First things first: at its core, Burnout is all about speed. Numbing, face-melting speed. Burnout Paradise once again pulls that off with aplomb. Barreling down a straightaway at full speed with a fast fictional supercar then skidding through a sharp corner can be nerve-wrackingly intense.
The handling and physics are solid and intuitive--there may not be much that is realistic about Burnout, but you get the sense that if this world existed, this is how it would actually feel. The destruction of head-on crashes is rendered with enough realism that you will occasionally have creepy flashbacks to cautionary crash test dummy videos.
What is less great is crashing into a wall a matter of seconds before the end of a race, then not being able to retry the race without driving all the way back across the city to its starting point. Paradise City is quite large, which is one of the game's marketing bullet points but also has the side effect of making it a big pain in the ass to easily get to where you want to go. In the quest to eliminate loading times, Criterion has removed any kind of fast travel or shortcut system--if you want to get somewhere, you have to drive there. I applaud their principle, but am nonetheless frustrated often.
Similarly, in races, I miss the cut-and-dried nature of the past Burnout games where your route is set for you, and all your reflexes are focused on each upcoming turn, without having to dedicate thought processes--or crucial glances of the eye--to a minimap and a navigation system. I cannot count the number of times I have lost races because, in the split second it took me to check out my minimap and ensure I'm still driving to the right place, a car flew at me sideways out of nowhere.
In past Burnout games, there are still shortcuts to be found, but it's on a more approachable scale. Here, in Paradise, I feel like I have to be a seasoned navigator of the city to really get the most out of racing.
At this point it may sound like I dislike Burnout Paradise--I don't. I enjoy it quite a lot. I've been playing it constantly the past few days. These frustrations have not been enough to dissuade me from playing the game. Those times when you don't get suddenly sidetracked or lost are rewarding enough to keep me coming back. I do wish, however, that like in the recent open-world Tony Hawk games there were also a "classic" mode.
(Extra points--if we gave them--would be awarded to the instant photo feature, which automatically takes a photo of online players after takedowns if they have an Xbox Live Vision camera installed. Still, as funny as this feature is, there is the potential for frightening abuse.)
Finally, a few words about the new Showtime mode, which replaces Crash mode. It's not as bad as you might have thought if you've seen it. Similar to Katamari, but without actually growing your Katamari, it has a definite positive vibe of unrestrained destruction. That said, after you do it a few times, it also feels like one of those Flash games that stops being a challenge and more becomes just going through the motion. You can keep this thing going almost indefinitely once you know how to do it, at which point it becomes more of a rote exercise. Crash mode had more of an elegance to it--your tiny change in input can have drastic repercussions--but here it's kind of just, "roll along for ages."
I like Burnout Paradise, a lot. I really do. I even appreciate that the designers wanted to move forward in the series, and not just create another update. I respect that. I do think, however, that they got a bit carried away in some instances while doing so. It's not enough to bring the game down--I do genuinely think the open world adds a lot to the single-player, and it can be a blast just goofing around in the world while chatting with your buddies.