Monday, January 28, 2008

Burnout in Paradise

It's entirely possible that I'll be getting extremely boring in the days ahead (even for those of you that don't think this is incredibly dull already) as I've just started really playing Burnout Paradise in earnest, and am having the time of my life with it. Having heard the disparate views on the way the game had evolved since Burnout Revenge, I approached the whole thing with an open mind... but with some disappointment already creeping in around the edges due to the loss of "Crash Mode." The last couple of Burnouts held my attention for longer than most games in part because of this, so the lack of it's wacky golf/bowling hijinks was a little disappointing.

I needn't have been concerned though. What Criterion has built instead is an incredible evolution of the racing game - and something that will no doubt completely change the way the genre is tackled in future. In many ways it reminds me as much of playing Crackdown as it does Burnout, and while I'd expected a high-speed refinement of Atari's deeply flawed Test Drive on 360, it's so much more than that.

So, while I'll no doubt return to the subject again and again, as my obsession with it grows, here's a braindump of unconnected thoughts so far:

- I love how it doesn't shit all over the HUD with information you don't need. There are no fake gauges, and there's no useless information obscuring the view. It doesn't need to tell you how fast you're going, because it's pretty obvious that it's really fucking fast.

- The Crash Mode replacement, "Showtime" takes some getting used to, but I'm now thoroughly enamored by it. You have to learn the rhythm of the traffic, but hurling your car into an intersection and then reading the traffic flow can be a thing of real beauty. At first I was pumping the "bounce" button way too hard, but I soon learned that you can fall into collisions and let the traffic flow do a lot of the work for you. As with the obsession I developed in Revenge for achieving a certain score (I couldn't leave a level alone if I didn't bust through at least $1 million, regardless of requirement) I've developed a similar need to hit at least 100 cars in order to feel "complete." Experimentation has lead to a much greater understanding of how the mode really works, and it's clear that there are three keys to success: buses (they give you multipliers, but they seem to appear at random), confined spaces (a tunnel or a bridge narrows the traffic flow, and it means that the AI is way more predictable in the way it swerves to avoid you, so you can hit things more reliably) and distance (doubling back on yourself in the tunnels and on the bridges means you stay in control, and you get the larger distance bonus.)

I just read that paragraph back to myself, and it makes me sound like some crazy OCD gamer. I'm really not. This just seems to bring out certain tendencies in me.

- Zoe used the phrase "Burnout Facebook" today when talking about the game. I don't think it's a phrase she coined (it might have been someone at the studio she used to work at, I don't know) but it's certainly a valid observation. Knowing that JakeJuice just nailed a street in record time, or that Momopeche somehow managed to do $5.5 million worth of damage on East Crawford Drive introduces a completely new gameplay element. By limiting the tracking to just people on your friends list, every stat posted has relevance. It gets people talking, and the real genius is that it gets more and more people playing together - whether actively (challenging directly) or passively (just chasing each other's scores.) There have been a number of times where I've dropped whatever I was doing in the game, and started on a totally different path simply because I felt I could beat a posted time by someone I know.

Again...kinda OCD, huh? This is shedding a whole new light on my need to tidy things up at home too. I'm turning into Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. Hang on a sec while I go and wash my hands...

- Although I only really started playing this past Saturday, I've already logged over 8 hours on the game, and nailed 10 Achievements (yes, I'm playing the 360 version, despite Alex and Pete at Criterion telling me I should play the PS3 game... what can I say? There's a 360 in the bedroom.) Now, I don't know about you - but in my house right now, squeezing that much play time into a weekend is an achievement akin to the moon landings. I haven't played anything (that wasn't for work, specifically) in such density in a long time. Probably since either Crackdown or Oblivion, I bet.

- The game works on a lot of levels. I'm playing in a lot of different ways myself (including all the OCD crap, apparently) and when I introduce my four-year-old into the equation, it still stays relevant. Although he doesn't understand the subtleties of the new UI, he loves cruising around and looking for the yellow gates to smash through, and he's already getting the hang of Showtime. He'd love to play the races, but I think it's a bit much for him currently.

Which brings me onto...

- Getting lost. Which happens a lot. I'm with N'Gai on this one, I'm afraid. Although I appreciate the fact that you can tackle a race however you want, and that familiarity with the environment is rewarded, I do find it a bit frustrating when I miss a subtle turn in a race because I was concentrating too hard on not hitting stuff or, y'know, hitting stuff. It's not a complaint per se, but the fact that I've been having problems with it means that my boy's not going to dig into the races this time. This is basically another voice in the debate about the merits of "closed" races. While I fully endorse the decision to go completely open, I think we have to acknowledge that it might have lost a bunch of people along the way. Especially younger, or less experienced players. The irony, of course, being that in the endeavor to make Burnout more of a plaything (and consequently a bit more "casual"?) it's also gone super hardcore in some areas. While I wouldn't ever advocate a return to the "old" ways, I do think that a "do-over" button would be a good addition. If this were something that could be done in a patch, without having to wait a few years for a sequel, that would be incredible - but I have absolutely no idea how complicated implementing something like that might be.

- Road Rages were always big favorites of mine, but in Paradise they are just so much more aggressive. The satisfaction from achieving a "rampage" is huge, and the violence of the whole thing is so much more pronounced thanks to the quality of the presentation. It's not just that the graphics are insane, or that the whole thing moves so face-meltingly fast, but the way that the camera portrays the action.

OK. I think I'm done for now, but there's a strong chance I'll be returning to the subject, as I'm basically playing nothing else lately. I've fallen for Burnout Paradise, and fallen hard.
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