At age 16, many teens learn how to drive. When I was 16, I learned the opposite of how to drive, by which I mean I spent hundreds of hours playing Burnout 3's Crash Mode. For years, I waited for some kind of successor to that gleeful demolition derby, but it never came. Until now.
Danger Zone, a new game from Three Fields Entertainment, a studio headed up by Criterion Games veterans Fiona Sperry and Alex Ward, is pretty much exactly what I wanted it to be.
You play as a car. You're placed on a series of increasingly elaborate tracks. If you so much as gently brush other cars, you kick off a chain reaction of metal-twisting carnage. Cars, trucks, and buses start slamming into anything that might put an end to their panicked careening, some because other cars hit them, and others because it just seemed like the thing to do at the time. At the end of it all, a cinematic camera lovingly caresses the charred skin of your destruction porn, and you're awarded a score based on how many millions of dollars' worth of destruction you caused.
If you played Burnout 3's Crash Mode, this probably sounds familiar, because it's basically the same thing. Even smaller, more particular elements, like Crashbreakers — in this case called Smashbreakers, because subtlety is for games that aren't about causing 100-car pile-ups and then making them explode into all-consuming abysses below — function just like they did back in the day.
Cause enough collisions, and you get to blow up a second time, a power which confers the dual benefits of 1) allowing you to pilot your car through the air in slow-mo to snag bonus pick-ups like additional cash and more Smashbreakers, and 2) exploding hella cars.
Burnout 3's Crash Mode lived and died on its level design, and so does Danger Zone. Levels might seem straightforward at first, but the point is to replay them incessantly and earn better scores. Why settle for a cruddy bronze medal when you can hit "restart" and go for gold? In the latter scenario, levels take on a whole new complexion. You can't just plow into the first car you see. You've got to pay close attention to pick-up placements and try routes that might, at first, seem wholly unintuitive.
For instance, in one of my favourite levels so far, I started out on the lowest tier of a series of streets that ascended like stairs. "OK," I figured. "Explode up the steps. Simple enough." Repeatedly, though, the best that netted me was enough cash to earn a silver medal. "NOT GOOD ENOUGH," yelled the voice in my head that was born during those incessant teenage Burnout 3 sessions, the voice that can only yell because Burnout 3 was a game of shouts and fire, and teens are the human version of that.
Eventually, though, I realised that I had to explode to the top step — causing innumerable cars to crash on each street — and then use my final blast to roll down to the bottom again and pick up one last Smashbreaker. Clever, clever.
Danger Zone's levels aren't about eureka moments and canned solutions, though. There's rarely one right way to explode through a level, and even when you find a reliable path, you've gotta tweak and perfect your runs. Yeah, you're gonna need certain Smashbreakers and cash pick-ups, but there's still room for creativity in terms of how you reach them. Plus, the game's physics-driven randomness ensures that, for better or worse, the same approach might not work twice. Nothing spoils a perfectly laid plan like a car screaming into you out of nowhere.
When you run out of momentum inches away from a Smashbreaker, aka the most upsetting thing in the whole world.
Danger Zone is different from Burnout 3's Crash Mode in a few key ways. For one, levels take place in a "simulator," so they embrace outlandish situations pretty much right off the bat, rather than building slowly to them like Burnout 3 did. Prepare for lots of multi-tiered roads, improbable ramps, and a couple sections of highway that wouldn't be out of place in a Sonic The Hedgehog game.
The simulator conceit also adds a new mechanical element to the game — namely, the all-consuming abyss I mentioned earlier. If you knock other cars off roads and into the abyss, you get bonus points. However, if you fall into the abyss, your run ends immediately, and you don't get credit for anything that happened before. You can only restart. On the upside, it adds tension to each level and forces you to mix up your strategies with Smashbreakers.
Sometimes, you can only create an optimal route by purposefully flying off the edge, then Smashbreaking yourself back onto the road at the last second. But it can be frustrating, too, given that it's possible to basically complete a great run only for some Rando-Arse McAutomodouche to sideswipe you into oblivion at the last second.
While Danger Zone looks serviceably nice and plays well, it's the product of an indie studio, not Criterion Games at the height of its power. The simulator conceit, then, is also a disguise for budget and resource constraints. Want some outlandish environments to go along with the wacky levels? Too bad. The game's sole environment looks like a mix between a parking garage and Purgatory. Car handling feels a bit loose and cheap, as well. And while I've only played for a couple hours, I've already made my way through around half, if not a bit more, of the game's levels.
Still, I'll take quality over quantity any day, and that's what Danger Zone offers. When I took it for a test drive today, it was just like I was 16 again. I couldn't pull myself away. I don't know how much time I'll spend with it in the long run, but initial estimates suggest the answer will probably be "a lot."