Burnout Dominator (PSP)

a review of Burnout Dominator (PSP)
a videogame developed by electronic arts
and published by EA games
for the sony playstation portable
text by Bennett

3 stars

Bottom line: Burnout Dominator (PSP) is “not a driving game. thank god.”

Genre is a tricky thing. In videogames, genre has a status which is unmatched in any other creative form. Every game review site divides the games by console and then by genre. We know that an RPG will sell best in Japan, and an FPS will do better in North America. Games are pitched and funded according to genre, and when the market is flush with games of a particular genre, it is perceived that there is a problem. When a console launches, it needs one game from each major genre.

The problem is that in videogames, genre is bullstuff. It can stop a good game from getting good reviews. It can even stop you from enjoying a good game. Burnout: Dominator is a game which suffers from the industry’s obsession with genre.

A number of people, including me, were disappointed when they played their second Zelda game. Imagine you played Ocarina of Time and then Twilight Princess. You would be thinking to yourself, ‘Wait, the plot is exactly the same. The moves are exactly the same. The equipment and locations are the same. This is the same game.’ A person who thinks this is a person who mistakes Zelda for an action adventure game. But Zelda is a puzzle game, and the puzzles do change from one Zelda game to the next – at least as much as they did between Bomberman and Bomberman II. The sword, the shield, the evil wizard and princess all make Zelda seem like it is related to Dragon Quest, but they are all completely irrelevant to the design, and to your enjoyment of the game.

Just like Zelda is filed under ‘Action Adventure’ at Gamespot, Burnout: Dominator is filed in the ‘Driving’ or ‘Racing’ section of every magazine, every website and every game store. It has cars, it has tracks, it has races, and it should be pretty obvious to everyone that it is a racing game. Only it isn’t.

Dominator lets you know that it isn’t a racing game in subtle ways. For example, in Dominator, as in every other Burnout game, if you are holding the d-pad towards the right when you slam into the outside edge of a right turn, you don’t crash and explode. Instead, your car slows down and gently bumps towards the correct direction. So long as you know whether the road is heading left or right, you are not penalized for missing the corners. Of course, you lose some time when this happens. But as in other Burnout games, the dramatic rubber-banding AI means that a loss of time is not actually a penalty. Very few of the events even record your time.

There is only one penalty for missing a turn. The penalty is this: your turbo-boost meter turns from blue to orange. As long as the meter stays blue, you can chain an unlimited number of boosts together. Drift uninterrupted around a corner, and the meter will stay blue. The second time you do this, you start to accrue double points. Then triple, then quadruple. The moment you screw up a corner, you lose your combo multiplier. This may sound familiar to you if you play games of a certain genre, though I’d guess that most buyers of Dominator have never done so.

The biggest hint as to what kind of game Dominator is comes from the titular gameplay mode. The ‘Dominator’ mode awards a score based mainly on how many turbo boosts you can chain together. The final, game-ending mission is itself a Dominator event which requires you to boost continuously for three laps to rack up the required score. If you break your boost chain even once during the three laps, you lose.

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This is where Dominator differs from previous Burnout games. To win a race, no matter which track you are on and no matter which car you are driving, you must chain one boost into another. As long as you corner well and drive on the wrong side of the road, you can boost forever and your score multiplier will increase. Dominator has three separate mission types which essentially measure your ability to generate boost combos. It has two race modes where you always win if you continuously chain boosts. It has a single timed mode which requires you to score a number of boost combos, and finally it retains the ‘Road Rage’ mode which asks you to smash opposing cars. This last mode is the one aberration in a game which is otherwise a completely pure rhythm game.

Like Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! Or like Dance Dance Revolution. The circuits are songs, and the corners are beats or notes in the melody. To fully appreciate this metaphor, of course, you will need to switch off the terrible ‘EA Traxx’ music while you play.

The genre trappings of Dominator sometimes detract from its rhythm-game purity. It offers a large number of cars, which handle slightly differently but ultimately turbo boost in the same exact way. I cleared every event but I can’t tell you what even one of the tracks was like. On the plus side, the PSP is a much better platform for a rhythm game than it is for a driving game. I played it from start to finish using the d-pad to steer, which worked beautifully since it didn’t matter if I got the correct racing line or not. The PSP is incapable of the motion blur effects which helped popularize the series on consoles, but that would only matter if it was a driving game.

