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As the series changes gear, Burnout Dominator delivers the final drawing in of breath before the prolonged exhale of Burnout Paradise. On PSP it delivers a glance over the shoulder and provides one last sweet chance to experience the best of Burnout so far. This essay on restraint and quality delivers a game that is a high point on the PSP to date.
As discussed in our Paradise review, the series has long been a flat out charge to perfection. Each release has pushed the boundaries of both technology and play mechanic. The first taste of their risk-reward recipe, Point of Impact, was a revelation that sketched a formula promising to take Criterion to great heights. The charge continued with Maximum Impact's burnouts, bigger crashes and even more ridiculous speeds. Takedown then allowed competitors the climax of the crash, each with its own unique reward. Revenge stretched the danger still further by letting drivers nudge civilian traffic into the path of competitors.
While girding itself to deliver a truly next generation Burnout, Criterion needed to meditate on what had made the series great thus far. As they sped towards what would become Burnout Paradise they peered out the back window at all that was quickly disappearing into the horizon. One element stood high above the rest, one mechanic, one meme encapsulated their project to date: Burnouts. The ability to chain boosts together, filling the next tank even whilst emptying the previous, enabled players to string them together to increase both speed and score in a joyous feedback loop of risk and adrenaline drenched reward.
My eyes lit up at the prospect of old Burnout's swansong - a great chance to introduce friends and family to one of the great arcade racing experiences.
As if unwilling to quite let this idea go, Criterion brought it back for one more outing. Thus Burnout Dominator was born, and on PSP this really outshines not just the previous Burnout release Legends, but also the majority of the other games on PSP. My eyes lit up at the prospect of old Burnout's swansong - a great chance to introduce friends and family to one of the great arcade racing experiences.
Burnout Dominator not only benefits from the return of chained burnouts (unseen since Maximum Impact) but also some intelligent design restraint. Although the recent Burnout Revenge had been a success, its addition of traffic checking and increased after touch had distracted from some of the series' core competencies. Criterion understood that this distraction from the pure risk-reward racing was the cost of introducing the innovation demanded by a new Burnout game. But in Dominator's retrospective they were able to streamline things once more. They striped out everything not fundamental to the boost danger tension. Gone was traffic checking, gone were periphery race modes and gone was the overblown crash after-touch.
Some would think that a successful franchise rests on its ability to innovate, re-imagine and reinvent itself for each iteration. Sure these qualities are in the mix, but they pale into insignificance next to the importance of restraint and consistency. It is this that is the proof that a developer really comprehends what it has created. Burnout Dominator is a master class in franchise management and is testament to Criterion's grasp of their series.
Inside this masterly rework there beats the familiar Burnout engine. This stripped down experience lets us enjoy again those favourite game modes. Point to point racing focuses the mind and reactions whilst Road Rage gets the blood pumping and Burning Lap demands a racing line along with the carnage. Each benefits from the experience and restraint in the delivery. Even the first time to fire up a race, you are struck by a greater connection between car and road. But it's not until the third or forth chained burnout that it strikes you, the moment of letting go - Skywalker like - as you are pressed into using the force. Instincts are again the order of the day, no time for human reactions.
But Criterion, being Criterion, didn't stop here. Their cleaned up driving mechanic affords them some fresh innovation. To these old time classic modes we gain some new challenges, each playing on Dominator's reclaimed burnout chains. Eliminator first insists that you go for those chains to stay in the race then slowly turns up the heat by eliminating the last placed car every 30 seconds. Maniac Mode pairs the destructive speed of those chains with ever greater reward as the player drifts, airs, and near misses their way to a stellar score.
This pause for thought has stood Criterion in good stead. Dominator is an intriguing proposition; it presents not only a collage of Burnouts past but also an echo of what would later find its home in Paradise. Chaining burnouts is found in the new game for all the speed class cars, and in the open world of Paradise city provides its fair share of heart in mouth moments. But less expected, the Maniac Mode foretells of Stunt Runs in Paradise. Although Dominator never quite achieves the vehicular skater moves of the new game, the seed of this idea is clearly seen as you barrel your way to score multipliers.
Whether you want to join Criterion for a pause before the wonderful next-gen Paradise, or if you just want to remember an old friend, Burnout Dominator on the PSP is a mouth watering proposition. It's a game you won't find in other outlets' top tens for 2007. It may not have the brash showy-ness of its siblings, but this restrained release of risk laden driving glory is one that goes on giving long after other games have blown their wad. It will now be interesting to see how Criteria now continue their games on PS2, PSP. We'd suggest that whatever their plans, they have to start with where Dominator has left off.
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