EA's spark-filled driving game kicks 2008 off with a bang.
Xbox 360, PS3
When I was younger and consumed by my love of skateboarding I often used to wonder what it would be like to be invincible, to be so confidant in your ability to withstand the fiercest spill that no obstacle would be intimidating. Burnout Paradise makes me feel that way. It's a driving game that empowers you and asks you to do the impossible, whether that's flying through busy city streets faster than you thought you could or soaring over off muddy jumps over sprawling countryside. EA's new take on the formula in this new PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game pushes it even further.
Developer Criterion has won millions of fans over the last seven years with a volatile cocktail of explosive graphics and eye-watering collisions. During the first hour or so I spent with the game, that was what impressed me most. The graphics are not only detailed at any speed but they're essentially flawless. The collisions are as horrifying as ever only now they're enhanced by the high-definition graphics. The sense of speed is quite unnerving and on more than a few occasions I found myself getting tunnel vision as I went faster and faster down the car-filled streets. But focusing on these aspects of Paradise misses the larger point of the game, which is true driving freedom, both off- and online.
If you played the demo that went up late last year you know all about the free-roaming composition of the main game. Intersections are not just characteristics of the road, they're races not yet born. There are over a hundred events in total, and they're not limited to just racing. There are modes where you need to do as many tricks in a set amount of time as possible and others where you need to survive a pack of rabid AI competitors out for your paint. Still others turn the table, asking you to take down rivals with abandon.
Races are made more interesting by providing just eight end-points, set at the main points on the compass. Whatever the race, the route ends up being the most important part, and to truly excel you're going to need to spend a lot of time studying the city, learning the layout and the quickest route to each of the finish lines.
Probably my biggest problem with the mechanics of the game is that it's impossible to retry an event you just failed. That's annoying in its own right. But when you consider that some races take you right across the sizable map, having to go all the way back to the start can get annoying. The level of annoyance is lower in the early part of the game because many races will end right where another starts, giving you incentive to make it back where you came from.
There's something else. Playing the game on your own can get a little dull as the sameyness of some of the races lowers your motivation. Take the game online, however, and that's when it truly starts to open up.
That Paradise works so well online is a marvel. When I played the game on the public servers I had no lag despite having one of the slower internet connections. The experience is essentially seamless. You can take the game online with a few presses on the D-pad and once there the experience is transformed.
Adding the human element makes everything more interesting. Even when you're not racing directly you'll be able to interact with the other players on the server. There are various challenges that flash across the screen, things like "Drift as far as you can" or "Stay in oncoming traffic". The racing is furious and thrilling, each curve taking on a new level of importance because you know there's a person on the other side of the connection gunning for the same line as you.
In the end, that's what makes Burnout Paradise so enjoyable to play - the rush that only real speed can bring. Whether you're playing the game at home alone or take the experience online, one thing's clear, EA has put together the finest game of this young year.