Danger Zone is an attempt to recreate the magic of Crash Mode, the discontinued Burnout series’ claim to fame. It’s the product of a young studio founded by Alex Ward, former head of Burnout developer Criterion Software, no less. Your sole objective–then in Burnout and now in Danger Zone–is to send a vehicle rocketing into a busy intersection to create a massive-scale vehicular horror show of fire, screeching rubber, and shattered glass, punctuated by a player-controlled explosion for maximum chaos. At first, it’s gratifying to have a semblance of Crash Mode back in our lives–but the honeymoon period eventually wanes, revealing issues that prevent Danger Zone from maintaining its appeal.
For better and for worse, Danger Zone keeps things simple. You’re given a massive holographic space in which you ram a single stock stunt car into simulated traffic patterns. The car rolls out with a single bomb, called a Smashbreaker, which can be triggered after enough cars have met their untimely end in the given pileup. Success is measured in sheer damage in dollars, tallied after every car in every intersection has run its course. Icons strewn around each intersection can either give you additional Smashbreakers or more money added to the final total.
For at least the first couple of intersections, Danger Zone’s formula is gleefully basic for anyone who just wants to drive up and cause some mayhem for a few brief minutes, though over time, the game’s austerity works against it. Crashes and explosions themselves are beautifully rendered with all the power Unreal Engine can muster, but the sparse crash environments make for a boring backdrop, stripping away a small-but-crucial bit of personality from the whole experience.
Later, when Danger Zone gets more complex, the crash intersections start requiring less appetite for destruction than a utilitarian precision that winds up being the opposite of fun. Many of the later levels are multitiered monstrosities that require perfect timing, placement, and movement to block traffic on every bit of floating highway. The initial hit has to be impactful enough to stop both your lane and the opposite flow of traffic. That’s strangely harder than it should be, since many times, vehicles don’t stop, swerve, or even react when a car is out on the road–only screeching and stopping when a direct hit is imminent.
In early stages, your initial Smashbreaker is all you need to rack up enough points for a high score. But later on, it’s imperative that you create an explosion with enough force to send you down the block to another intersection, and hopefully a Smashbreaker icon that allows you to keep the carnage rolling even further. You do have a modicum of control over the vehicle once it’s in the air, but directing your wreck is a loose and inconsistent process made worse by Danger Zone’s camera. You can look left and right, but not up, down, or farther away from the action to get a decent look at the surrounding area. This in turn leaves you prone to encountering unexpected events. Some, like hitting a fresh batch of cars, work in your favor, but you’re just as likely to fly into open space, cutting your crash spree short.
The other major problem comes down to the game’s scoring, which is weighted less for the number of vehicles you impact than how many get caught in a Smashbreaker explosion, which not only takes the fun out of just plain causing a pileup, but seems to lead to some aggravating bugs in the process. One particular stage requires triggering a head-on collision with a semi-trailer to start a sequence of pileups on the other side of the road from you, and time and time again, my car hit the trailer dead on at full speed, and the trailer kept rolling on like nothing happened, unless I racked up enough damage to trigger the Smashbreaker first.
The old magic of Crash Mode rises to the surface often enough for Danger Zone to be a fun diversion, but this excitement is ironically muted when the game decides to turn up the intensity in its later levels. Danger Zone is the beating heart of a concept in search of a full-fledged game to pump life into. While it won’t satisfy your lust for chaos the way the Burnout games once did, Danger Zone provides enough thrills to make you want that hypothetical successor more than ever.