Wot I Think: Burnout Paradise

By Jim Rossignol on February 9th, 2009 at 7:46 am.


Burnout Paradise was released last week on PC, via a gigantic time-limited demo. It was one of the most popular console games of last year, thanks to its open-world racing model. But is it any good? Here’s Wot I Think.

Playing Burnout Paradise on PC was rather like biting into a large, delicious sandwich, filled with quality meats and condiments. Sadly the first bite revealed that the sandwich also contained an elastic band. Once the inedible foreign article had been spat out, and cuss words uttered, the meal was delicious. After all, this is one of my favourite sandwiches. And I am so very, very hungry.

Yes, those sign up problems were ludicrous. A form that requires you to click and press enter? What? No option to recover previous sign up? Unskippable intro? Broken servers? Yes, it’s embarrassing for them and frustrating for us, but I’m over that now. I’m going to be kind to the rest of the game, because it deserves a manly punch on the shoulder and a big smile.

The distribution of the entire game as a demo might have strained our info-pipes, but it was a brave, intelligent move. How else can you demo an open-world game? And if the pirated version is going to be out there in a snap of your fingers, no matter what dance the publishers might perform, why not put your legitimate buy-me-in-a-moment demo out there too? Isn’t this the kind of move that all publishers should now be looking at? Putting aside the fact that the demo was clearly too short, isn’t this one of the best ways to distribute, advertise, and sell a game on PC? (No sign of it on Steam yet, which seems like a major oversight.) I’d almost buy Burnout Paradise on principle.

Anyway, before we get the gold-valved heart of Burnout Paradise – a smart, fun, progressive racing game – I’m going to meander a bit.

Racing games are essential to my gaming library. They’re one of the things that videogames do best: that sense of speed, and potential impact – it’s something I fell in love with on the earliest computers, and never let go of. And yet it’s so very easy to fuck up. I think it’s something to do with the tactile nature of the controls, the continuous feedback loop of input and output. If the balance is even slightly out, then the whole thing is a waste of time. You see it all the time.

But these days I feel as if I’m learning to love racing games again. The root of this was when the love affair went sour. It was with Grand Prix Legends, a PC racing game of unflinching realism and startling depth. Having played the game for many weeks, I understood that its dedication to realistic racing was a heavy achievement. I get like that sometimes – I did it with Quake 3. I dreamed about the racing line, about holding on for all those laps. I also understood that I hated the game to its core. I went off racing games in an instant. It took a long time to get them back.

Now, now, don’t think I’m judging you, Grand Prix Legends Fan. Because you are, in fact, one of my closest friends. I understand your interests. For me, though, games need some give. I take games far too seriously, clearly, and I can’t do that with racing games too. I want Midtown Madness. I want to drive round the track backwards in Indy 500. I want to fly off a bridge at 150mph, and be laughing.

Racing needs to have some kind of bungee effect, where I’m always able to claw things back. I don’t want realism. I want the illusion of just-about-gripping-tarmac, not the reality. I want to crash horribly, with all the spinning glass and shards of metal that entails, and be instantly back in the race. Having been burned in the past, and drowning my sorrows in the sci-fi speed-porn fantasies of Wipeout games and their hover-rocket pretenders, I am now re-learning my love for wheel and lap-time racing games. Particularly the ones that do not care too much. Last year was particularly rewarding. GRID was entertaining. Burnout Paradise was better.

Criterion’s bold open-world racing game isn’t the prettiest trinket, nor is it quite as ferociously compelling as earlier Burnout games. Nevertheless it feels astonishingly responsive, and rewardingly solid. The design is all about functionality of fun. It wants to sell you two things: a sense of speed, and the believability of its collisions. And it does that.

