It's always nice to see a game trying something different - it's just a shame it doesn't always work out all that well. With plenty of usually pretty dull race-around-tracks-more-times-than-we-care-to-count racers out there (we're looking at you, F1 and Gran Turismo), Onrush, the latest creation from the former Evolution Studios, now known as Codemasters Evo, sets out down a path no racing game has ever really trodden before. And if anything, that might be why it misses the mark.
The messaging about Onrush has been pretty abysmal up until now, so it's probably best to just forget everything you've read so we can start afresh. Rather than being a racing game in the traditional sense, Onrush is more of a team based, objective based driving game, where you'll race around circuits along with a load of other cars, only there's no start, no finish, and no reason to be way out in front in first place. Instead, Onrush is a game that tries to get the whole team involved, as you speed through gates to add precious seconds to your team's timer in Countdown mode, work with teammates to boost as much as you can to earn points in Overdrive, or battle to stay in a quick moving circle in Lockdown mode, the game's take on King of the Hill.
No matter which mode you're playing, there's often not much point in taking first place - and certainly no traditional standings. Instead, Onrush is a game that's bright, bold and brash; a game about trading blows with other racers; leaping over jumps; burning through boost; and smashing into your foes at just the right moment to send them spiralling off the track to their demise. And really, that all sounds like it should be so much fun. So, why isn't it?
The problem isn't that Onrush is in any way really bad - it's just that it doesn't do anything it sets out to do very well, something that seems to be half due to picking a duff concept, and half due to the execution. For starters, though they may be a key part of the gameplay, takedowns are far, far too hard to pull off, requiring you to hit a car at such a sharp angle, you'll almost indefinitely crash straight off the track and into a brick wall immediately afterwards. On the other hand, it's always far too easy for enemies to take you out. When the gentlest of dings seemingly come with all the force of an atom bomb to your poor old car, but ramming a car at full throttle sees them just carry on unscathed, it's enough to feel irritating, even if you do get to jump straight back into the race after a brief cooldown.
It probably doesn't help that your cars handle as though they weigh 100 tonnes each, with steering doing very little to actually steer your car, even when you've slowed almost to a crawl. With tracks littered with obstacles, it doesn't take much of an impact (or even a graze) to send your car to the scrapheap. Similarly, due to the nature of the game, you never really see the enemy takedowns coming, and there's nothing you can do to avoid them. With so many jumps, you'll often have an enemy car simply drop out of the sky on top of yours - and with no warning it's coming, and no way of dodging, it gets irritating fast.
Of course, takedowns aren't the be all and end all of the game (at least not in most modes), but they are a large part and parcel of how you manage to win. In Lockdown, the King of the Hill style mode, being able to take down enemies and keep more of your team in the circle than them for a few seconds is how you'll manage to capture the zone. If you die so much easier than they do, it'll soon start to feel unfair when the difficulty ramps up.
All of this really comes to a head in what's easily the worst of the game's four mode, Switch. Here, each player has three "lives", where you'll start out on the game's weakest vehicle - a motorbike - and every time you get killed, you'll move up to a bigger and sturdier vehicle. Once you're out of lives, you'll be left driving what's basically a big rig around the circuit, doing your best to take out any remaining foes. Again, it all sounds good on paper - but like so much else about Onrush, it just doesn't gel together properly, and rather than highlighting the game's strengths, it just makes you all too aware of its weaknesses.
For starters, if you manage to get to the front of the pack, you'll find yourself with literally nothing left to do - after all, you can't take out the racers behind you. The game also doesn't really make this hugely clear, instead putting some small, white text near the bottom of the screen, rather than flashing up something giant where you'll see it. Instead, if you do end up out in front, all you can do is pull to the side and slow down, hoping no-one takes advantage of the game's daft design to slam straight into the back of your car, and destroy you (of course, they will). Making things even more confusing, it can be tough to figure out who's still on their three lives, and who's now racing as an enforcer. Instead of only putting the big friendly logos over the cars that you still need to take out, instead, everyone has a giant logo, regardless of whether they're important or not, which can make finding that last enemy a bit tricky.
It's not that there aren't a lot of plusses here, too - and that's one of the saddest things. Outside of the frustrations with the modes, there's a lot the game gets right. For starters, there's a pretty lengthy single player mode - which is more than can be said for Gran Turismo Sport - and it's not like you can't have fun. The standard "boost to earn points" mode is OK, and the King of the Hill inspired Lockdown is probably the most reliably enjoyable. There's also a pretty nice progression system, which sees you earning XP, and unlocking new customisation options for the characters and cars every time you level up, via a "loot box" style system. However, as with everything else Onrush, this comes with a catch, as you'll need to be connected to the internet in order to earn XP. That means if PSN/Xbox Live is having trouble - or if your internet goes down - nothing you do will count for anything, XP/unlocks wise. It's a crazy decision, and one we can only imagine has been done to try and keep the system truly random - because God knows you don't want someone cheating and unlocking something crucial, like a new skin when they shouldn't, right? What a disaster that would be.
In terms of multiplayer, it's a similarly mixed bag. On the downside, there's no split-screen of any sort - but on the up side, it does have support for private games, which even earn you XP. As an added bonus, you can also play through the game's career mode with a group of friends in co-op too - which is a really nice, and much appreciated touch, and one which should make some of the later stages a bit easier. That said, we played quite a bit in multiplayer, and in all honesty, we never really hit it off with it. Part of the problem is that, although you're playing as a team, you never really see each other, and you never really get to see how you, or your friends, are contributing to the score. Instead, everything's so frantic, you only really find out how everyone's done at the very end, stripping it of the teamwork appeal. For those hard of hearing, we should probably also note that there's absolutely nothing in the way of subtitles here, either - meaning the video explanations the game gives you of each mode, and most of its tutorial section will be completely useless for you.
In all then, Onrush is an interesting experiment, and one that you can certainly have some fun with - but it's also a game that's flawed, and which falls somewhat short of the mark. In short doses, this is a game you can have a decent blast with - but it's not going to have any sticking power once you've whizzed through the career mode. Though it's not one to outright avoid, we'd recommend waiting until this drops a bit in price before picking it up. For those waiting for a killer new arcade racer, all eyes turn to the brand new Rollcage game, Grip, out later this year.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4