Thursday, June 21, 2012

DiRT Showdown Review

DiRT Showdown, developed by Codemasters Racing and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Chaotic crash-filled racing modes, easier to master trick modes, wrecking awards speed boost
The Not So Good: Restrictive campaign advancement requirements, robotic pack AI racing with little room for success, poor online matchmaking, usually meaningless health, some frustrating racing modes
What say you? A peculiar tilt for the off-road racing series retains several shortcomings: 5/8

After the slow start of DiRT, lofty heights of DiRT 2, and crash back down to Earth of DiRT 3, one wonders what it next for the venerable off-road racing series. Will a new edition fix the issues of the last installment, namely the lack of significant content and annoying mandatory racing modes? Well, we’ll have to wait a bit to find out, as the DiRT has taken a detour towards exotic racing events, such as figure eight races and demolition derby. This is certainly a different approach from the more traditional races, like rally and pack events, seen in previous DiRT titles. Does this diversity make for an intriguing game?

As expected, the graphic of DiRT Showdown are as good as ever. The car models are detailed at every turn, with vibrant paint schemes and decent damage. The circuits are set in distinctive environments with plenty of trackside variety to distract as you try to drive. The game employs a lot of fancy slowdown effects and lighting tricks to accompany your demolition exploits (the fireworks budget for those tracks must be through the roof). The sound design is fairly average, with appropriate engine sounds and alternative background music. The announcer commentary gets annoying and repetitive very quickly, and lacks the name recognition of past DiRT titles. You can choose a nickname (no first names like in DiRT 2, again) that the game will call you when you sign on: I chose “cupcake”. The power of the graphics results in a solid presentation capable of comparing favorable with any racing game.

Like previous DiRT titles, DiRT Showdown primarily has you progressing through a campaign to become the DiRTiEsT racecar driver around. The “showdown tour” is divided into four tiers, where you must finish third or better in all but one event (of your choosing) in each tier. This high level of required competency is carried over from DiRT 3, and I still hate it. As is always the case, there were two events I could not beat in the introductory campaign, so I was stuck for a significant amount of time, replaying the same two races over and over and over again. Forty-seven times. I’m not exaggerating: I counted. At three minutes per attempt, that’s two and a half hours of playing the same two races I could not defeat until I got lucky. That’s simply not fun. Assuming you finally beat a campaign race, you can challenge your Steam friends to best your time, which is a decent social feature. Apart from the campaign, there is the “joyride” mode, which is somewhat innovative: you have a series of stunt missions to complete (jump here, slide here) and packages to collect. While some of the objectives are vague and I wish they would give you several at a time, I did like the idea of the mode and it offered a nice break from the frustrating campaign.

One thing I immediately noticed when starting up the game was…oh joy of joys: Games for Windows LIVE is missing! But, out with the old and in with the new, as Codemasters’ Racenet service is used, and it honestly has just as many connection issues as the previous online component: sometimes it would connect immediately, sometimes it would take half a minute (during which you can’t cancel and return to the main screen), sometimes it would say the servers were down. So, obviously some improvements need to be made. Despite the removal of Games for Windows LIVE, DiRT Showdown still uses the same terrible method of joining games. The mode selection does not display how many players are in each race type, so you have to potentially join and disconnect from each of the five groupings as you manually search for opponents. Seriously, how hard is it to place a number next to each game mode showing how many people are playing it? Frankly, I’m fed up with a game that, in its forth iteration, still has basic usability issues like server browsing and campaign advancement. There is simply no excuse at this point. Rounding out the features is two-player split screen mode, online Racenet events that offer specific challenges (car, track, race type), and in-game YouTube uploads so you can show your friends just how totally awesome that wreck was.

