Burnout Paradise Review
Usually EA has to get a big scare before they make fundamental changes to one of their popular franchises. But Burnout has been doing well even since EA bought developer Criterion Games, and the last game - Burnout Revenge - saw success both on the last generation of consoles as well as on their port to the Xbox 360. So it's a little puzzling that EA seems to be scrambling to make fundamental changes to the formula, and really, scrambling does seem to be the right word as the "open world" of Criterion's fifth major game in the series, Burnout Paradise, seems at first like it was hastily thrown in without much thought as to how fun it actually is.
And the first impression might not be so great, either. Starting a new game in Paradise will treat you to the late-80s Guns 'n' Roses hit "Paradise City" for a bit, followed by an un-skippable video that arrogantly tells us that this game offers us driving like we've never seen before. From a broad perspective, we most certainly have seen it before, as fully fleshed-out cities have been a major part of games like the Midnight Club series, the last few Need for Speed titles from EA themselves, and of course Grand Theft Auto.
At first, it does seem like EA is just blowing smoke, as its open city does allow freedom but also refuses to allow you to instantly move to a race starting position if you want to retry a failed event. I was really annoyed by this, as it's how I've played racing games for ages: start an event, play through it, retry if I'm not happy with how well I did. Burnout Paradise, by rarely having you dig around in menus and almost always making you drive everywhere, will break this habit. While I had a hard time with it to start, about an hour in I started to see why the developers did it this way.
First: you learn the city much faster when you are spending more time roaming around in it. You learn the shortcuts, stunt opportunities, solid concrete walls to smash your opponents into, and overall layout. You'll need this when you pull up to intersections to start signature Burnout events seen in the past games, and in some ways, the fact that you can't easily repeat a failed event over and over can help some players keep their frustration levels to a minimum. Second, you learn the routes better, and it'll make a difference in the online modes where a host can put a starting point and an endpoint for a race anywhere he wants on the map.
Still, it is annoying in the single player mode to come in at second place or only a few points short of the mark, be told in big letters that "YOU LOST", and then have to drive back across the city to get that one extra tweak that you didn't have during the last attempt. That's not my only complaint with this game, but it's the biggest one. The racing game restructuring that Burnout Paradise forces on us still has some cons to go with the pros.
Another thing that's important to mention is that racing events don't close off roads or sections of the city at all. If there's a better route somewhere in Paradise City than you see the rest of the racers taking, you can go right ahead. That also means, though, that if you get turned around or mixed up, you might find yourself going in the wrong direction with pretty much no recourse but to drive back to the starting line and try again. If you don't know the routes that well, you might not even know you've chosen a bad route for a little while. This adds up to a new type of frustration that you might not have experienced in a racing game, although Grand Theft Auto players who have gotten caught in a tight squeeze while heading toward a Pay 'n' Spray will surely understand the difficulty here.
Still, once you do get into an event, Burnout Paradise delivers high-speed arcade racing with a highly detailed crash model that really satisfies. The traffic out in the city are no longer mere bowling pins to your bowling ball of a car; traffic checks are here, but if you rear-end even the smallest car with enough speed and a straight angle, you'll crash along with him. Of course, the rules of the last couple Burnout games apply: beyond a slight nudge, hitting bigger vehicles, cross-traffic, or anything head-on will almost definitely crash you. Sometimes the game will give you a chance to do a "Driveaway" during a crash if it's decided your engine didn't get destroyed, which is pretty fun especially if you manage to go airborne yet land on your tires perfectly.
The online features in Burnout Paradise are incredible, and I really found this part of the game to live up to EA's haughty statement at the beginning of the game about driving like we've never seen. If you tap the D-pad to the right you can pop up an in-game menu (you'll still be driving as you do it) and can invite a friend or jump into a game directly with him without ever pausing the game. It will seamlessly convert your single player session into an online one and let you set up challenges and racing events. Even better, though, is that you can jump into online games with up to eight players total in the exact same way. The host will get to choose what to do, although most racers in the game's first few days of release seem content with just running the online challenges.
