Friday, December 14, 2007

Burnout Paradise demo impressions

Putting together a demo must be tricky no matter what the game is. You need to provide enough of a flavor to whet people's appetite for the whole thing without compromising either your game's quality or your business model. If you strip out too much, you may not accurately convey what your game's about. Include too much, and you may have eliminated the incentive to pay for more. This trick is doubly difficult for an open-world game, in which the experience is defined more by the user than by the developers. And that's the trouble the Burnout Paradise demo runs into a little bit.

Full disclosure: I'm head over heels for the Burnout series. They're not just my favorite racing games, they're some of my favorite games period. That's why I'm a little wary of Paradise; it's hard to imagine how such tightly constructed layouts and busy traffic patterns could survive the move to an open world. What made past Burnout games so great was its fanatical focus. Anything extraneous was excised entirely, and everything essential was revved into the red. A free-roaming, virtual world seems like the philosophical opposite.

After spending some time with the demo (admittedly not a ton of time), I'm not convinced that Criterion Games has solved these problems, but that may be due to the limitations of the demo format. For one thing, the majority of the race events are locked. Because you can drive anywhere you want in the city, the way to trigger specific competitions is to hold down the gas and brake at a traffic light. I found only one available scenario, and it was one of my least favorite kinds: a "stunt race," where the point was to earn a certain number of points in a time limit. Screw that, I want to race and smash up some jerks!

The encouraging part is that the racing and smashing do seem pretty sweet. I downloaded the PlayStation 3 demo, and it ran without any noticeable hitches in the frame rate. The sense of speed is as dizzying as it ever was. I died a little inside when the first thing the game had me do was take my car to a body shop, but it turns out that to fix up your car you just drive through a carport-like structure. Same goes for the paint shop, and if you drive through a gas station you refill your boost meter. I can see this working really well during race events.

The "aftertouch" mechanic is necessarily dropped from the free roaming portions of the game (I hope it's still in race events), but in its place is an almost pornographic slow-motion crash cutscene. You wouldn't confuse it for crash test footage, but watching the body panels buckle one by one, and cracks snaking across windows before they burst into tiny shards, is pretty impressive.

I also put a little time into online play, a mode called "Freeburn." I didn't quite get it. We were all driving around, doing our thing, and a stat sheet in the upper corner of the screen updated who had the longest jump, longest drift, longest burn, and so on. There wasn't any actual competition occurring. Or maybe there was -- after about three minutes I got a message that the session had ended. That was how I remembered I hate playing games online.

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