As surprised and delighted as I was to see Onrush’s announcement at Paris Games Week last year, what I wasn’t expecting was to be so thoroughly surprised by the gameplay itself. To all outward appearances, the team formerly known as Evolution Studios (and now known as Codemasters Evo) was returning to the bombastic style of off road arcade racer that they had excelled at through the PlayStation 3’s life with Motorstorm. Onrush is not that, it’s something else entirely.
In fact, I’d say that if you expected Evo to toe the line with the arcade racing genre in any way, you’ll be in for a real shock. Onrush is something entirely new, it’s bold, it grabs other genres by the ankles and turns them upside down to see what falls out of their pockets and then moves on to the next inspiration.
At the heart of each game mode is what Evo call The Stampede. In essence, this is the congested pack of cars, trucks and bikes all battling ferociously to come out on top, a mixture of real opponents and dumb AI fodder that are merely there to feed you combo and fill your Rush meter, with just a slight tap wrecking them. What Onrush brings in spades are crashes; just as in Motorstorm and Burnout, the best way to beat your opponent is to smash them into the scenery that you’re racing past, turning them into scrap metal as you cackle with delight and race off into the distance. What Onrush does differently is that it then spawns the loser back in with the rest of the pack, going at 100mph and getting them straight back into the action.
That lends itself brilliantly to the handful of 6v6 team-based game modes that take deep inspiration from other games and genres. Overdrive is the most freeform, as you score points through crashing into the fodder, making big jumps, pulling tricks and taking out your opponents, while Countdown spins the classic arcade race against the clock into a collective team effort as each racer tries to get through each gate and keep your team’s timer filled. Switch then adds in a dash of Gun Game, as you try to take down opponents with each of the eight vehicle classes, while Lockdown is King of the Hill where the Hill – let’s call it Damon – is going at 100mph.
Team-based play and objective game modes are fascinating ideas, and the Stampede and the rate at which Onrush throws you back into the action is excellent, but if you take these things to the extreme, that brings with it a lot of risks. Here’s the thing: Onrush doesn’t have straight up races. It’s madness, blasphemy even, and does make me worry that Evo are taking a huge gamble when they don’t need to. On the one hand you have Overwatch that became hugely successful despite not having FPS staples like TDM and CTF, but then you have Dawn of War III, a strategy game that fell off the map without a straight up deathmatch mode.
But actually playing the game and its non-stop action is rather engrossing. You’re constantly looking to take big jumps and smash into other cars, which charges up the boost and Rush meter. The flashy Rush ability last for around 10 seconds, supercharging your speed and damage and having an additional unique twist for each vehicle, building a class-based game where you can have a different role in your team.
The bruising Enforcer, for example, is built like a heavy racing truck, it has the special ability of shutting down an opponent’s boost when you bump into them, while taking down fodder charges up your Rush faster, before you can unleash the Blackout ultimate which blinds those following you. Then there’s Vortex that can leave a wake of turbulent air, the Blade motorbike that lays down deadly trails of flame, while Dynamo support others by building up their boost and Titan shields allies and leaves a light wall barriers behind that slow down those that drive through.
The team play aspect is amplified even further by the way that a match is seamlessly constructed of several different rounds. As you hit the score limit, you keep on racing and jostling for position, and the next round starts a few moments later. All of your Rush charge is preserved between rounds and actually built up on a per vehicle basis, which you can switch between whenever you’re taken down, and that means you can actually strategise, adapt to the other team, hold off on using your ultimates until the next round, and so on. It’s a taste of Overwatch in a racing game.
Tying the action together is a reactive soundtrack created by Ninja Tune that takes different variations of a track and blends between them depending on the action. It’s a different mix if you’re winning, losing, getting some massive airtime, and then it’s interspersed with thousands of lines of DJ dialogue from over a dozen different characters that drop in to note a critical takedown or your death. The variety and incidental notes should mean they don’t grate like the racing game DJs of the past.
While it’s all about the team racing and online play, with the standard cosmetic filled loot boxes up for grabs – these loot boxes have wheels on, though! – there is also a single player ‘Superstar’ campaign to work through with 90 events that funnel you into different vehicles to try and win against certain opposition. The game modes are the same here, and with the game being built around team play, it’s a nice touch for Evo to extend these to six player co-op.
Onrush is, to put it in a single word, unexpected. Moving away from the need to cross the line first is a fascinating one, and blending in overtones of competitive multiplayer games across the entire spectrum leads to a truly unique racer. It’s a risk, certainly, but it’s one I really hope pays off.