A racing game that mostly does away with the racing, Onrush is a chaotic and curious spin on a much-loved genre.
Bacon cornflakes. That's what Gareth Wilson said of Blur as he pondered the reasons where it all went wrong for one of the last great arcade racers; how Bizarre Creations mashed together Mario Kart with authentic cars and a downbeat aesthetic for a concoction that plain confused most people. Onrush, the new game from the studio formed from the remains of Evolution Studios, seems to have thought to itself that bacon cornflakes isn't quite unique enough a concoction. How about tossing some eggs in, too? And then how about smothering it all in a sweet layer of strawberry jam?
This is a seriously strange game, though it can be told in one clean and simple elevator pitch; what if the racing genre met with the first-person shooter, if Burnout paired up with Overwatch to create an all-new hybrid? The answer that Onrush developer Codemasters Evo can sometimes be a little patchy, and in some places doesn't quite convince, but despite that this emerges a remarkable achievement. Onrush, against all odds, works.
The studio's pedigree helps. Onrush looks exquisite, as you'd expect from the team behind the outrageously gorgeous DriveClub, and its more outlandish premise allows the art team off the leash. Bleached white beaches stretch out beneath blue skies, events cascade through golf courses and through mountain ranges, particles and debris sparking across the screen, all while keeping to a sweet and steady 60fps, all told to a sweetly upbeat soundtrack. It's as sublime a technical achievement as any of Evolution Studios' output, and an even more remarkable one when you consider this is a multi-platform release, pulled together on an all-new engine in just over two years.
Even more remarkable - and something that, after the open beta, has already proven divisive - is how Onrush doesn't fall back on an existing formula. This is a very different racing game, to the point where I'd hesitate to call it a racing game at all. Is it a car combat game? A team sports game? Let's settle with vehicular action game, with an emphasis on the action - because in Onrush, there's an awful lot of it.
Indeed it's relentless, a constant churn of carnage that pulls you back in as quickly as it spits you out. The thundering heart of Onrush is its stampede, the mob of cars you're competing with and that you're constantly tethered to by an invisible rubber band. It's an oddly restrictive feeling, whether you're boosting your way ahead of the pack only to have it numbly consume you, or whether you're lagging behind only to find yourself snapped back into the midst of it all. It feels, at first, plain wrong.
And that's the first of several contradictions that's at the heart of Onrush, a game that takes a fair amount of recalibration on the player's behalf. This is a pick up and play action game that doesn't make that much sense until you've spent a couple of hours with it - and a multiplayer game that's arguably at its best when played alone, those dramatic slowed down killcams that greet each takedown understandably absent from online play. It's only when you start playing with the mindset you'd take into a multiplayer shooter, though, that Onrush really clicks into place.
That's because, across all of Onrush's game modes, it's never about finishing first. A lengthy single-player campaign, complete with various objectives for each event, ties together the four main modes which are available offline and on - in Overdrive you're boosting to score points for your team, stringing out combos of tricks and takedowns, while Lockdown is a variant of King of the Hill, teams working to gain possession of a small zone that races along with the stampede. Switch is a smart twist on Call of Duty's gun game, starting everyone off in a motorbike before switching them out to meatier machinery once they're taken out, and Countdown is the closest Onrush ever gets to a traditional racer, taking the checkpoint system of arcade classics and delivering its own spin as teams work together with a combined clock, and work to prevent the opposition from hitting gates.
For all the noise and clatter of Onrush's second-to-second play, with other players and the fodder that courses along your stampede barrel-rolling out of the way, it's hard at first to get a sense of what impact you're having on the outcome of any event. There's a rhythm to be found though, pulling off tricks to earn boost, using boost to fill your Rush meter - Onrush's analogue of Overwatch's Ultimates - and then unleashing it in one cathartic moment.
And in that rhythm there's depth, even if it's blurred a little amidst all that chaos, with eight different vehicle classes complete with their own strengths and weaknesses as well as their own perks - little gates that spawn in a vehicle's wake when they're rushing that can help boost other teammates, say, or ones that can impede the opposition, or perhaps the ability to upend others with a little more ease. There's a lot going on in Onrush, and it's not necessarily coherent most of the time.
It is, however, fascinating and infectiously energetic. What an odd, odd game Onrush is - something that harks back to that peculiar purple patch for the arcade racer, when games like Pure, Blur, Fuel and Split/Second all came bounding along with their own take on the genre. They're hardly names you'd want to invoke in a boardroom, but they're rightly cherished by genre aficionados, and Onrush is proof once again of how thrilling a little leftfield thinking can be when it comes to the age-old racing game.
Onrush, for all its eccentricities - indeed, because of its eccentricities - has the makings of a cult classic. I've no idea how it was greenlit, but good god am I thankful that it was. This is a driving game that's resolutely unlike anything you've played before, and in that way it feels reassuringly old - a throwback to the time when every big racing game had a bold new idea to justify its existence. Onrush is odd, upbeat and inventive - and once you've got your head into its peculiar rhythm, it's mostly excellent too.