One of the oldest idioms, alongside actions speaking louder than words and not putting all of one’s eggs into a single basket, is not to judge a book by its cover. And it’s an age-old idiom for a very good reason – one must attempt wherever possible not to pre-judge based only on fickle first impressions.
There’s an irony in me writing this intro whilst E3 is on, I’m sure, but I digress.
However, sometimes it is indeed possible to judge a book by its cover, especially if said cover happens to blurt out everything you need to know about the book before you’ve even slid the dust-jacket off and the author’s bio on GoodReads tells you what kind of work you’re likely to expect within.
That’s exactly where I was when I procured Danger Zone on Steam. To recap, remember the Crash Mode areas in the classic Burnout games? Of course you do, they were amazing. Danger Zone claims to be a revival of that, a HD redux if you will. And it doesn’t try to hide that too much on first impression at all – not that it’s particularly easy to hide explosions and highway pile-ups to shame the opening sequence of Final Destination 2, but you catch my drift. When I subsequently discovered the development team behind this game, Three Fields Entertainment, consisted of three former members – including the two founders – of Criterion Games, the studio responsible for bringing us the Burnout franchise in the first place, it starts to become rather obvious what we’re dealing with here – not a survival horror shooter with Roguelike elements, that’s for sure.
‘But hold on AJ, I thought you said the Crash Mode from Burnout games were amazing?’
I did, well done for paying attention.
‘So why the seemingly dismissive attitude?’
Well, at no point in the last few paragraphs did I say I wasn’t excited about the prospect of a HD revival of Burnount: Crash Mode. Because the truth is quite the opposite, my friends.
QUITE. THE. OPPOSITE.
So with expectations unusually high for someone who as a rule ignores hype trains when they fly through the station, I dived in. And right here is the part where I either confirm to you that my high expectations were met, or that they came crashing down into cynical disappointment.
Would ‘expectations were met, nothing more, nothing less’ count as a satisfying answer? Okay, let me explain.
First off, the gameplay slavishly adheres to the original formula of Crash Mode, and by that I mean the formula laid down in Burnout 3: Takedown. That means ramps, bonus score tokens, multi-layered crash junctions with multiple routes of traffic to stitch together into a spectacular tapestry of carnage, Crashbreaker explosions (now renamed Smashbreakers, get it?) and the ability to move the car as it flies through the air like a low-flying spaceship piloted by a drunk student. Additionally, the hilariously vindictive ability to punt traffic returns from Burnout Revenge, turning random commuters into Ike from South Park as you drop-kick them across the map and into the path of semi trucks. It’s as impishly delightful as ever, and just as satisfying when you’ve hit the perfect run and the helicopter flies over the junction showcasing just how much you managed to fruitcake this shizzle up.
What’s new is a slightly heavier physics engine which gives the player car more weight than previously and lends the impacts a Driver: San Francisco level of heft. The damage model is also nice and detailed with plenty of shattered windshields and deformed body panels, and my gosh are the explosions something to behold. Seriously, the fire physics might be some of the best in gaming history – can someone get these guys to develop a first-person shooter with flamethrower weapons? PLEASE.
Aside from that, there’s not much else to say in terms of positives – but that isn’t the pithy putdown it sounds like. Moreover, in the same vein as little gems like Portal and Turbo Dismount, it focuses on one core mechanic and polishes it to a mirror shine. Like Portal it also has a subtle undercurrent of humour running through its veins, with the dot-matrix highway signs at the start of each level giving helpful advice like ‘Strictly No Picnics’ and ‘Toilet Services Closed.’
Unfortunately, and here’s where the criticisms DO start; one way Danger Zone differs from both Portal and Turbo Dismount is variety. So I just praised the game for focusing on one mechanic above tonnes of different ones, and now I’m criticising it for lacking variety? Let me clarify; both Portal and Turbo Dismount spun plenty of content out of their one core idea; the former building an entire story campaign around the thinking with portals concept, the latter constantly adding interesting new levels, environments and vehicles to give players something new almost every time they boot up Steam.
And whilst I’m not asking for Danger Zone to start adding shopping trolleys and sofas to the vehicle roster – as amazing as that would be – the fact there is a grand total of one car and one environment for the entire set of levels is a little meagre at best.
Said car is a fairly bland saloon car with admittedly an awesome V8 engine noise, and said environment is a crash testing simulation zone with more browns and greys than a modern military shooter dunked in a mug of tea. The level design itself is stacked to the gills with the same spaghetti layouts of highways that were the old Burnout hallmarks, with the simple act of destroying hapless commuters turning into something of a 3D maths puzzle meets a ultraviolent Tony Hawk’s game, as you work out how to use explosions and manipulating gravity to string multiple individual wrecks together into a Bohemian Rhapsody of shredded metal. In short, the level design itself is great; I just want more than one enclosed grey-brown bunker to cause havoc in.
Elsewhere, someone on the dev team obviously subscribes to the theory that modern games are far too easy, as the difficulty curve in this one is SAVAGE. As evidenced by the fact I reached the penultimate level in the game and ran straight into a brick wall. THAT SHIZZLE IS FRUITCAKING IMPOSSIBLE. SERIOUSLY. Ram fifty cars off one highway, plummet down and obliterate an armada of semi trucks, spiral over and send buses scattering in flames, cure all of the world’s diseases, single-handedly negotiate the Brexit deal – and STILL be $5 million short of the BRONZE MEDAL. There’s difficulty curves, and then there are brick walls one must use their own head to smash through. Then again, given the highscore tables, I can admit this one is totally subjective, and I won’t hold my lack of talent (if you can call it that) against this game.
RATING: I’M DJ STRYKER AND YOU’RE TUNED TO CRASH FM/10
Danger Zone plays like the comeback album from a band who split up when they were still well in their prime; the same members, the same ingredients, and the same signature sound, all with an updated production sheen befitting the time passed since the last halcyon days. As a value proposition it just about hits the £9.99 price tag, though it could certainly do with more content patched in down the line, and it’s simple enough for new players to dive in undaunted whilst feeling like a comfy old pair of slippers to old Burnout obsessives like me.