Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Studio UK
Release Date: March 26, 2007
The transitional period between hardware generations is always an interesting time, but perhaps never as interesting as now. With upwards of nine viable gaming platforms on the market and thriving, a transitional period has perhaps never been so interesting. While next-gen releases push the envelope for what is possible in gaming, developers who are still supporting the "old" platforms are left with the unique challenge of trying to create a product that doesn't look dated right out of the box. EA's Studio UK has risen to that challenge with style to spare in Burnout: Dominator, which is meant to tide over fans until the next-gen Burnout 5 is ready for the PS3 and X360. Although it's tempting, I will refrain from referring to this game as Burninator.
Burnout is the racing game all about beautiful, detailed crashes, so trying to make the formula sing on dated hardware is a pretty tall order. Dominator also carries the burden of being the fifth title in its respective series, which means it probably has high expectations to meet. With so much emphasis just on graphics inherent in Burnout's premise, Studio UK has pulled off a superheroic effort with Dominator. The PS2 build demonstrated for us featured smooth, crisp visuals and a variety of textures that, frankly, looked like something out of an Xbox game. Although car models were somewhat obviously low-poly, there were a lot of clever tricks used to give the individual cars the kind of shape and shine needed to catch the eye. The crashes, of course, were absolutely gorgeous, showing your car's innards smashing themselves to bits against whatever obstacle you'd rammed into with glorious sprays of sparks. The crashes, again, were obviously low-poly, but used some very clever shape and texturing tricks to make the carnage seem more physics-intensive than it actually was.
What really stood out with Dominator visually, though, were the backgrounds. The gameplay emphasis in Burnout is on making and breaking records (but don't worry, the multiplayer and racing modes are still around, too). You do this by, basically, trying to drive under conditions as challenging and dangerous as possible, while driving as fast as possible, in order to amass points. You also seem to amass points for wrecking if you pull off a challenging, carefully set-up wreck, as opposed to the sort of wreck that just resulted from ramming into an obstacle like an idiot. For instance, the demo level EA had on display featured a race in a large city freeway. The twist, though, is that you're racing into oncoming traffic.
Not only was the screen full of headlights rushing toward you, but also the background details of the city were bright and strikingly textured enough to really "pop" off the screen. Detailed skyscrapers and decorative trees scrolled away in the background, while roads piled upon roads in an urban cloverleaf nightmare filled the screen with oncoming cars. Some roads simply stopped, hanging uncompleted in the air, to create the perfect vehicle for the dramatic jumps for which the Burnout series is famous.
Lights streamed appropriately over your car's surface as you passed through the city, and asphalt was textured to have a slightly pebbly appearance to it. In motion, the visuals transcended any thoughts you might have of them being merely low-definition or last-gen and simply helped engross you in the gameplay. Backgrounds full of little touches like construction work, pipes, trees, and traffic signs make the game feel alive, and incidentally up the challenge rating. It takes effort to find shortcuts now.
The gameplay is essentially what Burnout has always been about, engaging in the dream of being able to drive dangerously, smash up a beautiful car, and yet not have months of physical therapy and a big hospital bill as your consequence. The emphasis in Dominator is on outracing Rivals, much as it was in Revenge. Dominator is, however, a bit less personal than Revenge and emphasizes scoring high over getting in someone else's virtual face. The change of pace may feel like a slow-down to longtime Burnout fans, but Studio UK expressed a desire to get "back to basics" and celebrate Burnout's PS2 roots with this game. So the emphasis is back in racing, and particularly on time trials.
To support this change back to more precision-oriented gameplay, Studio UK has crafted some amazingly tight controls in Dominator. While Revenge boasted solid controls, compared to Dominator they seem practically floaty and loose. In Dominator, your car can corner on a dime and easily slip between the gaps in oncoming traffic with just the right touch.
Dominator's overall gameplay is shaping up to be something challenging and perfectionist, so controls this precise are absolutely necessary. Even with them, the tension of the gameplay is gripping. Good scores require you to "burn out," as in the game's title, which means to store up your boost meter and then expend it in one beautiful unbroken burst. If you do wipe out, the resulting crash will look fantastic, but your score will be even more fantastic if you don't. You are, after all, not just dodging traffic — you're dodging traffic at 200 miles per hour. You're also graded on overall driving skill, so necessary tactics like drifting and drafting need to come with you when you pick up the controller. Traffic Checking is gone, as is Crash Mode, so seriously drivers only need apply. The party game stuff is being left to Burnout 5.
The music is the trademark, licensed pop-rock that Electronic Arts has made into something of a signature. None of the band names that popped up during our turn at the controller were big-name, but the music was full of pounding rock riffs and heavy bass. It was excellent driving music as much as if it'd been written for the game, which should assuage the concerns of players who didn't much care for Revenge's glamorous licensed song selection.
Although gamers have long clamored for licensed cars and tracks in Burnout, Dominator appears to be sticking with original designs and, refreshingly, all-new tracks. There are tons of hidden cars and other things to unlock by performing specific insane stunts within the game. You can unlock entire new classes of cars, and the challenges that accompany them, in this way. This ensures a lot of replay value, and a lot of repetition for gamers who have a hard time making the grade. That, of course, just makes the bragging rights for the ones who do all the sweeter.
You can even unlock special shortcuts in each stage by crashing into obstructing barriers that block the path. So, despite Dominator's emphasis on pure racing, there will still be opportunities for Revenge-style intentional mayhem. Road Rage and Takedown modes have even returned to let the frustrated gamer take out his fury on some unsuspecting NPC cars. That's right, there's no more "race grinding"; instead you're just being asked to demonstrate pure skill to advance. It's a welcome change.
A lot of players are acting like the PS2 is already a dead system, but games like Burnout: Dominator prove that it has at least another good year of life left in it before it rides off into the sunset. With sharper graphics than the system seemed capable of and rock-solid gameplay that returns to the series' roots, Dominator is looking like a ready-made hit. The only question mark hanging over the game is whether or not players can still take a major PS2 release seriously. Hopefully something with Dominator's amazing graphics, gameplay, and pedigree will get the respect it deserves when it hits stores this spring.
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