Nobody gonna take my car.
Like any first-time visit to the sprawling environments of a strange and gorgeous new city, Burnout Paradise can be overwhelming at first for even the experienced, the street-smart, and the jaded. The Burnout series has always been about insanely fast racing and rip-your-kidney-out-and-hurl-it-into-the-next-county crashes of lovingly rendered slow-mo car-on-car violence (somewhere, J.G. Ballard is wanking to beat the band). That much has remained the same…but much else has changed, and largely for the good.
[image1]First and most glaringly-obvious: Gone are the enforced, artificially cordoned-off ‘courses’. They have been replaced by a single massive, free-roaming environment that includes the concrete urban tangles and back alleys of the city, the winding lanes and mountain-pass tunnels of the country, and everything in between - bridges, abandoned train-trestles, freeways, and a myriad of unorthodox shortcuts that connect them. Paradise City is your city, and you can damn well go wherever and do whatever you like from the outset, subject only to the limitations of your vehicle of choice.
Speaking of vehicles, they are broken down into the general categories of Stunt, Speed and
Aggression, and there are about 75 unlockable cars, all of which can be ‘earned’ by spotting them as they prowl the streets and taking them down. It’s a clean, clever acquisition system that goes a long way toward making you feel like you “own the streets”. There is even a selection of cars from various in-game advertising sponsors, which can be unlocked via product codes in the menu system - a scheme which exactly and expertly straddles the line between commendable, glorious, God-bless-America capitalism and a sort of sleazy, low-grade, gaudy-tie-wearing brand of evil.
From the moment you fire up the game, Burnout Paradise is a masterpiece of tutorial transparency and seamlessness. Beyond the free-roaming nature of the world itself, you’ve got a helpful radio DJ who prattles off various hints and tips as you drive around Paradise City. And if his voice ever really starts to get on your nerves, you can always tap yourself into an instant Showtime moment and silence him, at least temporarily.
Various events, such as Race, show-off Stunt Run, and aggressive Road Rage, are available at essentially every traffic-light (by simultaneously holding the R2 and L2 buttons), so you’ll have your work cut out for you. Just exploring the city for crazy jumps, destructible Burnout billboards and shortcuts, and crucial gas stations and auto shops - drive through ‘em for a full Boost bar or a full repair – are a part of the challenge.
[image2]When you see a special unlockable car on the road - easily noticeable by their unusually high-speed style and aggressive antics – you can pursue them, take them down, and add them to your ever-growing automotive harem. It’s all about dominating other vehicles and finding new, creative, and punishing ways to do it - T-bone them to metal-and-glass smithereens, jam them into a cement pylon or an oncoming car, or simply grind them to death against the boundary-wall of a freeway. The choice is yours.
The gorgeously rendered, unrestricted streets of Paradise City are so full of environmental detail and automotive “life” (i.e., ambient traffic) that one can easily forget how eerie its world actually is. There are no people in sight, except as advertisement-fodder on billboards, just driverless vehicles everywhere (occasionally in the air!), slewing around at hostile speeds and destroying themselves, each other, and every breakable fence, barrier, and billboard bolted to the landscape. It’s like some weird de-anthropomorphized remake of Cars, where every character is a lunatic, a suicide, or a serial killer. What a violent paradise.
Fans of the Burnout series may be bummed that the separate Crash Mode is gone, but it is evoked, though hardly replaced, by the new ‘Showtime’ function which can be seamlessly activated at any moment. Showtime is…well, it’s ludicrous; it’s absolutely spiral-eyed, bouncy-bouncy, bat-shit-snorting ludicrous. It’s also strangely absorbing and addictive. Basically, it’s one long, extended-play take on the series’ heralded ‘Aftertouch’ function. Activating Showtime instantly turns your vehicle, no matter its current ‘actual’ condition, into a pre-totaled wreck with a full Boost bar. As long as there’s something left in that boost bar, you’re still in Showtime (remember that…because now things get weird).
