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Burnout Crash review: Accident prevention

As anyone who possesses the required documentation and vehicular means can attest, it is not terribly difficult to crash a car. There are countless laws and infrastructural guidelines designed to keep your automobile from touching anything but the ground beneath it -- ignoring just one is enough to cause a horrific, steel-twisting wreck. If impulse, not reason, guided your hands-on-wheels and feet-on-pedals, then the act of safe driving would be exponentially more difficult than the dangerous variety.

Perplexingly, Criterion Games has centered the focus of Burnout Crash on a task that's even more difficult, and more obscure than avoiding collisions with other automotive objects: In Burnout Crash, you must collide with all the other automotive objects. Harsh penalties await for players who let chunks of traffic slip through their grasp, bringing you to a haunting realization: You're not orchestrating symphonies of coordinated property damage, you're committing automotive genocide.

Gallery: Burnout Crash! (8/31/11) | 5 Photos

That focus is never as clear as it is in Burnout Crash's "Road Trip" mode, which players must complete to progress in the campaign and unlock each level's other gametypes. It's the crux of the title, requiring players to head-off unchanging traffic patterns to earn power-ups (or power-downs, if the level is particularly cruel) and, upon reaching a set goal of wrecked cars, set off a level-ending cataclysmic event such as a tidal wave or tornado.

Here's the rub: If you let five cars pass from one end of the screen to the other unscathed, the level ends immediately. It's impossible to complete all five of each event's objectives without reaching that penultimate catastrophe. To do so, you'll need to try to maneuver yourself and your wreckage using a constantly recharging "Crashbreaker" explosion, which will reset even quicker as you blow more things to smithereens.

In so, so many ways, the focus on hitting every car that comes your way is exceedingly counterintuitive. My strategy quickly devolved from wrecking as much shop as I could to detonating only when I absolutely needed to, building nets of bent steel and smoldering tires to catch passing motorists. I'd let entire power-ups (like hugely explosive oil rigs and roadway-freezing ice cream trucks) pass by unused, all to preserve my embankments.

But sometimes, that hard work doesn't matter. Forget the fact that your only mode of locomotion (exploding) scatters your defenses; sometimes, cars in your pile-ups will explode, starting a chain reaction that's fungibly rewarding but leaves you completely unguarded. Well-intentioned power-ups do this too, like the Sinkhole, which sucks cars down a pit in the middle of your level, leaving the roadway completely uncluttered for the wave of cars that follow.

Ambulances, if left unperturbed, will remove one of the five strikes against you -- but of course, to let them pass often requires you to leave a bit of road undefended, which could just open yourself up to further strikes and redoubled infuriation.

There is nothing, nothing more frustrating than watching your perfect run be disassembled by a random explosion that clears the path for a wave of five game-ending cars, which you can only watch drive by as your Crashbreaker recharges. What's worse, those cars can sometimes navigate through your minefields with a level of vehicular dexterity often reserved for the freaking Transporter.

Traffic patterns don't change between rounds, so it's certainly designed to be played meticulously and repeatedly, forcing the player to develop a strategy in the hunt for the perfect run. But the frustration is too pervasive to lend itself to that kind of perfectionism. It's punishing, not in an "okay, one more go" kind of way; but rather, in an "okay, screw this game forever" kind of way.

The other two modes are significantly more forgiving: Pile Up starts you with a five-times multiplier which reduces with each car that passes, ending with an "Inferno" which lets you destroy the world indefinitely so long as something, somewhere is on fire. It's still tough to reach the score goals set by the level without the maximum multiplier, but failure on this mode doesn't fill you with the kind of abject frustration that Road Trip can conjure up.

"Rush Hour" mode wisely eschews any penalties for missed cars, simply requiring you to destroy as much stuff as you can in 90 seconds, after which point your car explodes with thermonuclear force. It is the most fun that Burnout Crash has to offer, and unfortunately proves the failure of the mode which precedes it: The art of setting up preposterous chain reactions of buildings, cars and countless other environmental objects is a type of blissful fun which Road Trip mindfully prevents you from having.

Rush Hour also serves as the basis for the game's multiplayer Kinect Party mode, which chooses a randomized gesture to set off your Crashbreaker before each round. It is lamentable that there's no multiplayer option for the PSN version, or the traditional controller-wielding XBLA audience (outside of the keenly implemented, asychronous Autolog score challenges). Still, the Kinect Party mode works on a deep, intrinsic level, which is to say: It is good to make cars explode by shooting an imaginary Hadouken at them.

Criterion has proven time and time again that it knows how to make a fun game, which is why it's so surprising that the development team behind Burnout Crash focused so much time and energy on its most remarkably un-fun component. There are deep, deep pockets of joy embedded in the mantle of Burnout Crash, but for reasons beyond understanding, you're going to have to do your chores before you're allowed to play them.

This review is based on a final version of Burnout Crash for Xbox 360, provided by EA. It's available now on PSN and tomorrow on XBLA for $9.99 (800 MS Points).

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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