Monday, February 18, 2008

Review: Burnout Paradise


Have a guest review in from Psyclone today, because I refuse to buy another gaming console. -GB

The popular Burnout series finally makes it's next-gen debut. The developers have repeatedly stated that this was to be a "complete re-invention" of the series to mirror the change in hardware. Does it manage to maintain the same entertainment value of it's predecessors? And is it really a "complete re-invention"? The answer to those questions: "Hell Yes" and "Uh...kinda". Read below to find out why.

Gameplay:

The most noteworthy addition to the game is obviously the open world of Paradise City. And by gum, it's amazing. Not only is it huge in area, but there is also quite a bit to it vertically: areas under and over highways, a completely empty rail system you can use to get around, parking garages that you can use to explore ROOFTOPS, etc. The game teases you to find every single short cut (signaled by flimsy fences with "Private Property" signs that you can bust through), bust through every single Burnout billboard scattered through the city (some of them in really out-of-the-way places) and jump through every single "Super Jump" (you know you're in one due to the awesome slo-mo cam and the huge "Super Jump" caption in the corner of the screen), though unfortunately these don't allow progression in the game. For that you have to compete in the game's events.

And there are a lot of those too. There are a grand total of 120 events in Paradise City: and unlike most games of this kind all of them are available right from the start. The game progression works with a "license" system: you gain a "Learner's Permit" at first then move up to the "D License" then "C License", etc, as you complete events. Every time you upgrade your license, you gain a new car, the events become harder (race competitors get better cars, you need more takedowns to win Road Rage events, etc) and the events you completed are reset, so you can do them again (only this time they're harder, as stated). Also, every time you win a certain number of events, a new car is unleashed upon Paradise and to unlock it you must find it and take it down. This can be a bit tiresome at times :the cars seem to just show up after you drive around for a while and some of them seem to crash a little TOO often (making you have to wait until they respawn so you can take them down), never the less, it's an refreshing rake on the "unlocking" concept.

And where do these crashed cars go? To the junkyard, of course. Junkyards are scattered across the city and serve as the points where you can choose a new vehicle. Also scattered across Paradise are Auto Repair Shops (which, shockingly, repair your vehicle), Paint Shops (which randomly repaint your car) and Gas Stations (which refill your boost meter). These three can be used even during events, which makes them very useful (especially Auto Repair during Road Rage and Marked Man events).

When you get to the cars themselves, however, you start to question the "complete re-invention" promise: the cars have been split into three classes that turn their boost mechanics into some sort of "Burnout Greatest Hits Collection". The classes are Stunt, Speed and Aggression and each car has the classic stats of Boost, Speed and Strength. Stunt cars have the most accessible boost mechanics: boost fills up by the usual means (takedowns, driving in oncoming traffic, near misses, etc), being filled up faster by stuff like jumps, barrel rolls, flats spins, etc. They also have the most balanced stats. Aggression cars' boost fills up VERY slowly except for traffic checking (which is utterly worthless in this game, since only cars with near maximum strength can hit traffic from behind at high speeds without wrecking and hitting them from the sides doesn't register at times) and takedowns. Takedowns with Agression cars are the only ones that use the Burnout 3 mechanic of increasing the boost meter with each takedown. These cars have the highest Strength stats but have very low speed. Finally Speed cars are throwbacks to the original Burnout: boost cannot be used until the boost bar fills up, yet these cars are the only ones capable of chaining Burnouts. Speed cars are fast, but usually fragile.

The throwbacks end in the events however. Every traffic light in Paradise City corresponds to a certain event which starts at that light, however each event (with the exception of Road Rage and Stunt Run, more on those later) has it's finish line at only 8 different landmarks. That's right. They don't even try to hide it: they showcase all of them in the opening video. While this may seem a little dodgy it soon becomes rather irrelevant once you get used to the game's new event structure.

The thing that might get on most people's nerves is how all events have embraced the open world structure, for better or for worse. The one that is most impacted and may frustrate people is the basic race. Instead of having a looping track or a straight run with invisible barriers (like in Need For Speed: Underground 2 and the like), the game instead allows players to choose their own route, making it a cross between Burnout and Crazy Taxi at times. In order to help players who don't want to memorize the entire map from the get go, the game possesses three critical tools: the minimap, the compass, and the (often ignored) turn signal. The minimap, obviously shows the map of your immediate surroundings. The compass always points toward the finish line and tells you the distance to it (and more importantly whether you're approaching your objective or moving away from it). The turn signal is the AI's way to suggest a route: whenever you approach an intersection, your car's turn signal will light up and the name of the suggested road you take flashes on top of the screen. Unfortunately, even though it has all this and you hear a tone indicating you must turn, it's still VERY easy to miss the turn when you're cruising a Burnout's breakneck speeds. Even more unfortunately, sometimes that could mean the difference between defeat an victory, especially in certain regions like the outskirts of the city (where there aren't many intersections), when you mistakenly enter a freeway (which despite being riddled with holes in the walls and exist ramps, are STILL a tad difficult to leave at times) or when you are very close to the finish line (in that case it's your fault). Also, obviously, the turn signal doesn't include shortcuts, making shortcut taking kind of a double edge sword in which you either cut down race time dramatically or end up stuck in such a long route, you might as well quit the race. This can of course be compensated with knowing the city, but it's still a (relatively uncommon) annoyance. Naturally this open ended nature removes the infamous "rubberband AI" so you can finally brag about finishing a race way before anyone else.

