Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Is there any developer buzz term more meaningless these days than "open-world gameplay"? Let's face it, it's kind of been done to death at this point, so you have to look on with a bit of skepticism when a developer touts the concept as the next big thing for its franchise. It's understandable, then, if Burnout Paradise's concept freaks you out a little bit. Burnout has, by tradition, been a fairly structured arcade racing game up to this point, and one would have to wonder exactly how well an open environment would serve the series' crash-happy gameplay methodology. Evidently, the answer is quite well. Developer Criterion has invented a world wonderfully suited to Burnout's nature, a city built exclusively to cater to your destructive whims. And while a few design hitches here and there get in the way now and again, by and large Burnout Paradise delivers an experience that is both true to the Burnout name and wonderfully fresh-feeling all at once.
It might be in an open world, but Paradise is still a Burnout game through and through. The star of the show is Paradise City itself. Coming complete with the titular Guns 'N Roses song (because Burnout: Night Train or Burnout: Mr. Brownstone probably wouldn't have been as catchy), Paradise City is, at first blush, a pretty standard racing game city, complete with all the usual landmark locations and boring background traffic. But it quickly becomes evident that Paradise City is meant for a greater purpose than just being a simple city to race around in. In effect, the city is a blank slate, a pristine canvas on which to paint your own obliterative masterpiece. The simple act of driving aimlessly around the city constantly presents new roads, shortcuts, and destructible objects for you to experience and, often, destroy. Nearly every intersection of road hosts a new event of some kind, and even after you've worked your way through the game's progression of driver's licenses (the only specifically linear portion of the game design), you'll still be finding new things you didn't even know were there.
That might sound a little overwhelming, especially if you've grown accustomed to the rather specific brand of racing that Burnout has always subscribed to. And at first, it most definitely is. Though the in-game tutorials do a decent job of explaining the event types and basic mechanics, you're initially left to your own devices and only have the small minimap to guide you through the many twists and turns of the city as you race--unless of course you want to hit the pause button regularly and use the larger map, which is a bit annoying to do. Those well accustomed to Burnout's previously track-based racing model might find having to explore to find the best route to the finish a bit frightening, but the good news is that it doesn't take a great deal of time to get a feel for the city's various ins and outs.
Until that time, you will experience some trial and error (with a heavier focus on the error), but the funny thing about that is that while you may initially find yourself failing races, it's not often you have to just go back and keep doing that same race again and again. The focus of Burnout Paradise isn't on doing specific events so much as it is about doing whatever you feel like. If you fail a race, odds are that there are roughly a dozen starting points for other races near the finish line of that previous race, and unless you've done them all, you can just hit up any one of them to get another notch on your license. Toward the very end of the game, when you've bested the bulk of the game's events, you may find yourself lamenting the lack of a quick return feature to get back to a race's starting point. But for the majority of the game, it's not really an issue.
It's a strange design to get used to initially, but once you do, it becomes incredibly rewarding. You can spend hours at a time just dawdling around the city and still make forward progress within the game. Don't feel like racing? Just go break through shortcut gates or bust up billboards, which are tallied up as you break each one. Or, track down one of the cars you unlocked on the road and take it down to add it to your collection. Or, you can opt to pick a road and attempt to "own" it. There are two types of events associated with each of the major roads in the game. Time trials are as you'd expect--you simply start at one end of the road and start driving down it, attempting to get the fastest time you can. Secondly, there are showtime events, which are the game's effective replacement for the crash mode found in previous installments of the series. Whereas crash mode was sort of like a puzzle mode in the way it made you create elaborate car crashes out of painstakingly built traffic designs, showtime is the polar opposite. These are elaborate car crashes born from little more than a bunch of nearby cars and your ability to control what is, in essence, a sentient car wreck.
In a word, showtime mode is absurd. The goal is similar to crash mode in that you're aiming to create as much damage as humanly possible, with various types of cars offering up different cash bonuses that feed into your final score. All the while, you can move your busted husk of a car around by pressing the boost button, which causes you to bounce around like a rubber ball. Again, totally absurd, but also totally awesome. It might lack the puzzling nature of the crash mode, but for pure visceral thrill and laughs-a-minute wrecking, showtime mode delivers in spades. It would have been nice if Criterion had found a way to have both the crash mode and showtime mode coexisting, as neither would make a particularly good replacement for the other; but on its own, showtime is a great deal of fun.
This game contains some of the most downright erotic car crashes not featured in a J.G. Ballard novel. A number of other elements from previous Burnouts are also missing or altered here. The lack of aftertouch (the mechanic that let you steer your wreck into opponents during races and take them out) is a real bummer, as it makes wrecking during races a pure nuisance rather than an opportunity for more destructive glee. Traffic checking is absent as well, though it isn't sorely missed. The racing artificial intelligence has seen a bit of tweaking here and there. You still get the sense of rubber banding that the series has always employed, but as the game goes on and the racers get tougher, your opponents become more aggressive and don't just tank right before the finish line. By and large, the game is actually a bit easier than the last couple of Burnout games, but the challenge toward the later stages of the game definitely ramps up significantly.
