If you’re into driving cars at breakneck speed and smashing stuff, chances are you’ve already partaken in the turbocharged ballet of pulverized automobiles that is Criterion’s Burnout series. If you haven’t, you’ve been missing out. Nobody has come close to achieving the mastery of vehicular destruction and arcade racing that Criterion has, and while the last few Burnout titles have been more like steps sideways than forward in terms of gameplay evolution, Burnout Paradise is the full fledged paradigm shift we’ve been waiting for. No longer confined to menus and static racetracks, Burnout has burst free from its shackles into full fledged open-world mayhem with impressive results.
Burnout Paradise takes place in the aptly named Paradise City, a strange and wonderful utopia for the lead-footed where it’s always sunny and there’s never a pedestrian in sight. Cars cruise around sans drivers, and the next event—be it racing, stunt chaining, or gladiatorial combat—is just an intersection away in any direction. Crazy things to speed past, jump over, or smash through are literally everywhere, and the total acreage of the landscape is considerable. As a sandbox for shenanigans on wheels, it definitely hits the spot.
When you finally decide to take a break from motoring around admiring the view, getting into an event is as easy as stopping at an intersection. Each one serves as starting line for a different challenge, 120 in all. There are races galore, some pitting you against computer controlled rivals, others just you versus the clock. There are also stunt events which require you to string jumps and tricks together for high scores, and it just wouldn’t be Burnout without Road Rage events, where you must takedown as many antagonistic racers as you can before time runs out or your car gets terminally thrashed. Aside from just the general thrill of victory, completing events earns you higher ranked licenses, better cars, and the right to take on tougher, more gear-mashing bouts. You can also try to set the fastest time for speeding down any road from end to end, or set the highest score in Showtime, a free-form smashing contest that is fairly amusing if not quite as satisfying as the Crash events it replaces from previous Burnouts.
Of course all the events in the world aren’t worth a pre-detonated Pinto hatchback if the game doesn’t play well, but thankfully Criterion has delivered some seriously tight controls to hold the whole package together. Big mean trucks drive like the tanks they are, muscle cars radiate machismo, and sporty tuners carve traffic like a Thanksgiving turkey. Everything just feels right. That the graphics are spectacular ain’t half bad either. You’ve never seen slow-mo fender benders like this before, with incredibly detailed breaking of glass and crumpling of chassis. Watching wrecks pinwheel down the street with pieces shearing off and flying everywhere is mesmerizing, which is a very good thing considering how much you’ll be seeing it.
One thing that you won’t be seeing though is any kind of navigation aids, a feature made highly conspicuous by its absence. Paradise City is a substantial chunk of real estate, and even with a healthy number of miles under your belt it’s easy to get lost. At typical Burnout speeds, looking down at the corner of the screen to check the itsy-bitsy mini-map is almost guaranteed to result in a crash, and you can’t really see anything beyond a block or two anyway. Some system for setting waypoints manually or another form of route helper is badly missed, an irritation magnified by the lack of any kind of instant restart for failed events. With most events finishing way across the world from where they start you’ll be doing a lot of driving back and forth to get past the tough spots, which is an unfortunate drag in an otherwise upbeat and engaging experience.
Multiplayer is handled in a quirky and innovative way, but winds up being something of a mixed bag. At any time you can pop into an online game seamlessly, and if you were cruising down the beach at the time, that’s where you’ll be. And when you leave you’ll pop back into your own game exactly where you were at the close of your online session, which is kind of neat. The main activities for online play are races, of course, and challenges, which range from the incredibly simple—everyone using boost—to the considerably more challenging—like everyone barrel-rolling in reverse over a gap. While there are plenty of disorganized methods of online amusement, like smashing other players silly and giggling like a schoolgirl, the lack of more ways to organize events, particularly stunts and road rage varieties, is disappointing. There’s also the annoying tendency for players to spontaneously lose voice support or get dropped from games for no apparent reason, a buzzkill compounded by the automatic failure to your current challenge caused when a player leaves the game.
Burnout has never garnered the kind of respect that simulation racers like Gran Turismo and Forza have. But by doing what they do best Criterion has made Burnout Paradise one of the most accessible and wildly entertaining arcade racers ever created. There is perpetually something else to do, whether it’s another race or stunt run to attempt, another car to try out, another super jump to find, or another online challenge to complete. So much so that it’s almost impossible to get bored. Play enough and you will start to notice little flaws here and there, but they are for the most part minor, and by the time you smash your next car you will have forgotten all about it in a awe-inspiring hail of shattered glass and twisted metal. Multiplayer leaves a bit to be desired, but as a series that has been so grounded in the single-player experience it’s an interesting twist, and cruising the streets of Paradise with a bunch of buddies is a real hoot. Ultimately there can be little doubt that Criterion has raised the bar—for arcade racing, open-world game design, and just good old-fashioned smashitude. Let them take you down to Paradise City, it’s well worth the trip.