When Burnout was first released in 2001, it did the amazing feat of instantly re-defining the idea of an arcade racer. Gone were the days where adrenalin junkies looking for their fix had to play yet another Ridge Racer title or suffer through impossibly average games like the Rush series. Burnout introduced a sense of speed, control, and visceral excitement that simply had not been seen in racing games before. Crashes made you physically wince and high speed races would have you sweating like you were actually in the car itself as you hurtled down a busy downtown street going 130 mph. It was one of the most refreshing changes of pace that a stale genre has ever experienced -- and yet few people in America were even aware of this British developed title.
Things would change once Burnout 2 came about though, with its larger variety of cars, tracks, and modes (including the dementedly entertaining party mode called Crash) attracting a much higher level of attention than the previous game. The series' popularity only accelerated once Burnout 3: Takedown came out, with Criterion Games experimenting with more and more ways to jack up the level of adrenalin and carnage with each game. In fact, experimenting with the Burnout franchise would become one of Criterion Games signature traits -- just because a feature was in a previous game, didn't mean it would show up in later games (as Alex Ward once famously said).
The series is now on its seventh iteration in just less than 7 years with its first true next-gen title, Burnout Paradise -- and as expected Criterion has mucked around with the Burnout formula once again. Unfortunately, this time not all the changes are for the good. In fact, quite a few of the changes detract heavily from the experience and ultimately brings down what could have easily been the best Burnout game ever.
The biggest change in Burnout Paradise is the introduction of an open world layout that is devoid of of level select menus or load times. Instead of selecting a race, you drive up to an intersection, see which event it is, and then either hold down the R2+L2 buttons at the same time to start it -- or you just drive on to the next intersection/event. The idea is that you can explore Paradise City at your leisure, discovering all the different events, and tackling them in the order that you wish. Unfortunately this means if you fire up the game for a quick Road Rage or two -- you have to bring up the map, locate the event, and drive to it. And since the city is huge, this means you could end up driving for several minutes just to be able to play a specific event. Criterion justified this change by saying it removes all load times and increased the level of immersion for the gamer, but their logic seems flawed. I don't know about you guys, but personally I'd rather have a 20 second load time than a three minute delay as I drive across the map.
The other big flaw in the open world layout is that there is no 'Retry' option when you fail a race or event. If you fail a race at the last second, you have to drive all the way back to the starting point and start over. There seems like absolutely no reason to not include a 'Retry' option, but again -- Criterion felt that the lack of load times was more important than basic convenience.
Unfortunately, there are a couple other serious flaws in Burnout Paradise. First off, there's no kind of split-screen multiplayer mode -- it only supports online multiplayer play. While this might not seem like that big of a deal for some people, the Burnout series has always been a fantastic party game. The game's accessible gameplay, easy controls, and visceral action made it easy for people to jump in and play and made the game fun to watch. Removing the splitscreen support is an absolutely critical failure for many Burnout fans, and is frankly a shocking feature to leave out.
The second flaw is the least damaging, but is still annoying. Criterion has removed the Crash mode of the previous games, a fan favorite mode where you're tasked with producing the largest wreck possible. It was an entertaining, simple little puzzle game (think PAIN) that highlighted the destructive nature of Burnout perfectly. This mode has been replaced with Showtime, a similar mode that allows you to, at any time, trigger a special event where the goal is to smash as many cars as possible before your boost runs out. You hit the X button to cause your car to explode forward (similar to Oooch from PAIN actually) and attempt to trigger large chains of destruction while bouncing along. While this is an entertaining enough diversion, it unfortunately pales significantly next to the puzzle-esque Crash scenarios of the previous games and adds little to the game itself.
The most surprising thing about Burnout Paradise though, is that in spite of all of these flaws, it is insanely fun. The controls have never been tighter, the sense of speed is amazing, and the events are more balanced and entertaining than they've ever been. Gameplay is deeper too, with the abilities to do things like barrel rolls and flatspins and more cars than ever before. The cars now have a deeper stat system also, with some car types getting access to different abilities and methods for filling up your Burnout boost meter. It is now more important than ever to use the right car for the job and makes collecting all the cars a lot more satisfying.
The open world can be a lot of fun as well -- if you're willing to accept the fact that if you fail an event you should just grab the next closest one. And until you learn the city, you will probably fail a lot of races since the open world structure makes it much less clear just where you are suppose to go. But once you do learn the city, the freedom to take the routes you want feels great and keeps the races from becoming monotonous (a problem previous Burnout games would sometimes suffer from). The open world also lets Criterion add a couple of fun features into the mix, like the free roaming special cars that will randomly be driving around a city once you finish certain events. Once you find them, you have to chase them and smash them into a wall -- then they're added to your collection. It's really fun to be driving along to the next event, when suddenly a super charged sports car blows by you, almost daring you NOT to give chase. It makes collecting the rare and special cars really entertaining, and helps spice up the commute as you drive across the city.
Burnout has also never looked this good before -- this game is gorgeous. Burnout Paradise runs at 720p at a rock solid 60 fps, with very little aliasing to detract from all the shininess. Paradise city is well rendered as well, with a ton of variety between the various detailed neighborhoods. You can usually tell exactly where you are, purely by the buildings around you. In addition, the cars themselves look fantastic, with lots of great designs, a ton of variety, and a high level of detail (just look at your engine sometime while you're flying through the air). The graphics just ooze polish and really highlights the technical skill of the guys over at Criterion. Oh, and for the fanboys out there -- the 360 version looks pretty much identical to the PS3 one when they're running side by side. Whichever console you own, Burnout looks fantastic.
In the end, Burnout Paradise is an incredibly frustrating game to review. The Burnout gameplay mechanics have never been tighter or more fun and the graphics and sound have never been this impressive. At the same time, design choices by the developers have severally hurt the accessibility of the game. The open world, no split-screen support, lack of a 'Retry' option, and an unclear UI means that this is Burnout for the hardcore players only. Hopefully Criterion has gotten over their love of an open world, because Burnout Paradise is almost the perfect Burnout experience.
PS3 Fanboy score: 8.0