The functional nature that extends to everything in it: this is the fifth (?) time an open world racing game has been attempted, and pulled off (first being this), thanks to the simplicity of its challenges. Roll up to an intersection, spin wheels at the traffic lights, and you can be thrown straight into a race. When the race is done, you’re still on the same street, rolling to your next goal. It feels organic, zipping about, always rolling into the next challenge. The open world feels integral to the experience, and it changes the tone of racing, just Stalker’s open world changed the tone of shooting. If nothing else, it points the way for other open world pure-racers, such as FUEL, and suggests they might have a future. (This game is nothing, nothing, like GTA.)

It’s superbly brutal too. The road rage events, where you simply have to destroy your opponents, give new meaning to the term “muscle car.” In fact, cars aren’t simply rewards in Burnout, they’re trophies, in the hunting sense: you collect cars by forcing them off the road and wrecking them.

There’s no hidden agenda here, just caricatured automotive ultra-violence. Some folks have suggest that the lack of a circuit-based, here-to-there kind of racing model means the game doesn’t pull you in, but I reject that. As soon as you’ve found the beat of doing event after event, you have no problem with forward momentum. Collecting cars, beating the various events – which include staying on the road as other cars try to take you down, mad stunt routes, waypoint-driven tours around the cityscape, as well as straightforward races – it’s a well-punctuated progression, allowing little sideshows of car-swapping housekeeping and exploration between the events. Hurtling off the given route and still thundering your way into the lead makes for brilliant racing, particularly when the last few moments of a race are a wheel-grinding chariot-race to the line.

The bikes – added to the game after its initial console outing – are a new game mode in themselves, focusing more of sheer speed. The bike events are far less numerous, but they feel minimal, brutal There are fewer cars on the road. You move faster, even without the Burnout boost. Far more than with the cars, you are dragged into the notion of open street racing. Enter first-person view on the bikes and you taste what is possibly the best sense of high speed racing in any game. It’s breakneck stuff, even if your rider is never actually visible to break a neck in those brutal crashes.

All this is facilitated by the city itself – a sprawling, explorable space. It’s one of those games where you can really see how game and architecture work together. Just as shooter maps are spaces designed for gun battles, so this is a city designed for high speed absurdity. Those moments when you assume you’ve lost yourself to a deadly crash, and you find yourself bursting through a barricade, across a chasm and onto another road – in what is actually a short cut – make you hoot with joy. Criterion have clearly put the time and effort into testing their city – carving out the secret routes and off-street pathways that make the game such a mad joy. They’ve not tried to bend the game to their level design, quite the opposite: the pedestrian-free avenues of Paradise City are a guiltless exercise in creating an environment that scaffolds your fun at every opportunity. They’ve driven every alleyway, tested every curve and bend, dropped insane, arbitrary ramps and jumps into a city where there is nothing but motorised lunacy.

This becomes even more obvious in the drop-in drop-out multiplayer, when you find previously unseen portions of the city, where you and your chums enter playgrounds of ramps, jumps and death-traps. Obliterating your vehicles over and over is a distinct joy.

Having lost my 360 disc earlier in the year – a pitfall of physical media – this is the first game I’ve bought for myself this year. It makes sense to me: it Alt-Tab’s out perfectly, and I can put on my own music, or stop to correct Kieron’s spelling mistakes on RPS. I am using a 360 controller, but it seems to play reasonably well with a keyboard too. This is a decent conversion to PC, but there are some problems. No text chat in multiplayer, for example, and people are also reporting some crash bugs, which will hopefully be patched out. While it runs beautifully on a mid-spec gaming PC, it hasn’t really been buffed for the higher end PCs, and could have been a shader-number more beautiful.

I suspect Burnout Paradise will keep some people at arms length with its manic, broadly ludicrous take on racing – not to mention the piss weak rubbish that pads out the soundtrack, the nauseating radio DJ tipster, the sheer macho bullshit of it all. But it’s brilliant, and I recommend that, at the very least, you play the demo.

__________________

« | »

, , , .

86 Comments »

  1. Matt says:

    this is the first time an open world racing game has been attempted

    Barring Test Drive Unlimited, of course, which was simply wonderful, particularly once a steering wheel was involved. Doubtless there were other examples that others more monied than me can fill you in on.