The racing itself is as exciting as it's ever been. Standard races are intense and thrilling, road rage events are full of wreckful delights, stunt runs have you jumping, barrel rolling, and flat spinning all over the place, marked man races are tense fights to the finish line as multiple enemy cars bop you around trying to wreck you beyond repair, and burning routes have you taking on challenging time trials to earn new cars. If there's any flaw to be noted with the core game design, it's maybe that there aren't enough event types. There's no shortage of events and random stuff to do, but running the same event types, and even some of the same specific events again and again, can grow a bit tiresome after a while. After each license upgrade, all the events you've raced (except for burning routes) reset, so you end up doing a lot of them over and over again. This wouldn't even be an issue if there were a greater variety of event types, but as it stands, there are only those few, and you may wear out on doing races and marked man events again and again.
If you do get a bit bored with the single-player action, you can always hop online and race against others. Doing so is quite seamless. Simply press right on the D pad to bring up the online menu, and then decide if you want to join up with other existing games or create your own. Online in Burnout Paradise is quite a different animal than that of previous Burnout games. You don't just hop into a lobby menu and pick races to engage in. Instead, the city itself is the lobby, and while the host decides what he wants to unleash upon you, you can just mess around and do whatever you like.
When hosting, you have the ability to both race and take on challenges. Races are of your own design, with you setting the beginning and ending points anywhere in the city. Challenges are set, and there are literally hundreds of them. The trick is that there are a limited number of challenges depending on how many players are in a group. There are 50 challenges for two players, 50 for eight players, and 50 for each denomination in between. This means that once you've exhausted all the challenges for two players, you'll have to get three, then four, and so on and so on if you want to complete them all. That might prove unwieldy for those who don't have a lot of friends online to play the game, but at least the challenges themselves are creative and fun. The challenges range from competitive bouts of drifting, crashing, and jumping to cooperative versions of all the same stuff. It's an inventive mode to be sure and an exceptionally fun one when you've got a good crew of friends to play with.
It also bears mention that while online, you can use the PlayStation Eye or Xbox Live Vision Camera to take shots of your rivals online. When you take down a rival player that has a camera hooked up, the cam will take a mugshot of that player's reaction. It's kind of a neat feature that, unfortunately, will probably be abused by all manner of nudity over the course of the game's lifespan, but that's inevitably what happens when you let people do things with cameras.
Paradise's visual presentation is precisely the kind of top-notch work you've come to expect from the series. Once again, the game sets a standard for how a sense of speed should feel in an arcade racer. This game is lightning fast, and the frame rate in both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game holds up regardless of the chaos onscreen. The car crashes in this game are absolutely fantastic, thanks to some dynamite particle effects and camera work in each and every mangled wreck. Cars deform to wonderful effect, scrunching up like an accordion in head-on collisions and bending and twisting nicely in other situations. The only thing that continues to look a little weird is the total lack of drivers in all the cars around the city. It's understandable that Criterion would leave out mangled corpses or what have you for the sake of an E 10+ rating, but it still looks strange seeing all these disembodied cars driving around like a society of Turbo Teens.
It's also worth noting that Burnout Paradise is a game that commands an HD display, and not just for full graphical effect. On the standard-definition TVs we tried, we found the minimap to be borderline useless unless we squinted like crazy. On an HD set, the minimap is detailed and blown up enough to rely on, but when playing in standard definition, it simply became a hassle to use.
Showtime mode won't make you forget about crash mode, but it's a lot of goofy fun in its own right. If you're looking for differences between the two versions, you won't find many. The PlayStation 3 version looks maybe a hair crisper than the 360 version, but that's about the only visual difference to speak of. On the flipside, the 360 version has a slight edge in that you can use custom soundtracks to drown out the miserable collection of songs EA has amassed for the game. There are a few highlights that fit well with the theme of high-energy racing, but the vast bulk of the music consists of irritating modern rock that's about as ill-fitting as humanly possible. Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend" might, itself, be a car wreck of a song, but it doesn't fit the vibe of the game at all. Add in the collection of original Criterion-produced guitar rock tracks from previous Burnout games that sound like they were culled from Joe Satriani's nightmares, and you have a pretty unpleasant musical experience all around. The annoying radio DJ who pops up now and again to give hints, mock you obnoxiously when you fail, and make one glib comment or another about something going on in the city doesn't help matters. He's merely an annoyance that probably wouldn't even be worth mentioning save for the fact that you cannot turn him off. At least the sound effects are still top-flight in every regard. Crashes thunder, engines roar, and tires screech with terrific clarity all throughout the game. If you've got a surround-speaker setup, it's all the better.
It's entirely possible that some people might not enjoy Burnout Paradise's significant shift in direction, specifically those who simply wanted another incremental Burnout sequel. Indeed, Paradise is anything but incremental, and while it might prove a polarizing experience for some, most will likely appreciate what a radical overhaul this game really is. The open-world design isn't just a lazy gimmick--it's a wonderfully executed concept that doesn't rob the game of the series' most beloved tenet: the act of driving fast and wrecking hard. If you're one of the people who tried the Burnout Paradise demo and formed a rather negative opinion of the game, you're not alone. But if you have any affection for the series, you really owe it to yourself to give the full game a look. The demo did little to truly represent what a superbly fun racer this game can be.