Otherwise incapable of movement under its own power, your insta-wrecked vehicle’s only raison d'être is to crash into any nearby traffic, all of which is more-or-less trying to stay out of harm’s way - particularly you. Every screeching, swerving vehicle that comes into contact with your trashed hulk yields points. And if the cars won’t come to you, you can actually lurch toward them in little ‘Ground Breaker’ hops and jumps that eat up a bit of Boost but send your wreck-from-beyond-the-grave bouncing and tumbling unnaturally from one new collision to the next. Showtime is an accident that’s trying like hell to keep happening, hanging in there with the tenacity of a vengeful poltergeist and taking as many victims with it to The Other Side as it can. Bonus points for buses, fancy-pants limos, and property damage means fun. Weird… but fun.
[image3]Once you’ve had enough of racing around or destroying the city’s traffic, or both, all by your onesey, you can get yourself online, where the real fun and nastiness starts (sorry, no local multi-player). Best of all, the transition from your lonely, nerdy, solo-gamer world to the lonely, nerdy world of online gaming is just as seamless as everything else in the game. Tap on the d-pad and you’ll immediately see lists of who’s online - invite them to a game, ‘mark’ the road you’re driving on to check your best race-time or Showtime-crash scores, and check your own scores for that road against those of the other players online. Rivalry and oft-unintentional hilarity ensues.
There’s a fairly mind-numbing array of challenges for up to eight friends/enemies online: custom races, coordinated stunt/jump challenges (jumps, crashes, barrel-rolls through hoops), Freeburns, and the like. With 50 challenges for each particular number of players involved - yeah, you’re gonna be here a while, one way or the other. Even the often-neglected PlayStation Eye camera gets used here. A candid Splash Mountain-esque snapshot of the look on your face when you get taken down (the polar-opposite Victory Mug) or even the simple photo taken for your series of increasingly impressive, in-game driver’s licenses - it’s a subtle, clever use of a still largely unused peripheral that stokes the fires of Burnout-style competition.
Notable downsides in Burnout Paradise are few, and none of them are deal-breakers. The lack of a proper, separate Crash Mode will probably only raise an eyebrow from long-time fans of the series, and they’ll get at least some of their fix of mayhem from Showtime Mode, anyway. Also, even in the face of the game’s awesome sense of speed (and the glorious, bullet-porn detail of the constant car crashes), I couldn’t help noticing a slight inertial/kinetic deficit in the behavior of the cars themselves. Even the lowliest sub-compact roaming the streets seems superhumanly (superautomotively?) impervious to all but the most direct, violent collisions, so Pitt-Maneuvering or otherwise ‘finessing’ an opposing vehicle to its doom is pretty much out. But then, few buy Burnout games for the subtlety of their physics.
[image4]What else? Some players may resent not being able to instantly return to the start point of a challenge they’ve blown - but then, this inconvenience is more than offset by that there’s almost always another new challenge readily available, often (and literally) just around the next corner. In fact, given that you can’t just warp around the game-world, teleporting back to the start of a lost race (you have to physically drive back to the start-point in question)—what does this teach us? Don’t lose. And look on the bright side: If you do lose, you’ve got a nice, pretty drive back across town to enjoy, and ample opportunity to learn the best route and new shortcuts!
Lastly, there are some assorted little irksome mysteries, like why the game robs your vehicle of its built-up speed if you suddenly switch to Showtime mode the instant before you plow into a nice intersection packed full of cars. Another mystery is why the instant drive-through benefits of gas stations and auto shops are mysteriously denied if you somehow manage or deign to drive through them in reverse - if anything, shouldn’t you be rewarded for a stunt like that? I mean, if the first-place car in a real-world race suddenly used its e-brake just before the finish line and managed to slide across it sideways or backwards, would that be a reason to disqualify? Yer ass. Like I said, little stuff, mostly.
These minor hitches notwithstanding, Burnout Paradise is an excellent, solid ride for both solo and online gamers, with superb control, high production values, complete freedom, and so much obsessive, secret-hunting, gotta-catch-‘em-all lasting gameplay incentive that it’s almost ridiculous. Never mind the eerie lack of pedestrians populating the city streets - if they had those, the game would doubtless suddenly turn into another Carmageddon or Grand Theft Auto… and we’ve already got one of those on the way.