Burnout Paradise: No Particular Place to Go
Go to the GameFAQs review site for Burnout 3: Takedown – widely regarded as the best entry in the critically acclaimed go-fast-and-crash racing series – and note the number of laudatory writeups in both the PS2 and Xbox versions’ player review sections that say something like “I typically hate racing games, but…” or “this is the only racing game I’ve really liked”. (I hate to make you do the legwork there, but I personally gave up after about ten, not including the misguided soul who claimed to hate “realistic racers like Project Gotham” – apparently “you need to brake” is too strenuous a demand.) I tend to have a pretty uncharitable view of that whole outlook: usually when someone says something’s [x] for people who don’t like [x], 9 times out of 10 the people who really do like [x] will find out that there’s not a lot of substance for them beneath all the mass-appeal diluting. I try not to be one of those people that always gripes about the “sheep” who keep buying Halo and Madden titles, but as a racing game aficionado -- and by “aficionado” I mean “insufferable snob” -- Burnout is my one weakness: if it’s the only racing game you’ve ever made it a point to enjoy, all I can say is you’re missing out on a hell of a lot. Did you know that Forza Motorsport 2 lets you drop an all-wheel-drive Nissan Skyline drivetrain into a ’69 Datsun Z? How is that not awesome?
But the real problem I’ve always had with Burnout, which I’ve enjoyed off and on since the first game was released back in 2001, isn’t specifically that it appeals to people who don’t like racing games -- it’s that sometimes it seems to be made by people who don’t like racing games. Sure, each game in the Burnout series comes achingly close to matching the kind of all-out white-knuckle craziness one would hope for from a game so heavily centered around blistering velocity and the pyrotechnical consequences of directing said velocity into a bridge abutment. But ever since Burnout 2: Point of Impact, the breakthrough title that established the series as a populist success, each successive title saw someone at Criterion and/or EA usher in some huge mistake. Takedown had a notorious flaw where the AI-controlled cars would always hang right off your ass no matter how fast you drive and how many times you wreck them, but the moment you wipe out they get a 30-second lead that they never relinquish. Burnout Revenge was a bit less bullshit as far as AI went, but the challenge – which previously owed a lot to the encouragement of a daredevil weaving-through-traffic driving style -- mostly disappeared, thanks to the “traffic checking” feature which turned most civilian vehicles from a dangerous obstacle to a flimsy target you could bat away like a wayward aluminum can. And while Burnout Dominator put a bit more focus back on straight-up racing, it lacked much of the over-the-top havoc (and the mildly sociopathic, puzzle-esque 50-car-pileup-creating Crash Mode) that made the franchise popular in the first place.
So you might think that Burnout Paradise’s shift to a free, open world where closed circuits and linear routes are traded for a city street layout would follow this pattern of botching a perfectly good idea. While this kind of freeform exploration’s been pulled off successfully in other racing games – think Test Drive Unlimited and the Grand Theft Auto cousin Midnight Club Racing – neither of those games relied on the kind of blink-and-die speed or gonzo destruction Burnout thrived on. As a result, Burnout Paradise can initially be a frustrating headache. Criterion took the freedom of an open world as an excuse to do away with everything that would keep the game from being seamless, and a lot of basic practicality went out the window: there’s not much real organization of events and no quick and easy way to jump from race to race, thanks to an insistence on creating a menu-free interface that simply places the starting points for races at various intersections and makes you go all the way back to that point of origin if you fail and want to try again. My first race took me from the middle of a busy downtown to a distant section up in the mountains, and when I finished a few ticks behind first place – the natural result of having to take my eyes off the road to glance down at a mini-map or up at a blinking “turn here” indicator sign, thereby increasing my chances of smashing into something by about 800% -- I discovered that I was in the middle of nowhere and there weren’t any other nearby races to participate in. Fantastic. Might as well drive around aimlessly for a while.