DiRT Showdown takes place in scenic destinations like Miami, San Francisco, Japan, London, and…Michigan?! The game features a range of racing modes revolving around annihilation. The first are variations on destruction derby, either awarding points for big hits or taking place on a platform, where you can push competitors off sumo wrestling style. Oddly, there is no penalty for wrecking out (just points for whoever did it), which in actual destruction derbies would disqualify you. The difficult “hard target” survival mode throws lots of enemy cars at you and sets a target time you must achieve; the best strategy seems to be driving in large circles, so the enemy cars slip past you. The best game mode, in my opinion, is the figure eight (called “8 ball” for some reason…to appeal to billiards fanatics?): cars are designed to cross paths several times a lap. This mode retains the driving skill of the traditional racing modes and adds in some elements of luck to keep you stressed out every time you meet oncoming traffic. DiRT Showdown also includes more traditional racing modes, like basic circuit events. The “domination” mode, where you earn points by setting the fastest sector times, is completely out of place in this game. The strategy seems to be alternating the sectors in which you use boost, while completely avoiding any contact with opposing cars (which, you know, takes away the whole point of the game). The “elimination” mode is more at home here, since you can use crashes to your advantage when the last place car is eliminated every fifteen seconds. Stunt modes return, much to my chagrin, although the stunts seem to be easier to pull off this time around. And in the head to head obstacle course stunt mode, it’s really easy to place third and progress in the campaign because there are only two cars. Finally, there are three multiplayer-only modes to enjoy (if you can find anyone to play against, of course); capture the flag, hold the flag, and drive through six checkpoints in any order. So, DiRT Showdown is not short on race modes, and a couple of them are even fun.

DiRT Showdown controls as you would expect: an arcade racing game. The game features mostly fictional cars adapted for high-collision racing: buggies, trucks, buses, and old cars (there are also rally cars for the stunt modes). There are noticeable differences between the cars, each rated according to power, strength, and handling. Those ratings can be upgraded to an extent with money earned from racing, and the game uses a letter system to remind you which ones you’ve improved. You’ll have to switch between cars based on the event type (high strength for destruction derbies, high power for races). The physics are fine: while collisions are satisfying, I found that cars get stuck a lot, probably because the AI keeps accelerating into me and other racers. The speedometer from games past has been replaced by a health and boost meter. Health is meaningless during races, as you’ll never do enough damage to eliminate yourself or someone else from a race. It plays a larger role during destruction-based events, but when you wreck out, you simply respawn seconds later. The boost is more interesting, as it’s earned by running into other drivers. This gives you more power to cause wrecks in destruction modes, and an incentive to crash cars during races (especially if you are in the back). The AI is robotic: as a famous NASCAR driver once said, if you ain’t first, you’re last. The cars travel in a conga line, weaving between obstacles like a metallic serpent. Only the occasional field-clearing wreck breaks the monotony (which is probably why I like the figure eight races so much). The time between first place and sixth place is usually half a second, which means you usually either win the race or finish worse than third, requiring you to restart the race yet again. The AI drivers certainly feel artificial, and more work could have been done to spread out the pack and make the races more authentic.

DiRT Showdown has the same frustrating feature problems as DiRT 3, but it’s buoyed somewhat by its take on crash-filled racing. The crash-filled racing spectacles, though repetitive, are a nice change of pace. The use of car health (which only becomes an issue during demolition derbies) and boost changes the game from pure racing skill to a more tactical approach, which is more appealing to a casual audience. My favorite is the figure eight, with cars criss-crossing in the middle of the lap: it has the right combination of luck and skill that makes for great arcade racing. The demolition modes also take some skill with maneuvering, and the stunt-based modes are more forgiving this time around. The traditional racing modes (especially the timed circuit “domination” type) seem out of place amidst all of the wrecking, but can still be enjoyable if the AI didn’t resort to close pack racing almost all of the time. This style of close racing makes it exceedingly difficult to advance through the campaign, which continues to have arbitrary constraints on your enjoyment: once again, your progress is locked until you can finish third in all but one of the missions at each difficulty level. Beyond the frustrating campaign is an interesting objective-based joyride mode and challenges you can send to your Steam friends that play DiRT Showdown. Multiplayer is much of the same, despite the addition of Codemasters’ own Racenet servers, and the game still does not show which modes other people are playing so you can join the most populated servers. I like DiRT Showdown more than DiRT 3, certainly, but I wish the campaign modes, multiplayer, and unnatural AI were fixed once and for all.