Version tested: Xbox 360
Judging from the levels of vitriol online, the staff at Criterion have been personally touring the country, slaughtering the beloved pets and urinating in the milk of every Burnout fan that ever lived. In actual fact, their great crime is nothing more than making a game with Burnout in the title that doesn't look like people expected it to. The monsters.
Of course, this is the internet, where people apparently spend their time looking for things to get furious about, but the irony is that Burnout Crash is a disappointment. It's just not for the reasons the kneejerk detractors have so vocally identified. The problems here are structural rather than conceptual.
In concept, it's fine. Taking the popular Crash mode and turning it into a top-down casual game may raise the blood pressure of the hardcore, but in gameplay terms, it can be a revelation. Criterion has taken the visceral punch of their evergreen driving series and transplanted it into the sort of ruthlessly insidious puzzle game format that PopCap does so well. It's Death Proof crossed with Peggle.
So you speed into one of eighteen junctions and cause mayhem. Every skid, every impact, every explosion nets you more points. Even better is creating a chain, where one detonation triggers the next and so on. Skill shots are also thrown into the mix, awarded when you shunt one vehicle into the path of another, or otherwise send it sailing into an interactive piece of scenery.
This isn't a passive domino effect, as you're able to move around the play area using the Crashbreaker, an area-of-effect explosion that sends your car into the air, where you can use aftertouch to steer it into position for the next collision. Your Crashbreaker recharges slowly by itself, but fills rapidly when fuelled by the destruction you cause.
What it loses in dropping the traditional racing game view, Crash gains in sheer, exuberant validation. Chains are punctuated by cascades of pinball sound effects fighting for ear space with the screen-rattling explosions, bursts of cheesy pop music and soaring Hallelujah choruses. When you're doing well, the game makes sure you know it - and feel great about it.
Where Crash stumbles, badly, is in the way this cathartic gameplay is served up. There are three game modes to be played on each junction, each with five stars to be awarded. Three stars are score-based, two require you to achieve some unique objective in that level. The trouble is, when you first come to a new junction, only one game mode is available - and it's the worst one.
Worst is perhaps too harsh a word, but Road Trip is certainly the least enjoyable way to play Burnout Crash. It's also the only way you'll unlock the stuff that is really good fun, which puts the game at cross-purposes with itself.
Road Trip is essentially tower defence with traffic accidents. You have to keep the mayhem going for as long as possible without letting five cars through unscathed. That's a painfully low threshold to beat, and it demands a level of precision and skill that the game just isn't designed to deliver with any consistency.
You get arrows warning you which direction cars will be coming from, so you can put yourself in their path or shunt wrecks to block the road. When it works, there's a refreshing depth to the gameplay, especially as no blockade lasts forever. That big tangle of metal that's ensnaring every car that tries to get through is a chain reaction waiting to happen, and sooner or later something will explode, scattering and detonating everything else.
There are also periodic special events, building up to the climactic "special feature" in which a natural disaster, misguided airliner or vengeful UFO sweeps the stage clear, its force dependent on how many cars you let through.
The pieces are all there, but the five-car limit is punishing and quickly overwhelms the pleasure of the moment-to-moment gameplay. As you enter the final trio of junctions, success really is down to blind luck as much as skill, as the slightest mistake sends three or four vehicles sailing past unscathed, often dodging your makeshift barriers by a few pixels. The Crashbreaker also skews things, its slow recharge ensuring that failure begets more failure until you're left in a position where you literally have no chance of success. On the later stages, this can happen in a matter of seconds, leading to mind-numbing trial and error.
It's infuriating, since passing Road Trip (or at least earning one star) then grants you access to Rush Hour, the game mode that feels most like the original Crash Mode. Here, you get 90 seconds to wreak as much havoc as possible without worrying too much about how many cars escape your sociopathic rampage. Freed up from micro-management, you can bounce around, discover the hidden scoring opportunities and generally have a lot more fun. Also unlocked is Pile Up, in which you have a small number of cars to stop and must then keep things burning for as long as possible with well-timed trigger explosions.
Burnout Crash is also a high-score game with no global leaderboard. Everything is managed via the Autolog system introduced by Criterion in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. This means that if none of your friends are playing Crash, you'll be the only person on the leaderboard (and you'll be unable to earn certain Achievements as a result). The game generously encourages you to send an advert to your Friends List, encouraging them to join you. It will also search for friends of friends who are playing. It didn't turn anyone up for me, but the thought is there.
If you have a bulging social network full of people playing Burnout Crash, then it's a great idea. If you don't, well, a leaderboard with two or three people isn't much of a leaderboard, especially if those few players don't keep playing and raising the stakes.
You can, of course, play offline in a party mode setting (where the optional and surprisingly good Kinect controls make more sense) but there's still a feeling that a large chunk of the game's appeal hinges more on what your virtual friends are doing than your own achievements. Beating the levels is a victory of sorts, but Autolog is thrust in your face so often that it feels compromised without an active network of fellow players to measure yourself against.
It's a game where small shunts can lead to calamitous destruction, and so it proves in the design. A couple of tweaks to the menu, a different sequence of unlocks, and Burnout Crash would be a joy. If Rush Hour were the default mode rather than the infuriating Road Trip, if the difficulty could be flexible allowing you more leeway than the five car limit allows, players would have more time to revel in the destruction rather than gnawing their knuckles. They'd spend more time playing the game and less time fighting against it.
The curious structure of Burnout Crash makes the overall experience one of giddy highs punctuated by fist-clenching lows, and as such it's very difficult to recommend with any confidence. It's as if Criterion had baked a delicious cake then told players they could only eat it with cocktail sticks while wearing oven gloves. As tasty as the end result might be, it can't help spoiling the party mood.
6 / 10