You know how the first time you huff gasoline, you think, "Sweet! I can get high and pass out on the floor of my garage for just the ninety-eight cents it cost for that gallon of unleaded!" And then you huff more and more, and you can never quite reach that same state of harsh suffocating euphoria. And that’s when you turned to even harder drugs, like nail polish remover, or gold spray paint. Gasoline, the gateway drug of NASCAR champions, has then accomplished its nefarious goal.
[image1]Of course, I lied. I’ve never huffed gasoline. Most of us non-suicidal types would never consider huffing gasoline, but then there was the DARE program. It educated us to the previously unconsidered entertainment value of inhaling industrial fumes. Gas prices were indeed ninety-eight cents a gallon back when I was in the prime of my huffing years, but that’s about the only true thing in that last paragraph. No brain damage that way. Plus, less likely to set me on fire.
Speaking of burning, Burnout: Dominator, the fourth in the Burnout series, is playing with fire. By going back to the pump for yet another fill-up, it has all the appearance of the huffed-out gasoline junkie hanging around the Chevron station looking for another fix of that diesel perfume. At first Burnout was addictive, then it was harsh, now it has all the appearances of a habit in need of intervention.
Partially, that's because the game has not changed substantially - you still pilot a car at breakneck speeds through the crowded streets of unnamed cities. You get points for driving recklessly. Weaving through oncoming traffic and drifting around corners builds up boost, which then can be triggered for a scary speed burst.
The takedown mechanic is also the same. By running rival cars into walls or other traffic, you wreck them and fill your boost meter. Takedowns have always been the staple of the Burnout series, but they are less important here. You still take down rivals, but no longer is it a significant factor in the game—instead, it is merely a tool to help keep your boost on.
The big innovation in Dominator is that you can “chain” your boosts together, earning boost even as you are burning it. If you’ve re-filled your boost bar by reckless driving before the first burnout is finished, then you earn another one. This can go on endlessly, provided that you can continue to rack up the reckless driving points without plowing into a semi.
The “chaining” feature at first seems like a good idea. It encourages taking big chances and driving crazy fast. However it also dwarfs the takedown features and becomes the sole factor in either winning or losing tough races. Strategic driving has almost no place in Dominator, in which to dominate is to get lucky. No matter how fast your reflexes, there is no escaping a car hiding behind a hill or one making an unsignaled right turn. At two hundred miles an hour, it’s not driving, it’s directed prayer.
[image2] And it does feel fast. With boost chaining, every car, not just the supercars, flies. The screen blurring effects are put to good use here, and tunnel vision sets in early. In terms of speed, Dominator errs on the side of absurd. But that’s not always a good thing. By making chaining so important, a lot of other things become obsolete:
For instance: cars. Although the individual cars are differentiated by speed and handling, they all feel the same when boosting. Throw in the facts that the cars are blocky-looking this time around and that the game doesn’t indicate the difference in their stats, and you’ve got a boring set of wheels.
Also: racing. The “rubber band” effect, in which rival cars are kept in your general vicinity regardless of how fast or slow you are going, is overly strict. You can chain a boost ten times without crashing, in effect going the whole race at double your normal speed, and your rivals will be right behind you the whole way. Drive around without using boost, and your rivals will mercifully slow down as well. It takes the illusion away, and means all races are decided in the final half minute.
So, instead of racing, most of the “events” take the form of challenges: drift for over 9,000 yards, complete a lap in under a minute, take out fifteen cars. These are neat mini games, but here they have almost completely replaced the basic racing game which is rubber-banded to death anyway.
The one unheralded feature of the game that seems an improvement over earlier titles is more responsive “drifting.” Drift steering here is reminiscent of Ridge Racer, and allows a greater sense of control through difficult turns.
Dominator also gets rid of the ill-advised feature of Burnout 3, the ability to hit and “shoot” sameway traffic into rivals. That’s a good thing. It also erases the puzzle-like “crash” events, which were beginning to get stale as well. Both omissions streamline the franchise.
[image3]However, a game can’t get that much better just by excluding things. While they were at it, they might have excluded the ten versions of Avril Lavigne’s song “Girlfriend” that are on the soundtrack and, now, unfortunately, in my girlfriend’s iPod. The music is hit or miss, but there’s plenty of it, which is fine.
Graphics are ho-hum. The tracks and environments look good, but the cars themselves have more jagged edges than a ten-car freeway pile-up.
Missing are multiplayer modes. There’s no online capability, and the 4-player “pass and play” option is a weak alternative. You can still go head-to-head with a friend, but this is nothing new.
And neither is Dominator. Its one new trick, the supercharged burnout-chaining, eclipses all of the other neat features of the franchise. The rubber-band races soon get boring, especially since there’s no real palpable difference between any of the cars that you unlock. What was once a breathtaking daredevil stunt ride is now just a business commute in rush-hour traffic. It might be good business sense for EA to squeeze a few more bucks out of its prior success - just make sure they're not yours.