Version tested: Xbox
It seems utter madness that a game of the quality of Burnout 2 wasn't a massive hit outside of Europe. Maybe it was Acclaim's ongoing inability to compete with the big guns in the US that was to blame, or maybe consumers weren't that convinced about the original and wrongly assumed the quick-fire sequel would be more of the same. They couldn't have been more wrong, and the fact that it still stands out as one of the best looking games and most addictive ever says a lot. Acclaim's loss was very much EA's gain, and if any games publisher in the world knows how to sell to the Yanks, it's EA. If Burnout 3 sells less than four times what its predecessor sold we'd be very surprised indeed.
Despite EA already having a best seller in the racing genre in Need For Speed Underground, it was a no-brainer for EA to sign Burnout 3. Criterion has, over the last three years, carved a category all of its own, featuring a crash-based all-action style of racing that no other game has come anywhere near to matching. The question that troubled hardcore followers of the series though was just how evident EA's paw prints would be on the game. Would it be diluted for the masses, or would the Brits hold out and stick to their guns?
The influence EA has had on Burnout 3's gestation cannot be underestimated, but rather than being forced it's a mutual appreciation. You can see it, hear it and feel it everywhere, but given Criterion's love for SSX it was undeniably a match made in heaven when EA jumped the queue and snapped up the rights to publish the game from under everyone else's noses. EA was so impressed it then bought the bloody company only a few months later in as canny a piece of games industry business as you'll ever see. Now not only does it have the world's best arcade racing developer, but the industry's leading middleware provider. All it needed was the game to match.
What did we expect from Burnout 3? More tracks, modes, cars, better graphics? Naturally. Online? Of course. Once EA inked that deal with Microsoft back at E3 we knew our Burnout 3 dreams were going to come true. We were fully excited, almost carried away with the idea of being able to translate the offline gameplay into six player racing, Party Crash and the rest. The only grey area was how long had Criterion been working on Live? Was it bolted on at the last minute? We'd been told in the past that there was definitelyno Live play. Not the ideal preparation for what, next to Halo 2 and PES 4, was the year's biggest Xbox Live offering. Nevertheless, how could anyone with access to PS2 or Xbox online gaming not feel a pang of excitement? The gameplay was so well suited to online multiplayer it would have been a heinous crime not to base the game around it.
But before we dive headlong into our online indulgence, it's important to acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of the people that buy this game will never play it online. Does that matter? Amazingly, no. For the thirty or so hours we were surgically attached to the TV playing this game, the vast majority of that was played offline on our own, unlocking all 100 crash junctions, attempting to battle through all 76 races and trying to scoop gold medals and headlines. It's an absolutely mammoth game, make no mistake.
What goes on tour stays on tour
Although there are the usual Single Event and Time Attack modes, World Tour is likely to be where you'll spend most of your time. Crash Junctions or Races are accessed via global Sat Nav that enables you to visit three continents (US, Europe, Asia) in an epic series that places equal weight on both disciplines. Unlike before, the excellent Crash Junctions are accessible from the off (previously, the PS2 version of B2 only made these available some way into the game), and in truth this has proven to be a masterstroke; we became so hooked on them we devoted more time to them than any other area of the game.
In pure single-player mode, Crash Junctions have been fleshed out to provide often quite lengthy sections, which you can approach in a number of different ways. The premise of causing the biggest pile-up possible remains your goal, but this time Criterion has thrown in a number of new features that add a tactical edge to the proceedings. Chief among them is the new Crashbreaker ability, which kicks in once you've clocked up a predetermined number of crashes, and allows you to effectively detonate your car and then steer it with mid-air aftertouch in the direction of your choice, either into the path of other oncoming vehicles or the other collectables lying around.
With a bit of luck and no small amount of skill you can often engineer situations whereby you can explode your car in the direction of previously unobtainable score multipliers, or possibly another explosion. On the downside, the game also places an evil score-halving Heartbreaker near to goodies, often reducing triumphant performances to a miserable total. In truth, such is Crash Junction's appeal, we'd gladly buy the game even if it consisted solely of this mode offline. Quite often we'd spend half an hour at a time solely attempting new ways to conquer a particular junction: to take the boost or not, which angle to take ramp at and so on - and on top of that it's a beautiful visual spectacle with stupendous use of slow motion, only slightly marred by the lack of a more spectacular replay, or the ability to switch camera angles during it.
In offline multiplayer it's possibly even more riotous, allowing for the genius two player co-op Team Crush where you have to work together to cause even more insanity and the versus Double Impact mode, while Party Crash allows up to eight players to take it in turns on any of the unlocked junctions.
Look out! Cliff!
Racing is just as much carnage as it ever was, and in fact has been ramped up to include six drivers in the race from the off, as opposed to the four of previous versions. Knowing full well that online play would be full of idiots driving the wrong way and trying to be annoying as they always tend to do in online racing games, Criterion struck upon the realisation that basing the entire racing mode on the concept of 'takedowns' would solve this annoyance.
Stuck for a 'language of crashes' Criterion has taken inspiration from Tony Hawks and SSX with each successful takedown given its own specific name, such as 'Wall Takedown' or 'Psyche Out', while each track gives opportunities to come up with your own Signature Takedown, for example sending your opponent down a cliff side or other unique, one-off spectaculars. Boost, as ever, is a key part of the proceedings, and can be gained from the usual dangerous manoeuvres that previous players will be well and truly familiar with, like driving into oncoming traffic.
