Version tested: Xbox 360
Approaching the first blockbuster release of the year fully expecting to be mildly irritated by it can't be the best mindset. The spittle-flecked Internet response to the demo even prompted Criterion's Alex Ward to deliver a characteristically uncompromising Christmas message, in which he urged the public to, "Try [Burnout Paradise] for yourself and make up your own mind. Don't let the Internet do it for you."
The problem with Ward's terse response to public criticism is that it puts a whole number of the game's contentious changes at the forefront of your mind before you even play it. You do want to try it for yourself to make your own mind up, but also to find out if the naysayers were right all along. For such a hotly anticipated update to a much-loved series, there's been a curious cloud of negativity hovering over it.
If you've managed to avoid the noise, good for you - it's probably for the best. The good news is, when you actually get to play the full game (as opposed to the confusing demo), some of Criterion's choices start to make a lot more sense. Some. After a while, you might even empathise with Ward.
Like many of you, the demo made me want to throw things. The bad news is that the full game starts in exactly the same way, with one of the least helpful introductions to a racing game I've ever come across. I don't know about you, but I like structure. I don't mind being seamlessly shepherded along for the first few minutes so I can get my bearings. But, by design, Burnout Paradise basically dumps you in the middle of 250 miles of open road, tells you to start your engine and lets you get on with it.
By way of helping hand, the instantly dislikeable American DJ, Atomika, chimes in with tips as you pass by events and items of interest. There's no specific thing you have to do - you can keep driving around the entire map marvelling at the new game engine, if you want to - but this is the game's first error. There's an initial sense of confused bewilderment as you wonder where you're supposed to go and what you're supposed to do. Soon enough you drive towards a set of traffic lights, and DJ Atomika will suggest you might want to enter one of the events by holding down the left trigger and then the right to get started.
Depending on which direction you head off in, you'll have the choice of entering straightforward first-past-the-post Races [watch Kristan do this on Eurogamer TV], takedown-based Road Rage [and this] challenges, as well as the all-new Marked Man and Stunt Run events (more of which later). The main tweak you'll immediately notice in the races is that Criterion has completely abandoned the concept of tracks, and gone with an open-ended approach reminiscent of Rockstar's Midnight Club. Instead of being shepherded along by invisible barriers and arrows, you're now free to take whichever route you want to. The aim is simply to get from A to B before everyone else - how you get there is entirely up to you.
In theory, placing such trust and freedom in the hands of the player is liberating, and far more befitting a modern approach to racing gaming. Your knowledge of the multi-layered city is something you can build upon as you go along, taking advantage of sneaky shortcuts and back alleys which may give you a crucial edge - especially in the more built up parts of Paradise City. In practice, the dense intricacies of this utterly beautiful city can be completely baffling to the newcomer as you find yourself repeatedly swept off-course by snaking, interconnecting, multi-layered roads. Again, just like Midnight Club, the only solution to such failure is repeat play, and the organic process of mapping out the city in your own head.
Restarting the debate
Exploration takes time, and not least because of the decision to not allow you to restart events. Whereas comparative openworld city-based games like various Need For Speed titles allow you to routinely skip to the menu to select whichever unlocked events are available, Criterion demands that players either take the time to trek back to the start line (maybe five miles away), or plump for another event. As annoying as that sounds, it's genuinely not as irritating as you assume. The dense, interesting design of the city distracts you, and, rather than get bogged down trying to crack a single event over and over (often a frustrating thing to put yourself through anyway), you'll shrug and get stuck into something else - maybe spying an opportunity to smash into more billboards and private property fences, attempt a new super-jump you hadn't seen before, try out your Power Parking skills between parked cars, or just get cracking on another event. There are always plenty to choose from.
You'll also notice other tweaks, like the ability to drive through an Auto Repair station to repair your vehicle, or the Gas Station to refuel your boost meter. Both are helpful additions that mitigate potential frustration when the heat is on. For example, the all-new Marked Man [watch it on Eurogamer TV] event is a hugely likeable point-to-point affair where the idea is to reach your destination without being smashed to pieces by pursuers. By keeping Auto Repair station locations in mind, you can get yourself out of a tight spot, no matter that your damage is critical and the screen has drained of colour to indicate your imminent doom. Elsewhere, Stunt Run tasks you with pulling off "outrageous manoeuvres" by drifting around corners, barrel-rolling off ramps and performing combos to reach a points-target. However, sometimes a quick visit to the Gas Station at an opportune moment will give you extra boost just when you need to hit that nearby ramp at top whack. And so on.
One extremely cunning and thoughtful element of the new approach to Burnout is how each part of Paradise City and the events within them have been tailored to the types of vehicle present - Speed, Aggression, and Stunt. For example, a car with high Aggression stats might well be perfect for ramming cars off the road in Road Rage events, but hopeless in Stunt Runs. A speedy car may well be great for races, but will be a bit feeble for Marked Man events, and so on. Using the right car for the job is essential - a point DJ Atomika is keen to stress when you fail an event yet again. Tearing through the undulating countryside in the more barren Western sections of the city, you'll learn, is much better suited to Stunt-savvy cars, giving you the chance to take full advantage of the many ramps and Super Jumps hidden away.
