"Ban These Evil Games" screamed the front page of The Daily Mail on the morning of Friday 30th July. We reflected on our bemusement that the bastion of the nation's morals had shifted war, famine, and even Sven Goran Eriksson's latest bedroom exploits off the front page. We contemplated turning the tables on the hysterically misinformed tabloid droids by changing our name for the day to Evilgamer, changing our reviews policy from a simple score out of ten to an Evilometer. Kind of like a wheel of misfortune, starting with ratings like "Give them a slap" to "Gouge their eyes out with a spoon", to fully evil intent like "run over 100 innocents in under a minute". C'mon, on Oxford Street it would be easy. The Getaway told me to do it.
And what of the evilry inherent within the terrifyingly dangerous Burnout series? Scaring the bejesus out of oncoming traffic, encouraging the youth of today to go on a fender bending cruise of mayhem, risking theirs and others' lives through the means of reckless driving? Even Criterion's Alex Ward admitted that the rozzers take a dim view of their real-life hunger-crazed 'got-to-get-home-in-time-for-tea-or-the-wife-will-kill-me' antics of late ["you're not setting a good example, sir - you can't drive like that in real life. Next time you're getting a ticket", etc]. Surely Burnout 3: Takeaway - sorry, Takedown - will be the series' most graphic display of pure evil yet?
The fast, the furious, and the plain evil
Like everything in the tweak and tune obsessed world of fast cars, Burnout 3 is everything you loved about the last one, but with the dial whacked up to 12. How on earth the once humble PS2 can possibly pull off the kind of tricks it evidently now does with aplomb must embarrass rival developers. You really will believe that they're "melting" your PS2. It might have to come with a health warning attached before you slap it in the disc tray - "might cause your machine to become evil", or something to get our moral guardians all hot under the collar.
On arrival in Criterion's unassuming Guildford-based office, there was an air of jubilation the minute we walked in. As it turns out, the team had finished the game literally the night before and sent off what they hoped would be the final, approved builds. We were to be the first people outside of the company to have played the finished Burnout 3 in all its glory, playing online against the people that had spent the previous two years slaving away on what could well be the finest arcade racing game to date.
In what has ostensibly been designed from the ground up to be an online racing game, don't be fooled into thinking that it's a hollow experience offline. It's simply that the online factor adds in that extra element of human competition that merely racing against drones could never hope to achieve. During our play test, we ran through all of the game's modes a few times, with all the tracks and cars unlocked for us to mess around with.
Not very easy rider
The first thing that hits you about the game is just how vast it is this time around. The one overriding criticism most people had about Burnout 2 was that it was simply too easy to blitz through the game and unlock everything in a matter of a couple of days extensive play. Quizzing the Criterion chaps about how long it will take to unlock everything, even those that have been playing the game for months claim that the best anyone's managed is 24 hours in gameplay time. The chances are, for the mere mortals, you're easily talking double that.
So why is it so huge? Well, for a start, every conceivable mode has been ramped up to almost ludicrous proportions. There are now 100 of the popular Crash junctions (instead of 15), the Race mode has been extensively expanded, taking in various worldwide locations including Europe, the island of Koh Samui and North America, the number of cars has been upped to 67 (including a Fire Engine, various F1 cars, and the usual array of muscle and Super cars, alongside the more traditional), while an all new Road Rage mode has been added in addition to the usual Time Attack you'd expect.
But before we talk about the game, the small matter of how it looks is something we're still having a little trouble getting to grips with. Upon our first glance at it running during E3 we told Criterion's Alex Ward that what they were doing with the PS2 now was basically "taking the piss". In an interview with Eurogamer recently Ward claimed that Burnout 2, in retrospect, was only perhaps using 60 per cent of the PS2's power. Burnout 3, he said, maybe still only uses 90 per cent. Quite how Criterion's rivals rate their own efforts is another matter, but they must be scratching their heads at how it can be done.
Hey, why do the Yanks get all the treats?
The aim has always been to make the PS2 version look like "the most amazing Xbox racing game you've ever seen", and right at this moment, until someone does something better, it does. Running at 60 frames per second in 480 progressive scan (US version only, folks. Hey, this is the modern equivalent of the 50/60Hz issue!), there's nothing quite like it, with not just crisp textures and a rip roaring sense of speed, but all the extra embellishments that you could possibly want - reflections, lighting, over the top sparks, speed blur, immense particle effects and simply the most incredibly visceral damage modelling system ever attempted. We're sure crash site recovery teams don't appreciate such horrendous scenes of carnage being trivialised this much, but let's put it in context. This is videogame entertainment; crashing cars in a game is what every gamer in the history of gaming has ever wanted to do.
