Multiplayer never meant much to the series, but Dirt Showdown is finally showing some online initiative by cribbing from Halo and Battlefield. Codemasters is borrowing liberally from first-person shooters for its multiplayer modes and online infrastructure. This is most evident in the team-based, literally red vs. blue Smash & Grab competition, as well as the upcoming in-game social network, RaceNet.
Despite its success and high quality, Dirt never occupied space on the same cultural pedestal as Project Gotham, Need for Speed, or Forza. Codemasters clearly aims to change that, because Dirt Showdown is bringing it.
As this generation of consoles begins to wind down, integrated stat-tracking systems are becoming the norm. Battlelog, Autolog, Ridernet, Elite, Ghost Recon Network...the list goes on. Dirt Showdown will be the first of Codemasters' racing games to make use of RaceNet, a universal hub geared toward the developer's franchises. Expect to see future Codemasters games take advantage of this, and to contribute to your overall player profile. RaceNet keeps score of your best times, wins, and earned XP, all of which contribute to greater rewards.
In the scope of Showdown, these community events encourage players to race more. In one example, players' unlocked rewards such as liveries or cars for spending large sum of fuel -- on par with the volume of a tanker ship -- in a certain amount of time. There would be little incentive to continue playing online without RaceNet in place, really. With no progression system to keep track of your personal score or rank, or currency to earn and blow on multiplayer rides, this is a lifesaver for Dirt Showdown.
Good thing, too, because the multiplayer here holds a lot of promise. IGN previously talked about the standard racing and destruction derby, and the newly revealed modes really help Dirt Showdown build a convincing multiplayer suite.
The Head to Head match pits two racers against each other in a gymkhana course with a start and finish. Crossing the finish line first matters most, but the win doesn't count if you can't trick your way there. Completing ordered tasks quickly is what gets you the W here, so be prepared to drift, jump, smash through obstacles, and spin sweet, sweet donuts on the way to the end. These are quick, intense races where the pressure of urgency and efficiency weigh on both drivers in equal measure. It's a fun twist on the trick-based driving from past games.
The best addition to Dirt Showdown is Smash & Grab, a team-based type with an objective. A neutral flag spawns as each round starts, players race for it, and then try to hold it for the longest time to accrue points. Halo fans call it Oddball. Dirt Showdown somehow makes it more violent. Driving into an enemy flag-carrier transfers possession to the attacker, who then needs to skedaddle, dodge narrow collisions, and generally avoid the opposing team as long as possible.
Map designs enable talented drifters to lead others into walls and cut sharp corners for quick escapes, as well as quickly turn around and cause pile-ups behind them. Wall obstructions around the arena can make or break your win, too, so drive careful, or drive like an idiot -- whatever you do, just don't get hit.
The downside here is that anyone without the flag doesn't earn anything. Keeping cars off your carrier doesn't benefit anyone but the flag runner. They earn points and enable the win, everyone else tries to keep up in case their owner loses control. Codemasters wasn't clear about how Smash & Grab would contribute to your RaceNet profile, either, but hopefully those playing a support role will get more out of it than the general thrill of a win.
The only other caveat to Dirt Showdown's chaotic, raucous multiplayer shenanigans is the absence of the series' stellar first-person in-car view. In a competitive space as aggressive, violent, and smash-happy as Showdown's, not being able to experience the crushing blow of a sideswipe is slightly upsetting.
That a camera view is the greatest concern should be evidence enough that Dirt Showdown has itself in order. Its two multiplayer modes are convincing on their own, and as part of the larger destructive mentality behind it, Dirt Showdown could yet be Codemasters' best more-than-a-racing-game racing game yet.
Mitch Dyer is an Associate Editor for IGN's Xbox 360 team. His hometown holds an annual destruction derby. For real. Read his ramblings on Twitter and follow him on IGN.