When it was first announced, Burnout Dominator’s concept of combining the best of the early and latter-day Burnouts excited me a great deal. Having played the series since the first week of the original PS2 release of Burnout 1, I’ve seen it grow from a somewhat unkown, but incredibly exciting experience into a world-renowned series that normally excels under EA’s ownership. Along the way, there have been some bumps in the road (the addition of EA Trax, overly-stylized videos and annoying tutorial videos), but the gameplay was still rock-solid and these issues were relatively minor and easy to deal with since so many parts of the games were pristine. Unfortunately, Dominator is the first console entry to be seriously crippled due to a control glitch that screws up a core gameplay mechanic, and as a result, is the least-enjoyable console entry that I’ve played.
Burnout boost chaining, a feature that allowed you to chain together your burnout meter-filled boosts in earlier installments, was brought back to the delight of series-long fans. Had it been brought back as it was originally done, this more than likely would have turned out to be a fantastic game. Instead, it’s been crippled because the R1 trigger used to initiate the boost frequently fails to recognize when it’s being pressed, resulting in boosts dropping out at random.
It’s an especially frustrating problem in races where you must chain a certain amount of boosts to unlock cars, and it’s an unforgivable flaw since an entire mode (Burnout Challenge) is built around chaining boosts together, which cannot be done reliably due to that gameplay mechanic being broken here. It’s mind-boggling to see a mode require you to chain about a dozen boosts together over the course of a race and realize that even if you don’t crash and do the best job possible to chain them together, you still aren’t guaranteed a medal because the boost randomly drops out, leaving you with too few points to gain one.
When I initially encountered the problem, I thought it might just be due to my Dual Shock 2 pad, which is a few years old, and my thinking was that it might be faulty, so I tried another pad. The Retrocon’s shoulder buttons being easier to press down on for extended periods of time came in handy, and made boost chaining easier than normal, but it still didn’t eliminate the problem - it just made it slightly more tolerable for a brief period of time.
Problems from Burnout Revenge that I’d hoped would be fixed, like the post-crash car explosions and subsequent car control via impact time rarely working in your favor since it’s often hard to see just where your car is in relation to either the track or other cars due to bad camera positioning are still prevalent. Constant camera cuts only amplify it and make it harder than necessary to navigate a track after a takedown (which should give you an advantage) because the cuts are so frequent and jarring after a takedown that it takes you right out of the game, leading to needless mistakes being made that could have been avoided if the camera wasn’t jumping all over the place.
Despite those fairly huge issues I have with the game, Dominator does succeed in some major ways. The new “near miss” mode is a lot of fun, and is one of the most exciting modes I’ve ever seen in the series as it not only brings back the feeling of traffic-induced fear that permeated the earlier games, but also rewards you for avoiding serious collisions. I also think the new “signature shortcut” system used to unlock shortcuts by doing takedowns into certain parts of the track is a fiendishly clever way to reward not only taking foes down, but doing so in creative ways so you can smash your enemies through the yellow and black fences that unlock them. The near miss mode is so much fun that it almost makes up for the complete absence of a crash mode, which is a series stalwart that is missing in action here, along with the online play that Live users like myself had grown accustomed to.
After years of playing the Xbox games and skipping the PS2 versions, I’ve also grown accustomed to custom soundtracks, which understandably aren’t in this PS2 game, but their absence stands out here since the soundtrack is filled with music that I either don’t like or that doesn’t fit the hard-hitting, fast-driving action on display (Avril’s Lavigne’s “Girlfriend”, which doesn’t suit the game one bit, being presented in four languages, is the most striking example). When I’m slamming into swarms of vehicles while dodging and weaving in and out of traffic, I’d like to have a wide variety of loud, or at least fast-paced to listen to, not something suitable for an easy listening on the radio. Instead, this game’s soundtrack of nearly three dozen songs is full of pop and pop rock that just doesn’t work for me as either gaming music or music I’d listen to in my daily life. Fortunately, the ability to omit certain songs from the in-game play list is still intact, which helps the problem of having music play that doesn’t fit the fast gameplay. It doesn’t fix the problem of very few songs fitting the fast action, but at least it’s something to alleviate the problem slightly.
While the soundtrack selection may disappoint, the sound effects deliver exactly what I expect in a Burnout game - loud, layered effects that make each crash seem like the most devastating thing to ever befall a vehicle. There’s a great deal of variety in the crash sound effects, and they all end up sounding wonderfully brutal. Unfortunately, they’re also cut out for a few seconds (along with all music) for a few seconds after either a crash cinematic or takedown, so some of their ‘oomph’ is lost.
Even though I’m used to the Xbox’s graphical quality for the series, I don’t mind the impressive PS2-level visuals on display here. The framerate rarely chugs despite a dozen or so cars being on-screen at once, with many of them moving quickly, environments are scenic and very detailed, as are the cars. Unfortunately, some nasty graphical glitches, like having cars magically go through pavement, or get warped into water upon crashing harm the game. They don’t directly affect the gameplay, but they’re annoying, and like the constant camera angle shifts after crashes and takedowns; they take you out of the game for a brief moment, which can spell disaster in the later levels of the game.
As a “best of Burnout” game, Dominator fails. It’s hindered by too many glitches impeding the enjoyment that can be had in the game, bad soundtrack selection, and far too few cars being available for use. Revenge allowed players to use about a dozen cars during a particular series of races, and here, you’re limited to just a few. While I respect Criterion’s efforts to make this a “throwback” game in some regards, this is one area that really shouldn’t apply to, as it just makes the game feel incomplete - and in a game with so many glitches, that’s a serious problem.
The lack of online play hurts Dominator’s replay value, while the weird and sometimes game-crushing glitches and programming mistakes make me wonder just how much effort was put into this game in the first place. For $50, players deserve more than a badly-programmed mish-mash of the Burnout series. It’s easily the weakest console entry in the series yet, and I certainly hope this trend of slipshod programming doesn’t continue on with Burnout 5. I can’t even recommend this to die-hard Burnout fans at full-price, which leaves it as a strict rental for most, or a bargain bin purchase for the die-hards who must own everything Burnout-related.