Dangerous Golf, the first game from Three Fields Entertainment, a studio founded by a bunch of the people who made Burnout's legendary Crash Mode, was basically Crash Mode indoors and with golf balls. The team's latest game, called Danger Zone, has an even simpler sales pitch: it's Dangerous Golf outdoors and with cars. It's Burnout's Crash Mode. There are tweaks, which I will get to in a second, but the glory of the thing is its insane purity. Burnout's slow-mo sparks and lovingly-indulged collisions, reduced to a bunch of promising junctions, this time located within a sort of futuristic test chamber. All ready and waiting. All waiting to be transformed into baroque automotive pile-ups. Remember the way that collectable score boosters used to float in the air in Crash Mode? They float in the air the same way here. Remember the noise they used to make when you collected them? Guess what. Guess what.
After a day of playing the preview build, I am in love. I am also still mainly on the first level, and while this probably counts as dereliction of previewing duty, it's the clearest way I can make a point about the ungodly potency of what Three Fields is serving up here. Sure, I have played through all of the eight junctions available at this point and I have noticed the new expansiveness to proceedings - the way that roads can carve for a long time before leading you to incident, the way that a flyover may hide a promising underpass that you only discover on your third attempt. I have enjoyed some luxuriously long air-times, and worked my way through courses in which you need to ping between points boosts with unusual precision. But I have always been drawn back to the first level, because there is unfinished business there. And that is a good sign. That is the best sign.
And so: I am still on the first level because I am fourth on the leaderboards, with a decent enough score of 11,400,000. That gives me the medal I need to proceed. It even gives me the gold medal I need to proceed with a certain Burnout dignity. What it doesn't give me is the place at the top of the leaderboard, a place where Simes - my deadly enemy - is currently basking with a score of 13,375,000.
Who is Simes? Possibly another previewer for another outlet. If so, I salute them. But I wonder. I wonder if Simes works for Three Fields Entertainment. I wonder if this Simes is the same Simes who is listed on the studio's website. I'm going to guess that it is. And then I am going to stew. How did he do it? What secret does he know? How did he do it?
This was expected. In Crash Mode, you never truly move on until you're top of the leaderboard, and in replaying this level over and over again, over and over and over, I've at least got a relatively good sense of what we're all up against here, what it is that makes Danger Zone such a welcome prospect.
The classic Crash Mode level - and Up the Junction has all the makings of a classic - initially feels like a puzzle, in that there's a certain way to play it to get a really good score. There's a certain way to play that balances the score-boosts of the collectables that racks up your points, with the oncoming traffic that really racks up your points. Crucially, though, the whole thing must never devolve into something that is purely solvable. A great Crash Mode level has good places to aim for and good techniques to uncover, but it is not a binary thing with a neat solution. As such, you can never stop worrying away at it - you can always come back for more. A great Crash Mode level, even when you have absolutely aced it, wakes you in the middle of the night with the thought that maybe you could veer left at the start instead of veering right. What would happen then? Crash Mode is not a crossword. It is a laboratory.
Up the Junction is a laboratory. You start at one end of the road, cross a lane of busy traffic - I tend to steer left to avoid a bus, maybe this is a mistake - and then race over a ramp to land, belly-flop-style, in a second cross-lane of busy traffic. Around here, I have generally caused enough damage to unleash my Smashbreaker, an explosion that lofts my car into the air with a bit of aftersteer. I use this aftersteer to get me another Smashbreaker token, and then I use that Smashbreaker to carry me over to another, final Smashbreaker token, at which point I leave the lane behind and land in the middle of a neat arrangement of school buses, which are soon neat in their arrangement no longer.
This is a pretty good strategy. It will get you, more or less, 11,400,000 points. But somehow, there is a means of getting a couple of extra million out of this level. And I have spent all afternoon trying to work out what that means might be.Halo's biggest problem may be Halo itself Cortana trap.
First lane of traffic? Possibly, but if I clip the bus in the first lane, I never make it as far as the second. Also, Danger Zone's biggest new tweak is that if you leave the road entirely, you fall into a laser grid and suffer de-resolution, which means back to the start with no points at all to show for your trouble. (Restarts, incidentally, are wonderfully zippy here.) De-resolution itself may be part of the solution, though, because any enemy cars you knock off the road and into the laser grid give you a de-resolution bonus. Crash Mode has always felt a bit like billiards. Now you can pocket some of the balls.
Another possibility is the golden token. If you pick up all the bronze and silver score tokens - and I have, reader, I have - a golden token appears and it gives you a huge points boost. I have picked up this token, but, because it appears somewhere totally mad on Up the Junction, back between the second lane of traffic and the ramp, I have had to sacrifice other points opportunities to do so. How am I meant to cause maximum damage on the busy parts of the road and still get back here to the golden token? I have obviously spent at least an hour by this point trying to thread this needle. So far, no success. So far, 11,400,000 points. But I have hope.
And this is the thing about Crash Mode, or Danger Zone, or whatever you want to call it. For all the destruction, it's all about hope. It's hope that has squeezed hours of fun out of the first level of the game. It is hope, in truth, that saw me lingering in the four part tutorial a little longer than I reasonably should have. The presence of all this hope, driving me back to the restart again and again, is why this compact game already feels expansive, and why I feel confident telling you Danger Zone looks special despite still being mainly stuck on the first level. No. I'm not stuck. I just have faith that I can really do myself proud.