  2. Turin Turambar says:

    I think i am more conservative in racing game, i am not liking a lot the directionless structure full of arbitrary challenges in Burnout Paradise.

  3. Lewis says:

    So does the demo time out ‘per-download’ then, rather than the L4D-style ‘demo expires on X date’?

  4. Jim Rossignol says:

    Yes, it’s forty minutes in-game, or something.

    @Matt, that’s my crack smoking showing itself again. Clearly there have been open world racers for years.

    @Turin, aren’t the challenges of any other racing game just as arbitrary, except you’re not driving around between the events?

  5. Mister Yuck says:

    Did they change the third person view on the PC version? I put down the 360 version in disgust when I got the Manhattan. The car was undriveable because it took up too much of the screen; I couldn’t see the road.

    Also, Midtown Madness 1-3?

  6. Jim Rossignol says:

    I tend to drive in first person. Hah, yes, I even referenced Midtown Madness writing about it before! Duh. Also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turbo_Esprit

  7. Alex Hopkinson says:

    Sadly alt-tabbing is not a universally ideal experience – when I do it, it switches to Windows instantly but actually doing anything is almost impossible. It took dozens of clicks to Ok the firewall message, for example. Otherwise great stuff though. It’s making me really want to upgrade my CPU/Motherboard to get much better performance in the glorious high speed destruction of a road rage event.

  8. Optimaximal says:

    or stop to correct Kieron’s spelling mistakes on RPS

    it wasn’t really been buffed for the higher end PCs

    Bias? :)

  9. Ian says:

    This has been one of the few drunken credit card purchases that I haven’t instantly regretted. Having really enjoyed the first(?) Burnout on Game Cube I was desperately in need of a racing game that didn’t require all sorts of extra peripherals to be able to control the cars adequately.

    Adding on the whole open world and day/night cycles really is the icing on the cake for me. Even the DJ isn’t as annoying as he could have been. Although I’d opt for Angry Bob if there was a choice.

  10. skillian says:

    Does it have any offline multiplayer, maybe hot-seat based?

  11. Ian says:

    @skillian — there’s a thing called party mode. Don’t know if that’s the sort of thing you were after. Not tried it myself yet, though.

  12. Golden says:

    I finished Bioshock just in time as Burnout was delivered by my friendly postperson.

    After the initial whoha as mentioned by Jim I’ve found the game to be fab, just what I have been looking for in a racer. I get tired of the ‘Flatout’ circuits.
    Showtime is addictive and you may have noticed I have a few high scores (check out Goldengray).
    The only annoying part is the fact that those hosting online races do not opt instigate races and opt for free burn which is OK but I want to enter ranked events.

    I will curse myself for saying it but I think this could have benefited from being linked to windows live. I only say this as now I have this damn windows live (via GTA & Fallout) I want to get the most out of it.
    If the Xbox version can have it why cant the PC.

    Anyway, I am not disappointed in the slightest. Good solid game

  13. Irish Al says:

    The DJ is indeed an utter tube, but thankfully he shuts up after about 20% completion.

  14. Schmung says:

    I’ve got this on 360, but I didn’t spend quite as much time with it as I did with GRID. The single player experience is a bit broken – too many identical events and no crash mode to speak of just makes it a bit too much of a chore and the lack of a restart option of any sorts is near criminal. Fine, they don’t want loading screens – just zip us back to the start as quick as the engine can stream instead of forcing me to bloody drive there.

    They’ve done lots of things very, very right with Paradise but the things they did wrong just contaminated the experience a little too much for me.

  15. Alex Hopkinson says:

    @Schmung: There’s an event restart option on all versions of the game as of last week.

  16. Nervous Little Tit says:

    My only peeve is that there’s no friggin driver in the car. Sure, we’ve established it’s about as realistic as my chances of leaving this basement alive, but when you bust the windows out on a particularly percussive driveaway ding and see that empty seat as the car drives itself… well, I let out a PFFFF that would have dislodged a theatrical moustache.

