Version tested: Xbox 360
"Is it a downloadable game?" If I had a pound for every time I'd been asked that while playing Dirt Showdown then I would have, well, £3. Still, that's three times that the first instinct of one of the people walking past our games room was to inquire about this new racing game's origins, which suggests not everyone has gotten their head around Codemasters' latest brand extension, or that it raises some doubt at first sight.
It's not a downloadable game though; it's a boxed release that happens to draw its name and some of its inspiration from Codies' increasingly gnarly rally game series, itself an offshoot of the superb Colin McRae games. It's also, along with Ridge Racer Unbounded, proof that the arcade racing genre isn't just surviving following the closures of studios like Bizarre Creations and Black Rock, but delivering some of its best work.
But whereas Ridge Racer Unbounded was a subtle trick - a rollercoaster of destruction, balancing on the knife edge of a thrilling handling model that almost didn't work - Dirt Showdown's success is much more familiar: brilliant racing disciplines, accessible handling, gorgeous presentation and tremendous variety.
Your initial spins around the likes of Baja, Miami, LA and Tokyo quickly take in a multitude of game modes - races, eliminators, drift attacks, destruction derbies and imaginative takes on classics like time trial and gymkhana. New event types come thick and fast, spread across three over-arching philosophies - racing, destruction and Hoonigan - each of which has up to half a dozen variants. Codemasters definitely doesn't want you to get bored.
The list of events should be dizzying, but in practice it's easy to figure out what you're doing within a few seconds of the lights going green, and if you are confused then the excitable announcer will fill you in (and, failing that, there's an Event Info button on the pause menu). Codemasters' great skill is in drawing everything together intuitively and coherently.
That's partly thanks to excellent handling - a fantastical blend of super-responsive steering, effortless drifts and zippy acceleration, complemented by recharging nitrous. Whether you're scurrying through corners in a hot-hatch like the Zenden or powering through twisting 8-ball courses in the hearse-like Eulogy, you're always confident of your movements, gliding through turns or donuting pylons with authority after minimal practice.
But it's also down to the strength of individual events and the way they're rationed. Hoonigan Smash Hunter courses, for example, are like cone challenges where you have to smash the cones: gunning through sequences of coloured blocks as fast as you can, snaking and weaving through obstacles, ramps and other-coloured blocks in the process. It's good, technical racing and horribly compulsive. But then, just as you're getting a taste for that event, it disappears again, only to make a welcome return half an hour later.
Some events, like the straightforward races, can feel a little processional from time to time, but the AI usually puts up a good fight. It's not a clean one, but then that's the trick: this is a racer with one wheel in the destruction sub-genre, so if you're chasing cars that seem out of sight then you can rely on them to tangle with one another so you can catch up.
Destruction events, meanwhile, are a bit of a mixed bag in the campaign. Hard Target, where you have to evade other cars in an arena, is frantic fun, but it's harder to locate the skill in events like Rampage and Knockout - destruction derbies set in an arena and on a raised platform respectively - where the outcome can feel more random.
If you take these battles online, however, it's another story, because Dirt Showdown really comes into its own played with excitable real-life opponents. The unpredictability of destruction events suddenly works in their favour, and every other mode makes a canny transition. The free-roaming drift challenges, for example - where you have to donut lampposts, drift under articulated lorries and launch yourself off ramps to keep a trick sequence running - are no longer pause-and-restart solo affairs; you need to nail as much as you can first time, all the while the ghosts of your opponents buzz around you.
Then there are multiplayer-specific events, too, like the capture-the-flag variant where a flag spawns in a random area and you need to grab it and keep it from the opposition, and an open-road checkpoint mode where you head to each marker in whatever order you like. Team-based variations add to the drama, allowing you to run interference for your team-mate with the flag, or to block a lingering opposition car's path to the goal once you've been through every checkpoint yourself.
Outside the main campaign and multiplayer playlists, Joyride mode gives you the run of the hubs built around Battersea Power Station and Yokohama Docks, each stuffed with 75 challenges - things like donuting the scoop on a digger, or performing a sequence of spins on top of a shipping container. With hidden trophies to find as well, and no obligation to do things in a set order, you can blow off steam here for a change of pace.
It's a nice touch, but if there's one thing Dirt Showdown doesn't leave you wanting, it's a sense of variety. Whether you're playing alone or with friends - and there's local split-screen play too, for those who want it - you're rarely kept on the same path for longer than a few minutes. Not every event is as entertaining as gymkhana or Hard Target, but it doesn't matter; the very least you can expect from the weaker disciplines is to be solidly entertained by slick handling and great track design.
"Handling is a fantastical blend of super-responsive steering, effortless drifts and zippy acceleration, complemented by recharging nitrous."
One thing it does leave you wanting, however, is faster hardware. Codemasters' EGO Engine is resplendent, as ever, delivering one of the best-looking racing games you've ever seen, full of beautiful lighting and atmospheric effects - but that does mean you spend a lot of time looking at load screens. In fact, it often takes two or three minutes to get from the results screen of one event to the start of the next, via a main menu set against a fully-rendered stadium backdrop and load screens with rotatable car models. Given that the events themselves are sometimes only a few minutes long, you can spend up to half your time playing Dirt Showdown not actually playing it.
That frustration is compounded slightly should you finish a hard-fought event in second or third place and wish to try it again. You can restart immediately, but you will lose your winnings, which can be substantial, and the only way to bank them is to exit back to the main menu and then re-enter the event from there.
At least any frustration on the track is limited by a super-fast pause-and-restart cycle and liberal application of Codies' wonderful flashback feature, introduced in GRID to let you rewind an unsuccessful corner and have another go. You can even make fun of your mishaps this time by using 'crashback' to record a video of your escapades and upload to YouTube.
Perhaps the greatest threat to Dirt Showdown's long-term popularity, however, is also its greatest strength: its accessibility. This is a game that's very easy to enjoy, but the thrill does ebb away gradually once you've been round every event a few times, despite the clever rationing and sense of variety.
Moreover, the lightweight but satisfying handling model gives up its treasures so readily that you're unlikely to find weeks of fun scraping away at your friends' achievements like you did in Forza 4's Rivals mode or Need for Speed's Autolog, despite the presence of a similar Challenge element, which lets you post targets for people on your friends list.
It's more likely that you'll gorge on it for a few days, dancing the game's mixture of real-life Mitsubishi and Ford ballerinas around Battersea, busying your way through the campaign buying up entertaining fakesters like the hulking Growler and pacey trucks, and then smashing friends and strangers to pieces online.
You'll love pretty much every minute, and then you'll move on, and the 'downloadable game' suspicion will suddenly make sense: Dirt Showdown's wonderful, but it's probably also a flash in the pan. As long as you know that going in, then you shouldn't be disappointed.
8 / 10