The only other events that remain beside Races from the previous Burnouts are Road Rage and Burning Laps (now obviously renamed Burning Routes). Road Rage has possibly the best overhaul since you are no longer constricted by a track: now the entire city becomes your battle field as you and a brand of respawning rogues duke it out trying to reach the all time takedown record. Since this in this event the rubberband AI remains, you can easily take the battle all across Paradise much to the terror of it's denizens. Burning Routes boil down to getting your car from Point A to one of the 8 Landmarks in x time. Burning Routes are tied to individual vehicles and beating them unlocks a tweaked version of that vehicle for you to use.

The new events were designed from the get go with open-endedness in mind: Marked Man and Stunt Run. Marked Man has you go from Point A to Landmark B while being hounded by maniacs in extremely tough black cars without getting totalled (like in Road Rage you can crash a couple of times but if your damage gets past "Critical", it's over). In this kind of event it's all about trying to avoid them, taking them down to gain time and going the shortest way possible. Great fun. The final event is Stunt Run. Basically Tony Hawk with cars: you run around trying to chain together combos of boosting, drifting, barrel rolling, jumping and flat spinning for the maximum points possible. While laughably easy at first, eventually it gets to the point that, also like Tony Hawk in a sense, you have to "memorize" the perfect "lines" in order to win.

Thanks to the growing trend of "Achievements" in games, Criterion has thrown in a bunch in both console versions (the PS3 version achievements are called "Paradise Awards" and naturally, can't be shown off) to keep players occupied. From the laughably easy (finish your first race, upgrade your license), to the intermediate (chain x Burnouts, make a 260 flatspin) to the hardcore (100% completion), there is something for everyone.

Baffling however are the so called "Road Rules": every road in Paradise has an associated time record and Showtime record (more about that in a sec). Beat them both and you've "dominated the road". You can also have your console look for records online for you to beat and upload. This serves for absolutely no purpose than 100% completion (which makes said completion fall into the realm of, as the great Yahtzee would say, "unemployed psychotics and Koreans"), bragging rights and/or online pissing contests, IMHO. If you enjoy getting your name in the leader boards, be my guest. Not to mention some roads have no business having records. For instance, you get an achievement for beating the offline time of a road that is literally about 300 meters long! And if you go to the online records, people are desperately trying to defeat the current record of 2.4 SECONDS! WTF?

And then there's Showtime: the single greatest disappointment in the game. If Crash mode was, in your opinion, the single greatest thing about the Burnout series, then by all means, do NOT buy this game. Showtime is basically a shadow of Crash Mode's former self. Gone is the strategy, the puzzle element and the satisfaction. Basically, you drive somewhere, activate Showtime and your car starts bouncing around at which point you try to guide it around and hitting the boost button to make it jump into cars. It's laughably easy at times, and incredibly pointless (unless you want to try to make the crash cross the entire city for some inane reason). And, like the billboards, and jumps, offers no progression in the game. One has to wonder what Criterion was even thinking (besides the aforementioned pissing contests).

The interface in this game has been kept to a minimum. You can almost go through the game without looking at a menu screen. Every single common action can be made in the game itself. Want to start an event? Pull up to a traffic light and press the brake and the gas. Want to end an event? Just stop the car. People may get annoyed with the fact that you can't reset an event (especially when you're going for the Burning Routes), but there are so many events that you can just start another one right away (unless you happen to be in the town's outskirts, in which the events are more sparse, but even that can be forgiven)

Sound:

Once again the soundtrack is nothing to write home about. From crappy punk, to some techno and rock, the soundtrack is as ho hum as it ever was. In fact, you may not even notice it while you play... until Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend" starts playing, at which point it's all you can hear until you hit the ever so helpful "track skip" button.

The sound effects are good as usual: the whooosh of the boost, the sound of metal crumpling in slow motion when you crash, the clash of two speeding cars, etc. It may sound a little under-whelming at times, but overall it's excellent.
A (relative) improvement in this game sound wise is the DJ. After learning their lesson after hiring DJ "I Can't Believe This Annoying F**ker Works At An Actual Radio Station" Stryker for Takedown, EA decided to get the more well received DJ Atomika from SSX 3 to takeover Crash FM. Unfortunately, he seems to be a tad bitter with his transfer, since his amusing anecdotes from SSX 3 have vanished and only speaks to spout out newbie level hints which at times sound quite condescending (for example, after losing an event, he may say something along the lines of "You lost? Here's some hints: drive fast, and don't crash!". Gee, thank you, Mr DJ!). He does remain mostly quiet though, which is always a plus.

Graphics:

Once again, Criterion did a great job graphics wise. Everything in the game looks gorgeous and (in the PS3 version at least) completely devoid of slowdown.
Paradise City is very diversely designed city. Taking influences from several American cities, it manages to seem varied though you're technically not leaving the city. The outskirts of the town also manage to bring some variety to the events thanks to it's countryside feel.

The lighting effects, particularly on the cars look amazing. Though the civilian cars' models are once again not very detailed, that's largely irrelevant. The player controlled cars, however remain great as ever. You may notice pop up with the civilian traffic and a few pixellated scratches on crashed cars, but the game is still beautiful. The sense of speed the series is known for remains overwhelming, even in the first vehicle you get.

And the crashes. The crashes look better than ever. The bits of metal flying through the road, the metal crumpling in slow motion when you collide head on into a wall of another vehicle, all looks amazing. Criterion has truly taken advantage of the next-gen consoles' power.

Conclusion:

If you're a fan of the series then you may object to some of the things this game does. However, if you're like me, you'll be able to forgive it, because the rest is a great gaming experience. This game is truly much more than the sum of its parts and everyone with a next-gen console owes it to himself to try it out. It's a few points short of being perfect, but it's heavily recommended.

Verdict: A-
-Psyclone

1 comment:

Psyclone said...

Woo! I'm an author now!

Seriously, thanks for posting this Gas.