January 28, 2008
Gaming Steve Review: Burnout Paradise
The latest addition to Criterion's long-running, turbo-charged, truly insane race 'em up series turns the franchise on its head via a surprising new free-roaming slant, with oddly conflicting results to show for it. While Burnout Paradise is often a fantastic, truly original title that supersedes its predecessors right across the board, it just as often proves a frustrating and flawed exercise in missed opportunities and even flat-out monotony. Allow me to explain.
On firing up the game for the first time, you'll find yourself almost instantly set loose upon Paradise City minus any sort of leash. There's all but two minutes of a tutorial to get you up to speed, and scarce little in the way of unlockable content for which to work towards, with Paradise instead throwing an entire god damn world at you in pretty much one go. The idea is, you blaze around this wide-open city, pull off stunts, track down collectibles, and partake in any of its endless list of challenges and events as and when you please. It's all up to you, fella.
This is all fantastic stuff at first too. Beholding the exquisite detail of Paradise City, and the luscious fluidity in which you careen around its plush, sensual innards awards it instant love that's hard to deny. For a while, you feel as if you're witnessing the very future of racing games in fact, not just graphically, but in terms of sheer design. All of the series' landmark traits — the ludicrous speed, the demented pile-ups and the jaw-dropping crashes — come through in-tact, but this time via a seamless, less constrained and undeniably next-gen universe in which to now savor them. Wow.
Unfortunately, the actual content within this world often fails to live up to the premise. Over time, the challenges reveal themselves to be a repetitive, cut-back and under-realized bunch, giving the game a far more hollow feeling than perhaps one would've liked. Criterion boast the presence of a new such challenge at each and every crossroad in the entire game — with you merely holding down the two triggers to enter any at will — but in practice, the majority of its 120 odd events prove a little too similar for comfort.
You've got good old "Road Rage" challenges — the pick of the litter — that see you bashing enemies to death as you navigate the streets at immense speeds. Enjoyable "Stunt Runs", that enforce gravity defying jumps and crazy drifts within a set time limit. And of course the traditional Burnout races that you'd expect, in which you go toe to toe with seven AI combatants in a blitz for the finish line ala previous titles in the series. The difference being, Paradise has much improved new car handling, way better graphics, and some pleasing new depth to its boosting system. And hey, that's great.
What ain't are the actual "tracks". An unfortunate side effect of the free-roaming world in which they're set, sees these city-based routes never feeling setup, nor specifically designed for actual racing. Grid-like streets simply can't match the cornered-off, impeccably designed circuits of similar such driving games, and the added freedom of multiple routes can make such races notoriously confusing too. Given this game's extreme speeds, it's mildly annoying having to continually monitor your mini-map in order to gauge where to turn, with you regularly heading off down the wrong street and spontaneously having to backtrack at a split-second's notice. Expect many a lost race due to this. And grinded down teeth.
With only eight potential finishing lines peppered throughout the entirety of the city, races all end in a worryingly similar fashion too. You'll return to the same roads and same locations so darn often, déjà vu becomes a prominent gameplay feature. A new "Marked Man" twist on these races spruces them up occasionally, in which you'll have to zoom to the finishing line by your lonesome while kamikaze AI drivers ram you off the road to much amusement, but even these grow old in time. A pity.
What started out fresh and invigorating then — heralding the pinnacle of its genre — grows slowly stale and bland as you progress. Scrapping the challenges, hitting the streets sandbox-style, and merely seeing what crazy off-road secrets you can uncover becomes a far more gripping way to spend your time as a result, and there's plenty of nooks and crannies tucked away within Paradise City to set your sights on with that in mind. This can't hide the fact that the single player game is a somewhat short-lived affair for the most part though, and five or six hours in, I was just about done with it. Particularly in light of the city's shockingly small size that lets you blitz from literally one side to the other in about 4 minutes flat.
Thankfully, all is not lost. Paradise boasts a superb online mode you see, one that goes a hell of a long way towards filling in the blanks. A mode, oddly enough, that reminds heavily of Crackdown of all things. In the same way that game was always at its best when played online — with you and a buddy merely tearing up the town and causing as much improvised mischief as you could — Burnout is no different. Just er, trapped in a car this time out. Ignoring the plot — or in this case, the races — engaging in your own demented multiplayer stunts is where this game truly shines, only it supports a whopping great 8 players by comparison, and is choc-full of superb mini-games for you to partake in along the way.
Paradise weaves such inventive tomfoolery into the actual game design, you see. One minute it may task your group with pulling off 100 jumps between you in quick succession, the next it may have you pile every single car onto one specific level of a particular building without falling off, and so on. The subsequent calamity and group-based bundles prove endlessly enjoyable and undeniably hysterical, with literally hours dropping off the clock at a time as you work your way through its laundry list of shenanigans. The average newcomer will often be left with a, "Guh? I don't get it" look on their face on first firing it up, and given the co-operative nature of these challenges, it can be annoying when just one of your eight won't play along. Once you get your head around how it all works though, simply fartin' around with your pals starts to make up the very core of Paradise's brilliance, and with a decent host making full use of the challenges, it proves truly amazing stuff. Not to mention utterly unique.
Sure, for more traditional online fun, there are more familiar multiplayer races on offer too. You can partake in 4-round mini-leagues should you so wish, at which point the game reverts to more of a Burnout Revenge-style versus game. All the "rivalry" features of its predecessor return thankfully, with new Vision Cam/PlayStation Eye support giving such violence a new — and often mature-rated — twist, and it's pleasant enough fun I'm pleased to say. The finicky niggles and mass confusion of the single player races turn into plus points when played alongside humans, with all players regularly zooming off in the wrong direction to much amusement and giggly group banter. With no one at a distinct disadvantage, races can turn drastically at a moment's notice, right up to the very home straight, making 'em far more enjoyable and exciting than against AI. Combined with the aforementioned co-op mini-games, this multiplayer suite affords the game much needed mileage most noticeably lacking from solo play.
Burnout Paradise is an intriguing experiment all in all then, that at often times works, yet just as often fails. In addition to the plethora of negatives outlined above, a series of smaller annoyances like the lack of an instant "retry" option, the removal of the ever enjoyable "Crash" mode, and the inability to turn off the god-forsaken "takedown" cam continually grate, all culminating in far from the nutso racing classic some might have been expecting. There's no denying though, that in its first few hours alone, it's one hell of a spectacular ride, and with a server full of pals, there's no multiplayer game quite so original...nor so god damn hilarious.
Providing you have friends, I'd say it's worth the pinch.
PLUSES: Traditional Burnout car-bashing antics prove just as fun as you'd hope, while flawless graphics with a seldom-faltering 60 FPS render 'em better than ever before. Amazing multiplayer modes provide plenty of longevity.
MINUSES: Single player challenges lack variety, while the city feels small after just an hour or two of exploring. No instant retry on the events can be frustrating, as can the reliance on a mini-map for one so fast-paced.
FINAL VERDICT: 7.5 BUY IT!