Listen: there is a classic bit of business in Pac-Man that occurs whenever you go through the wraparound tunnel that takes you from one side of the screen to the other. What you get is a pause. Pac-Man takes a little longer to go through the tunnel than you expect him to, so you can’t help but imagine that there’s a bit of the tunnel that you can’t actually see. (The novel Lucky Wander Boy, by D. B. Weiss, riffs brilliantly on this point.) Video games don’t make enough of this kind of thing, but Burnout did. Burnout, from Burnout 3 onwards, knew just what to do with a pause.
With Burnout the pause comes down to the tactical nudge. In Burnout, racing is battling, so you’d be best off not just overtaking your rival but causing them to crash, too. The most satisfying way to do this was to nudge them – tactically – as you overtook them. Just a little nudge. Almost a gentle nudge. The rival car would pass out of view behind you, and then a pause. One second. Two? No longer certainly. And then the camera would dance back to show your rival impaling themselves on something, your nudge having directed them into a bollard or a divider or another rival.
Dangerous Driving has the tactical nudge. Oh man, does it have it. It’s one of the nudgiest games I’ve played in years, and that makes sense because it’s the work of a small team who have Burnout pretty high up on the CV. You can tell it’s a small team, because the small team has small team priorities. Dangerous Driving is 30fps on base consoles but 60 on everything else. Sacrilege, but understandable sacrilege, if such a thing is possible. And the crash animations are short on the crumpling, chassis deforming beauty of yesteryear. Multiplayer will be coming later on. There are occasional glitches and moments of odd physics, and the soundtrack, ingeniously, is handed over to Spotify, so you can put Girlfriend by Avril Lavigne on loop and be done with it. But I found I could live with any corner-cutting because of the focus Dangerous Driving has. Decades of experience are present here. This small team, in its own way, has worked wonders.
The campaign is broken down into vehicle classes and further broken down into different events. You unlock new events and vehicles by getting a bronze at least in a previous event, and at the end of every class there’s a GP to beat in order for you to move up. The handful of event types feature a lot that’s familiar to Burnout fans: Road Rage returns, in which you have to smash as many rivals into oblivion as possible, and there are one-on-one affairs to win the car you’re racing against. My favourite of the new types are Heatwave, in which you can’t barge other cars off the road, but the longer you stay alive the more your top speed increases, and survival, which is a one-hit world in which you must race between checkpoints and stay alive as long as possible. Here, in the absence of a lot of the things that make Burnout so special, is somehow everything that makes Burnout special. To stay alive you need to minimise risks. But to stay alive you also need to hit those checkpoints in time. And to hit those checkpoints in time you need to take risks.
The core of the driving is the same as ever. I am incapable of describing what makes Burnout feel like Burnout in the hands – it’s something to do with a sense that your car is hugging the road in the manner of a powerful vacuum on a thick carpet, but there’s also a muscular sense of potential in your ability to dart left and right. (It’s also, as Martin Robinson has pointed out, something about the size of the cars’ bums, which feels massive.) As ever, you earn boost by driving in the wrong lane, engaging in near-misses, and knocking people into oblivion. What feels if not new then certainly recalibrated this time is the emphasis on drifting. I really feel this is the driftiest game this team has made, a game in which mastering the brake on corners is as important as earning and spending boost. The game’s tracks are beautiful blurs, autumn forests, snowscapes, deserts, but they’re sinuous and twisty, too, in love with the S-bend that shoves you all the way to the left and then all the way to the right. At the kinds of speeds that Dangerous Driving trades in, these bends become screaming, sparking set-pieces. It’s a very pure kind of glory.
Compounding things is the big new idea. If the core of Dangerous Driving is Burnout 3 – takedowns are present, traffic-checking is not – the twist this time is that your wreckages are persistent. If you smash yourself or a rival to pieces on lap 1, they will be waiting for you on lap 2. It reminds me, more than anything, of the deeply satisfying way that archaeology worked in Civ 5. Your early battles in that game would eventually become archaeology sites to dig up later, so you were in essence the engine behind something that felt almost procedural. In Dangerous Driving what this means is that your aggression has to be tempered by tactics. This corner is great to kill people on, but you’re going to need it to be relatively clear when you’re racing the clock on your third go round.
Bugs. I’ve had a few. I knocked someone off the track and they went straight through the bottom of the world. I got into and then failed a Pursuit chase – a take on Chase HQ and that brilliant Need for Speed game Criterion made – which ended in a glitchy series of wipeouts that I couldn’t control before telling me that the crooks made a getaway. Funny things sometimes happen with invisible walls when you take to the air, and there’s occasionally a strange recalibration of car positioning during a wall-shunt. But Dangerous Driving gets away with a lot of things, I think – the odd vanishing car or later-to-appear Pursuit UI – because it is just so fast. It’s an arcade game that delights in throwing things at you at speed. The glitches I saw never got in the way of that.
The further you go, the more the speed builds and the more that smart variations in the standard events start to kick in. How about a Road Rage where shunts don’t count? How about a one-on-one on a track that takes a good four minutes to drive? Even with multiplayer on the way, there’s still the leaderboards to push you forward. Even with the crash animations toned down and the crash mode itself absent, there’s still a beauty to the well-timed offing of an opponent. Dangerous Driving will be too pared back for some, I think, but they’ll be missing out on something breathlessly fast and challenging. When a race to the finish line really feels like a battle? That’s Burnout.