Burnout 3: Takedown taps into that need to smash up metal as fast and hard as possible, adds SSX/Tony Hawk/Tiger Woods-inspired terminology (that they basically had to make up, having realised that unlike in Skateboarding, there's no language of crashes), and delivers something entirely unique that no other racing game really even comes remotely close to offering. Comparing serious racing games to Burnout 3 is about as relevant as observing that Iron Maiden's pop sensibilities don't quite match S-Club 7's. Criterion has its own niche now, and intends to mine it for all its worth - and why not?
The revamped Crash mode, for example. Previously it just tasked you with roaring full pelt towards a packed junction with the intention of causing as much insurance damage as possible. This time, it's almost an entire game on its own, with all manner of ramps, score multipliers/reducers, and extra ways to create quite ridiculous levels of carnage. Rack up 15 crashes and the game gives you the opportunity to set off the Crash Breaker, which is basically like hitting the button on a detonator. Not only does your car explode in a dramatic ball of flaming metal, but the chain reaction will cause everything within the vicinity to do the same. As if that wasn't entertaining enough, the addition of an After Touch facility allows you to add spin while your car is flying through the air, enabling you to make that last minute adjustments that sets off a huge chain reaction.
Our Priory visit is pre-booked
Meanwhile the old two-player turn-based approach has been tweaked so that all six online players start the junction at the same time, with the winner decided over three rounds. All scores then go towards your overall rank - in terms of stats, the game's just as loaded with them as before. Another ingenious addition is the co-operative Crash mode, where two players hurtle down the same junction with the intention to pair up to cause ultimate destruction. In truth, it could well end up being the mode we play the most. It's ridiculously addictive. All this and we've not even touched upon the racing.
As before, it's simply a case of getting to the finish line first, but with a myriad of rewards for being stylish along the way. The game rewards all manner of dangerous driving; shunts, oncoming, air, and all the familiar means of increasing your boost meter, which you use at any time. What's new this time is the addition of Takedowns - an array of ways of removing your opponent from the race in as violent and spectacular a way as possible. Realising that online play always tends to end up with players trying to ram one another off the road, Criterion decided not to fight it and instead made it the online game's ethos. During the game there will be specific areas where players will be able to execute these Takedowns, such as by as cliff edge and so on. Inspired by EA's long held policy of always informing the player of new moves and modes, loading screens will give hints on how to perform them, and the desire to break the US market runs throughout, with a far more excitable feel, American voiceovers talking you through the tutorial and offering quips that had us pumped, psyched and takin' names before lunchtime.
The more reserved home audience in the UK might raise a quizzical eyebrow at such hysterical exuberance, but remember, this is a game about crashing cars in style. Not a Sunday drive through the leafy avenues of Oxford. It positively screams at you in the way Crazy Taxi did the first time you careered headlong down the San Franciscan hills, only it realises that crazy potential and makes it feel like a sport in the process, rather than merely a race. SSX on wheels wouldn't be far off the true aim of Burnout 3.
So what of Road Rage mode? Split into two teams, your aim is to essentially either pursue or escape to the finish line untouched. Get hit, and you're out of the race (although you can continue to try and put off the pursuers), while a race can only be won if at least one of your team makes it to the end. It's admittedly something of a sideshow compared to the rest of the game, but nevertheless a solid addition to a package already bursting at the seams with new ideas, extra content and unlockables galore.
Burn This City
EA's influence is bursting through every element of the package, but not in a negative way. The soundtrack, for example, far from being the "punk" worryingly described by Ward, it's actually more along the lines of alternative rock, with the likes of Franz Ferdinand, The Von Bondies and The Ramones popping up during a particularly excellent soundtrack. The in-game audio in general should make the most of everyone's systems, with full surround support in both versions and brilliantly realised effects throughout - particularly while you're in slow motion in the Crash mode. Turn it up to eleven. [I thought you said 12? -Ed]
After scoring a few moral victories between us on the various modes, we also had time for a quick burn through the Xbox version, which looks practically identical to the PS2 version, albeit with better reflections on the car, and, of course, the benefit of a simpler online interface that arguably will give it the nod for those who own both machines. In terms of content, both versions are utterly identical, so nothing to worry about on that score, and very likely should be regarded as essential purchases when it arrives on retail shelves on September 10th. If you're expecting benchmark crashes, spectacular visuals at insane, unwavering speeds, and constant entertainment then you won't be remotely disappointed.
Expect a full review nearer to the game's September 10th release.