When Criterion's Burnout: Paradise demo went live last December, fans of the high-speed, crash-and-burn racing series were largely unimpressed. And for good reason: It was boring. Instead of the open racing world Criterion promised, the demo was tiny slice of unremarkable cityscape that played host to a scant handful of racing events.
Criterion's Alex Ward responded to the chorus of yawns and whines with an indignant holiday missive on Criterion's website. "We think we made THE best demo released all year," he said, before launching a full-frontal defense of the upcoming title. "This new
Burnout is an experience that YOU choose how to play rather than us forcing a game structure on you - when the rest of you get to play the full game I am confident you will agree."
I wasn't convinced by Ward's open letter. Let's face it: Game industry talk is very, very cheap. But as I now know from a series of marathon sessions with Criterion's finished product, Ward was right. Criterion knew what they were doing when they built a game that defied established conventions.
In Burnout: Paradise you have access to a vast network of intertwined roadways from the moment your engine sputters to life. There are no invisible walls or locked gates. There are no loading screens. Every inch of roadway is accessible from the moment you begin the game, and the city's huge network of pavement - which stretches across mountainous expanses, urban centers, industrial landscapes and more - is crisscrossed by tunnels and other shortcuts. It's a fantastic place to explore.
This freedom isn't limited to the games' physical environment, either. Any of the city's 120 stoplights marks the beginning of a racing or crashing challenge, and every road is essentially its own raceway, where individual records can be beaten independent of official events. Like the city, each of the game's challenges is available from the second you enter the game, to be accepted or ignored, according to the player's whims.
Paradise's wide-open world is exactly what I longed for when I complained in a past article about the incessant challenges required to unlock new areas in Tony Hawk games. In contrast to the taskmaster design of the Tony Hawk titles, the new Burnout provides a world where players can truly play, advancing at the pace they choose, blissfully free from a punitive, demanding, artificially imposed structure.
That isn't to say Paradise doesn't motivate its players. It rewards event completion with a series of upgraded licenses and new cars. Each license resets the events, slowly rebalancing the difficulty level to accommodate the abilities of newly awarded vehicles. And the city is dotted with breakable signs and barriers that rival Crackdown's agility orbs in the obsessive exploration they encourage.
Burnout's wildly destructive brand of arcade racing works well in more structured settings, as demonstrated by the success of its past releases. But it shines in its new open-world environment, as well. And, to be honest, after revising the same basic formula through four prior titles, wasn't it time for something new? Something that genuinely puts next-gen hardware to good use?
Cash cow franchises like Burnout often get milked dry through a series of incrementally evolved releases. It usually doesn't take more than three such installments to wring the life from a successful property, unfortunately. Paradise is exactly the kind of leap forward more properties should be taking, then, especially with current gaming technology.
But even a smartly reworked franchise isn't going to make everyone happy; it shouldn't have to. Games that try to be all things to all gamers ultimately end up bland and boring. One need look no further than the post-Medal of Honor proliferation of dull WWII shooters with obligatory multiplayer components to see where that kind of thinking gets us. And, conversely, look no further than Nintendo's recent successes to see the value in defying expectations.
I'm sure there are gamers out there who lose interest in wide-open playgrounds when their actions aren't dictated by a series of prescribed goals and tasks. And I've certainly professed my own love for games that provide the carrot as well as the stick. But Burnout demonstrates that there's room for both structured and sandbox experiences, even within the same franchise.
As far as Paradise is concerned, I don't need the carrot or the stick. I'll pull the wagon without either. Until it crashes at 150 mph.