  17. Golden says:

    forgot to add that it looks gergeous and runs fantastically (settings at high) on my mid-range system.
    8800 GTS, 2GB ram, AMD 4200 processor

  18. skillian says:

    @Ian

    Thanks, that’s exactly what I was looking for. Guess this is a buy for me then :)

  19. lhzr says:

    @Schmung: now there is a restart-event option. update your 360 version and you should get it too :)

  20. Irish Al says:

    @Neverous Little Tit

    Yep, but blood-stained ragdolls means no sales to Little Johnny.

  21. Switch625 says:

    I absolutely LOVED Turbo Esprit on the Speccy. So much so I used to drive around for hours, not even playing the game. Just exploring.

    I can still remember the 5 second theme tune that used to play when the game finally finished loading.

    Yes, I spent many an hour during my formative years exploring a wireframe city whilst controlling a car with a Kempston joystick. Good times.

    Erm, anyway, I played a lot of Burnout Paradise last night – it’s actually the first Burnout game I’ve played – and really enjoyed it. I’ve played a bit on my mate’s PS3 but only ever just driven around aimlessly. Actually unlocking cars and doing the challenges (I love Marked Man) is tremendous fun.

  22. clive dunn says:

    Amazed to find that this runs really well on my laptop, (8400gs), yeah it looks a bit cruddy but smooth as all the black ice currently entombing me in my house. First racing game that’s been able to run properly on this machine and loved the Burnouts on my old PS2.
    Something vaguely wrong about the demonic look my wife gives me as she barges me off the road for the umpteenth time!

  23. Heliocentric says:

    the bikes have riders, the cars should have a driver.

  24. Irish Al says:

    The bikes do, yes, but you’ll notice that if you hit something on a bike at warp 7 there’s still no ‘death animation’, it just fades out and comes back. I think they should have put in peds and drivers etc, but allowed them to be turned off in the options.

  25. Jim Rossignol says:

    @Optimaximal: It’s John’s job to correct my spelling, I blame him.

  26. groovychainsaw says:

    The biggest issue i have with burnout paradise, and its petty, is that i frequently lose in the high-end races because i look at the map to see if im going the right way
    Crunch.
    Straight into car/bus/wall/lamppost/odd concrete bench that hadn’t been there a second ago. I have to race some of the harder races several times until I’ve learnt the route so i don’t have to look at the map. Which doesn’t feel right for burnout somehow. IU think project gotham 4 (boo/hiss console game!) got it better because it had these open cities but locked down you course for each race with barriers. There were lots of corners etc. you recognised, but you never had to look at a map to complete a race. They could have opened it up for a burnout-stlye road rage race, thats fine. Plus, when you inevitably fail due to looking at a map, you have to drive all the way back across town… which is dull. And burnout should never be dull…

  27. Irish Al says:

    @groovychainsaw

    Yep, but in my case I put this down to being too old for this shit at age 40. It gets easier as you get familiar with the map. The recent patch has made it easier to pick out what’s in the far distance, it used to be terrible when everything was lit in super-saturated midday sunlight.

  28. SPLastic the Racer says:

    I absolutely adore this game, even with it’s niggling little problems.

    Picked it up last year for the 360 and had a ball with it, but never got into the online scene as the Xbox Live community is less than desirable and none of my friends had it. The release on PC has changed that – my PC friends are much more open-minded.

  29. Nervous Little Tit says:

    groovy/al/et al:
    Listen for the audio cues… they sound like a booping open door/seatbelt’s off warning on the left or right audio channel, but I guess it’s supposed to be a GPS turn left/right thing. Whatever, it works like a charm and the minimap can be relegated to twitchy checks for bends/junctions trying to ruin your new-found full-tiltage.

  30. Sarajlija says:

    Why would you have to drive back across town? Just pull up the Easydrive menu (numeric keypad) and choose Restart. This feature wasn’t in the original BP, but it’s in The Ultimate Box.

