Baffling Video Game Sequels Part Three – Burnout Paradise

I’ll try to keep this entry mercifully short after that gargantuan rant, I promise.

The Burnout series is probably the only series of racing games I’ve ever been a real fan of. In truth, I’ve never understood the appeal of going round the same tracks over and over again, where the only way to improve your results is by planning and re-planning to take every corner with machine precision all in aid of shaving a few seconds off your best lap. I mean, guess I can understand how that could be appealing, I’m just not that kind of person.

Burnout mixed things up by taking the arcade racing format and adding an emphasis on destruction. Of course you can still just race the way I described before, if you want, but if you’re a more vindictive arsehole, like me, you can instead win the race by running all the other cars off the road while constantly being rewarded with slow-motion replays of your opponent’s car being brutally crushed against obstacles or flipped through the air.

Later games in the series put even more emphasis on the destruction side of things, with a revenge system and such, so when the next-gen iteration of the series was announced, I was pretty hyped and it was one of the first games I bought for my 360, when I still owned one.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t kept up with any development news regarding the game so I was surprised to discover the series had gone open-world for some reason, a trend that has become irritatingly popular among reboots, today, but in 2008 was still a reasonably fresh enough concept to not immediately set alarm bells ringing.

I was initially pretty impressed by the sheer scale of the world Criterion had managed to create, and I will admit their concept of a race that only has a start point and finish line, with no set course, was interesting in theory, but in reality it soon became much more of a hindrance than a freedom, because the only way to be sure the route you were taking was optimum, in any given race, was to constantly call up your map and see if you were even still going in the right direction.

The straight-up racing has always been second fiddle in Burnout though, the series is really all about mayhem, so imagine my surprise when I discovered that the series’ signature Crash Mode, where the player is dropped into a pre-determined map section and tasked with causing the most expensive pileup possible, was replaced with ‘Showtime’, a feature where the player can initiate Crash Mode at any time they want, with the objective now being to bounce your car around and hit as many other cars as possible before losing momentum. If you’ve ever played the Saints Row series and are familiar with the Insurance Fraud mini-game it’s the exact same thing only with a car instead of a ragdoll.

So what’s the problem with this? Well, like everything else in Paradise, the freedom to approach tasks however you want only serves to make the whole experience more bland as a result. Part of the appeal of Crash Mode was how the small maps were specifically designed so that hitting them in just the right way at the right time would cause untold amounts of carnage; they were practically puzzle games.

Meanwhile, the organic nature of Paradise means you’re often just driving around for ages looking for what you think would be a good place to start a crash, and even then you have no guarantee there’s going to be a constant heavy flow of traffic to help achieve the same kind of massive crossroad pile-ups that made the other games so much fun to play.

It might sound like a strange complaint to have, but Burnout Paradise simply offered too much freedom, to the point where I saw no reason to do anything, and most of my play sessions resulted in just driving around the map, occasionally ramping off of tall things. The rigid medal structure of the original games provided an addictive, just one more try, quality that Paradise couldn’t recreate because you couldn’t just reset the cars in the same location to try and hit them down again in a much more spectacular fashion.

This open-world freedom also hobbled other great game modes, like the takedown challenges where rather than trying to place first in a race, the event runs on a countdown which can be refilled by totalling your opponent’s cars. In the original Burnout games, the fact that these events were played on preset tracks meant you were always in close quarters with at least one opponent and you could get familiar with the route and learn where all the best spots were to take people down.

In Paradise, on the other hand, the roads are often so wide that you’re more likely to crash your own car into oncoming traffic while switching lanes just to get near an opponent, and that’s if you can even find them: the maps are so big that nine times out of ten you’ll spend more time running down the clock just trying to find and catch up to other racers than you will actually smashing into them.

All in all, while I applaud Burnout Paradise as an incredible technical achievement, it drained almost all of the magic from the series and diluted everything that made it special, and given that we haven’t heard anything from the series in almost seven years –aside from one top-down digital-only release that’s actually a lot of fun but nowhere near the originals– I’m afraid that Paradise may have sadly been the death knell of one of the greatest racing series ever made.