Let's get something clear: this is not Dirt 4. Dirt 4 is coming - Codemasters have said as much to our faces - but this is not it. So that rather begs the question: what exactly is Dirt: Showdown?
Well, it's no Dirt 3.5 either. Instead, Showdown is the fix to a racing series that's become conflicted in recent years. Should Dirt stay true to its rally sim roots, or embrace the garish redneck excess which brought it so much commercial success with Dirt 2 and 3? By splitting their flagship series into two, Codemasters have enabled it to do both. So while Dirt 4 will concentrate on recapturing the pure rallying of the Colin McRae days, this off-road off-shoot gives Dirt's louder side a home.
It's going to prove an inspired decision for fans of either persuasion. Freed from the shackles of its simulation heritage, Showdown is a game liberated - free to drape itself in neon like a chavvy peacock and revel in obnoxiousness. And boy does it revel. If there's a jump that can't be celebrated by a plume of fireworks, Showdown won't attempt it.
If there's a collision that can't be soundtracked by an announcer screaming 'perpendicular awesomeness!', then Showdown will leave it on the cutting room floor. Even the palpitating menu screen had us scrambling for the vomit bag. It's the loudest, brightest, most in-your-face racer we've played in some time, and the on-track action matches the presentation.
SHOW YOUR COLOURS
There's no room for anything as genteel as rallying on Showdown's itinerary. Each of the four initial championships are comprised of rugged off-road activities. These range from straight forward races to demolition derbies to stunt-based high-score challenges. The latter brings to mind the Gymkhana events from Dirt 3 and, as you'd expect, the renewed focus means Codemasters have the breathing space to properly expand the formula.
Racing against the clock is a recurring theme in the various Gymkhana challenges, but the similarities end there. While the 'Hoonigan' stages ask you to throw yourself around a tightly-constructed obstacle course, Trick Rush turns the tables by opening up an entire playground and asking you to find your own route to high-score nirvana. The final mode, Smash Attack, marries freedom with precision. Here, you have to knock down multiple-coloured barriers in groups of five, but while there's room for improvisation, only a perfect run across the optimal route will see you trouble the business end of the leaderboards.
While the generous progression system means you're unlikely to hit an impasse, it can be tough to nail first place in the Gymkhana-themed stages, and that's largely attributable to the typically 'heavy' Codemasters steering. For us the cars feel too weighty to enjoy performing nimble car gymnastics in, but fortunately the burly handling is far more coherent during race sessions.