“A while,” in this case, being a few hours. This is where the real fun of Burnout Paradise comes in: if you find something frustrating or poorly-implemented about the races in this game, feel free to abandon them and just dork around. Just like 90% of the people who play a Grand Theft Auto title, I eventually started straying away from the main missions and did whatever the hell else I wanted: searched for wicked jumps, smashed through billboards, busted through the chain-link gates that denoted shortcuts, and basically just took in the scenery. The locale of Paradise City is a fictionalized generic simulacrum of California that, despite a faintly desaturated and hazy color palette and the lack of any sort of day-night cycle, makes up in odd little hidden routes and secret stunt areas what it lacks in immediate personality. You’ve seen most of the game’s environments – winding mountain roads, busy interstates, waterfront docks -- in sandbox titles before, racing or otherwise, but the streets that funnel you through them tend to take you to unexpected places and often divert you towards some of the most batshit crazy stunts I’ve ever seen in a racing game.
Ever play San Francisco Rush and get stupid with glee when you found some secret ramp tucked away behind a building, one that launched your car over an entire city block? Paradise has a jump like that about every 50 yards, and the ones up in the mountains can send your car airborne for ridiculous stretches of time. It helps a lot in alleviating the boredom that might otherwise start rearing its head during your 15th trip to the junkyard (it is just about the opposite of convenience to make the player drive to a specific spot on the map just to change their car), and eventually all this aimless cruising around searching for ridiculous stuff to do will translate into a greater knowledge of the map’s layout. Throw in a few events that aren’t dependent on any specific destination -- Road Rage (run a certain number of opponent cars off the road in a certain amount of time), Stunt Runs (gain points by stringing together combos of stunts a’la the Tony Hawk games), Showtime (the lukewarm replacement for Crash Mode, where you can bounce the remains of your wrecked car around like a one-ton basketball and ricochet it into oncoming traffic) – and suddenly those races become less about trying to figure out where you’re supposed to go and more about getting there fast. Not that it’ll come easy, given how huge the map is -- it took me two weeks to get bored of Burnout Revenge; it’ll take me at least that long to start feeling like I actually know most of Paradise City’s ins and outs.
As long as it’ll take to learn how to best navigate Paradise’s streets, acquiring and mastering all of the game’s 75-plus cars could take even longer. Unlike most of the previous Burnout games, just about every vehicle feels different: each one is designated its own specific specialty (unwieldy but tough Aggression cars, fast but fragile Speed cars and agile, jack-of-all-trades Stunt cars), but they also have their own handling traits and personality quirks; some cars not only feel faster than others, but lighter, more maneuverable and easier to slide around corners. They’re unrealistic in some basic senses – the inexplicable lack of a speedometer makes it feel like each car’s going 300 MPH, and if you can keep the hammer down through a long straightaway, listen to all the upshifts and you’ll discover that your car has what sounds like a nine-speed transmission. (None of the cars have drivers, either – sure, it’d be uncomfortable to watch human bodies flail around in the game’s super-detailed wrecks, but their absence means that Paradise City appears to be overrun with Christines.) But there isn’t any perfunctory hovercraft handling here; landing one of those ridiculous jumps feels weighty and solid, and throwing some of the heavier cars around a turn with a bit of drift-braking assistance feels almost as forceful as the controlled chaos of Project Gotham’s balletic powerslides. It helps the cause of variety that these fictional cars run a diverse range of styles – hot rods, ‘30s luxury cars, ‘60s British GTs, Japanese tuners – some of which almost look like car-geek in-jokes: your first ride resembles the unholy union of a GTO and a Mustang Mach 1, and a later acquisition bears an uncanny similarity to the world-beating Ferrari 330 P3/4 that dominated the 24 Hours of Daytona in ‘67.
So all I really wanted from Burnout Paradise was the ability to go stupid fast and do wicked powerslides as my opponents disintegrate in spectacular slow-motion like Steve McQueen’s Porsche 917 in Le Mans. It gave me plenty of that, and rendered it all in spectacular 60 FPS debris-strewn hi-def glory. But dropping me in a huge city and simply declaring “here you are, go nuts” went from frustrating and disorienting to liberating pretty quickly – especially online, where me and a bunch of friends spent hours racing around, taking online challenges (jump x number of times; do a barrel roll over a specific spot; drive against oncoming traffic for a certain length) or just playing chicken and laughing like idiots. Sure, this could be a racing game for people who don’t like racing games – but it’s also a Burnout for people who don’t like Burnout.