Pared back and wonderfully focused, Dangerous Golf brings the spirit of Burnout indoors.
Burnout - from Takedown onwards, at least - was always defined by its focus, its unshakeable sense of what it was, and what it should be doing with its players. This was a driving game in which driving badly rewarded you with the magic juice that allowed you to drive even more badly. And when you finally crashed - from all that bad driving you'd been doing - you realised that there was nothing remotely final about this kind of crashing. Rather, you ascended on impact, shifting from the status of car to the status of holy wreckage - wreckage you could steer through wonderfully thick, staticky air, and then barrel into your oncoming enemies as the sparks slowed to become individual twills of golden confetti.
In this respect, Dangerous Golf has as much a claim to representing that beloved series' final form as the glorious, if peculiarly expansive, Burnout Paradise. Paradise blew Burnout upwards and outwards, offering an entire city of havoc. Dangerous Golf - which is made by a team of core Criterion vets - shows what might have happened if the series had instead retracted, drawing in its fearsome energy until it dropped cars and wrecks altogether and reduced players to a single pinprick of destructive light, trailing fire and smoke, blasting through a world heaped with clutter, and leaving beautiful destruction in its wake.
In other words, it's a golf game that you play indoors. In toilets. In kitchens. In fancy ballrooms. In France there are halls of mirrors and baby grands. In England there are suits of armour to topple and bash. In the US and Australia there are burgers to upend from serving tables and gas station forecourts to reduce to flames. And you do all this with a wonderfully pared-back sense of what a golf game needs. No arcing arrows that show your potential path, no wind to take into account. No three-click ritual to calculate swing and force. Just aim with the camera and then push forward to fire the ball. How fast? Burnout fast. Always. Forever.
What happens next is Crash Mode, basically, right down to the look and feel of the UI and menus. Once your initial swing has knocked down that hole's requisite number of items, you can trigger Smashbreaker - not Crashbreaker, okay? - and this is where Dangerous Burnout Golf really finds its soul. Smashbreaker sets your golf ball on fire, which is always money in the bank, but it also allows you to steer it in slow-mo through that same, thick, Burnout air, with that same sense of wilful resistance as you nudge it back and forth while aiming. Largely, you're trying to bash it into as much of the environment as you can - plates in the kitchen, vases in the ballrooms, all of which shower you with points - while ensuring that once you run out of Smashbreaker juice you're not too far from the hole to putt neatly in.
On top of this, though, there are high profile targets that turn certain levels into puzzles. Knock down all the pots in the kitchen. Smash all the urinals. (Hopefully not in the kitchen, that one.) Stop all the clocks. Throw in Hazards that you have to avoid, and you have a game that scales from nailbiter to zen-like destructive delirium and back again depending on what you are after from moment to moment. I like to squeeze the right bumper as I play, slowing things down even further, and watch as busts, cabinets, and shelving comes apart, as oranges scatter into the air, as paint leaps and clumps. It is pure destructive beauty. It is the old trailer from Black - also by Criterion. (And also due a revisit?)
How can this carry a whole game? The answer is: gimmicks - which, in a game that's as mechanically focused as this one, is a pretty good answer. Each location has its own flavour, of course, but then there are modifiers. A time limit. A level filled with nothing but putting holes and flags. A glue mechanic which sees you bouncing back and forth, sticking to walls and taking down targets. A bucket doohickey, which launches you from one destructive spot to another and encourages you to chain blasts together.
While all this is unfolding you can marvel at the physics as rooms full of chintzy crap turn to dust. All is vanity! You can enjoy the odd glitch, as a vase or a milk carton hovers in the air, as a burger chatters away to itself like a giggling Muppet. Or you can even feel out the nuance that you know must exist within these simple controls: triggers which allow you to vary the amount of bounce in your smashbreaker ball, a pistol-putting laser-sight aim that allows you to jump over objects as you head for the hole. Want more? Secrets: bonus score flags, signature smashes that see you taking out a specific object like a microwave or a chandelier, and best of all the secret sauce bottles, one of each hidden in every location. I am going to spend the rest of my life hunting those guys down. And then smashing them. Or maybe I'm going to spend the rest of my life putting the perfect ricochet to build up score before sinking the ball.The Sin City game that never was Miller light.
Okay, I'm probably not going to spend the rest of my life in Dangerous Golf, but it's tempting. Alongside a lengthy and inventive campaign, there's campaign couch co-op for two and competitive couch play for up to four, in which you compete across playlists of favourite holes, passing the pad. Online multiplayer scales to eight, and wisely sees everyone competing simultaneously. It's not the most advanced selection of features, and the matchmaking screen is as limited as the rest of the front-end, but it's enough. Dangerous Golf is clearly made on a limited budget - as semi-regular audio glitches, particularly in online multiplayer, attest to - so it's spent its energy where it counts: physics objects, level name puns, references to Hong Kong Phooey (number one super guy) and a Clarksonian title screen complete with cheesey guitar riff.
And, as with Burnout, all that chaos can have a lovely calming effect on the soul. Midway through campaign I found myself above a table loaded with cupcakes, around which seven skeletons stood, metal goblets raised in a toast. I'd just completed a level whose theme was a champagne-lava mashup, so I was all but prepared for this strange and sinister vista. I teed off and bounced around for a happy ten minutes at least, taking out cupcakes and skeletons, skeletons and cupcakes. My head was wonderfully empty. I had zoned out completely and let the world drift away, lost in a landscape of slow-motion catastrophe.
And then, when everything was rubble, I sank the ball in a perfect dropping arc, straight into the hole in the middle of the table. The dust settled. A broken skull leered at me from the floor. Not bad.