters racing family. In this game we work our way towards the "Showdown Finals" taking on various styles of gameplay as we go and the game very much has a pick up and play feel. The controls are simple, the usual mix of steering with accelerate and brake but we also have access to a handbrake for more advanced cornering or moves and a boost button which gives us a temporary increase in speed and therefore more powerful impacts, of which there are many.
The preview code for Showdown featured four game modes and like the full game they were based over several locations, each with its own unique look and feel. Yoko Hama at sunset, San Francisco under floodlights and more. There is also a wide selection of vehicles to choose from, each with varying statistics which can help in particular game modes and as well as unlocking higher levels/events our success is rewarded with cash which can be used to buy new cars or upgrade existing models.
Playing through the four game modes it was clear that each has a very distinct feel. Starting with Race Off we are dropped into a game style which will feel reasonably familiar to most players. Essentially we have a number of laps and must finish on the podium when racing against a selection of opponents. This is no holds barred racing though with every racer encouraged to take out the others, sliding into them, clipping their rear end or just plain crashing. Adding to the race are various jumps, items to crash through and ramps which can send us onto two wheels for short periods of time.
Next up is Ram Rage where we are placed in an arena with various opponents. Each car has a health meter and the aim is to crash into each as much as possible, until they are wrecked at which point the health bar replenishes and the car re-enters as new. Points are awarded for more powerful moves and boost once again makes an appearance.
Knock Out tweaks the timer based Ram Rage style of gameplay by setting it on a platform, think of it like a massive boxing ring without ropes, and our aim is to cause as much damage to other "racers" as possible while remaining on the surface. Forcing another car off the platform or destroying them results in the most points being awarded, taking us up the leaderboard and should we end up on the ground there are plenty of ramps to speed up, jumping back onto the platform and into the action.
That takes us to 8 Ball mode which is back to limited laps racing style gameplay however the track is designed to offer a high level of crashes and therefore plenty of action. Long straights end in loops which then end in crossroad sections where one group of racers often hit another side on, and our aim as well as watching the health and boost bars is to destroy our opponents and make it to the end of the race, finishing in the top 3 if possible.
As well as additional events DiRT Showdown, at launch, will also feature more locations, more vehicles and more functionality with multiplayer and online being key aspects. This includes local split screen, 8-player online racing, challenge your friends mode and YouTube integration to showcase the thrills and spills of each event. Codemasters will also be launching RaceNet, a new hub (free) which will bring together all of the studio's games and allow stat tracking and additional, yet to be announced, features.
Graphics and Audio
For anyone who has played a recent Codemasters game from the DiRT or GRID franchises Showdown has a very familiar look and feel. It is especially close in visual style to DiRT 3 even in terms of the menu structure and available camera angles. When we then move into the main gameplay the use of Codemasters EGO engine is clearly evident, though the visual style is enhanced with the designers focusing on some rather lovely lighting effects, decent destruction models and quality use of fireworks, flames and the like. Essentially we are looking at DiRT presented as an extreme sport and on the whole it works well. It is also worth noting that the game also runs well on a wide range of systems as this is a mature engine now though we would have liked to see a few enhancements such as the use of higher spec systems to retain debris on the tracks to be knocked about as the race progresses rather than have it disappear.
Audio also takes its inspiration from extreme sports with commentary running thorough, voiced enthusiastically with plenty of over the top descriptions... "T-Bone-alicious"... The car and crash sounds are suitably meaty with a very loud, mostly rock/metal orientated soundtrack playing at all times, well unless we are "killed" where the game goes into slow motion with a tweaked colour palette and near silence to add drama.
Based on our time with DiRT Showdown it is clear that Codemasters want users to forget about the more serious aspects of racing and just sit down to have some fun. The graphics, particularly the use of lighting, look great. The audio suits the onscreen action and overall the gameplay is fast and frantic as it should be. It is also nice to have a game which is very much pick up and play with no need to invest hours at a time. We can drop into a game, play for a few mins and head off again having had a concentrated battle and plenty of enjoyment.
What we also look forward to seeing is whether this signals a new approach from Codemasters Racing with a Showdown brand offering the arcade options and DiRT 4 focusing more on the traditional gameplay which the franchise is famous for.
DiRT Showdown will be released on May 24th/25th in Europe and May 29th in North America for 360, PS3 and PC. Selected retailers (such as GAME and Gamestation in the UK) will also offer special Hoonigan Editions which feature unique packaging, an in-game cash boost, an online XP multiplier plus Monster Energy liveries for the Kohler D350, Duke Coupe and Ford Fiesta Gymkhana 3 and Hoonigan liveries for the Holbrook Growler, Logan Vulture and Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X JUN (as seen in the 'Ultimate Hoonigan' video), redeemed via an online code.