Danger Zone is a Bummer
The concept behind Danger Zone is full of promise. The game’s sales pitch is simple: It’s the crash mode from the classic Burnout franchise, extracted and recreated by a studio founded by former heads of Criterion gone independent. The latest game from Ex-Criterion offshoot Three Fields Entertainment takes place in a bare-bones warehouse where you attempt to drive your car into as many other vehicles as possible, racking up points as the explosions multiply throughout the space. The game mimics its spiritual predecessors as blatantly as possible without being sued by Electronic Arts. Each level begins with a large camera pan, pausing at key junction points that hold the highest potential for wreckage. Once you hit a certain amount of cars, you can unlock a
crashbreaker smashbreaker which propels your car in any direction you desire thanks to an impromptu explosion. Your car only comes equipped with one, but you can gain more through icons on the map. Also scattered through the levels are large coins of varying value that accent your final tally. Danger Zone is clearly built to evoke nostalgia for the developers’ previous work. But that’s completely fine by me; Driving games aren’t as prevalent as they were a few years ago, and the few racers that get made regularly are either skewed towards realism (Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport, Project CARS) or wildly inconsistent in quality (Need For Speed). The Burnout franchise was a singular comet across the landscape, a brilliant but far-too-fleeting moment in gaming history. There has been nothing like it since, although EA did seem to remember that takedowns are a fun mechanic at some point during the development of the upcoming Need For Speed: Payback. Danger Zone should be a reclamation for a group of people who have displayed the potential of a game like this before. In practice, however, it just reminds you special the previous games truly were.
The strangest thing about Danger Zone lies in its sterility. Every level takes place in the same, extremely brown windowless warehouse with no semblance of what exists outside of this building. The soundtrack is conspicuously nonexistent, leaving you with nothing but the whirring of engines and cracking of metal objects smashing into one another. It’s minimalistic to a brutal degree, and the game suffers for it. Simplicity is a double-edged concept. The Burnout games were obviously fantastical, but they had a sense of place, and that place was obviously formed by human hands. You went on rampages through back roads in the mountains, coastal cities on the water, reduced gorgeous tourist hotspots into chaotic playgrounds. Sometimes there was an endearingly shitty DJ commenting on your progress in between events. Danger Zone retains very little of that flavor, outside of the jokey titles for each level. It manages to do something I’ve long thought was impossible: make the act of throwing cars into each other more glum than gorgeous.
You constantly feel the restraints of a lower budget while playing Danger Zone. The Burnout franchise had the backing of one of the biggest companies in the gaming industry, and Danger Zone is the work of a small indie studio that just put out their first game last year (Almost a year to the day in fact: Dangerous Golf was released on June 3, 2018; Danger Zone came out on May 30). You drive the same test car on every level, and there is no boost mechanic, so the game being literally one-paced the entire way through. The physics of how you consistently launch your car off of ramps is still a mystery to me. Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Homer Simpson tried to jump across the canyon, fell far short, and crashed gruesomely into the rocks below? That was basically me until, for reasons that remain inexplicable to me, I drove at the precise angle that allowed me to cross a gap in the way I was hoping for.
Danger Zone feels like a game that could have really used some time in development. The lack of options or liveliness makes the whole experience feel like I’m playing a game through someone’s Steam Early Access game. The announcement of Danger Zone made me reminisce on the golden era of racing games. But that’s the thing about nostalgia: sometimes those memories are best left in the rearview. At least until you have more money.