Onrush Deserves a Second Chance
A premium price on top of free-to-play design choices doomed this energetic game from the start
Codemasters just released Dirt 5 for current and next generation hardware. On the cusp of new releases, I like to go back and look at the legacy that lead to them. Dirt 5 wasn’t made by Codemasters’ core racing game development team. Instead, it was made by Codemasters Cheshire, a studio that was responsible for the excellent Motorstorm series on the PS3 many years and company name changes ago.
Their previous game was a weird arcade multiplayer thing called Onrush. It’s the epitome of an elevator pitch turned into a video game. “What if we made Burnout and Motorstorm smashed together but as a free-to-play esports-inspired multiplayer game with elements of League of Legends?” That sounds like a weird nightmare, and in practice it almost is, but somehow it still all works together thanks to a brilliant graphics engine that makes this 2018 release look like a brand new game.
Unfortunately, in spite of being full of free-to-play design trappings like loot boxes, premium currencies, and daily challenges…Onrush was launched at a full retail price, complete with a nearly $100 deluxe edition. This breezy, fun video game was marketed against serious racing titles with a price to match, and thus doomed from the start. It was eventually given away as a PlayStation Plus title, but that couldn’t save it from a rapidly dwindling player base. And as of this writing, the Xbox version has been pulled from sale due to a security issue with the code running its servers. It’s supposed to come back “Sometime in December,” and I hope that it actually does.
Onrush plays a whole lot like Burnout Paradise’s Road Rage mode expanded into an entire video game. You’ll select a driver and a car, then drive at high speed through off-road environments trying to make as many jumps and smash as many opponents as possible. Doing cool stuff adds to your boost meter, and using boost adds to your rush meter, which is a more powerful boost. Opposing cars consist of AI fodder enemies, a la the MOBA genre, and an opposing team made of either human or computer-controlled vehicles. Instead of trying to hit a finish line or a certain lap time, you’re competing against the other team for points.
Most of the modes on offer involve scoring points through using boost and taking out opponents, though there’s also a checkpoint gate mode where you’ll have to drive with more precision. That’s not the game’s strong suit. The handling model is very stiff and arcade-like, with cars handling more like the guided arrows in an Assassin’s Creed game and less like vehicles with four wheels. They barrel ahead in whatever direction you point them in, and usually turn without needing much application of the brakes.
Crashes are powerful and satisfying just like in the Burnout franchise. There’s plenty of particle and smoke effects to really accentuate the feeling of accomplishment from taking out other cars. On PS4 Pro, you can choose from a performance or resolution mode, and the performance mode runs locked at 60 frames per second. It looks impressive even two years after release, with wide environments featuring plenty of detail, destructible elements, and barely any pop-in even as they go screaming by.
Sound design was also a clear focus for the game, with a large licensed soundtrack and punchy sound effects that are well-mixed across the sound field. You’ll get the same level of positional awareness that you’d expect from a competitive shooter, and there are small bits of audio feedback to let you know when your boost meters are available. The game also has a jumble of different announcers that makes it sound a little like a glitchy old arcade machine. I didn’t like this at first, but it grew on me.
Sadly, the top menu layer of the game is riddled with free-to-play progression mechanics that don’t really fit in a full-priced game. You earn new costumes, car colors, and other cosmetics through loot boxes, and the game also has a premium earnable currency and a limited time vendor. The quick speed of each round of play and the presence of all these design elements makes me think that this was supposed to be a free-to-play or budget-priced game all along. It very easily could have been the Fall Guys of racing games, and I think that it would have found a large player base thanks to its easy-to-learn gameplay and fast graphics. It goes on sale frequently, but it should never have been marketed as a “full” video game experience.
I’d love to see this game re-launched on the new consoles with a resolution patch, but at a proper price point. Bafflingly, it also never got a PC or a Switch release. As a $20-or-less game, I truly think it would have been a hit.
Unfortunately, the fact that the studio is now working on the high profile Dirt franchise means that Onrush is likely a forgotten curiosity and not a franchise with a future. If you’re looking for a new game to try on your PS5 or Xbox Series console in the coming months when the release schedule is dry, and you can get this on sale, I bet you’ll be surprised at how close it comes to looking like a modern video game. It’s a fun, light, entertaining racing adventure with enough single player content to last you a weekend, and a multiplayer mode that deserved to find a fan base. It’s a perfect blend of nineties arcade fun and modern design concepts…and I have no idea why Codemasters ever thought it should cost sixty dollars.