To me, racing games fall into one of two categories: uber-realistic racing simulators like Forza, Gran Turismo, and Need for Speed, or their fictional arcade counterparts like Mario Kart, F-Zero, and Cruisin’ USA. I don’t necessarily feel worthy (for lack of a better word) to play racing simulators, since I basically don’t know shit about cars, so that left me to enjoy the games within the latter group for most of my life.
Burnout, though, was really the best of both worlds. My friend Randall introduced me to Burnout 2 right around the time it had come out the United States, and for a while we enjoyed it thoroughly on our old GameCubes. The environments were beautiful and the maps reflected the feel of real city streets, with simulated traffic patterns and highways that were all connected to one another. The crashes were wonderfully simulated (and were, in fact, a major component of the game). Hell, even your turn signal would blink as you were about to go around a turn.
But at its roots, Burnout was still essentially an arcade racer. You could fill up a boost meter by drifting around corners and riding into oncoming traffic. There was a crash mode where you were challenged to drive headlong into a busy intersection to cause the greatest amount of damage. The more you played, the more you unlocked cooler cars, but it wasn’t about the cars or the customization – it was about the race. Hell, the series didn’t even have real cars. They were given generic names like ‘muscle car’ and ‘sports car’, and its paint scheme was about as much customization as you were going to get. It was essentially an arcade racer with the realistic street racing you only came to expect from racing sims.
Ironically, my two favorite games in the series, Burnout and Burnout 2, were only ever cult hits in the United States. Despite their popularity in Europe, it was not until Burnout 3: Takedown was introduced in the US that the series really took off. Probably owing to its success was Electronic Art’s acquisition of Criterion after their previous publisher, Acclaim Entertainment, had gone belly up in 2004. EA’s acquisition allowed the game to be much more widely advertised and provided for better production values than the previous games. Oddly enough, though, I never really spent much time with either Burnout 3 or Burnout Revenge, mostly because neither came out on the GameCube, where I spent most of my formative high school years. So getting to play Burnout Paradise was a welcome return to the series for me after having been absent from it for so long.
One of the biggest departures Paradise took from the rest of the series was its shift from menus to an open-world environment. Oddly, this does make a bit of sense for the series. As I mentioned before, early Burnout games included an overworld map that connected each road to one another. Each race split these roads up into distinctive courses, often with overlap between each race. Paradise simply took away the menu and decided to let you free-roam the map, choosing to place event markers at every intersection. This allows you to explore the map if you want, or participate in the actual events if whenever you drive up to a particular intersection.
Sadly, Burnout Paradise‘s biggest issue is that its game play becomes incredibly repetitive and stale. There are only five different event types: races, road rage, marked man, stunt run, and burning routes. Races are the most abundant event on the map, but despite having a huge city to play with, the developers decided to only include a handful of destinations to race toward. This means having to frequently take the same roads to reach the same places for each different race. Additionally, these destinations tend to be on the opposite side of the map, and without a quick travel feature, it means travelling back from the race itself just to find another event. I can’t tell you how many times I had to “race west to the wind farm” and then travel back the exact same way because there aren’t any good events available outside of the city limits.
The other events offer a little variety but tend to be protracted towards the end of the game. Road rage and stunt run suffered especially from this, since each successive event only upped the score required to beat it. Road rages require you to take down the specified number of opponents in the allotted time, but later in the game you have to take down up to 16 opponents with very little variety on how to do it. Burning routes were essentially useless since they required that you drive in a specific car to beat them, and I wasn’t ready to run over to the junkyard and pick out a new vehicle just so I could finish one event.
Strangely, my favorite part of Burnout Paradise wound up simply being the exploration. The world is filled with hidden shortcuts, in addition to billboards to be smashed and special jumps to be found. These are ostensibly placed for use as shortcuts during races, but more often than not they wind up taking you off of your intended course, so I decided on going back to explore them while outside of events. Although I would normally decry the inclusion of an absurdly placed collection quest in a game where it is completely unnecessary, finding all of the hidden passages felt more like actual exploration rather than a tedious side quest. And since the events became so stressful to beat later in the game, it was actually a welcome detour from the main game.
My other favorite part of the game was the soundtrack. Now, in previous Burnout games Criterion created their own unique soundtracks, and the results were quite spectacular in my opinion. In fact, I have a lot of respect for developers who choose to make their own music in age where that aspect of games is so often overlooked in the first place. Starting with EA’s acquisition of Criterion, though, Burnout 3 was the first to include a licensed soundtrack, which featured songs by “My Chemical Romance”, “Rise Against”, “Franz Ferdinand”, and “Sugarcult”.
So which route did they go with Paradise? They chose the best possible option – they did both. The game includes about two dozen songs from artists that span several decades, but then includes an entire bloc of their old soundtracks from the past four Burnouts. It’s this type of nostalgia trip that makes me happy that developers still pay attention to their old titles enough to pay homage to them in their newer games.
But even better? The game also includes a slew of royalty-free classical music. There is nothing I love better than to play games with classical music. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no music snob. It’s just that sometimes classical music evokes so much more emotion from me that I love to be able to play video games and listen to it at the same time. And I have a lot of respect for the developers for including it in Paradise when so many other games have licensed soundtracks, but still only include modern music.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end, even Burnout. Criterion went on to create a couple of new Need for Speed titles, but no new hints of a Burnout title have been dropped recently. Heck, even the co-founders of Criterion left the company at the beginning of the year to form a new company, Three Fields Entertainment. If that means that we may never see another Burnout title, then I can accept that. Burnout Paradise is a wonderful swan song for the series – it really does neatly wrap up everything that made series great: wonderfully simulated traffic, beautiful cityscapes, a visceral sense of speed, and a truly kickass soundtrack.
But there is good news! Criterion recently announced that they’re working on a new title, one that will incorporate a vast array of new vehicles including helicopters, ATVs, jet skis, and even wing suits and parachutes. It might not be Burnout, but if its anything like everything else Criterion makes, it looks like its going to be a ton of fun.
Final Verdict: Burnout Paradise can become a bit stale, but is otherwise ultimately a fitting send-off for the series.