Burnout is already synonymous with insane speed, great handling and big crashes. So what's next? Well - parking. Obviously.
Power Parking is one of the many things the new openworld Burnout lets you do. If you feel like it. When you see a pair of cars parked somewhere, it's your choice (in my view, your duty) to use the handbrake to swing your car into the gap between them. Do it without hitting either car or smacking the kerb, and the game will recognise you for it.
That's hardly the extent of the new, of course. The handbrake is different, for one. And the openworld city. And the wholesale rejection of all the crutches upon which all the other Burnouts swung themselves around the room - endless menus, loading screens, instant restarts, online lobbies, and all the rest of it. This is a boundless driving playground in every sense they could think of, blending the disparate styles of the other Burnouts' varied locales into one coherent setting. So much so that if you want to race against a friend you just pull up the Easy Drive gizmo using the d-pad and fire off an invitation. "It's sort of like texting while you drive," says Criterion's Matt Webster. If your friend accepts, your world and his world (I don't know any girls) are brought together, and there you are, racing as one.
Webster's speaking to us in one of EA's cupboards at Games Convention in Leipzig, where Burnout Paradise is belting along on a pair of networked PS3s hooked up to massive LCDs. The level of detail on the screen is as demented as the cars get deformed. "We had to do 60 frames in an openworld," he tells us - and they have. Whatever troubles others are having with next-gen graphics, Criterion seems to be coping. You can tell they've been waiting for this. "We're literally peeling metal off the car," Webster says excitedly. "We're deforming it and warping it and bending it and stretching it in ways we've never done before. We're actually compressing and stretching the chassis, which no one else is doing. We're doing that to traffic as well."
Simply driving around and exploring Paradise (or "Free Burning", as they call it) is the core of the game, and the idea is to keep you occupied even when you're between events. Hence the Power Parking. Hence the endless jumps (Paradise's use of ramps makes GTA look conservative). Hence the "Burnout" signs in awkward places, which you have to try and smash through (c.f. ramps). And hence the Road Rules, a pair of goals for every main road in the game, which act like mini time-trials - swing onto a road, burn along it at record pace, and every time your friends turn into it they're reminded of your best time.
Accessing races and other events is done by pulling up to traffic lights and spinning your wheels. Within seconds you're part of a grid, and then you're off. If you foul up, or fancy doing something else, just turn off somewhere else or pull over and the race dissolves. You can always try again later, and there are 120 junctions to pull up to, so you can always try something else. Progression is handled by building up a record of completed races and other tasks (collected on your Driving Licence, naturally), and the buzzword is "seamless".
"We finished Revenge on the 360 and threw everything away," says Webster, dragging us back to the beginning. "Even the handling - and that's like throwing the crown jewels away." With everything dumped, they set about rebuilding Burnout in its new home, recreating and iterating the handling (and building in a handbrake - the "most requested thing in a Burnout game", apparently), and composing a game that's superficially alien, but comfortably familiar - the "new Burnout game" that a lot of developers would have shied away from making.
Some of the changes jar on the surface, but make sense underneath. Crash mode, one of our favourite bits of the last three games, has certainly taken a turn. "Crash mode as people know it is not going to be. You can't have an openworld experience and have junctions with a set start point," Webster says. "We wanted people to have the Crash experience in a completely new way, an open way." The solution is to allow you to trigger it when you want.
Criterion's mindful, of course, of diminishing its importance, so while Crash will change, Crash will still be Crash in the ways that matter. Asked whether they're opting for a Burnout 3 approach of trying to manoeuvre the car in slow motion between power-ups and Crashbreakers, or a Burnout Revenge "golf swing" of perfect start and target cars, Webster admits it's not all there yet. "We're still throwing ideas around. I think we'll be talking about it more in the coming weeks."
Details aside, as they sadly have to be, the constituent parts of the Burnout experience that culminate in those brilliantly replayable smash frenzies are certainly in place. Visually and aurally, this is Burnout dragged kicking and screaming and apes-in-pain into a new era. Watching a muscle car impact on a bus is like watching an accordion catch a right hook. They're not so precious about ripping you out of the game when you mess up, too, introducing a distinction between crashing and wrecking. The idea is that if you keep your wheels, and land on them, you can drive away. Upside down with your suspension inside out, you'll need a track-reset. What this could mean for Crash is another matter.
