Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What's right with Burnout Paradise

Yesterday I went into some detail about what I thought was wrong with Burnout Paradise. There's one correction to make: apparently you can stop an event, either by entering showtime mode or simply stopping and waiting for several seconds. That's better than I thought, but still counterintuitive and unhelpful. A restart option still would have been nice, too, loading times or not.

With that said, there's a lot to like about Burnout Paradise. In some ways, it leaves treadmarks all over other racing games. I have never understood the appeal of realistic racing games such as Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport. Realism in games is like a spice: it's best used sparingly, and only when necessary. The Burnout formula is much more fun. Instead of the sterility of professional racetracks, it pits you against fast-moving, rush-hour traffic, and creates incentives to drive dangerously. Instead of calculating your car's friction and weight shifts around turns, it gives you a simple but effective power-sliding mechanism that makes sense the first time you try it -- even if it takes a lot more time to master. For several games now, nobody has captured the white-knuckle thrills of fantasy racing better than Criterion. And in Burnout Paradise, they did it again.

The best part about this game is simply that its sense of speed is unparalleled. There's no learning curve in which you need to totter along trying to get a feel for how it works. You start off fast, and gradually work your way up to near-lightspeed as you earn new cars. Even the slower cars seem not to have a top speed, though. That "zen-like state" I mentioned yesterday? If you're hitting it just right, it feels like the car upshifts into eternity. It's like the trip to Jupiter in 2001. And if you think I'm exaggerating this, I'd suggest that maybe you haven't played the game.

But it's not just how fast the cars go. It's how the speed is integrated into the gameplay. After a crash, you're plunked right back down onto the course at about half-speed. Most racing games make you rev back up from a standstill. At its best, this game is all about forward motion. Even when you score a takedown, you're treated to a brief, mostly slow-motion shot of your quarry's demise, and then you're dropped right back into the action.

Which brings me to another point: takedowns are so awesome. Yes, I miss aftertouch, but smashing up jerks is just never going to get old. In Burnout Paradise, the nearly endless array of real-time wrecks is stunning. Your opponents bounce off of any nearby objects, parts of their cars fall off like that scene in The Blues Brothers, and if you're really lucky they might plummet off a cliff. The all-encompassing awesomeness of takedowns is why Road Rage continues to be my favorite event.

One of the new events in Paradise is an inversion of Road Rage, called "Marked Man." And it's a worthy addition. In it, your goal is simply to make it from one waypoint to another without getting totalled. Never mind that it's easy to do against computer opponents. I've talked a lot in these two posts about what I think the spirit of Burnout is, and Marked Man fits right in. It's like your classic car chase, with everybody on the road gunning for you. It helps to wreck your opponents, but it's not necessary. What's good about Marked Man is that you can choose the type of approach that fits your style of play best: you can try to outrun your opponents, outflank them, or outlast them. You can pick the type of vehicle that works the best for your strategy. And this without sacrificing anything that makes Burnout great, as with finding those yellow gates.

Finally -- and this may be where the biggest line of demarcation is between people who love Burnout Paradise and those who don't -- the online interface is implemented almost perfectly. Notice I don't the online play, necessarily. For one thing, given the choice I almost always prefer single-player to multiplayer. It's just this thing I have. But I'm also not too enamored with useless competitions like who's been able to drift the furthest during a session. Still, all the usual event types are great fun, and human opponents are certainly more skillful and unpredictable than computerized ones. What's more impressive is how the online play is integrated into the single-player. You can hop instantly into a game with two pushes of a button. No lobbies, no waiting. I don't care what the technical hurdles are: I want every single game to start doing this immediately. Now that we know it's possible, we can't go back.

All this, and I haven't even posted the actual review. That's coming soon.

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