There are a bunch of variables to play with in Onrush, even in the current beta. For the opening hours of my first morning playing, however, none of them seemed to matter very much.
There are vehicles to pick from, ranging from fast-and-light to slow-and-heavy. Each come with their own skills and their own gimmicks. There are courses, throwing you over sand dunes and past tumbledown churches or skipping across day-glo volcanic lakes, a sudden burst of rainbow colour amidst stinging gusts of snow, all of which conform to the basic Onrush ideal, which seems to be a wide, chummy donut loop filled with jumps and bottlenecks. There are game types, too, in which your team competes with another by either ramming each other to pieces and doing tricks for boost, or by racing through little gateways to keep your countdown clock well-stocked with seconds.
At first, though, it was all a heady, grinding blur: buffeted and gloriously rattled, I was not left with the focus needed to divine what exactly happens when you level up between games, or what makes one team-mate a regular in the post-match MVP rankings, or how that MVP player gets to choose what their avatar looks like or which funny victory dance they end up doing.
Don’t worry about any of that yet, I think, because for your first few hours, Onrush is a washing machine stuffed with cars. You spin round and round and round, tumbling faster and faster and then colliding with something. A quick trip back to the lobby to choose a new car or stick with an old favourite and then the spin cycle welcomes you back in, around and around and around. SMASH.
For its first few hours, Onrush is weird, then, but also extremely lovable. Is it a race? Not really, although you are cautioned to drive fast at all times – cautioned to abandon caution. There is no finish line to this Möbius track. There is no reward for being ahead and no awful punishment for being behind. Your job, rather, is to stay within the jostling throng and take out any cars that are on the enemy team. There are a lot of cars because there are also mobs, as if this were DOTA or League of Legends or Titanfall. The mobs are cars without teams who crumple after a single hit. They are there just to die for your pleasure and your boost.
(All of this means you keep track of how your side is doing not by reading the field ahead of you – which is all carnage, all the time – but by keeping an eye on two meters at the top of the screen. Even when Onrush clicks, it’s not ideal, to be honest. It can make victory feel a little bloodless and failure feel a little out of your control.)
The loop, at least, is familiar in these early encounters: drive badly – jumps and collisions and all the things a driving test instructor would take a dim view of – to get boost, which allows you to drive badly even badlier. Eventually you have chewed through so much boost you get to fill up your Rush meter, which is right at the centre of the UI, so it must be important. Rush puts you into a proper headlong pelt. So much potential for driving badly at your very badliest here! It is a thrill, because the developers absolutely know what to do to make you feel like you’re going fast. And it is a thrill because there is Burnout in the DNA, with all those cars tumbling around you, all those takedowns erupting, all those glorious memories of crash junctions and traffic checking.
But then it all starts to settle a little – if a game this hectic can ever really settle. Let’s say it comes into focus: I opted for a bike on one match and discovered that I could do stunts during jumps to earn rush a little quicker. I chose a heavy vehicle in the next and discovered that it left little holographic window panes behind it when I was really cooking that would slow any rivals passing through them. An enemy knocked me through the crucial parts of a church just because they forced me to cross their poisoned wake – there is a little of Tron’s Light Cycles to this game, and the tactics start to emerge once you properly get to grips with the vehicle you’re driving – what it’s good for and what you have to be especially careful about when you’re behind the wheel.
I still worry a little. I worry that the endless chug that Onrush wants to create – you are surrounded by cars, so many of them, absolutely all of the time – may lead, perversely, to a slight flattening of affect. When everything is exciting, is anything really that exciting? I think I will need more than a beta to answer that question.
There’s also, weirdly, the handling. This might just be me, but the only way I can understand what I am doing sometimes when I am driving an Onrush car is to ignore the four wheels I see on the screen and imagine that beneath the car, at the very centre, is a huge hamster-ball wheel, and it’s this phantom wheel that I am really in control of. This is only an occasional thought, mind, and it should be pointed out that the group behind Onrush – Codemasters’ new team is formed by people who worked at Evolution Studios – have been making excellent driving games far longer than I have been playing them, so you might want to get a second opinion on this. Onrush’s sense of physics feels odd, though, perhaps because I am raised on Burnout, in which you are fast and heavy. In Onrush, regardless of the car you choose, you seem to be fast and light.
The thing is, though, a washing machine full of cars doesn’t turn up every day. So I’m still playing, and I’m still one hundred percent on Onrush’s side. I love a weird racer, even a weird racer which isn’t about racing in the strictest sense. Onrush wants you to think about games like Burnout and MotorStorm. But it makes me think of Blur a little, too, which probably gives someone at Codemasters a touch of the bad dizzies, but which makes me very happy. I was at a conference once when Gareth Wilson, who designed Blur and has a background in economics, described that game as bacon cornflakes. That was in retrospect, of course, because nobody with a background in economics would aim to get bacon cornflakes onto shelves in any kind of a hurry.
Is this bacon cornflakes? Is it a bunch of cars in a washing machine? I don’t know yet – but I’m still playing, and with each loop I think the game’s true character – its true nature – becomes a little more visible. Onrush is definitely a bit of a charmer.