Burnout Paradise Reader Review
I hardly imagine I'm alone when I say that when driving along from time-to-time I secretly wish I could just slam down on the accelerator and take off through the traffic, racing to my destination. Come on, admit it, we�ve all longed to test out our inner-racer. So what stops us from actually doing it, aside from the law; for me it's the fear that it will inevitably go wrong and end in a rather unpleasant manner. A fear I've come to believe is very well justified.
I've been a fan of the Burnout series as long as it has been around, with part of the appeal being the core premise: race through traffic and be rewarded for risky behaviour. Here is a series of games that allow me to test out my inner-racer, to be so daring as to drive against on-coming traffic (which always ends up being what I default to since we in the UK drive on the left anyway) and see what I can get away with. Of course being a game and therefore not reality (yes Jack Thompson some of us can tell the difference) it comes with the added bonus of not dying in a mangled heap of metal, glass and body parts when things all go a bit awry.
And things go awry, often; if Burnout has taught me anything it's precisely that. For anyone who's played the games, stop and think for a second: what's the longest amount of time you've ever survived without a crash? Maybe a handful of minutes at best, but then the longer you survive for the cockier you get until all of sudden some car appears out of nowhere and it all goes horribly, horribly wrong. Good job it's just a video game right.
So I like the Burnout games. I'd go so far as to say that it's possibly one of my favourite series of games around, and as a Burnout fan I'd been somewhat eagerly awaiting the next title in the series. I had to wait a little longer than expected, or perhaps liked (I'm not counting Burnout Dominator and the 360 re-release of Revenge), but my new fix finally arrived at the beginning of 2008: Burnout Paradise, the first (real) title on the new generation of consoles.
Welcome to Paradise
When you first fire up Burnout Paradise you are welcomed to Paradise City, which is the open world city where you will spend your future time racing around. "Wait what?! An open world! What is this nonsense you speak of?" I hear you say. Indeed, Burnout has truly made the leap to 'next-gen' by hopping on the sandbox/open world bandwagon. But before you go grab your pitchforks, big sticks and fire I encourage you to hold on a little while, you might just find that Paradise is your kind of town.
And it's got to be worth checking out, after all, Burnout Paradise is a brave move: Criterion have gone back to the drawing board and built the game up from scratch in order to deliver something new rather than just churn out the next generic Burnout game (and yet they're owned by EA, go figure). The open world city is the most obvious change over the series norms and it acts as the lynchpin to the structural changes that form the new gaming experience.
Unlike other sandbox titles everything in Paradise City is immediately accessible as soon as you hit the roads in your very first car. The first thing you're tasked with doing is fixing up your initial, rather rundown, vehicle by journeying to a local auto-shop. There a few of these dotted around the city, along with petrol stations (give you boost) and spray shops (change your paint job), and driving near any of them adds a marker to your mini-map, which is always present on screen. Equally so, passing through any of the city's junctions adds a marker for that junction's event to the map. In order to activate any of these events all you have to do is pull up at a junction and pull the accelerator and brake (the triggers) at the same time.
Events fall into one of five categories: Race, Road Rage, Marked Man, Stunt Run and Burnout Route. Race, Road Rage and Burning Route events work more or less as series fans expect. In the 'new event' corner: Marked Man sees your making your way to a destination in one piece as you avoid the black cars hell-bent on your destruction; Stunt Runs require the chaining of various stunts (drifts, boosts, jumps, barrel rolls, etc) to meet a score target.
Where this all differs from expectation is that there are no preset routes in the game. At each of the eight compass points is a finish flag location, and one of these is used as the final destination any given race event (Race, Marked Man and Burning Route). Since there are no preset routes - you'll find no arrow barriers here - how you get to the finish is entirely up to you, which requires knowledge of Paradise's roads and the multitude of shortcuts that weave their way between them.
Real men don't stop and ask for directions
Finding your own way between locations is rather liberating, with a huge amount of satisfaction to be had for outwitting your opposition and taking a crafty route. Selection of a good shortcut can easily see fortunes shift as a race progresses. On the flipside, if you take a wrong turn and head down the road then it can be as good as game over right there and then.
You're not entirely left to your own devices; there is some help at hand. The mini-map always shows the direction of the finish location, helping you to decide which roads to take. At the top of the screen is a street sign with the name of the road you're currently on, and as you drive around (at whatever speed) signs for the turn-offs appear at the far corners and move towards the centre as the roads approach. Mid-race these are used to help guide you by blinking to indicate a road you might want to take - emphasis on the 'might'. It's a nice idea, but these tips often prove to be anything but useful sending you down awkward or just plain incorrect roads.
