Version tested: Xbox 360
Reviewing something free can sometimes feel like you're not so much looking a gift horse in the mouth as wrenching the jaws off the gift horse and thrusting your face so far down its gullet that you can taste its tail. With that pleasant image in mind, Burnout Paradise recently underwent its most sweeping change since release back in January so it makes sense to see how the addition of bikes and clocks has affected Paradise City.
The first thing you'll notice is a new front end, with local time and weather conditions around the world and updated news from the world of Burnout. The downside is that the game now takes an agonising amount of time to start up. I'm playing the Xbox 360 version, and while I used to be able to jump into the game very quickly I know have to watch a loading screen for several minutes, click through some more screens and suffer yet more loading as the console slurps up the additional data from the hard drive. Annoying.
Thankfully, it's worth the wait. Two spanky bikes await you once you've downloaded the patch and restarted the game. The Firehawk V4 is a blisteringly fast racing bike, while FV1100 is a sturdier yet slower ride. Slower is relative though, since both vehicles go like the proverbial poop off a shovel. You can opt for a male or female rider, and the animation is incredibly lifelike. Leave them idling by the road and they'll roll their shoulders to ease out the kinks. Pull off a donut and they'll lean into the spin, steadying themselves with their leg. Even when thundering around, they'll occasionally glance over their shoulder or look around. They're certainly not rigid mannequins.
Handling is absolutely spot on, with just enough realism in the physics to make it thrilling, but not so much that it becomes a chore to ride. They control exactly how you'd want arcade motorbikes to control - fast, responsive and intuitive. Before you know it, you'll be weaving between cars and hurling these beasts into hairpin bends at speeds that would have your four-wheeled alternatives kissing a wall.
What the bikes can't do is use boost, and since they crash rather than taking damage, they have no use for the Repair Shops either. The crashing has caused some grumbles from the Burnout community, since collisions make your rider vanish rather than tumble across the asphalt like a bone-smashed ragdoll. There are obvious and practical reasons for this, presumably mostly to do with the game's age rating, but it definitely looks odd.
More disappointing than that, however, is how feeble the bike crashes are in general. Compared to the metal-shredding carnage we're used to in cars and vans, the bikes generally fall over with the clunk and display no real deformation or damage. Jumps are naturally more thrilling when taken on two wheels, so it's a shame that the Superjumps slo-mo camera doesn't seem to respond to the bikes. The game really is crying out for a replay option now, preferably with a snapshot mode so we can share our best stunts with friends.
Once you've got pushed these small but persistent niggles to the back of your mind, and spent the obligatory half hour rattling around Paradise City pretending to be Street Hawk, what does the update have to offer in tangible gameplay terms?
A hell of a lot, as it turns out, though perhaps not always in the ways you'd hope. The meat for offline play is 38 events, split into Burning Rides and Midnight Rides. Using the game's new day and night cycle (which you can customise to an impressive degree) the events become available depending on the time of day. Burning Rides are active between 8am and 8pm, while Midnight Rides take over for the nocturnal hours.
Apart from the available light, there's not a vast difference between them though. Based on the Burning Route model, most are straightforward solo sprints from one location to another. The time limits are generous - perhaps too generous given how fast the bikes are - so most experienced players will rattle through them without too much trouble. To put it in perspective, I was finishing a lot of these events with more than thirty seconds still on the clock. It's these events you must complete in order to earn your Bike Licence, and it's worth doing since progress unlocks souped-up versions of the two bikes, one at 50 per cent completion, the other at 100 per cent.
On top of that there are two new sets of Road Rules to break - one for daytime speed runs, one for night - and 20 Paradise Awards, essentially in-game achievements or trophies for accomplishing various feats. There are also 70 new Freeburn Challenges, split into 35 traditional tasks where all the players must complete specified stunts or feats, and 35 timed challenges in which players must complete sequences of stunts against the clock. To use my experience as a highly subjective gauge, after spending six hours on the bikes, I'd completed maybe three quarters of the various event types, and also had a lot of fun just speeding around, setting new Road Rules records.
It's an astonishingly generous spread of free content, the sort of update that most games would happily charge a premium price for. Criterion deserves praise and hugs for the sheer effort that has gone into extending the lifespan of Burnout Paradise, and for doing more than just reciting the predictable "extra cars, extra races" DLC mantra.
That's not to say that there aren't elements worthy of criticism though. It's a shame, for instance, that there's no mixing bikes and cars. As with the vanishing riders, there's a fairly obvious logistical reason for keeping them separate, but it does leave this update feeling slight apart from the main game. Once you select a bike, especially in Freeburn, then the game basically becomes a self-contained Burnout Bikes experience.
It's also strange that there are no traditional races. Eight bikes thundering to the finish line would seem to be an obvious thing to include, but all the events are either solo runs against the clock or Freeburn events where everyone is working together. Even if there's no easy way of balancing the game to allow competitive play with all the vehicles together, it'd still be fun to get online with friends and take it in turns to jump over each other in impromptu Evel Knievel adventures.
And, it has to be said, the dynamic weather system doesn't appear to be very dynamic so far. Despite a considerable amount of time back on the streets of Paradise City, both online and off, during which I've experienced a dozen in-game days and nights, the only noticeable weather change I've seen is an occasional misty morning. Have you experienced anything more exciting? Do write in and tell us.
But then all of these petty gripes can be convincingly dismissed by simply pointing out that it's bloody free, you ungrateful swine. Simply by providing a compelling reason to dust off an eight-month-old game, with at least as much gameplay as you'd expect from a brand new release, for precisely zero pence, the Bikes Pack renders itself pretty much immune to any lasting criticism. Now, bring on Eastwood and the new island...
8 / 10