EA's Summer Showcase is a very American affair. In the collegiate atmosphere of Redwood Shores, the company's sprawling San Francisco campus HQ, the word “awesome” echoes throughout presentations for the upcoming EA Sports roster, as producers and spokespersons in smart jeans and shiny shoes form a choir of well-rehearsed brand management. It feels very modern, very corporate and more than a little sterile.
Thankfully, hidden away behind closed doors, there is a corner of EA that is forever England courtesy of Criterion, here to show off its first downloadable game in the shape of Burnout Crash.
How else to explain the frankly baffling mock lounge where the Guildford-based studio has made its home? Behind a chintzy sofa and a record player stands a wall of retro cheese, where pop posters from old copies of Smash Hits rub shoulders with photos of vintage UK telly icons like Les Dawson, Bob Holness and Ted Rogers. If the masses of US games journos are puzzled by this collection of sallow English faces, they don't let on.
The reason for this seemingly random throwback to provincial England circa 1986? Gameshows, pinball and pop music form the backbone of Burnout Crash, which takes the beloved bonus mode from Burnouts 2 and 3 and reinvents it as an addictive and gleefully destructive top-down action strategy game, drenched in arcade razzle dazzle.
For fans of the original Crash Mode, the discovery that this digital spin-off is cartoony, 2D and Kinect-enabled inevitably resulted in grumbles and sneers. I can't deny that my heart sank a little when I first heard the news. I too wanted a return to the screeching 3D carnage of plunging into a busy junction and seeing how much destruction I could leave in my wake.
Except that's still very much the heart of Burnout Crash. What's changed is the depth. Despite its casual appearance, this is a much more involved and strategic affair than the original Crash Mode could ever be. Able to view the whole junction from your lofty vantage point, you must now plot the best ways to rack up the points, keeping the mayhem building for up to 90 seconds thanks to the games generous way with explosions.
You steer your car into the junction, cause a crash then move it around by waiting for the boost bar to fill and detonating the vehicle over and over, far more than you ever could in the 3D games. Each time, you're able to nudge it through the air to land closer to fresh targets or to cause a fresh pile up. At the end of each round, you explode one final time in an extra large detonation for a last minute make-or-break point grab.
Absolutely everything is completely destructible - from buildings to vehicles - and each in-game object comes with a price tag attached. Score markers pop up amid a cacophony of noise, tickling the innate gamer's need for constant positive reinforcement. Think 'Splosion Man crossed with the original Grand Theft Auto, garnished with the tactical nuance of a great tower defence game, the one-more-go immediacy of Canabalt and the toytown trashing aesthetic of a Japanese monster movie, and you're halfway to understanding what Crash is aiming for.
From this simple basis, various game modes tweak things in fun directions. Rush Hour mode requires you to simply wreak as much havoc as possible in 90 seconds. More strategic is Road Trip, which has more of a survival spin. Here you have to prevent a certain number of vehicles from making it across the screen. This means you have to think more about where to causes crashes, where to build up walls of wreckage and take into account the area of effect of your explosions. In the third and final mode the game only ends when all fires are extinguished. Making sure not to completely destroy everything, while leaving enough vehicles damaged to keep the clock ticking, is a real test of control and forward planning.
There are no score multiplier icons this time, but in their place comes a whole slew of bonuses that can be earned by smart play. Destroy a pizza truck and you get to spin a cheese-and-tomato topped wheel of fortune, which can enhance or decrease your scoring potential. Bulldozers might grind through the level, clearing a path through your debris to the strains of Salt N' Pepa's “Push It”. Detonate the secret golden car in each stage and you get a multi-million points boost, accompanied by a burst of Spandau Ballet's “Gold” for good measure. Sinkholes might open up, granting extra points for any cars shunted into their murky depths. Sharks can be unleashed, because why not? Each stage is crammed with things to explode, and it's clear that finding the best strategies for high scores is what will keep players coming back.
The leaderboard aspect is augmented by the Crash Wall, a take on Criterion's Autolog feature. This constantly updates with scores from friends, working out stats and rankings on the fly and suggesting urgent challenges that you should respond to before your place slips lower down the scoreboard.
"Ambulances are the only vehicles that are off-limits. Destroy those and you'll be penalised."
The “pinball and gameshows” concept sounds weird in practice, but makes total sense when playing. This is a game that wants to plaster a big silly grin across your face, the joy of creating a ground-shattering cascade of explosions every bit as satisfying as the rainbows and fireworks of a high scoring Peggle round. It's a primal thing, and Criterion is refreshingly unapologetic in its pursuit of base gaming pleasure. It may lack the notional realism of Burnout's past, but it amplifies the sheer lunatic abandon of mass destruction beyond anything that could be portrayed in a traditional racing game engine.
But what of Kinect? Motionphobic players will be pleased to learn that the game also supports normal joypad play, but this is still very much a game that works best when married to the shameless titting about that motion control brings. After a brief steer-with-your-hands starting run, it's all about jumping to set off explosions, then leaning to move the car while in mid-air. It's intuitive and, more importantly, surprisingly accurate. These are movements you instinctively make during a racing game, all Crash does is amplify and reward them with cartoon levels of apocalyptic mayhem. Having tried two rounds, one with Kinect and one with a controller, I was surprised to find that I scored far higher with my wobbling and stamping than I did with fingers and thumbs.
The enduring impression is one of fun, a word that often loses its meaning in gaming, where mindless distractions are easy to justify. Burnout Crash is anything but mindless. Gaudy, noisy and deliciously silly, it may not be the spin-off that fans wanted or expected, but set aside your prejudice and it may just prove to be every bit as ridiculous and addictive as its more traditional cousins.