All this leads to one of the few issues with the game: plotting routes is hard to do easily and quickly. The ever-present mini-map is useful, but it doesn't show enough to plan out routes, certainly not when the event spans the width or height of Paradise. As a result you will find yourself pausing the game from time to time to refer to the complete city map that can be found on the pause menu. This breaks the flow of the fast-paced thrills that are involved in racing around the city and can't help but detract from the game.
However, this issue becomes ever more mitigated as your knowledge of the city increases, and the best way to get familiar with Paradise is to explore in the free-burn mode. As I said, the whole city is free to explore from the very beginning, and beyond the desire (need?) to gain familiarity with your surroundings there are, thankfully, other reasons to go exploring. The present themselves in the shape of billboards, super jumps and smash barriers; finding all of each unlocks special carbon versions of cars to play with.
I need cars, lots of cars
And what driving game would be complete without a decent compliment of cars? The numbers vary across territories - thanks to special sponsor cars - but there are about 180 cars to be unlocked as you progress through the game. Each car falls into one of three categories: Stunt, Speed or Aggression. Stunt cars gain boost more easily from performing stunt actions, whilst aggression cars gain more for aggressive moves such as traffic checking and takedowns, with both able to use their boost at any point. Speed cars work a little differently and hark back to older Burnout titles, with boost only available once you've filled the whole bar; use all of it in one go and you'll get a 'Burnout' which near fills the bar again, allowing for long chains of boost to be strung together (if you can survive that long without crashing).
As implied by the names, each style of car is best suited to different types of race (Aggression for Marked Man and Road Rage, Speed for Races, etc). Burning Routes are a little different as there's one for each car, which when beaten unlocks a similar, but variant version of that car. Stunt cars end up being the best all-rounders, but after a while I started to really enjoy using the Speed cars, leaving Aggression cars as the ugly duckling of the pack (until you unlock the near indestructible 4x4 monster truck that is).
Changing cars is easy enough, just head to your nearest Junk Yard and select your new ride. The only bugger about this is that with only one Junk Yard per district you can sometimes find yourself a bit further than you'd like from the nearest one. This is especially irksome if you've found a new billboard or jump that your current car isn't quite fast enough to reach or would like to give a nearby Burning Route a go.
As you progress through the game - done by beating various numbers of events (which eventually earn you better licences) - you periodically unlock new cars. But hold your horses, there's still work to be done before you take your shiny new toy for a ride. New cars enter the city and begin to roam around. Once you come across it on the streets you will have to chase it, take it down and only then is it added to your Junk Yard selection for use. This is a fun little mechanic and adds yet another reason to cruise the streets.
You certainly won't be wanting for cars and eventually a few will single themselves out as favourites (the P12 and F1 car seem to have won a quite few fans amongst me and my mates). One nice thing is that the challenge of each event is scaled to the car you choose to use, making all events manageable at all times. This is a smart move and keeps things nice and accessible.
Where Burnout Paradise really begins to shine, and where the open world structure makes even more sense, is in the multiplayer; though a degree of this falls down to taste and preference. A quick couple of presses on the d-pad allow you to join games or invite friends to your game world.
In free-burn mode people are free to mill about doing as they wish, normally attempting to claim top spots on the session leaderboards (for things such as 'longest oncoming', 'most air time', etc). Though since this is Burnout, and crashing is required by law, then you will also find yourself smashing into the other players for shits and giggles. Online takedown recognition can be a little sketchy, with a slight bias towards hosts, but that doesn't stop T-boning someone from being lots of fun. I've spent a good number of hours just messing about with friends and getting involved in mass pile ups and takedown battles.
Naturally races can be set up by the host, where start, finish and checkpoint settings can be tweaked. These are handled quite intelligently, with each player able to pick a car for racing in, so you're not stuck with whatever you were in at the time the host decided to initiate the races. You can also choose to turn traffic off if you'd prefer a more straightforward race, though where's the fun in that. The ability to take alternate routes can lead to races with little interaction with other players, which is a shame as the give and take battles through traffic were always a highlight of the previous games. Races can also be a bit of a rarity online with people sidetracked by the free-roam mode (or, perhaps, in the case of the 360, going after the multiplayer achievements).
Outside of racing the host can also initiate one of the 50 free-burn challenges available for the number of players in the game, from 2 to 8, making for a total of 350 challenges. These range from fantastically simple 'meet at location X' (though that inevitably results in people crashing into each other for fun as they wait for stragglers) to more complicated tricks, such as barrel-rolling through a ring in mid-air.
Crash mode? It's Showtime
You may have noticed a distinct lack of mention of Crash mode, a real feature of the series and favourite for many. You may want to be seated for this: Crash mode is no more. Since Crash mode relies on perfectly orchestrated traffic conditions that doesn't quite sit with the seamless city world Criterion have created here, so it has been scrapped in favour of the new Showtime mode.
