The history of Criterion Games' exceptionally popular arcade racing franchise, Burnout, becomes muddled at Burnout 3: Takedown, when the studio dropped numbering serial releases of new games, also nixing the colon before each subsequent edition's subtitle. Burnout Revenge, sans numbered edition, sans proper subtitle prefaced by colon, was likewise released for both PS2 and Xbox, then rereleased in a graphically enhanced version for the Xbox 360, first out of the gate in what is now the current generation of HD console technology. However, Burnout Dominator, chronologically a sequel to Revenge, was released only for PS2 and PSP and surely may be considered a farewell to the former generation of consoles. Yet, for full-fledged Burnout games on the previous generations of consoles, Dominator was, pragmatically, the terminator. And, notably, Dominator was never released for Xbox 360.
What we have today is Burnout Paradise , the first Burnout title created specifically, ground up and not an enhanced version of an extant title, for current-generation HD consoles, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Not only an original game in the franchise, Paradise, although remaining in the boundaries of evolutionary-not-revolutionary game design, is a significant divergence from the formula that has made the Burnout games such a success with fans of arcade racing and video games in general. A demo version for both consoles' editions of the title has been available for some time. Initial reaction didn't run a gamut: It was fairly clarified. The worst thing about the Paradise demo was absolutely everything, or the worst thing was merely that, although the game is set in Paradise City, nowhere in the demo is heard hard-rock heroes Guns N' Roses' perhaps most broadly appreciated song, "Paradise City." For the latter group, rest assured, the famous track is properly licensed and in the full version of the game; in fact the band's highlight number does double duty on the in-game soundtrack and as the game's theme song. For the former panel of Burnout Paradise judges, all I have for comfort are the immortal words of David Bowie: Changes, turn and face the strain.
Burnout titles have added to this much and subtracted from this much along the way, Burnout Paradise is, despite retaining the signature, overarching theme of arcade battle-racing, an entirely new game for a new day. It's a great game, an outstanding game, but ultimately Paradise has less in common with the original Burnout, published by now-defunct Acclaim, than that first title was alike the last traditional sequel in the series, published by EA about six years after that original game was released.
While Burnout fans may be Burnout fans, they do segregate, to greater or lesser degrees, along lines related to the original games' modal design: you have your straight racers who win in-game races with speed and deft maneuvering, a successful takedown making for a triumphant diversion, but seldom tolerated as a distraction from the goal of flat-out winning the race; then there are takedown artists who revel in knocking out, or knocking off, competitors — their skills apply to "eliminator" matches and often, as well, to races, as taking down hardcore racers a few times can put even the best of them too far behind to catch up; and, finally, there are special types of wreckage lunatics addicted to the franchise's crash events, a series of score-motivated — no, really it's the explosions — traffic setups featuring multi-ton tractor trailers; huge tanker trucks hauling very flammables; city buses larger, more hulking, than any real-world wheeled public transit vehicle I've ever seen; plus a whole host of in-between size vehicles ready to pile into anyone and anything after you slam your solo speeder into just the right place at the very best time. If they're not immediately thrilled with Paradise, pure racers and takedown junkies will soon adjust to the title's new gameplay design; crash-event experts will have the hardest time revising their concept of the Burnout series — in fact, they may never, not at all, be truly satisfied with the new game's evolutionary design.
Taken in its own right rather than the latest in a near-classic, popular series, Burnout Paradise is a stellar current-generation arcade racer — twisted appropriately, of course — supplanting my former top pick in this sub-genre, the outstanding and vastly underrated Ridge Racer 7 for PlayStation 3. Considering the new gameplay model provides for a large, open "city" — Paradise City is more akin to a "metro area" than a mere city proper — with all areas of the map accessible during your first round of play, the game's graphics are tremendous: detailed, quick, smooth and altogether delightful, single-player and online. Animations, too, are superb and induce a bit of "Wow!" in anyone wandering past while you're playing. Ironically, the most eye-popping, impressive animations are when you ram your car into a bridge support at top speed, accordion the engine compartment to the firewall, and with residual momentum flip sideways over a guardrail, tumbling ass-over-teakettle from a sheer cliff to, putting it as gently as possible, "land" on the valley floor below.
