Playing Burnout Paradise reminds me a lot of Sundays in the winter outdoors with friends when I was ten. Three friends would go out on a snowy Sunday and we’d spend hours outside — around the block, in the woods, by the sports fields, at the plaza — doing nothing and everything. We’d pick up snowballs and throw them at signs, seeing who could hit it dead on from the farthest distance. We’d get a toboggan and challenge each other to slide down the hill while standing up on it. We’d set up ramps in the valley in the woods and would each have a turn, often narrowly avoiding trees. We’d jump a story and a half off a concrete underground parking entrance into a pile of snow and climb every plowed mountain in the community centre parking lots. Peer-pressure was the dominant force of the time, so we’d stay doing these things until everyone had a go. No quitting allowed. We were ten; we did foolish things.
Burnout Paradise takes the classic high-speed traffic avoiding arcade racing series and places it into an “open world.” To me this seemed like a natural evolution of the series. Of course many other fans of the series were filled with consternation after the demo’s release. They bitched and moaned about the travesties committed to their favourite racing game. They said “how dare they do something new in a series?” They wanted the same game that they played four times over.
That reaction caused a spirited response, in the form of a FAQ, from the Burnout team. It did nothing to appease the traditionalists.
Criterion’s defense is perfectly valid. Despite the seemingly massive upgrade, at its heart it remains pure Burnout. Paradise keeps the arcade action, the insane speed, the crazy crashes, the traffic, the shortcuts, the jumps that made the previous titles so enjoyable. The open world doesn’t take anything away, it adds to the experience. Rather than having to trawl through menus to choose your vehicle and your race and then wait for it all to load, you can just drive to where you need to go and go. The world functions as much as an user interface as a playground. Every intersection and every road in Paradise City is an event to be completed. The only difference between this iteration of the series and previous ones is that you never have to leave your car to do them.
The real genius in the game, though, is the transition to online. At any time in the single player you can press “right” on the d-pad and connect online. The transition to “freeburn” is seamless. There are no loading screens and there is no lobby. Nothing changes in the game except for the fact that now you are connected with people and you can freely communicate and/or co-ordinate with them. If you were collecting billboards and “smashes” and trying to do all the super jumps, you are free to continue doing so. The only limitation in “freeburn” is that you can’t initiate single player events at intersections (but again, you can seamlessly drop back into the single player campaign at your leisure.)
What there is in their place is a constant in-game leaderboard that tracks things like best drift, longest jump, best parking, best barrel roll. There are also challenges, 350 of them. Those challenges, initiated by the host, is where that collaborative playground aesthetic shines through. They can be minor items like “meet in the Wildcats Stadium” to a cumulative “perform X number of jumps” to more esoteric things like “everyone needs to jump off a specific place at the same time” to, my favourite, “everyone needs to meet in the hayloft of a barn,” which requires some tricky jumping to do. This is what reminds me of those sunny and cold winter afternoons.
It’s a great collaborative sand-box and probably the best online co-operative experience you can have on a console. What other game gets eight people from across the world together to accomplish, mutually, a single task? A single task that doesn’t involved beating or killing another eight people? With this kind of speed? With this kind of graphical fidelity and design? There’s nothing like it.
There’s no grand commentary here. No tales of morality. No musings on the nature of interactivity and agency. No metaphors on life and death. Burnout Paradise is nothing but pure play. And when everything else feels like it’s going to shit in these dark winter months, you really can’t ask for more from a game.
Best game of the year. So far.
- Check out episode 16 of the CrashFM podcast where the design team talks about the challenges and ideas involved in creating and balancing such an online world. Some interesting stuff there.
- Despite “DJ Atomika”‘s constant pattering and the annoying EA Trax music selection.