Unfortunately, whenever Dominator is mistaken for a driving game, its strengths and its weaknesses are totally overlooked. Burnout: Dominator is a horrible driving game. Your racing line is irrelevant, you can’t lose the races and the cars and tracks are all identical. As a rhythm game, it is great, but the genre trappings often interfere with the design. If the next Burnout game ditches the cars, the tracks and the enemy cars, I’ll give it full marks.

As it is, it gets three quarters. In my book, that makes it by far the best game for the PSP.

–Bennett

Comments

4 Responses to Burnout Dominator (PSP)

  1. While I find mainstream game media genre distictions as odious as you do, I don’t think you’re right to be so reductionist about classic gaming classifications. It DOES matter that Link has a sword and shield. You seem to be simply replacing the old genres with new ones – saying that Domintor isn’t a racing game, but a rhythm game, still implies that there are such things as racing games and rhythm games.

    Obviously what you’re trying to do is reform genres around mechanics, rather than aesthetics, which is a pretty noble goal, such as it is, and anyway makes more sense than the alternative. But I take exception to the notion that aesthetic don’t matter… that Zelda would be the same with a totally different plot and totally different tools and the “same” puzzles. I can’t think of way that it could even be the same. There is a place where function and form are inextricable, you know.

  2. Yeah obviously I’m not saying that you can never define a genre for a game. I’m trying to say that they tend to be put into misleading or useless genres.

    I don’t think we should reform genres around mechanics per se, but we SHOULD reform them around whatever is important in the game. Most people see Okami as a ‘Zelda-like’, and it’s true that it borrows extensively from Zelda. But what most people enjoy about that game is the aesthetic. I loved Okami, but it doesn’t help someone to understand why I loved it if I put it in the ‘Zelda’ box, or in the ‘Action Adventure’ box.

    We tend to box up these games in insensitive or even stupid ways. I’m against genre as a way of developing and marketing games. I think when we put a game like Burnout into the driving genre box, suddenly it gets compared against some archetypal driving game that has a particular production value and a particular list of features. This stifles creativity in the industry, precisely because a game like Burnout will be seen as a bad driving game. To make a ‘good driving game’, you have to make something close to the archetype.

    I actually object to breaking down a videogames into ‘function’ and ‘form’, as though they were sports cars. I think that’s the wrong language and we need to find an alternative.

  3. Oh, I totally agree with you re: marketing and the stifling of creativity. You don’t read a Roger Ebert review and see GENRE sitting at the top there like it ought to be telling you something, nor do you see comparisons to other movies as a matter of course – and if you do see comparisons, they are at least partially nuanced, and certainly not meant to stand in for a genre; you’ll never see the word “clone” (“Zelda clone”, “Diablo clone”) in a movie review unless it’s a science-fiction movie about artificial DNA replication.

    I’m just trying to open the field to discussion of how games ought to be classified. Tim wants to call things like “driving” and “puzzle” formats, saving genre for things that align more closely with typical dramatic forms, crime or drama or slapstick comedy or what have you. I think this is unnecessarily complex, myself, but the peculiar nature of videogames (interaction + narrative) sort of demands complexity in classification. In Tim’s case, the “format” as in attempt to define player interaction and the “genre” its aesthetic content. As you’ve said above, I don’t think separating them (into “form” and “function”, as it were) is that useful an exercise.

    It doesn’t take experimental indie art games to break these distinctions, either. What do mainstream gaming mags call GTA3? “Action”? How could putting GTA3 alongside Robotron mean anything more than nothing?

    I don’t have any solutions here. I’m just good at pointing out problems.

  4. This is exactly the sort of review I’ve been hoping to read on ABDN: a concise, well-written piece designed to communicate an interesting and novel idea that’s applicable beyond the narrow realm of the game in question. The one-two-punch of (musings on genre)-(description of game)-(surprise conclusion) was smoothly done – I’m going to try to remember this the next time I have to write anything at all vaguely interesting and cerebral.

    Way to go, Mysterious Bennett!

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