In terms of the actual gameplay there wasn't much wrong with it before, and not a huge amount has changed in truth. It's certainly more in your face this time around in terms of the presentation, with unskippable tutorial videos played right at the beginning and load screens taking every opportunity to remind you of new moves and modes in true EA style. Even the enormously over-the-top exclamations throughout the game as you pull off new moves are perfectly in keeping with what is an utterly fast and furious experience - it's just a shame that Criterion takes it too far with the inclusion of a DJ so fantastically, annoyingly yankee that Anglo-American relations have just been set back twenty years. Honestly, we tolerated his excitable ravings for about ten hours before realising that sanity is a precious thing. The best thing that Criterion did was giving us the ability to switch him off. The relief was palpable.
Hang the DJ?
The soundtrack of any game is always a tricky thing, and you can't please everyone no matter what you do. Personally, we thought some tracks were terrifyingly annoying (the lead track, Lazy Generation, for instance, will burn in hell when the day of reckoning comes), and some were awesome additions (say hello Von Bondies, Franz Ferdinand and a few others we've yet to commit to memory), but it's hard to whinge about having 40 current tracks to choose from. For free. Besides, you can always customise the soundtrack in the Xbox if it really bothers you that much, although it's irritating to have to switch that option over every time you boot up the game. Some will hear a few tracks that don't fit their specific musical agenda and snort about the 'evil empire' taking over, but, frankly, sod them. Criterion deserves a huge mega hit, and if having a US centric soundtrack helps the company grow, all the better.
The rest of the game's audio, however, is without doubt a fine achievement, delivering full surround sound on both platforms in some style with a wide array of throaty engine noises, wince inducing crash impacts and the like. In conjunction with the spectacular visuals, it's hard not to be anything but bowled over. Has there ever been a better looking game? Whether you're lucky enough to see the game in progressive scan or not (something only US users and anal import gamers will be able to enjoy) it's simply a feast for the eyes. There's almost too much to take in, and other developers will have to go some to beat this in the current generation. With the exception of some very minor framerate drops in the PS2's crash mode, it really is the game that you feel is melting your machine.
What's there to fault? The vehicles look outstanding, featuring full reflections and a damage model to die for; the scenery is never less than first class ("that's how you do trees!"), with an excellent, seemingly never ending array of tracks with nods to the developers favourite games showing the purist's dedication that's gone into the craft. It could well take us a year to fully get to know each track well enough, and in terms of value for money it's tough to think of what more they could have done content-wise.
Inevitably, though, there are niggles that we'd love to one day see ironed out. The much-anticipated online play was the very reason we delayed this review, and frankly we're glad we did. On paper, you'd be hard pressed to imagine how there could possibly be any problems. 'It's on Live' you think to yourself, how could it be anything other than as slick as all the other games you've played before. Well...
The first issue, and our over-riding concern, is that the single player game has - bewilderingly - not been integrated with the online. Unlike other racing games where your progress as a whole is always recorded online - Gotham 2 for example - Burnout 3 treats the two disciplines as entirely separate entities. The hollowness we felt when discovering our endless hours of effort couldn't be uploaded and compared with our online buddies was palpable. In a sense it felt like a bit of a waste of our efforts, and the fact that even Burnout 2 on Xbox featured high score tables made it feel even more mystifying. Sure, people can probably cheat their way to the top, but we're not really bothered about those idiots. We're more bothered about the childish fun you get from being the best of your buddy list, nothing more. No matter which way you look at it, it's a startling omission, by design. It's not as if Criterion couldn't be bothered to put this feature in, they just simply took it out altogether for reasons they have yet to go public on.
But even if we can accept that the game is still excellent offline, and get over not being able to compare scores online, the actual process of getting online remains less than enjoyable for many users, this one included. For starters, the service passes over the user to EA.com, and here's where the problems appear to begin. Logging into the service is less than smooth, with login failures common, and we had issues actually joining games too. For reasons we don't fully appreciate, there are a number of country-based lobbies to wade through before you can even join a game, and several times we were kicked out altogether when joining a friend's game.
Apparently excessive demand has caused many of the issues, so it's very likely many of the Live issues will be solved quickly. Indeed, only this morning we received an email detailing server maintenance downtime - with luck, whatever the problems there have been in the initial stages, all this will be resolved before long. Log-in teething troubles or not, the actual EA-based Live interface needs a serious overhaul for future incarnations, because the fact is, as it stands, it lags seriously behind the standard system that has, to date, operated fairly flawlessly by comparison.
To give Criterion its dues, it wasn't given an ideal preparation for implementing Live, with the deal only being implemented in May, and the game being finished in early August. The fact that it features online play at all is a bonus. Assuming the teething troubles can be ironed out quickly, it stands as a very compelling online experience. Six player online racing. In Burnout 3. It doesn't really get much better than that does it? Whether it's Race or Crash, both work equally well online, the races appear lag free, meaning crashes actually occur in real-time as opposed to other problem-laden racing games that don't appear to know how to deal with the issue. The same basic modes appear online (so all the race and crash modes) and all work superbly well, with no glitches noticed when we actually got in the game. In a way we'd rather it was that way around than easy to get in but riddled with in-game issues.
A game of two halves
With a fully featured, properly implemented online mode, Burnout 3 had the right to be considered the arcade racing game to end them all. As it stands, it's the offline arcade racing game to end them all, with an online implementation that falls frustratingly short of expectations. The ingredients are all there for it to have been an unprecedented and sensational package, and in nearly all areas it really is. Most of it is, or will be forgivable, and will be fixed in the future - we all know that EA and Microsoft can't afford this kind of debacle to continue - but right now we're caught in this strange state of mind between celebrating what is undeniably a great game both offline and online. It's just the two areas should be part of the same game, not working against one another. Whatever. Justifiable niggles aside; it's one of this year's best games and an essential purchase, simple as that.
9 / 10