One of the bolder choices is to do away with menus. Crash (and to some extent all the other modes - particularly for Gamerpoint whores) were dependent on that delightfully instant restart option, but that's gone now. "To do openworld and go back to picking things off a menu didn't feel right," says Webster; "it just jarred with that whole concept of doing things seamlessly. We didn't always want it to be about absolutely coming first, either. If I'm fourth and I want to do it again, actually I want to race back up to the top - and there's events nearby so I can have fun as I work back up to the start."
Some won't like that, we'd wager - on first impression, you could happily argue that it's cutting the gameplay to fit the ideal rather than cutting the ideal to fit the gameplay - but there are gains elsewhere that satisfy the positive outlook. For example, you can now fill your boost by blitzing past a petrol station, or fix your car by buzzing a repair shop. And with respect to the conventions of GTA, we prefer Burnout Paradise's idea of drive-through fixes rather than waiting for a garage door to close.
Expanding on the Easy Drive idea, Webster talks about how frustrated Criterion had become with the accepted principles of online gaming, and Burnout's new ideal of a "simple and personal" online set-up. "We wanted to break away from lobbies and deathmatch and frags and 15-year-old conventions," he says. "Why on earth are we still bound by them? In Burnout now, when you accept my invite, we just put the two worlds instantly together, and that's it, you're online. I can send out seven invites and we can still have fun while we're waiting for other people to connect. Why should I let someone else decide when I get to play?"
Another (delightfully cheeky) element of that is the game's use of PS3 and 360's respective cameras. Every time you take someone down, their game snaps their expression, allowing you to collect mugshots of your victims. What's more, if you belt along a road and beat someone's record, you get to record your own face as a "smugshot". You can take all those photos and export them to PSN or Memory Stick on PS3, too. Trophies!
In terms of online, they're focusing on friends, which is good news if you've ever spent an evening hacking away at a game and then wondered why you should care that you're 684th in the world. "I'm never going to be number one in the world," Webster says (he's clearly given up lamenting it), "but I can beat my friends." As such, the default Road Rules high-scores, which pop up when you tour the city, focus on your friends list, although you can also dig down and mine the leaderboard system for global recognition. Elsewhere, they're thinking about (but not ready talking about) record-and-share video options (something Revenge 360 did, remember), and they're definitely considering the relationship-tracking that made Revenge so interesting on Live, and gave online racing a combative, personal feel.
The satisfying thing about the Burnout GC presentation, though, is that while frameworks are often one thing and the game's another, in Burnout's case the set-up is indivisible from the core experience. Buzzing around Paradise, you can't help but become engaged in attempts to outdo the last guy's longest successful drift. Cross worlds with another player, as we do, and it's hard too not to coordinate your efforts to best frame the destructive options available - sitting at the bottom of a hill, waiting for the other guy to try and plummet straight onto your head for maximum violence, or racing opposite directions off a twisting bridge ramp, like something out of The Man With The Golden Gun. This is the natural evolution of GTA's "getting distracted" everything-'em-up, transplanted into Burnout.
A more physics-orientated world (and a pair of more physics-friendly console architectures) mean that Paradise embraces all your barrel-rolled jumps, cart-wheeling crashes and over the top impacts with more force than a drunken bear. Free-burning, it really comes together. Those of you who loved the sort of co-operative, dare-we-say-it-emergent things that Crackdown's action-adventure playground threw up earlier this year will almost certainly want to keep an eye on this.
Not to mention an ear. We were delighted when we read elsewhere that Criterion's drawing inspiration from the likes of C'était un rendez-vous when it comes to giving Paradise a touch of audio polish. It reminds us of Lionhead's GCDC presentation about "staging", which emphasised the importance of the experience over the simulation by pointing out how Hollywood augments its audio and visuals. Webster gets the point instantly. "When Indy cracks his whip, it's a gun going off," he points out. "You're not creating a simulation, you're creating an event. We've got big, big trees snapping, Howitzers going off, apes in pain..." So that's what you hear when you crash. As to what you see - well, we hope they do a demo, because we can only imagine you'll like it. It may not be the Burnout of old, but on this evidence they've a good claim to "Paradise". And put in some parking. Lots.
Burnout Paradise is due out on PS3 and Xbox 360 this winter. [Editor's note: We originally referred to the GC set-up as a pair of networked 360s. EA's gently reminded us that actually it was PS3s, and actually they were running over PlayStation Network. Apologies for any confusion caused.]