You’re in a car that’s too fast. The pedal is flat against the floor, every twitch of the steering wheel feels like a skillful, yet futile, attempt to rein in the chaos of the traffic you’re narrowly avoiding. You start to develop a sense for where the pockets are and you break through the crowd, knuckles white. Onrush delivers not only a racing game that strongly emphasizes the thrill of barreling ahead through enemies and off of cliffs—kindly rejuvenating a genre that’s grown cold—it also takes that genre to some new places that feel so natural it’s amazing it hasn’t been done before.
Onrush exists in a beautiful world where games like Freekstyle and Split/Second found the larger audience they deserved. It is a game that lives and dies by an over-the-top attitude that propels the gameplay, while that gameplay is so slick and frenetic that it earns that rowdy attitude. Onrush is a racing, action game where there are no finish lines and no laps; there are instead four different game types where two teams of cars, accompanied by endless fodder cars just waiting to be demolished, attempt to complete objectives on sprawling and diverse maps. You have a boost meter that is replenished by taking out the fodder, landing huge jumps, or performing tricks if you’re on a motorcycle. Because one of those things is almost always happening, the game wants you to always be boosting, eventually earning your car’s powerful rush ability.
The first notably interesting thing about Onrush is that it is essentially cribbing many of the concepts from class-based shooters like Overwatch where you have eight different classes of vehicles that are meant to be either very maneuverable or a tank meant to knock out your opponents. They each have different rush abilities in-game that enhance Onrush as a team game: some are defensive and they’ll drain boost from nearby enemies to help you or a teammate get an easier takedown, or they might be more offensive with a speed boost to rip through the other team.
Unlike other racing games, it’s truly beneficial to cooperate with your team and to play your class. If you’re in a mode that requires you to earn more points by boosting, then being defensive is only going to give the other team an advantage. It’s staggering how successful Codemasters (more specifically, the former Evolution Studios which made Motorstorm) merged a tried and true class-based system, with a stylish racing game.
The main attraction here is the multiplayer, and it is the first time in a while that I’ve been truly excited to go online. By simply recontextualizing something familiar, Codemasters managed to make something that feels new and interesting. As you play, you’ll level up and earn loot boxes that unlock what feels like an endless list of goofy and fun cosmetic items like car or character skins, dances you can show off on the results screen, and pixelated tombstones (icons left behind when you crash). I had a blast unlocking new and more ridiculous costumes as well as playercards that you unlock by completing specific requirements. Those playercards can even be upgraded to animate, which was strangely satisfying.
All of those cosmetic items are worthless if you don’t have cause to show them off. Luckily, I never tired of the different game types because aside from the inherent fun in the action of the game, all of the levels can change with time-of-day or weather so dramatically that they seem like whole different maps at times. In each and every case: rocky mesas, concrete industrial districts, wooded forests, the art and level design is always cluttered enough to be dangerous and wide enough to not feel constricting. Because you don’t need to worry about getting ahead of the pack like in most racing games, the levels are designed so that you can always boost ahead and you’ll find a suitable path, but with enough hazards to keep you on your toes. Add on top of that a blizzard at night and that sunny track you were just on will require a whole new approach.
Additionally, what is critical to much of the fun in Onrush is the soundtrack. Many of the songs are recognizable, licensed tracks that are perfectly suited to the game, but more important than that, they’ve all been remixed to be just a little more rude and loud. The game is at its best when the volume is up as loud as it can be and you let the music hit you as you maintain a still focus on the race. I found that even if the music is not to your taste it is so expertly designed around the game itself that it only bolsters the atmosphere the game builds. It also helped to keep the game moving, so you always wanted to move on to the next track and the next event.
The four game modes in Onrush are Overdrive, where you need to maintain boost for as much time as possible; Switch, where you essentially have three lives and you cycle up through the different classes of vehicle, and the first team to lose all of those lives is out; Countdown, which has you driving through gates on the track to earn time for your team’s clock that is always counting down; and Lockdown, that is basically a king-of-the-hill mode that moves at 100 miles per hour. Each mode mandates a different style of play and they are all deeply rewarding. I can’t even say how many times a win or loss came down to the thinnest possible margin. It always made me want to come back and do it again.
Onrush is not exclusively a multiplayer game, though. There is a lengthy and worthwhile single-player mode (you can also play it co-op with a friend). It noticeably has a thin narrative justification for essentially putting you in a long series of multiplayer matches against the computer. It is broken up into six acts that each have a small, stylized cutscene explaining that Onrush is a burgeoning young sport that you are attempting to legitimize through sheer attrition. It’s fun enough without being so long that it gets in the way of the action. It merely exists so you aren’t just choosing events from a menu with no end goal.
The biggest draw to those single-player events are the challenges. They’ll task you with playing as specific classes and often using their specific abilities x amount of times to earn more points that unlock further events. Until late-game I rarely had any trouble winning the events, but it was fun to have to attempt to win while also doing barrel rolls or making sure to take out 20 fodder enemies. They never offer the bespoke challenges I might have wanted from a more robust single-player campaign, but they did give enough of a twist on the multiplayer formula to make things somewhat more interesting. Most importantly, this campaign provides players with what is essentially a long and entertaining tutorial for the classes before you jump online.
Every part of Onrush, from the gameplay to the design, feels like loosely ordered mayhem. A jumbled mess of parts flung against the wall that land in a cohesive form belying a brilliant vision beneath it all. It works better than it has any right to, and it is a joy to behold.
Onrush is a racing game that strips away the commonly understood mechanics of the genre to deliver something that is both fresh and classic at the same time. And a vivacious multiplayer experience that rivals some of the big contemporary shooters of the day.