Version tested: PlayStation 2
Forget everything you know. Whether you liked Burnout or not, it matters not. The simple fact of the matter is that its sequel will change your perceptions of the driving game genre, and the capabilities of the PlayStation 2.
From the minute you first boot up Burnout 2 it has you smiling. As you progress through the 'anti GT' Offensive Driving 101 tutorial (where you learn how best to drive badly…) the smile extends to a full-on cheesy grin as you realise just how stupendously fast the game engine is, and by the time you're charging into streams of head on traffic you're screaming like a cheerleader having her first orgasm.
But let's calm down for a minute and actually work out what's working us up into such an excitable lather. Well, first of all, every single one of the game's modes is superb. Starting with the tutorial mode, you're taught step by step how to get to grips with the beautifully intuitive control system: simply tap X to accelerate, square to brake or drift, and R1 to boost. Powering up your Burnout boost bar also couldn't be easier: either drive head on into oncoming traffic, drift around corners, survive near misses or grab some phat air. Once you've mastered these fundamentals it's onto the real deal.
Championship mode is, inevitably, where you'll head if you want to unlock new modes, tracks and cars, but right from the off the game makes initial progression a formality. The early Grand Prixs feel rather like an extension of the tutorial mode, and coming first against the three crash prone CPU cars is pretty much a given, but you're probably having far too much fun admiring the incredible visuals, nippy frame rate, and sickeningly realistic crashes to care too much about the lack of challenge at this point.
The early impressions are clear: Burnout 2 is simply the fastest, best looking racing game on the PlayStation 2 bar none; this fact just screams out at you almost immediately. Whereas its predecessor had a rather bland, flat look about it, Mk.2 shines in every area, and it's almost unbelievable how far the Renderware engine has come in such a short space of time. The sheer pace of the game is almost wince-inducingly fast, and, as a result, when you crash you find yourself physically ducking out of the way of the terrifying impact. What results out of these tear ups can end up being truly incredible, with not only vehicle parts flying off in all directions in a trail of smoke and sparks, but the resulting chaos delivered onto nearby vehicles - particularly lorries and buses - being the most enjoyable example of videogame destruction by a huge margin.
Fortunately, you're not punished for crashing like last year's effort. Not only do you return to the track almost immediately, but your Burnout meter only takes a small hit, meaning that restoring it to a powered up state is a relatively manageable task. This immediately makes the process of catching up much more straightforward, and therefore you're caning it around the track, taking insane risks at every turn. It's this motivation to drive stupidly fast that makes Burnout 2 so irresistible to play - no game has ever taken the concept of driving fast to such extremes, and pulled off such a compelling game into the bargain.
Reality? What's that?
Inevitably, Criterion's pursuit of all out fun and adrenaline has resulted in some curious compromises of reality. For a start, the handling ostensibly belongs in the arcade camp. Whichever car you choose you'll find the car sticks to the road like glue, and powering around corners borrows liberally from the Ridge Racer school - no bad thing in our book. It's by no means remotely realistic, but as a method of making the game for fun and immersive it works a treat. Similarly, when you charge full pelt into some of the guide arrows, you mostly end up being guided gently in the right direction, rather than just wipe out. In addition, if you crash into CPU crashes, you get to start again just fractionally ahead of the transgressor - and likewise when you cause similar chaos to your opponents. Unrealistic, sure, but ultimately it seems that every attempt has been made to keep the game from ever being annoying. Some may balk that this lessens the challenge, but that would be missing the point. After all, there are plenty of opportunities to crash at every turn - gamers really don't need pedantic discipline imposed upon them when they're charging along at speeds of 160mph. Fortunately races are also a mite shorter than the original Burnout, which was an area many felt Criterion got wrong. The design just feels as tight as a drum, with every effort made to keep your attention.
As with any great racing game, there's an absolute stack of cars, modes and tracks to unlock, and, again, Criterion has structured it such that there's always an incentive to keep plugging away. It's the Championship mode that you'll inevitably head straight for to unlock the numerous goodies, and faced with a series of Grand Prixs, Pursuits and Face Offs there are always ways to keep the interest levels high.
In the GPs you race against three other AI cars, usually contested across between two and five laps, depending on the length of the track. Win the GP on points, and you unlock the next GP series. Win Golds in every race, and even more is unlocked, including Pursuit races and Face Offs. Pursuit involves haring after a wanted felon, ala Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, with a certain number of hits required before the time limit runs out. This is a welcome addition, in that it allows the player to unlock the criminal's vehicle, while Face Off gives a similar incentive, albeit in a straightforward one-off race.
Please release me
The unlocking theme extends throughout the game, and once your Championship mode is fully unlocked, a further Custom mode allows you to race in much more challenging GP races, with rather odd, but welcome additions becoming available to your car roster.
But possibly best of all is the stupendous Crash mode. The premise is simple: drive your car as fast as possible towards moving traffic - often a crossroads or traffic jam - with the intention of causing as big a pile up as you can. Time your impact correctly, and you can set up a spectacular chain reaction of twisted metal as one vehicle after another smashes into the carnage you've caused.
Send 18 wheelers flying onto their sides, jack-knifing across the carriageways and all hell is let loose, and it's all displayed in superb action-enhancing slow motion, with the helicopter piloted cameras panning and zooming in to show off the glory that is going on all around. By the end, your damage is multiplied by the number of vehicles involved in your crash, and once again your performance is rewarded by Gold, Silver or Bronze medals - allowing you to unlock a multitude of progressively insane crash levels.
But one minor fly in the ointment is the multiplayer mode. While the game does at least allow four player split screen on a PS2, the impact on the frame rate and graphical splendour is all too apparent. Once you're used to charging around in single player mode, multiplayer feels somewhat muted compared to the anarchy you've been used to. We're not writing off the mode completely, because it is enjoyable taken in isolation, but it clearly doesn't quite live up to the uniform excellence elsewhere. Racing against mates is obviously superb fun, and provides a much more satisfying race experience, but when you're playing at what feels like 30 FPS, rather than 60, it just feels sluggish. Maybe this is an area the forthcoming Xbox version will address in style.
So, to sum up, without any hint of an exaggeration, Burnout 2 is the most compelling arcade driving experience we have ever had the pleasure of undertaking. It's a visual master class, supremely playable, addictive, has huge replayability and has a superb learning curve that will ensure it has a broad appeal to anyone with even a vague interest in videogames. There really is no excuse not to buy this - it will restore your faith in the ability of videogames to generate excitement. Burnout 2 is pure adrenaline. You owe it to yourself to play this game.
9 / 10