Version tested: PlayStation 2
Burnout is a peculiar breed of racer. At its core it's the tried-and-trusted racing formula - rolling cityscapes and countryside, fast cars and powersliding, and a single overall objective: to win. There are two things that set Burnout apart from the likes of Ridge Racer, though: speed and danger. The sense of speed - even in the smaller 'easy' cars - is blistering. The game runs at a phenomenal, non-stop 50 frames per second, and the sense of speed when you're carving your way through traffic at 150mph is in a class of its own. This atmosphere of intense speed is accentuated by the overt and ever-present danger of ploughing into the back of the next car, or worse still oncoming traffic. As your speedometer warbles into the red the traffic seems to swell into a larger body and picking a path through it is none too easy, requiring split-second decisions with each passing metre. And if you come unstuck, you will know it. Burnout's crashes are some of the most extraordinary, spine-tingling, jaw-droppingly obscene I have seen in any racer. If you hit the front of an oncoming car at over 100mph the bodywork crumples and glass breaks all over the place, at enormous expense. Immediately after you crash the game shifts into a stunning action replay segment which shows off your feat, before charging you a wallet-bulging 'insurance' fee, righting you and sending you on your way. The crashes are like an exclamation point to the adrenaline-pumping fury of the previous straights and turns, and I often found myself bellowing in disgust as I smacked into the back of a transporter whilst powersliding out of a corner. You lose time and money, and worst of all speed. Burnout is all about speed. You need it to reach the next checkpoint, to stay ahead of your opponents and to win the race.
One of the things that most endears me to Burnout is that it's an experience of extraordinary excitement and tangible fear. If you've raced three quarters of an enormous track at top speed only to spot a traffic jam up ahead with your nearest competitor breathing down your neck, you will know what I mean. Unfortunately, you sometimes wonder whether Burnout is a PSOne game rather than a PS2 title. In fairness though, while the picture looks grainy and even flickers, it's pretty good on the whole. The game isn't a patch on Gran Turismo 3 visually, but the landscapes and architecture are quite expansive, covering enormous tracts of land, and are intricately detailed in places. Passing through areas of scenic beauty at enormous speed doesn't offer much time to take things in, which is perhaps a good thing, but Burnout is definitely passable as far as graphics are concerned. A racing game's auditory requirements often come further down the list than anything else, so it's nice to see real effort has gone into Burnout's sonic concoction. The sound effects are fairly blasť, but the soundtrack is stunning. Tunes that you would perhaps expect to find in eerie RPG sequences rather than a racing game accompany your mad dash through traffic against the clock, and add measurably to the suspense. The odd techno tune here and there is forgivable as a result.
Burnout is fairly well structured, with five primary modes of play - championship, single race, time attack, head-to-head and specials - but most of these play second-fiddle to the main championship, which is where any aspiring daredevil will spend most of his or her time. The championship mode is made up of six main grand prix events with three races per event, and increasingly fast cars and ever more difficult tracks to negotiate, often with improved placing a pre-requisite. Even racers with the deftest of touches for this sort of thing will have trouble beating everything within a few days. Burnout is the sort of game you will keep coming back to, and as the traffic layout is entirely random the game is brimming with longevity, even if you could probably beat it in about five hours if you got everything right first time. The specials area offers more good-natured fun, with sub-games like going head-to-head against a single AI driver or surviving a course without crashing even once. Add to that a split-screen multiplayer mode (with very little speed or framerate sacrificed) and you have plenty of reasons to return to the game. Burnout can swallow oceans of time. Ridge Racer fans will definitely enjoy the game, as will just about anybody with a penchant for the spectacular who enjoys perching on the edge of their seat. It may not bust boundaries with its graphics but it maintains a breakneck speed and boasts a thoughtful soundtrack and plenty of longevity. Burnout is one of 'those' - it deserves to be bought, even if it's only a fairly shiny jewel in a crown of corkers this Christmas.
8 / 10