So here's a thing. Burnout: Dominator has a pretty great soundtrack. You've got your Fratellis, your LCD Soundsystem and your innumerable studenty rock-punk bands where the lead singer doesn't quite have a nice enough voice and so sings in slightly dumb (but unique!) way instead. About four hours into playing Dominator I was tearing through the streets while shouting along to Chelsea Dagger because I'm a terrible human being, when I noticed they'd altered it and censored the word 'hell'. I was instantly fascinated. This is a game where it's not just an option but a necessity for you to drive down the wrong side of the street, ram your opponents and detonate your own car without thought to innocents caught in the blast, but they don't want you hearing the word 'hell'. Maybe because they know that's where they're going?
The important thing you should take from this story has nothing to do with bizarre age rating laws. The important thing is that I could spare all those brain cells for a lengthy bit of legal musing while I was driving because I was on autopilot. That's something that never happened to me with previous Burnout games. In the past my attention had been held with an iron grip. This time I was playing on instinct.
Know you best as a blagger
This is a great game. It's just the same great game we've played four times before, and that hits home a hell of a lot harder than it did in Burnout 3 or even Burnout Revenge because those at least gently nudged the series in new directions. Burnout Dominator is something of a return to the series' roots. It's a beautiful, butter smooth return, but then the last thing anyone would expect of a new Burnout game would be for it to lack the brains and polish that's always been present.
What Dominator lacks is effort. It feels like it's trying less hard than it could be, and not just because it uses Revenge's engine. Online play, traffic attack and a few small features are missing and replaced with old favourites and no-brainer new modes (more on them later). There's no innovation here, and that's not too surprising. With a meagre release on PS2 and PSP this is nothing more than a stopgap while Criterion/EA UK works on some kind of re-invention of the license for 360 and PS3.
This time around, once again, things are all about burnouts as a game mechanic. Dangerous driving fills your boost bar, and this bar turns blue when it's full. Boost for the entire duration of the bar while driving dangerously enough to fill a second meter, and when your boost bar's empty ('burning out') it refills again and you keep boosting, this time requiring even more dangerous driving to refill that second meter. For any kind of race based event this is key because it acts as an increase to your top speed, plus taking down opponents by driving them into walls becomes like guiding a toddler into a glass door. Not that I know what that would feel like or anything. Anyway burnouts are equally vital in the new maniac mode.
Maniac mode simply has you driving like a Gizmondo executive, racking up points by driving in the oncoming lane, narrowly missing other cars and drifting around corners or even down straights, Outrun style if you can. Burnouts (I keep typing bun routs and giggling) enter the equation because each burnout you get acts as a multiplier for as long as you can keep it up. So if you're on your third burnout, any points you get from dangerous driving are multiplied by three, and so on. Getting downright silly multipliers is the only way your driving will mean anything on later tracks, which simultaneously makes any time you spend burning out massively exciting and any time you can't pretty boring.
The other new game modes you'll be getting to know don't stray too far from this formula. Drift Challenge has you burning out while drifting as much as possible, Near Miss Challenges has you burning out while nearly hitting as many cars as possible, and Burnout has you burning out. They're all fun to play, but they feel like the product of a lazy Friday afternoon meeting.
Over the worst of it.
An addition that's a little more interesting are the new Signature Shortcuts. Every track has one or more flimsy looking sections of wall that'll come down permanently if you force another car into them, opening up a new bit of road that'll shorten your lap times. Once these things are unlocked they're available on all of the events in that area, making them a more worthy goal than the trophies or an uninterrupted run of gold medals.
The swap back to burnouts being the focus after the series' diversion into high speed warfare does work. It's a slightly limp way out, but it works. It's still enormous fun travelling sideways down city streets at hundreds of miles an hour, trying to get control back because those inbound headlights are getting worryingly big. Things get even more manic as you unlock later, harder car types, and by the Dominator series the game demands uninterrupted burnout runs that have you wincing with every near miss and praying that you're taking that next corner at enough of an angle to collide with the curve in a shower of sparks rather than the dreaded slow-motion crash.
Burnout: Dominator is a perfectly functional stopgap, and Criterion has stayed absolutely true to its game's ethos. This is about as basic a game it could produce that would still retain the series' impressive reputation. With incredible skill it has taken its license-car on a cheeky and unnecessary but lucrative power slide around the corner, and so came within inches of a collision with the truck of broken dreams. Now the only thing it has got ahead of it is the wide open straight of the next generation. Burnout 5 is going to be its chance to shine again.