Who needs Paradise, I'd rather have you
To keep you involved, Burnout Paradise has you try and improve your driving licence rating, and, in turn, gives you better cars to drive. To rank up, you have to win a certain number of events, and Criterion gives you the freedom to meet that target via a combination of whichever events most appeal to you. So, for example, if you're not really a fan of Stunt Run events, and have more joy with Marked Man and Road Rage, then that's up to you. However you want to race your way to an upgrade, the game doesn't force you in any given direction. Rather like Burnout Revenge, eventually the stakes are raised to reach the next tier, so you will have to start attempting more of everything over time, but no longer are you bound to meeting star-ratings to get there. If you win a race, job done. If you reach your destination in Marked Man, all good. You won't be forced to do re-runs of everything to reach Perfect ratings, but to compensate for that there's generally a lot of other stuff you can spend time with, which is very much a good thing.
The replacement to the inspired Crash mode of old is the new Showtime mode [watch it on Eurogamer TV], which you can, bizarrely, activate at any time by holding down some shoulder buttons. At that point, the idea is to smash into as much traffic as possible, but not in the manner you might expect. In Showtime, you earn boost by hitting other vehicles, and when you hit the tarmac you can basically bounce yourself back up by using the Ground Break manoeuvre, therefore making it possible to keep the momentum going by hitting more traffic, earning more boost, and therefore more Ground Breaks. Hitting buses is the key to the really big scores as they grant you a multiplier, but given the random nature of the traffic flow, it's often down to blind luck as to whether enough buses appear. The whole thing is completely bonkers, obviously, and it's fun to try and top your best score, but I can't deny that it's really no substitute for well-designed, challenging Crash Junctions of old. Incorporating Crash Junctions (as they were) into the new game might not have worked, but binning one of the best parts of Burnout is a pretty hefty sacrifice.
We Love Katamari Burnout
Elsewhere, you've also got the option to try and beat the best time and best Showtime crash on every single street in the game by selecting the Road Rules option via the d-pad. While not necessarily integral to making progress, it's another way to kill time in a game already chock-full of tasks and challenges. There are also point-to-point races for specific cars, called Burning Routes, which in turn unlock even more cars, so the incentive to plough through them too is quite high if you're determined to truly mine the game for gamerpoints (for 360 owners, at least) and overall completion. However, particularly irritating is the fact that you can't simply skip to a menu and change to another car on the fly. In order to do so, you either have to drive to one of the five Junkyards dotted around the map, or switch the game off, reload and select your ride when you start. As a direct consequence of this tedious mechanic, I've hardly bothered to do any Burning Routes, because it's simply easier to go and do something else instead. It's puzzling why Criterion would ever think this was a good idea (the game, after all, stops to load in every single event, so I'm not sure why allowing you to do this would be any different), but in tandem with the no-restart policy, this hard-line attitude comes as no great surprise.
One thing definitely worthy of praise this time around is the seamless online implementation, which makes it extremely simple to dive into a multitude of multiplayer challenges without feeling like you're being hauled off into a completely different game. Because the whole city is fully unlocked for everyone right from the start, there are no arbitrary restrictions on where you and can't go, merely a decision to make on how many players you want to team up with, and which car you want to use (from your own unlocked selection). If you simply want to 'Freeburn' around the streets with pals, attempting to find more barriers and billboards to smash through, or more Super Jumps to discover, then that's fine. If you want to beat your friends' Road Rules times and crash totals, you can do that too. If you have a camera attached, when you beat their score you can send them a 'Smugshot' to rub it in a bit more. In addition to a myriad of challenges specific to the number of players in the game, you can also go for ranked or unranked races for up to eight players. Admittedly the servers were a tad barren when we went online yesterday, but the whole thing seemed silky smooth and lag free, so it's definitely something to try out if you have the option.
In technical terms, Criterion has come up with something extremely special, which puts to bed any lingering fears of its ability to tackle the new generation of consoles. Running without a hitch at 60 frames-per-second on both systems, it's a beautiful-looking game whether you're running it on an old CRT warhorse or a brand new 1080p monster. The lighting techniques and the use of colour are terrific, with subtle, beautiful effects that create a distinct ambience in-keeping with the feel and character of the previous games. There's no sense that the team is trying too hard to show off new techniques, instead delivering a grittily pretty environment that's as intricate and thoughtful as any we've seen in an openworld game.
The cars, too, have a rough and ready feel, often beaten up but still attractive in their own way. Crashes and crash replays have that same familiar wince-worthy impact - aided and abetted by typically lavish attention to detail on the audio front. If you want a game to show off a new AV set-up to its full punchy, face-wobbling potential, then you won't go far wrong with Burnout Paradise. The only slight minus point is, again, DJ Atomika himself (although, to be fair, he stops short of being unbearably cheesy) and some questionable soundtrack choices, including what appears to be every in-house track from every Burnout to date. Thumbs up for Adam and the Ants and LCD Soundsystem, though. You can never have too much Stand & Deliver in your life, I find. Da Diddly Qua Qua, indeed.
Anyway, there's no doubt that Burnout Paradise is a fine arcade racing game that will once again attract a strong following from a discerning audience prepared to live with it and get used to its intricacies. Every mode (apart from, at a push, Showtime) works brilliantly, and with a great online mode seamlessly woven into the game, there's an awful lot to love about this openworld reinvention of Burnout. What's abundantly obvious is that the more time you're prepared to invest, the better it eventually becomes, and the less some of its irritating design oddities will bother you. In truth, I would have preferred to select events on the fly, change vehicles on a whim, and restart failed events when I choose, but nor is it a deal-breaker that these features have been omitted. Once you (reluctantly) adapt to the demands of the game, a massive amount of fun awaits.
Burnout Paradise isn't everything it could have been, but what's here is still worthy of serious consideration for anyone hell-bent on demented arcade thrills.
8 / 10