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.