Hands-On Preview: ‘Burnout Paradise’

“Burnout Paradise” is Criterion’s first open-world racer, complete with a living city that’s dozens of square miles in size and a seamless integration of offline and online gameplay. But without the familiar Crash Mode, how will “Burnout Paradise” stack up against its predecessors? Judging by our time with it at EA’s Studio Showcase, it’s could very well stack up as one of the best games in the series.

All the challenges you’ve grown to love in the Burnout series are still included in Paradise — and yes, that includes Crash Mode. But things have been tweaked considerably this time around to adjust for the new open-world structure. For instance, no longer are you required to complete challenges in a certain order. Instead, every time you pull up to one of the game’s 100-plus stoplights, you’ll be given the option to accept the challenge associated with that stoplight or just keep on driving. Likewise, the Crash Mode isn’t really present, but the game will track the amount of damage you do the entire time you’re speeding through Paradise City. Brace yourself for some massive damage totals.

“Burnout Paradise” also includes a heavy dose of mini-games, although they’re more akin to exploration incentives than functional games. As an example, billboards labeled with “Burnout” are strewn about Paradise City, and the game keeps track of how many you’ve crashed through. Some are even on higher vertical planes, which encourages discovery of alternate routes and ramps to reach them. In terms of the “function,” there really isn’t one. But it sure is fun to blow stuff up. There’s even a parallel-parking mini-game in which you e-brake into parking spaces. Random? Yes. Fun? You bet.

The multiplayer component borrows heavily from Atari’s “Test Drive Unlimited,” which was really the first “MMO racing game.” In essence, “Burnout Paradise” takes place in a single city, whether you’re offline or on. So, if you’re driving around “Paradise City” on your own and you see a friend hop online, all you have to do is press a button in-game, send him or her an invitation and — without either of you stopping your own play session — you’ll both end up driving in the same city. No interruptions, no menus, no hassle. Just invite, accept and race.

Racing isn’t all you’ll do, of course. Remember, this is Burnout. The options range from races and takedown challenges to leaderboard-like time comparisons and a cooperative mode that has you doing such things as completing a set number of barrel rolls in a certain amount of time. This co-op mode was a blast in our time with the game, because the persistent world meant that once we completed our rolls, we could swing the camera around to watch our co-op partner complete his rolls — or crash and burn miserably.

Basically, “Burnout Paradise” is shaping up to be the ultimate Burnout experience, and its seamless online play could take the racing genre to intriguing new online heights. The game’s still a ways off, but if what we played was any indication of its development progress, Burnout Paradise’s early-2008 release on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 is just a convenient way for Criterion to keep this gem to themselves for just a few months longer.

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