By Alex Kierkegaard / January 3, 2012
So this is how I am going to handle this review. I have only played the first two Burnouts and a little bit of Paradise, and do not have any plans to play the other two games in the foreseeable future (nor do I consider the handheld games proper sequels). So I am going to bring in an expert to analyze Paradise from the perspective of someone who has closely followed the entire series, and then I'll add my own comments on some (extremely) crucial aspects which he missed because... well, because he's an expert. It's either that, or this game will never get a proper review, because no one seems capable of figuring out what I did, so without further ado I give you long-time rllmuk member son_of_helvetica reviewing the game on February 17, 2008, i.e. within a month of its original (US) release.
"The Burnout franchise has gone through a fair amount of change and faffery since those wonderful "Days of Purity" when alleged mentalist and boss of Criterion, Alex Ward, wanted to produce an arcade game with the same immediate pick-up-and-enjoy factor that came from OutRrun — one of his all-time favourite games. Some would argue that Burnout 2 was the very pinnacle of the franchise before EA came along and started to assimilate it into their collective, although 3 had a lot to enjoy amongst that in-game advertising. Crash mode was a strategic joy of carnage and more play options were opened up to the player. 4 was a bone of contention with me though — the crash modes were dumbed down with a stupidly ill-advised way to get your car to full boost, involving something resembling a shot strength meter in videogame golf. Traffic Attack seemed to be a programmer's 1AM idea made flesh and seemed to go against the notion of traffic avoidance. As soon as the word "AWESOME" flashed onto screen with all the pizzazz that EA's rabid graphic design team could muster, I realised the assimilation was complete.
I really, really felt trepidation with Burnout Paradise. I think the demo did it for me — the whole argument that to restart the race you were in, you had to drive back to the start of the race in real-time instead of being simply teleported there. Alex "Mentalist" Ward argued against this and said that the game would suffer from a loading screen he didn't want to see, though it didn't really make much sense. Neither did the lack of in-game markers in the world to tell you where races were. Thankfully the full game has addressed these concerns somewhat through having many more events which are also more close together in the world. Half the time, if you fail a race then there will be a nearby event you can cruise to after the race finishes, and you can attempt that. I say "half the time" as a majority of the races are bunched up in the more populated areas of the map. But I digress.
Burnout Paradise is set in an free-roaming environment which is pretty impressive in its scale and scope, and even more impressive is that the world appears to have been crafted and inspired by the Burnout games of the past. You have dense cityscapes, mountain passes, country lanes and even a stock car track hidden away, all of them interspersed with a wealth of things to discover. When I played Crackdown, I usually slipped away from the main game and started to hunt down those elusive orbs. It was great finding these glinting spheres of joy and experience and these not only helped to craft my character but finding them also taught me the layout of the city. Burnout Paradise takes this formula and adds to it three types of things to discover: smashes, which are chain-link fences with yellow signs telling you that going through that area is forbidden, though running through them at speed gives you a satisfying feeling and a mental note of another handy short cut; jumps, which are simply that, although you'll also get some super-jumps where the camera goes all slow-mo and pans out to a more impressive angle... and then there are the billboards.
These are actually more satisfying to find than the orbs from Crackdown in some respects. Dotted around the city are 120 Burnout billboards, some of which are easy to smash through, while others need some lateral thinking to work out how you can launch yourself from somewhere so you can hit them... and again, some of these billboards also give you more route suggestions for the events in general. The exploration factor is pushed even further as you drive around discovering gas stations which replenish your boost (handy to know in Races), repair shops to fix up your knackered car (these become extremely handy in the Road Rage events), paint shops to give you another option of what to garnish your car with when you visit the junk yards of Paradise City, and multi-storey car parks which must also be visited to exploit jump opportunities. All this and the surface has been barely scratched on the main game itself.
It's all about acquring licences, though don't worry — these are a lot more fun to acquire than the ones in Gran Turismo! At the start of the game, those who have an Xbox Live Vision camera can dust it off for this game — you are prompted to take a photo of yourself for your licence. You soon discover that your camera will become a more useful peripheral to own when online as it comically takes mugshots (or even smugshots) of yourself when you either takedown someone or you're taken down yourself. It's a small feature, but is great to know that Criterion are using every possible trick to make the game a complete package. Once you have your licence, you can take part in any of the 120 events scattered around the city. You have classic races, the frantic time trials of Burning Points, the total carnage (and my particular favourite) of Road Rages, Marked Man — where you have to survive an onslaught of ruthless AI vehicles as you travel from one point to another, and Stunt Runs, where your knowledge of the city is essential in getting huge scores as you perform stunts.
