I recently got sucked into Burnout Paradise, playing about a half-hour of the racing game due for release this Winter. While a half-hour may not seem like much, at hands-on gaming events, we writers rarely have the time or interest to play more than about fifteen minutes of a title before moving to the next.

Criterion creative director, Alex Ward chatted while I raced through the realistic city; he was clearly proud and excited by the game's deviation from previous Burnout franchise titles. And I was also impressed.

Admittedly, a half-hour isn't enough time to make a complete assessment of a game. But I'm optimistic that the new version of the title will be a smash even if it breaks Burnout traditions.

Burnout's fundamental change puts up to eight drivers moving through the vast city at the same time. Instead connecting from a lobby to load a single race, players can explore the whole Burnout world without waiting for new levels. Burnout comes across as a sandbox; I spent much of my time exploring the streets and jumping off ramps, oblivious to any premeditated game goals.

Ward didn't have a specific square area, but he estimated Paradise City to be about 15-to-17 Burnout tracks merged together. It felt big. I found mountain passes and rural areas outside of town. When I turned around to go back to the city, the urban landscape looked like a single dense spot, just like a real metropolis from a distance. But when I made it downtown, I was surrounded by detailed buildings, completely obstructed from the previous vantage point.

Game architecture looks great. Ward said they copied real buildings and facades from research trips around the world. One of the reference cities, Chicago, was clearly represented with the downtown river, bridges, and brick-and-iron designs.

I never grew tired of exploring, but I moved on to the objective-based parts of the game. When players want to race, they just park briefly at a stoplight to activate that intersection's starting point. Burnout asks if you want to race, and after agreeing, you begin. To drop out before the finish, players just stop again, and Burnout ends the competition.

I tried familiar favorite, Road Rage, where I rammed opponents off the road. Unlike previous Burnout games, Paradise omits the hovering, obvious arrows that distinguish enemy cars from everyday traffic. I was disoriented by this decision, but I identified my competitors by their aggressive driving.

Another change -- finish-line way-points instead of arrow-laden tracks -- also disoriented me at first. Races have only eight possible finish destinations, corresponding to the game world's edges on a compass. If racing to the north-west corner of the world, players are prompted with an on-screen marker pointing north-west. But routes are completely up to drivers. This decision felt as risky as it is unique. Hopefully gamers will remember common routes after playing the game a lot.

Burnout's other major change makes every street into an online race. Players just fly as quickly as possible from one end to another, and if they're the fastest of their friends, the game saves the record. Friends can then instantly see who holds the best time. And if a friend beats your record, you'll get an immediate notice of the loss.

Ward noted how these decisions fit his design objectives, saying, "The future of gaming is about freedom. It's about removing restrictions. It's about online. ..."

Burnout Paradise still felt as chaotic and destructive as before, even if old modes like Crash are missing. Will players enjoy the open-ended world Ward wants, or would they rather be led through specific objectives? I liked exploring, and I look forward to seeing how the game changes as gamers earn the layout of the city.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.

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