Presentation is likewise outstanding, making perhaps the best non-motion-detecting in-game use of console USB video cameras to date: for example, snapping new photos for each class, and interim levels, of your Burnout driver's license, and, when playing online, sending "mug shots" for drivers who take you down to collect. Never mind that mug shots are more commonly taken of you when you recklessly set off a five-car chain collision, not the people you hit, and you can turn off this feature in the options if you're a charter member of the Bare-Assed Gamers League or just hideously ugly, or what have you. (Beware, parents, ESRB has rated this game a cuddly "E for Everyone," but, ahem, "online interactions not rated by ESRB." Translation: An idiot with a PlayStation Eye camera is an idiot standing in front of said camera with his boxer shorts around his ankles. Save the photo: Maybe you can get that fool's in-game "mug shot" replaced with the real deal.)
Indeed Paradise's presentation is so good there's no point in ticking off the various online multiplayer and single-player event types: The game perfectly explains itself as you Sunday-drive around Paradise City in the wreck you're presented on your first outing, or whichever fantasy hotrod you earn in the course of playing the game. Otherwise, you already know if you enjoy arcade racers; beyond that, the only other thing of which you must be aware going into Burnout Paradise: In point-scoring modes, Burnout's distinct crash events are gone daddy gone, while score-tallying "stunt runs" stand in, for the most part, in their absence. The single most notable new feature is not the game's robust online multiplayer mode, it's that it's not a mode at all — rather, multiplayer is seamlessly integrated into the single-player game. Rest assured there remain custom-option selections for both hosts and those looking for online games, but you can be online in Paradise City in the exact spot you were offline with via a couple of taps on the d-pad, and return back all by your lonesome, again in the exact spot on the city map you'd reached online, with another couple of taps. It's the best integration of online multiplayer into any game, any platform, I've ever witnessed. If other studios don't run right out and rip it off — as in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Naughty Dog did to a great degree, just lightly touching it themselves, adopt Epic's Gears of War single-button cover/action system — I'll be quite disgruntled. And if Criterion takes this essentially guaranteed future wholesale idea-theft as anything more than the highest order of praise, I'll be outright angry with them.
As usual, Criterion has done a fine job with audio and sound effects for Burnout Paradise. Game-world radio announcer "DJ Atomica" has become dated, but presently, pleasantly dated in the same way you'll 20 years later still listen to the same morning drive-time jockey, the one whose career stalled in your hometown, to whom you listened that long-ago summer right before you left for college: It's pure comfort nostalgia. Soon Criterion must remodel or replace Atomica, but in Paradise he works just as well, if differently, as ever. Also per usual, EA has backed its studio with a solid licensed soundtrack of recognizable popular music. Again, as usual, save in the publisher's recent NHL '08, EA's playlist is lean on variety, save spare interjections of unique — LCD Soundsystem, for example — all of the music falls down on either hard, heavy or thrashy rock songs interspersed with hard-heavy-thrash tracks.
Burnout Paradise scores highly from my perspective. You can expect a studio and publisher to keep up with a winning formula for a while, even a long while, but you can't expect them to rest on their laurels until they're set up for a "Seinfeld" finale-episode debacle. The big purchasing question: Will you become clinically depressed by the absence of proper crash events in this all-new, rather sizzling Burnout title? If you're not sure, by all means play the available demo, because that's it, that's the game; there's a lot more depth in the retail release, but there are no surprises held back in the demo, either.
That said, Paradise would have received an even higher score had they included legacy Burnout crash-mode events for those devoted to them. For Criterion, believe me, I get it; really, I do. If the game design goal is pure seamlessness, non-modal in all aspects, even insofar as online multiplayer, then where do you stick a "crash mode" element? Well don't look at me, I don't know. Before we get our roles crossed up here, remember you people create the games; I just beat you up over trivial shortcomings of outstanding efforts — I'm the guy who sticks into his review ultimately insignificant errors of design and implementation in creative projects, à la "Die Hard 2": If the damn airport is on the east coast, then why in hell is McClane talking on a PacBell pay phone?
Still, for a devoted segment of Burnout fans, crash events are far more important than a little continuity flub in a largely lackluster action film sequel. This could have, and perhaps should have, been addressed in the retail release, at least in transition, for one more game. Since no one asked me how I'd do it, I'll say, Minigame anyone? Or, as all the rage these days is paying for the same game over and over and over again via "must-have" downloadable add-on content, Paradise is ripe for an add-on crash-event mode segregated from the truly sublime new gameplay design of the full retail edition — in this particular case, add-on content well worth about 20 bucks, cash American. If EA doesn't already have their wheels spinning — or their crashtastic roadster boosting — on this chunk of tack-on revenue, they should certainly get it in gear quick.
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