One event which appears to be absent is the Crash Junction. Thankfully, Criterion has that covered in a sheer moment of absolute insanity — any time you are driving down any road, you can push both LB and RB and enter Showtime mode. Your car will launch into the air and suddenly become a katamari ball of metal death as you bounce towards vehicles and destroy them for points. Buses become essential score multipliers and can help you acquire more damage, as well as the trick in Burnout 4 of knocking vehicles into other vehicles for combos. It's all about momentum — keep the car active and bouncing with the help of the A button to "Ground Break" and huge scores will be yours. The additional discovery is that every road in the world can be Showtimed, and not just that — every road can be "ruled" by you in both the offline and online component of the game — although to fully rule the road, you also need to set a personal best lap time for that road. Paradise does a sterling job of notifying you when you've beaten the scores of your online friends and (rather crushingly) when your friends have beaten your score.
The online component of the game becomes even more impressive with the addition of Challenges, which have been created for different numbers of online players (up to 8) and are great fun for an introduction to the world. Some are easy tasks like meeting up at specific places, though some are humdingers of evil, like barrel rolling through a suspended pipe section. It feels great to be with other people doing these challenges though and makes them a less solitary experience. You also find that others online will give you encouragement to complete these tasks. A special mention needs to be given to the crosspad function of the game too, it's a handy little menu system which doesn't interrupt play, and allows you to invite friends, show showtime rules and set challenges.
You also have specific car classes which are suited for various tasks. Stunt vehicles are perfectly suited for (obviously) stunt runs, speed vehicles are great for races, and aggression vehicles are perfect for Road Rage and Marked Man events. Saying this, you don't have to stick with these classes for certain events and some fun can be gleaned from experimenting. As you complete events, you'll be notified of new cars cruising around the city which need to be taken out in order to be added to your slowly-growing car collection.
So, all good? The game retains the feeling of insane speed and chaos from past Burnout titles, but the open-world aspect does suffer slightly in Race events; due to the lack of linearity, it is sometimes hard when you first begin to know when to turn corners. The HUD tries to inform you, but you miss it when there are opponents racing about and your peripheral vision is firmly stuck on what's directly ahead. Also the events are mostly in the built-up areas of town with more events scattered a greater distance about the White Mountain area, which can be a pain if you need to restart an event and have to drive back to it. It can be argued that this helps you become more familiar with the world, though I think there comes a point where you know the world like the back of your hand.
There also needs to be a GPS-type marker on your map so you can set a waypoint to an event you need to complete. I found myself always checking up on the larger map to try and work out where the next event would be. Paradise City is also a strange place — there are no pedestrians (not even driving the cars!) and the trains no longer run. DJ Atomica makes light of this, though the DJ is actually a lot less irritating than DJ Stryker and is actually quite informative when it comes to tips on playing the game. You're encouraged to subscribe to the Crash FM Podcast which is an actual real-life podcast on the Criterion site, and this adds even more to the game's community and longevity. The soundtrack is decent, although it could have been stellar. I keep having wonderful moments of brain-joy when playing Road Rage as Faith No More's Epic plays in the background. Burnout fans will appreciate the vast majority of classic Burnout tunes, though some may think this is musical overkill — there's perhaps too many. The in-game advertising is present and correct, and you'll see it magically change through the use of online updates... it's a shame that in-game ads are becoming more and more obvious in videogames, although they don't feel that much out of place from the real world. Every time I play though, I have an urge for burgers, clothes and shavers.
To me, Burnout Paradise is a much-needed return to form for the series. Burnout 4 felt like a bit of a mess, because of too many ideas knocking about. Paradise is a much more focused experience, though ironically it's the franchise's most open and unrestricted one. I was worried that Burnout was becoming a lot less Burnout, but thankfully this isn't the case."