    Also, I very much disagree with Jim’s opinion. It’s a hard hitter at first, to be sure, but later on it dissolves into a buch of samey races where it feels you repeat the same tasks over and over again. Yes, at higher speeds, but this seldom means higher difficulty since your driving skills are progressing to. At the point where you get to the A License and the game demands that you complete FORTY more events, yet features only FIVE different and unstuctured race types, it all boils down to Pokemonish gotta-collect-them-all mentality to progress even further. Its a good game, yet it’s a lot better at the beginning than at the end.

  31. Jim Rossignol says:

    it all boils down to Pokemonish gotta-collect-them-all mentality to progress even further.

    Agreed, it could be repetitious as you progress. But it’s a racing game, which means the larger part of the entertainment is you getting more skilled at driving. I played through to the A licence on 360 quite happily, and I’m doing so again on PC (only with bikes as a side-order this time). I’ve never really worried about the number of event types.

  32. Po0py says:

    It runs great and even though I have a pretty beefy system it still looks good enough. I know it could do with a few extra shiny bits but when your barrelling down a road at 200mph who the hell is gonna notice?

    Demo was painfully short. I was just starting to have fun with it smashing up some european dudes when it cut out on me. Still not so sure if this is a buy for me. Empire: Total War and Resident Evil 5 are just around the corner. They could have given us an extra half hour just to seal the deal.

  33. UncleLou says:

    It’s a good game, but I like it rather than love it. Something of the excitement of Burnout 2 is missing, even if I can’t quite put my finger on it.

    And boy, do I miss crash mode. The showtime event thingy isn’t an appropriate replacement at all. Seeing how many people have mentioned this, I am rather astonished that it hasn’t been announced as DLC yet.

  34. Barts says:

    I personally love Burnout Paradise. The sense of speed and the feeling of satisfaction after crashing an opponent are unparalleled.

    Also, on my mid-specs PC this game runs beautifully and the effectiveness of porting sets an example to all other developers (hear that, Rockstar?! *shakes fist*)

  35. Bhazor says:

    But if I was a pirate would I spend the exact same amount of time downloading a half hour demo of the whole game as I would the cracked game?

    I haven’t played it yet, need to sort out my internet connection, but I think limiting the game to say a couple of districts would have made the demo a lot more tempting and hidden all the trekking that was criticised on release.

    ‘ey? Got that Criterion? Got that stewing in the old noodle?

  36. rocketman71 says:

    No LAN = No buy

    I’m tired of this BS from EA, first with NFS and now with Burnout. I wonder if anyone at all there plays their own games.

  37. bansama says:

    In case no one said it already, the demo is supposed to time out after 30 minutes, not 40. The actual game play is brilliant fun even offline. But the menu system isn’t as good as it could be. Took me forever to realise I could redefine the keys by several presses of F2 to finally get to the appropriate menu selections.

    And as I said in the demo post. I really want to buy this, but it seems the server issues even extend to the EA store as all I’ve gotten is server errors that are preventing me from even adding the game to my shopping cart. Trying to buy from within the game just leads to a white screen. Blah!

    I’d inform the EA store staff of the problem, but they only offer phone/fax support where I am, and I don’t have a fax machine and cannot justify the premium rate phone number. Why they don’t offer web based support is beyond me >_<.

    I can’t describe how frustrating it is to want to give them my money and not being able to do so. This game is that good (in my opinion of course), I’ll be posting my full opinion on the game up on my own site as soon as I can =/

  38. Po0py says:

    I should also mention, the webcam feature was excellent. In the brief time I was playing online there was two other guys using webcams. It recognised my webcam instantly. Gave me a fright, actually, as I had forgotton all about it and on the licence setup page I suddenly found my ugly mug staring right back at me. I suspect a lot of pc users will have webcams attatched to their computers. Maybe more-so than the 360 or PS3 versions.

  39. Gunrun says:

    How on earth do I add my own music? You mention it but I have found no such way.

