The Burnout brand of high-octane arcade racing has trail-blazed its way across most of the major gaming platforms since the 2001 original release, with each new addition adding new play mechanics into the formula to varying acclaim. Dominator is developer Criterion’s attempt to get the series back to its roots, to recapture some of the adrenaline-charged play that made the game popular in the first place and cut out the unnecessary additions that have proven themselves less successful. Released on the PS2 and the PSP prior to the first fully next-gen developed ‘Burnout Paradise’, this is likely to be the last-generation swansong for an immensely popular title.
For those new to the series, Burnout is essentially an arcade-racer played at supersonic speed. Quick reactions and careful management of a boost meter to power your way around each track are the core player requirements, as well as an aptitude for being able to focus your mind on simply avoiding other road-bound obstacles. Driving dangerously is the name of the game; causing your opponents to crash, driving on the wrong side of the road and drifting are all encouraged and indeed necessary to succeed across some of the race modes, and simply causing high-speed carnage is key success on occasion.
The single-player ‘World Tour’ structure is set out into groups of challenges, classified by the types of cars that are driven in each one. Winning a race or challenge earns the player points, which in turn unlock further tiers of difficulty, extra cars and tracks. Challenges come in many forms such as straight races, lap races, grand prix, elimination, road rage and preview events, each one containing several sub-achievements and goals which combine to make your points score and award at the end of the event. Gaining a gold score in each section becomes an addictive challenge in itself, and a particularly tricky one to boot.
Taking this particularly modular approach has proven a benefit to the series, as if you get stuck on one particular challenge there are always others to catch up on and progress to be made. This style of play fits the PSP version excellently, as most races and challenges can be completed within 5 minutes or so, which lends itself extremely well to portable use.
Aesthetically, the ability for the Burnout game engine to handle extreme speed has always been somewhat of a trade-off with graphical quality, and this version is no different. As a PSP title however, the effects of the limited graphical range are muted to say the least. The lack of detailed environments doesn’t particularly hamper any notion of graphical finesse when you’re staring at the action on a 4-inch screen, and although there is a general sheen of quality missing, it’s nothing you’ll miss when rounding a corner at 150mph and staring at the horizon for the next oncoming vehicle.
It’s also worth noting at this stage that the PSP’s analogue nub proves itself to be a very suitable control mechanism, with just the right amount of movement and fine-tuning necessary to translate the experience into hand-held form. It isn’t very often that the PSP hardware can be praised as entirely suitable for a particular genre, but there definitely seems to be a case for that with Burnout.
In terms of play mechanics, Dominator plays just like its console big brother, complete with all of the core gameplay revisions. The first glaring alteration comes with the wholesale removal of the famed ‘Crash’ mode mini-game. As a fans favourite, this comes as somewhat of a surprise; but overall the title feels less like a party game and more like a proper racer as a result, which in my eyes is no bad thing. The fact that after an hour of play I completely forgot of it’s existence until writing this review should tell its own story.
Also gone is the rather less controversial traffic-checking system, meaning that vehicles moving in the same direction as your car will have to be avoided once more. Again this is no bad thing; the reward for skilled driving is increased, and as a result the on-screen action feels less like a game of pinball with cars.
The boost meter also returns to a Burnout 2 style mechanism that fills to the brim before going into ‘overcharge’ mode. When overcharge is activated you have a limited amount of time to fill the meter completely once again, earning yourself a Burnout ‘chain’ in the process. With careful avoidance of traffic and a wilful abandonment of any sense of safety, you can successfully chain your way around an entire track, which is the ultimate reward for the zen-like concentration needed to achieve such a goal whilst avoiding obstacles on both sides of the road.
The alterations above will inevitably become a bone of contention amongst many of the series fans, with the split seemingly equal amongst those who prefer the more destructive post-Burnout 2 iterations and those who prefer the pure focus of the original two. Dominator essentially pulls elements from all of the previous titles to mould itself into what could probably be considered a Burnout directors cut, and to my mind comes off all the better for it.
Burnout: Dominator marks a true return to form for the series, and whilst the removal of features in any game is usually a lamentable decision, I’m happy to be proved wrong on this occasion. Returning the series to a comfortable balance of racing and fun, without any unnecessary pandering to those that simply want to plough through everything like a truck is a welcome directional change, and a suitable farewell before the unknown quantity of Paradise shows up on store shelves later in the year.