Good review, then, overall (or at least my edited version of it), but he totally drops the ball in the last paragraph. He also displays symptoms of myopia in a couple of places earlier on, but I am not going to get into those since by the time I've fully analyzed his last paragraph everything else will have also become clear. (At which point, by the way, it would be advisable to re-read his review while keeping my comments in mind. Do that and you'll be able to sort out quite a few odds and ends that he fails to notice or properly pursue.)
So here's the problem with applying the free-roaming model to such a limited genre as the racing game: the end result ends up BORING, no matter how good your racing mechanics may be, because THE ENTIRE POINT of the free-roaming concept as developed by DMA Design in GTAIII hinges around the player being able to do MUCH MORE than JUST RACING, get it? This, after all, is precisely why GTA went 3D in the first place — TO ALLOW THE PLAYER TO STEP OUT OF THE CAR. That's why there's no "teleportation" issue in the GTAs (though they stuck teleportation in IV anyway, because by that time even the game's own designers had lost the plot completely — but that's another story, which I've already covered in detail). Teleportation is unnecessary in a (well-designed) GTA-type game, because between one point of the map and another all sorts of weird, funny, and dangerous shit may go down, so the little trips between missions are always an adventure — indeed the entire point! Just play half of Far Cry 2 on foot and you'll see what I am saying; you'd be missing some of the game's most stunning moments otherwise — and so on and so forth with every well-designed free-roaming title ever (though there are precious few of them yet...)
But none of that applies to Paradise's depressingly deserted streets (as it didn't in No More Heroes' ghost city...), because the actual free-roaming parts in such games (and by "such games" I mean narrow little genres like racing which naive devs are trying to stretch out to fill an entire free-roaming model) are like the worst free-roaming parts ever! Never mind that people like helvetica can't see how depressing these lifeless settings are because they are too busy counting polygons or whatever in their favorite series' next-generation engines; sensitive souls like me CAN see the depressiveness — indeed we can FEEL it, and it depresses THE FUCK out of us, regardless of how good, updated, refined and whatever your goddamn racing mechanics may be. And that is how you can explain the weird phenomenon that a great many people who've tried this game can't really find much fault with it, yet STILL end up returning it within a couple of days if they rented it, or playing a few hours and then shelving it if they've bought it. Just look at all the comments under helvetica's review on rllmuk — and they are typical of every thread I've seen on the game. No one can explain why they find the game boring, despite being unable to seriously fault the racing engine. But that's precisely it — BECAUSE THE PROBLEM IS NOT WITH THE RACING ENGINE. And don't bother telling me how smooth the transitions between missions are, or all the navigation/teleportation/magic wish tricks you've given the player — if your goddamn game is not a true free-roaming title, there's absolute NO POINT in giving the player the ability to freely roam. And as for that last silly paragraph in helvetica's review, where he says that Paradise is a "return to form" for the series — that's true, but only because EA's TWO POORLY-DESIGNED, BLOATED SEQUELS (haven't played them, like I said, but all evidence, including some of helvetica's own testimony, points in that direction) had messed up the form of the first two games. And again, yes, Paradise, at least in racing mechanics, is indeed a "much more focused experience" — but COMPARED TO 3 AND 4, not to the first two games. And his last line is so asinine it shouldn't even be dignified with a refutation.
It's not that this is a bad game, you understand, which is why I feel very happy giving a three-star rating to it. If you haven't played any of its predecessors, and especially the first two, you are going to have a lot of fun with it, and maybe even downright love it. But it pales before the true arcade-style installments as an overall experience, and it's a shame to see so much effort go into something doomed from the start to mediocrity because developers have yet to realize that you can't mix and match game design aspects and philosophies like Lego bricks, without thinking, simply assembling all the (allegedly) coolest new techniques and expecting to come up with a masterpiece. Nine times out of ten what you'll end up with is a MONSTROSITY, some half-assed arcade experience bloated and sprawled over 50-terminal-boredom-inducing hours, and I can see, without too much imagination, the day coming when people will be touting their CASUALLY EPISODIC PROCEDURALLY-GENERATED OPEN-WORLD MASSIVELY-MULTIPLAYER SOCIAL SANDBOX "ART" games, developed with Love and Flash and originally published in the Select Button forums, but soon after snapped up by the upcoming merged EA-ACTIVISION behemoth and given a "Mane Streem" makeover, available on XBLA and Steam for $15 to charity — and no one will be so much as batting an eyelid.