  40. Sarajlija says:

    Agreed, it could be repetitious as you progress. But it’s a racing game, which means the larger part of the entertainment is you getting more skilled at driving. I played through to the A licence on 360 quite happily, and I’m doing so again on PC (only with bikes as a side-order this time). I’ve never really worried about the number of event types.

    It’s the bane of sandbox games. The races aren’t structured and designed since the developers only pinpoint the starting point and the finish, then it’s up to the bots that have to adapt to provide a challenge. It’s a price to pay to drive around a free city – but it’s a steep price in the long run since the game does get very monotonous. This is also true about the crash mode that can’t really hold a candle to the dozens of nicely structured crash challenges from Takedown or Revenge.

    The situation is actually a bit like comparing a well-written review to a random rant. The latter can be fun and engaging, but I prefer the first any day.

  41. Sarajlija says:

    @Gunrun: run Winamp in the background ;).

  42. The Shed says:

    @Golden: That’s a mid-range system these days…? Man I suck.

    Something like Advent 3.2 GHz Intel Ptm 4 (the good part)
    512MB RAM (DDR2 I think/hope)
    Radeon x700?

    It’s so painful…

  43. Anonymous says:

    No Steam release?

    Oh well, I ended up buying it on 360 instead. It was 10 dollars cheaper ($20 + 800 points DLC), and it is great great fun.

    Also, I must be the only one who is fond of the DJ, he is the same “DJ Atomica” who narrated SSX3′s radio, another brilliant game. Can’t say I like the soundtrack though.

  44. dwmr says:

    It plays great on my dusty old logitech MOMO racing wheel unlike GRID and DIRT.

  45. Chris Evans says:

    Been playing for a couple of hours total so far, really having a good time. Spent more time just charging around crashing through all the signs and barriers than doing anything constructive :D

    Had a quick dabble in the multiplayer, seems fun. Though I would much rather have a manual to explain the different modes to me, I can’t find one after downloading the demo and then purchasing it via the in-game store.

  46. Velvet Fist, Iron Glove says:

    @Jim: Another earlier attempt at an open-world racing game was Vette! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vette!

    Downloaded BP demo last night, but haven’t installed it yet.

    Any news on DRM in the full game? I’m still avoiding buying (and playing) games with SecuROM, Tages, StarForce, and the like.

  47. Bananaphone says:

    I got tired of Burnout after the third game, the fourth was more like a Scaletrix simulator, you didn’t need to look where you were going, just hold the accelerator and bounce off the walls. FlatOut Ultimate Carnage is far superior, IMO.

  48. bansama says:

    Spent more time just charging around crashing through all the signs and barriers than doing anything constructive

    That reminds me, any one else with an Nvidia card and the latest drivers getting flickering on the “mended” broken signboards? it’s the only annoying graphical glitch I’ve seen.

  49. bansama says:

    Any news on DRM in the full game? I’m still avoiding buying (and playing) games with SecuROM, Tages, StarForce, and the like.

    It’s using SecuROM — at least it has related DLLs in the install directory. It does come with a deauth tool too, so I really don’t see why they even bothered.

  50. Markoff Chaney says:

    Paradise is a mixed bag. The open world format leads to some nice lazy sunday driving, and many different race, even if they are only variants on a theme, you go from a different A to a different B most of the time, so it’s different enough. I miss my crashing puzzles. The new per street mode is fun, but lacks my OCD must get Gold Stars completionist aspect.

    I’ve only played offline so far, and have about 9 more races before I’m done with the B license. I’m having a blast, so far, though. Burnout always had, to me, one of the best balances of fun with “reality” with over-the-topness. It may not be Carmageddon, but I can still have fun behind a pixellated vehicle.

    As another aside, I had no issues purchasing the game from the demo. The EA website was a little slow when it got to giving me my key, but there it was in under 60 seconds from me giving them my credit card details. It also just felt right buying from the demo. I wanted to let Criterion see at least one referrer from that model, and I endeavor to applaud and support great Developers for a good port and for finally coming to my preferred format.