The racing game genre is historically rich amongst British designers. The lineage is vast and the variety, innovation and mastery arguably second to none. Burnout is a significant part of this history, and its creator and developer Criterion equally so. With the release of Burnout 2 the world was introduced to Crash Mode. Forgetting about racing for one minute, the intent was to maximise carnage and damage by causing a pile-up at a crash junction. The conditions were the same each time with you, the player, the variable. Needless to say it was incredibly fun and still talked about today amongst racing brethren.
Jump forwards to 2014. Alex Ward, and Fiona Sperry, founders of Criterion (alongside Paul Ross) had left the company they built over time. They founded a new, smaller studio - Three Fields Entertainment - to enable them to get back to the fun of what they did, namely making cool games. In June 2016 they launched their first game, Dangerous Golf, which was basically Crash Mode where the car was replaced by a golf ball and the roads were replaced with kitchens, petrol stations or something equally domestic. It was fun but with crazy-slow loading times making it a bit of a slog for many. Since then they’ve launched two more games - all within one year of that first title; Lethal VR and Danger Zone. Danger Zone is Crash Mode. It is a smorgasbord of delightful physics play. Physics in a black box, with cars. What’s not to like?
Initially, very little. The game’s setup is as a simulation which makes things easier to process - there are no funky environments; you basically have a new set of roads and traffic for each level inside a black box of computer-generated fun. Each level requires you to drive your car and create maximum havoc, as well as collect any goodies dotted about the level. These collectibles might be extra cash, or a Smashbreaker which enables you to explode things around you and move your car post-crash. There’s a strategic choice there. You see, your go can be broken into three distinct acts, each of which can vary in length dependent on your approach, and the reality of the currently known laws of physics.
Every level begins with you behind a line waiting for the countdown to go from three to zero. At this point you drive. You keep driving until you hit something, at which point what happens is out of your hands - perhaps entirely, but at least for a short while. The decision tree here depends on how much carnage you’ve caused. If it’s enough you will get a Smashbreaker allowing you to press circle and make your car jump due to the creation of an explosion where you are stuck, forcing your car into the air. This allows you to glide it to some extent where you want it, leading to further crashing. This can keep going on as long as you have Smashbreakers. These are garnered by picking up appropriate collectibles, or gaining enough of a score multiplier such that you earn another.
Strategy really comes into play throughout the game. To start with, do you just ride around and gather all the collectibles - getting your score up and preparing for Smashbreak fun? Or do you go and start the crash as soon as possible? There is a finite time to make any choice because eventually in each level the simulation will end and you can be left with no vehicles to hit, no crash to cause and no score to add to the few tokens you’ve picked up. Equally it’s not as if a level is fully formed. One level early on had me stuck for ages. I tried all kinds to beat it and move onto the next level. I drove up to the ramp in front of me and jumped. I swerved the ramp and hit the first lot of cars I could. I then tried missing them and hitting the second lot, and then third. Eventually I got some kind of result and then by honing that strategy, I beat the level. But it took quite a few goes and some lateral thinking to work it out. It wasn’t just a matter of driving fast and hoping.
The bottom line is that Danger Zone is a car crash simulation on the surface, but if you look a little deeper it’s just the laws of physics in playable form. It feels more fun because you’re in a car. It’s remarkable the kind of result you can get from one time to another, though. It’s very moreish as a result, which is good. The game isn’t overly long - it has twenty-four levels including the tutorials. That’s not many but it’s enough. Each level gets more outlandish and chucks different things at you - loops, jumps, on and off ramps, multiple lanes, dual carriageways, higher and lower roads and more. The variety means that you’re learning from level to level and ultimately doing so to get the high score. That high score can be got by further refining your strategy. Let’s assume you have determined your route and optimal point of impact. You then want to use the remaining traffic to move you around, causing further crashes. You’ll want to collect all tokens to get a bonus and ideally get them in the right order (bronze, silver and then gold). You’ll activate your Smashbreaker when you’re surrounded - to blow everything around you up - or when you need to move. Rinse and repeat and beat the high score. Suddenly you’ll find it’s three in the morning and you need to be up for work at six.
Technically it’s a world apart from the aforementioned Dangerous Golf. Loading times are reasonable, helped by the limited screen draw required when placing your game in a literal black box. Three Fields Entertainment has used Unreal Engine 4 so everything runs well on PS4, with extra graphical effects on PS4 Pro. Unfortunately - causing some consternation - the game is only available on PS4 and PC. This was a conscious choice by the developers because of their small size and the natural constraint in what they can deliver. It’s a shame for anyone without either of these platforms. But then those who have the platform might also say it’s a shame this isn’t a rejig of the whole of <b>Burnout</b> so perhaps whatever happens you’ll never please everyone.
None of this really matters when you sit down to play the game, platform allowing. It’s great fun and easy to play, but hard to master. It is delightful on your own playing against the world’s high scores and those of your friends, but also wholesomely entertaining as a party game given each go takes seconds or minutes and you can try again very quickly. There is no right or wrong way to play and many sets of tactics which can be employed to garner great results. You might blast through the levels, or collect all the trophies, or spend ages just chasing the top of that leaderboard. You can play it in multiple ways, trying to achieve varied goals. I wholeheartedly suggest you take the highway to the Danger Zone. There, I said it.