Showtime can be initiated at any point on any road by pressing both of the top shoulder buttons, and immediately sends your car into a crash (this also increases the number of cars on the road somewhat). Much like Crash mode of old the objective is to rack up as much damage as you can by hitting other cars on the road. As you hit each car you add boost to your bar, which can be used to perform a 'groundbreak', an action that allows you to keep your car moving and smashing into more vehicles. Buses are the real prize though, netting you not just a load of cash but also increasing a multiplier, which can greatly improve your final score.
Showtime ends when you run out of boost and the car can no longer move. The final score is then associated with road the Showtime began on, and as well as setting Showtime scores on each road you can set Road Rule times. These are the times it takes to race the length of each road, which are then compared against all your friends (as well as an offline score to beat) allowing you to see who rules each road amongst your mates.
Crash mode was indeed excellent, but the big problem with it was that once you'd worked out the way to approach a junction there was little replayability to be had. With Showtime the dynamic nature of world means that no two attempts are ever the same, and whilst it's a tough call to choose between them, I think I'd be inclined to take Showtime when push comes to shove. For some people this could be a deal breaker though and many will mourn the loss of Crash mode, so be warned.
The long road home
The other potential deal breaker also comes as a result of Criterion's goal of creating a seamless, and menu-less, world: there's no restart/retry option. If you fail an event there's no quick way of going back to the beginning and starting over.
If you want to retry an event you need to drive all the way back to its start point and re-initiate it, which is a complete pain in the arse on the city spanning events. This can be quite jarring at first, but Criterion's idea is that rather than play the same event over and over you just pick another nearby event to try. And there's so many of the buggers scattered throughout the city that it's easily done and actually avoids the potential frustration born of doing a single event over and over until you perfect it.
The only pitfall to this idealised notion is the Burning Route events. Because each can only be attempted with a particular car, you have no choice but to trek back to the start if you want another go, or trek to a Junk Yard to attempt a nearer Burning Route. Driving about is fun enough that this isn't a massive issue, but this was the one set of events I did find myself missing a retry after.
Hey hey, you you
Another possible source of annoyance comes on the music side of things and courtesy of Burnout Paradise's DJ and soundtrack. Anyone who remembers the DJs from previous games will probably have grimaced a little at the news that Paradise would see the return of the potential audio pest, this time DJ Atomika (with a name like that how can he not be hip and down with the kids). His role is actually to provide little tips, mostly those to get you started, and interject from time to time with 'witty' comments just to give that radio station feel.
After playing the demo I was convinced I would soon be searching for the off option, but as it turns out he stays strangely quiet once you get past the first 15 minutes, chiming in rather sporadically, and proves to be perfectly liveable with.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, may be less bearable for some people, featuring the typical EA Trax mix of rock and pop and plain old cheese. There's actually quite a few songs on the soundtrack, more than I would have reckoned from listening to it, and on top of the chart tracks it also includes a large selection of the instrumental tracks from the earlier Burnout games.
However, given the reaction of a lot of my friends (and randoms online), many people instantly choose to use their own custom soundtracks. One particular track that has caused much ire amongst players (at least those vocal players I have encountered) is "Girlfriend" by Avril Lavigne. I don't listen to the radio much and had never heard this song before and I'm going to admit right here that I really like it. My opinion, however, clearly goes against the grain on that front and I've heard more than a few rants deriding it.
So yeah, the soundtrack isn't going to win any awards (or friends), and whilst there are a couple of songs on there I really enjoy, most of it can be summarised with a giant "meh". And after a number of hours it does start to feel like the songs are repeating a touch quicker than is healthy and so I went with streaming music from my computer in the end.
There's a lot to Burnout Paradise and very little of it puts a foot wrong. It feels almost entirely unlike any of the Burnout games that have gone before, but at its core, its soul, this is undoubtedly Burnout through and through. When all is said and done, the changes that have been made just won't pay off for some people and some fans will be disappointed. If the seamless open world appeals though, you will find this is a sandbox full of opportunities and when taken online it is one that will sneakily eat away many, many hours.
Oh and did I mention how good looking this bastard is? The cars (and crashes) look fantastic and the city feels like a well-crafted whole with plenty of life to it. It all runs buttery smooth too, even online (though a little lag was noticed from time to time), which is rather impressive.
There's ridiculously little to hold against this game; the few areas of annoyance are so minor, or easily overlooked (such as in the case of the soundtrack), that they barely warrant a mention. The potential problems lie in how the structural changes sit with you and that's going to be a personal opinion thing. For me, this is an absolute winner and I thoroughly enjoy my visits to the place where the grass is green and the girls are pretty.