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Onrush is basically Overwatch on wheels

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A brilliantly weird racing game that isn’t about racing at all

The best mode in Onrush, a new game from the ex-Sony team that made MotorStorm and Driveclub, is one of those ideas so decadent in design it’s a wonder it works at all, let alone as well as it does. Remember arcade racing games with checkpoint timers? Imagine that, except you’re on a team sharing a timer, battling against another team sharing another timer. You drive through gates across wide-open tracks to top up your team's clock a few precious seconds at a time, all the while trying to take out members of the other team Burnout-style so their timer runs out first.

It’s chaotic and brilliant, which mostly describes Onrush as a whole.

Onrush is sort of like if Overwatch were a racing game. It looks and handles superficially similar to MotorStorm, with different types of vehicles facing off on expansive tracks. But it’s not about racing at all. The whole game is built around team battles. There are lots of modes, none of which involve trying to get over the finish line first. Instead, you’ll need to work with teammates to take out your opponents while driving through the environments.

If you, like me, have been lamenting the lack of good, traditional arcade racing games ever since Burnout Paradise drove the concept into an open-world ditch, this may sound a little disappointing. I loved the MotorStorm games, and I’d certainly have taken another one over some weird race-battle hybrid, had I been asked. But people don’t always know what’s good for them, and it’s my delight to report that Onrush is wonderful. There’s nothing quite like it. It’s a little rough in places, for sure. I also can’t imagine it selling very well, but it deserves to.

While MotorStorm was largely about managing your boost meter so you could drive fast enough without exploding, Onrush is about boosting enough so you can drive even faster. You have a boost meter that gets filled by catching air or taking out opponents, and using this up fills a secondary “rush” meter that lets you use a special move when full. (Like Overwatch, yes.) The “overdrive” mode sees your team score points whenever you’re boosting, giving it an excitingly basketball-esque dynamic as leads open and close between the teams. “Lockdown” is about zone control, meanwhile, and “switch” swaps drivers into progressively bigger vehicles until they run out of lives.

These various modes can be pretty confusing at first — particularly “switch,” which tends to go on far too long — and it’s not always easy to tell what impact you’re having on your team’s performance. There are quite a few quirks, like the overreliance on a UI that hasn’t quite been thought through. Vehicles on the orange team can be painted blue, for instance, which is fine if you’re looking at the icon directly above them or can make out their thin orange outline, but both can be hard to see as a car drifts into your screen from the bottom corner and takes you out despite appearing to be a teammate. And then you’re forced to watch unskippable slow-motion kill-cam footage, finding yourself yelling at the TV when all you want to do is get back into the game as soon as you can because you need to drive through more gates because time is of the goddamn essence.

If that makes it sound like Onrush frustrated me, that’s because it did. A million times. But I wouldn’t have been frustrated if I didn’t care, and I wouldn’t have cared if the game hadn’t served up a million more buckets of joy. My advice for Onrush players is to just roll with it. While occasionally opaque, Onrush is at its best when you throw yourself into it, drive like a maniac, and hope it all works out. Which seems like it may have been the ethos behind its development, come to think of it.

I don’t know how Onrush ever got made, but I’m glad it did, and I hope it does well. There’s room for racing games beyond the steely seriousness of Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport or the loose open-world approach of Need for Speed and Forza Horizon. Onrush harkens back to a time when getting behind a virtual wheel was your ticket to a weirder, wilder range of experiences. And when you careen into yet another enemy motorbike, causing your team to squeak through to a victory with less than a half-second left on the clock, you’ll yell at the TV — happily, not angrily — and feel blessed by the unlikely existence of this madcap masterpiece.

Onrush is out now for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. A PC version is planned for a later date.