EA and Criterion must like Las Vegas. Whether Vegas likes them is another matter entirely. EA acquired Criterion hoping to capitalize on other developers” use of Renderware, Criterion’s proprietary middleware, and that gamble hasn’t exactly panned out. Meanwhile, Criterion has re-tooled its popular Burnout racing franchise so often that it’s basically asking to “hit” with 19 points. The latest outing, Burnout Paradise, recently released for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 with yet another re-tooling: an open-world gameplay model and (gasp) no sign of Crash Mode. But in spite of those changes — and in part because of them — the only “hit” going on here is Burnout Paradise itself. Because quite frankly, Burnout Paradise is the best Burnout yet.
Burnout Paradise isn’t an original game, but its lack of originality doesn’t mean it’s not a blast to play. The gameplay takes a significant departure from Burnout games of yore, with a GTA-like open world in which events aren’t determined in order, but are selected at will via any of the game’s 120 intersections. By stopping at an intersection and pulling both triggers (or L2 and R2), players can start that intersection’s event (say, a race), or they can decide to keep driving and find another event of their choosing (Marked Man, Road Rage, etc.). This open-world model may be new to Burnout, but the racing genre itself has seen it twice, in Test Drive Unlimited and Need for Speed: Carbon. The difference here: Burnout Paradise does open-world racing to near perfection.
I say “near” because the game does have some miscues, primarily in navigation and AI. In any open-world game, getting lost can be a problem if the mini-map isn’t convenient or if landmarks in the game world just look too similar. Neither of these is an issue in Burnout Paradise, as the game has a clear mini-map and distinct districts and landmarks. What’s more, each intersection is clearly marked with large street signs in the top center of the screen that, when you’re mid-race and going 120mph, blink quickly and brightly to indicate which street you need to turn on next — thus keeping you from staring at the mini-map rather than the action.
The navigational issue, then, crops up between events, when there’s no real objective and therefore no blinking street signs. Had Criterion given players the ability to set waypoints on the things they want to tackle next (be it a race, a stunt or a billboard they’ve been trying to crash through), the open-world dink-around aspects would’ve been a bit more palatable for gamers who need (or want) to have their hands held.
The AI issue, however, is definitely an in-race shortcoming, because while it makes the single-player game more competitive, it can lead to some serious blowouts when taking Burnout Paradise online. When players crash their car accidentally, the game slows down to show off the great crumple and shattering-glass effects, giving the impression that you’re losing massive ground to your opponents. The minute you come out of the crash, though, your opponents haven’t gained nearly as much ground as you’d have expected, thus making the races feel more competitive. When you head online, however, it seems much easier to lose ground to real-life racers, which can be a bit frustrating at times, almost as if the offline game doesn’t completely prepare gamers for online play.
Like Test Drive Unlimited, though, the online and offline aspects aren’t ever entirely separate. By pressing right on the D-pad, players can seamlessly jump from their single-player, offline game into an online game with strangers or their friends. There’s never an interruption in gameplay by doing this; friends or the general online public just suddenly start appearing on “your” map. Freeburn mode lets you play around and cruise with other drivers for fun, or you can instantly challenge anyone (or any group) to one of the game’s race, stunt or destruction-based events. The only exception is the new Showtime Mode, a semi-replacement for Crash Mode in Burnout Paradise, which is only available as a single-player experience (although your highest damage total for any street is shown online as the mark to beat — if it’s high enough).
Plenty of people have cried foul for Criterion not including Crash Mode, but in this editor’s humble opinion, Showtime Mode is actually more fun. In Crash Mode, which was arguably the most fun aspect of the past Burnout games, players lined up at a pre-determined intersection and tasked with doing as much collision-based damage as possible. The more damage caused, the higher your score. Showtime Mode works almost the same way, with one serious difference: you can activate it at any time by pressing the shoulder buttons (L1 and R1). In other words, if you find yourself at a crazy-busy intersection and want to see how much damage you can do, just press those buttons and instantly start crashing into stuff.
The more cars you damage, the more crashbreakers your accumulate, which lets you boost/jump into more cars and in new directions (remember, Burnout Paradise is an open-world game, so there’s no “course”; you just crash and tumble until there are no more cars to hit). Until you really get your hands on this, you can’t possibly imagine how much fun it is to crash your way 1,000 meters down a street, begging to hit “just one more bus” to increase your multiplier and add to your crashbreakers. Honestly, Showtime Mode is the best thing Criterion could have included in an open-world Burnout, because it takes the best aspect of Burnout and gives players complete control.
In terms of its graphics and audio, there’s no denying Burnout Paradise was coded for the next-generation first and foremost. Burnout has never been a game driven by reality, but the cars and environments look so remarkable in Burnout Paradise that it’s easy to think you’re playing one of the more simulation-geared games like Forza Motorsport 2. The audio, too, is great, with fantastic use of surround sound during crashes, although some of the soundtrack’s rock songs will leave you heading for the mute button. Paradise City by Guns “N Roses, though? Yeah, that one never gets old….
Burnout Paradise may not be the most original game in terms of gameplay, but its implementation of those elements is top-notch, and the franchise’s open-world evolution is definitely welcome. The lack of Crash Mode? Don’t sweat it; Showtime Mode is a blast, and with any luck Criterion will include an update down the road to let online crashers go head-to-head. My first inclination was to say this was the best Burnout since Takedown. Having spent even more time with it, though, Burnout Paradise now sits atop the charts as the best Burnout yet.
– Jonas Allen