An open world isn't necessarily something you'd expect from a racing game. Yet that's exactly what Eden Games did with Test Drive Unlimited, and it's what Criterion has done with Burnout Paradise. Around the fictional setting of Paradise City cars are meant to be smashed, shortcuts and super jumps discovered, and multiple routes toward the same finish line exploited. Winning challenges nets you new rides and better licenses to take on more difficult challenges, making for an extensive offline component and a much different type of feel for a game like this. While some issues inherent in any open world are present in Paradise City, the overall experience provides for some great entertainment, particularly for the sector of the PC crowd who has yet to try a Burnout title.
Paradise made its first appearance on Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3 in January of 2008, and since then, the games have been expanded with several downloadable packs. All the content so far, including a day / night cycle in the world, a collection of bikes, and additional online challenges, is built into the Ultimate Box version for the PC. There's also an option to restart events in the game, meaning you don't have to drive all the way back to the starting area if you want to try one again like was the case with the original release, which certainly makes things more convenient.
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The city itself isn't a metropolis teeming with life--you won't see pedestrians wandering around or anything like that--but there's plenty of traffic on the roads and shortcuts to discover as you freely drive around. While in the confines of your car you can pull up at stoplights to trigger events of different types, like stunt challenges, races, marked man (reach a finish line while other drivers try to smash you to bits) and road rage (destroy a set number of cars within a time limit) events, as well as timed runs. The cars that eventually become available fall into the categories of speed, stunt, and aggressive types, and all have their own specific statistics and styles of handling that make unlocking and testing them all out worthwhile.
One of the franchise's trademarks is the boosting system, a meter that builds as you drive dangerously, which works differently across the three types of cars. For instance, speed type cars can only trigger boost once the meter is full, aggressive cars can extend their meters by taking down opponents, and stunt cars earn more by doing tricks. With each car type, the boost provides a sensational acceleration that propels you forward at ridiculous rates. Criterion does an excellent job here of conveying a sense of speed to the player as the environment zips by, and with some practice you'll be able to keep things under control for the most part thanks to the system's overall responsiveness and solid feel. Whenever you do lose control and crash into a guardrail, passing traffic, or other racer, you're treated to a slow-motion scene of intricate vehicular destruction. While you may be cursing because the crash cost you time, broke a stunt combo, or dropped your race position, the slasher film-like brutality of the wrecks is still fascinating to watch.
What's lost in Paradise City is the feeling of structured challenge you'd get if the events were isolated instead of incorporated into an open world. When racing there's no specific path you need to follow in the game, which certainly has its strengths. If you've spent the time exploring, learning the shortcuts or the best roads to follow, you'll have a much easier time reaching the finish line. It'll be a while before getting to that point, however, since the city is a dense place. Shortcut routes are clearly marked with blinking yellow gates and jumps with bright blue, but where exactly they'll emerge takes some getting used to. It's fairly common to be speeding along and hitting a shortcut you think will easily get you to your destination more quickly, then emerging on the other side going the wrong way or on a road from which it'll take far too long to find your way back, forcing a restart. Once you've learned the ins and outs of the shortcuts this isn't as much of an issue, but in the meantime it's a better idea to stick to the streets.
Navigation is made easier through a few tutorials when you start up as well as a minimap, blinking turn signals and street signs as you race around. The signals adjust for your current position in the city, lighting up recommended paths to the finish line, though again there's a learning curve here as some of the turns come up so fast that they're easy to miss, especially if you're boosting. Once you know the city and its surrounding countryside and can rely more on memory and intuition to navigate than on the interface, everything's much easier.
With more free-form events like stunt runs and takedown challenges, you're free to go pretty much anywhere within the time limits, making navigation less of an issue. Since they're all open challenges that don't follow a pre-determined route, things can become a little repetitive after a while. The challenges themselves don't really change, instead the required point or takedown totals continually increase, meaning in the case of something like the stunt runs you'll find it best to combo chain your way over to an area you know to yield big returns instead of experimenting. Starting positions for the events do alter depending on which traffic light you use as a kick-off point, but the way each plays out tends to feel quite similar, especially when replaying events already completed for higher level licenses.
When not engaged with traffic light challenges there are a few other things you can do, aside from explore. On every stretch of road a record time can be put down, and at any time the game's Showtime mode can be initiated. Series veterans will be disappointed to know that this mode replaces the structured, puzzle-like crash modes of the franchise's past, and its randomness proves nowhere near as satisfying. Once Showtime is started your car barrel-rolls down the asphalt and, by smashing into traffic, you can bounce around more to accumulate points and multipliers. While the mode's mindless action can be entertaining as a momentary diversion, it's not something that'll keep your attention for any extended period of time.
Some of the best bits of action in Paradise are the periodic free-form car chases. As you win events you'll occasionally receive notifications that other drivers are buzzing around the world. If you take them down, you win their car. This means whenever you're not involved in an event there's a chance one of these drivers will whiz by and sometimes sideswipe you in the process. They're easy to pick out because they move so much faster than the rest of the traffic, and if you want their ride you'll need to pursue them on a high-speed chase across the landscape. Sometimes you can get lucky and smash them into a wall pretty quickly, but other times, especially if you're in a less powerful car when you spot them, the chases can go on for a while, and weaving through traffic and obstacles in pursuit of these drivers along their unpredictable paths hits on all the game's strengths.
For those who get tired of the offline competitions a wealth of online modes are available, from customizable races to more specific competitive or team-based challenges, which requires the creation of an EA account to get into. Up to eight players can gather in these modes, and there are statistic trackers to keep tabs on the times and records you put up. The tedium that can set in with the single-player content doesn't seem as bothersome in online play with live drivers around, as the race challenges become that much tougher and the threat of being smashed off the road that much more real. It seems Paradise City and its challenges were mostly constructed for this kind of play, letting the match host in freeburn modes set up stunt modes, marked man challenges, and plenty of other events on the fly as all the players in the server drive around the city. As long as you're in a match where the host knows what he or she is doing, it should make for a good time.
Communication between players is more of an issue. There's support for VoIP, but we couldn't find a way to text chat in the game, which is a strange omission on the part of Criterion. It's obviously not something you're going to use once an event's been initiated, but it would certainly help for talking to others, specifically the host, when determining which type of events to set up or coordinating with other drivers for some of the team-based challenges, since not everyone has headsets.
Then for offline play there's the added Party Mode which lets up to eight compete in brief challenges and scores the performance, adding it to a total and determining a winner after the rounds are complete. The idea is for participants to pass the controller around the room after each round, and while it's not clear how many PC gamers would try this out, it's merely a frill.
Performance on our PC (GeForce 8800 GTX 768 MB,2.4 GHz Quad CPU, 2 GB RAM, Vista 32) was smooth, which is important for a game so reliant on delivering a sense of speed. We had everything cranked to high and were running at 1920 x 1200 resolution, with only SSAO turned off as it dramatically decreased the framerate. The game also supports multiple control inputs and display across multiple monitors which, according to the readme, requires Matrox TripleHead2Go hardware or for Nvidia card users to enable "Horizontal Span."
The visuals aren't going to floor anyone, but the solid general performance, daytime lighting effects, and overall high quality of the car models make it easy to look at. The sounds are even better, with crisp, distinct effects for each car that whine, pop, and chug as they change gears and rocket to top speeds, enhancing the already fantastic sensation of rapid movement the game delivers and giving the world a more authentic feel. The fact that you can roll around listening to everything from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata to Soundgarden's Rusty Cage on the soundtrack is a nice bonus, though this can be disabled if you just want to listen to the mesmerizing symphony of engine screams and flourishes of snapping metal.
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