Dirt Showdown Preview: The Ghost of Destruction Derby

Codemasters spins off into a violent new direction.

Motorsport is glitz and it is glamour. It's the teardrop curve of an F1 car as it reflects Monaco's harbourline, its perfect swoop capturing a moment of speed in carbon fibre, or the romantic siren call of a V8 as it bounces across the housefronts of the Mulsanne Straight in the dead of night.

That's one ideal, anyway. There's another world of weekend heroics where the smell of simmering bacon grease mixes with that of engine oil and damp grass, and where the cars, with their punctured bodywork and torn-off doors, capture a moment of violence rather than one of speed.

I used to go there myself, when trips to the likes of Silverstone and Brands Hatch were out of the question. Here, in a track marked out of discarded tires in the backwaters of Bovingdon, drivers would take out their frustrations on one another, turning each other to pulp over the course of a slow Sunday afternoon. It's a spectacle that, for its lack of airs and graces, offers just as much as any Grand Prix or sportscar race.

So while it might seem odd that Codemasters, having been burnt by the disappointments of Bodycount and Operation Flashpoint, is showing its renewed and single-minded focus on racing games by producing a game where racing's just a sideshow, it's simply catching another side of the sport. Bovingdon's been swapped out for Baha in Dirt Showdown - a spin-off from the rally series, but a full boxed release in its own right - but the appeal is the same. This is the down-and-dirty world of banger racing in all of its primal glory.

We've been here before, of course - first with Reflections' pair of Destruction Derby games, sadly absent since the days of the first PlayStation, and more recently with Bugbear's Flatout games, a series that set itself up for a head-on collision with mediocrity after the Finnish developer bailed out.

Dirt Showdown proves how much we've missed that kind of experience, the kind that plays to the dark impulse that grips most of us when presented with a driving game; here you can t-bone an opponent and really revel in the shower of metal that comes in the wake a head-on collision without feeling any guilt whatsoever. It's kind of the point.

A career mode, with a structure that follows along the lines of Dirt 3, takes you across four seasons, each one ending with a climactic showdown. And, like the mainline Dirt games, Showdown takes in a multitude of disciplines, some familiar and others with a more destructive bent.

There is racing, but it comes with a sizeable side order of slapstick. Take 8-Ball, an eight-car race taking place around a flat figure of eight circuit with a crossover that's been created with nothing but carnage in mind. Think back to Grid and you'll remember a similar layout, and you may remember the similar scenes of chaos that ensued.

The slapstick is enhanced by props littering the track - small clusters of tyres can be knocked aside to create an improvised slalom for drivers in your wake, while tyre tractors can be shunted around to create a more insistent obstacle. While the objects are persistent, it doesn't quite attain the environmental intricacy of a Flatout game, but the capacity for comedy is much the same.

Cars splash about into each other, bouncing from wall to wall in racing that, while far from civilised, is certainly entertaining. The physics have been retained from the Dirt games, and slightly refined to cater for the more boisterous action; there's a boost that's topped up by physical contact, there's never any real need to lift off the loud pedal, and all you need to do is flick out the tail-end to guide yourself around a wide-radius corner.

And, of course, the damage model's also been retained from the Dirt series. Again, it's been refined for Showdown's chaos. Destruction has been a part of Codemasters' games since the very first TOCA, more recently evident in the slo-mo crash porn of the studio's rewind feature and in a damage model that, to date, is unsurpassed. Showdown extracts that and plays to it - for all of its shunning of what makes a racing game, it's actually remarkably pure in its aims.

Uploading videos promises to be as easy in Showdown as it was in Dirt 3 - and the chaos here should mean it's a slightly better fit.

Nowhere is this more evident - or told any louder - than in Rampage, the mode that's Showdown's own demolition derby. It's as simple as it gets: a small, self-contained arena has eight cars lined up around its perimeter, all of them facing inwards. The clock begins to tick downwards and the recklessness starts, while the goal is fairly simple - gather as many points as you can by spinning, shunting and wrecking opponents.

There are a handful of variations on the theme - Knockout's an automotive sumo, wherein you've got to force your fellow drivers out of the ring, while a survival mode does exactly as you'd expect, throwing countless cars at you and asking you to stay alive as long as possible. Regardless, the redneck appeal remains - it's a messy metal-fight.

It's hardly a refined driving experience, although the return of gymkhana in the new Hoonigan mode suggests there'll be room for some grace in the package. Featuring a series of licensed cars - manufacturers are, unsurprisingly, unwilling to see their cars being put through the grinder, so the core garage offers up a fictional assortment - Hoonigan is expanded out from Dirt 3's own offering, the strange ballet now set across a playground in the Yokohama docks that's three times the size of the returning Battersea power station.

Showdown's an odd excursion for Codemasters, for sure. It doesn't have the purity of purpose of Destruction Derby or Flatout, but it does share with those games a sense of fun that's been largely absent from the genre. And while it may dismay the traditionalists, it should actually be a source of relief rather than one of concern - with the studio free to indulge in its extreme sports follies here, the theory goes, Dirt 4 will be able to knuckle down to the more straight-faced side of off-road racing. That makes Showdown the perfect counterpoint, and a happy celebration of motorsport's less serious side.

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