Burnout Paradise Review

Open worlds are everywhere in games these days--Electronic Arts in particular does seem dedicated to introducing them throughout many of its franchises--and now they're here in Burnout as well with Criterion's Burnout Paradise (PS3, X360), which releases on Tuesday. In the single-player component of the game particularly, I really enjoy the open world, but I have to say I wish the designers took a less compromising attitude towards their implementation of it.

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.

Driving around the open world of Paradise City is incredibly fun. I absolutely have gotten more enjoyment so far out of playing alone in Burnout Paradise than I have in other recent Burnout games, which quickly became used mainly for online for me. Finding billboards to crash through, encountering race missions at stoplights, and simply driving around as fast as possible are great.

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.

I generally don't want to drive to one of my junkyards to pick a new car when I realize this race I've found is only for a specific vehicle--one I'm not driving at the moment. And then have to drive back.

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.

I have had infuriating moments, such as taking a slightly wrong turn--for example, bearing left as intended, but a little too left--and ended up on some bridge that takes me across a river to another landmass, ensuring I will lose the race. It reminds me of driving, in real life, in an unfamiliar area and getting on a freeway onramp you didn't intend to, then realizing you have put yourself in an extremely inconvenient situation and are basically fucked. That's not so fun in a racing game, especially one as visceral and otherwise instantly gratifying one as Burnout.

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.

By the same token, I wish there were the option for a traditional lobby system online. To play with buddies online, you all drive around in the same city, then someone issues a challenge to start a race. Fortunately, the designers relented on their hardcore no-loading policy here; you can warp right to the race's starting point. Still, I wish there was the option to have a finite set of defined race courses, rather than have to worry about the host creating some wacky route where he knows all the shortcuts and you have no clue.

(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.

The demo got passionate responses, both from people who love the game's new direction and those who don't. Perhaps check that out before you buy. Longtime series fans are almost sure to find enough here to enjoy either way, however. Just a request to Criterion: in the next one, let's at least add a retry button.

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