The challenge system is an online mode where people can be driving all around the city at once and playing together without having everyone's car in close proximity. Every minute or two, a new one pops up - like longest jump, most yards drifted, most driving in oncoming traffic, longest airtime, and plenty more - and all players participate in these challenges wherever they are in Paradise City. In a way, it's kind of like the basic online modes in Tony Hawk, but more structured and very slick. The start of a racing-type event in the online mode is the only time after the initial game load that you'll actually see a loading screen, as the game goes ahead and moves all players instantly to a single starting point.
Overall, this kind of system builds on some of the unique multiplayer features that Halo 3 brought to the Xbox 360, but then adds its own unique take by not forcing you to fiddle around in menus just to play online. There's also an option to show your opponent's face over the Xbox 360's Live Vision camera at the moment when you force them to crash, but I don't recommend it. Considering the kind of things I saw people put in front of the camera in a mere game of Uno, I'd rather not see just how much worse the denizens of Xbox Live could actually make it. And unlike past Burnout games, Paradise has no split screen multiplayer at all. It's frustrating to see features many gamers take for granted to be simply missing.
While the last Burnout game on the 360 was a hasty port of the Xbox original, Criterion has had quite a bit of time to work on this one and from a graphics perspective, really play to the console's strengths. The seamless online modes are of course a huge draw, and the crisp graphics don't hurt. Crashes are more realistic than ever with slow-motion views of impact points and lots of crumple zones - they're very destructive and a lot of fun to just watch.
The city itself is excellent, with lots of natural-feeling shortcuts, ramps for big jumps, and a layout and skyline that looks realistic but still interesting. Billboard advertising for many real-life companies pepper the city, but besides that EA has shown a good amount of restraint with their product placement in this one (as far as I saw, "The King" from Burger King is nowhere to be seen here). The freeways will get you across the city quickly as long as you're willing to deal with the extra traffic, and there are some nice, winding country roads over at the west end of the city. As you race in the single player mode you upgrade your driver's license, allowing new races to appear, and it's not long before the map is littered with icons for new events to try at almost every intersection.
The replacement for Crash mode this time is called Showtime mode, and in it you're essentially controlling a crash to do maximum damage, and bouncing your charred husk of a car around almost like a pinball. It's less like the puzzle game that Burnout Revenge turned Crash mode into and more of just ridiculous, totally unrealistic fun. Frankly, I can't think of a better way to redeem Crash mode after years wallowing in mediocrity. There are some things from past games that are lost, though, like Aftertouch control of your car's corpse after a crash in a race, and while traffic checking is technically in, the ability to send cars careening or flying out of your way is gone - although I really don't miss it that much. The game does have a pretty tame E10+ rating, and it seems that Criterion had to once again omit people from the world entirely in order to get it; there are no pedestrians at all and there still aren't any visible drivers. It's odd, that's for sure, but I have a hard time complaining too much about it.
One of my favorite little features of Paradise happens if you just leave your controller alone for about thirty seconds. Classical music from master composers will start up and the game goes into a black & white display of the city, touring some of its areas and letting traffic go on about its business. Unfortunately, the classical music can't be taken into the actual racing, as the minute you touch the controls you'll snap back to your car and pulse-pounding rock music, but it's still something I actually really enjoyed for a little while.
It's also frustrating to have the Burnout developers budge very little on their music choices, so I hope you like independent rock. There are a few mainstream tracks thrown in from the last 15 years or so, but overall I am disappointed with the soundtrack's lack of variety. If you liked the original music made for past Burnout games then you're in luck, as there are over 30 tunes made for past games that can be played here (along with 40 licensed rock tracks), but I would strongly recommend that anyone who doesn't like the lack of choice in music take advantage of the 360's custom soundtracks feature. And don't forget DJ Atomika who chirps in now and then to patronize you about your losses and give you useless hints. Here's the fun part: unlike in past Burnout games, you can't turn this DJ's voice off. Ugh.
It was a rocky start for me, but I am starting to come around to the way that Burnout Paradise treats racing games. The free world seems great but quickly gets annoying, but it's not long after that players will start to get why EA and Criterion did it this way. The fantastic crashes, smooth frame rate, hard-hitting racing, and seamless online play are all great features, and while there are a few frustrations caused by having to backtracking to retry races as well as plenty of terrible voice acting and music to suffer through, my skepticism is gone and I am a convert. Now, let me dig out some music CDs to make up a new soundtrack with...