Those Tires Haven't Worn Out Yet
The games industry has been increasingly driven by franchises and rehashes. I would argue that one of the biggest influences on this trend has been Nintendo, counter-intuitively a company that prides itself on innovation. Although I agree that Nintendo has brought to market some of the most innovative gameplay concepts and systems ever made, they have also made an enormous amount of money on their core franchises and their respective mascots.
One gaming genre that almost always sees yearly updates is sports. In that case, such annual iterations seem slightly reasonable, given that fans of real world sports no doubt want to update rosters for the digital versions of the leagues they love. Never mind that in this day and age, those updates could easily be downloaded for a fee each year, since major innovations in sports franchise gameplay are few and far between. That system wouldn't net nearly as much money for game publishers. I'm simply saying that there are game franchises where sequels are presupposed.
The Burnout franchise, then, falls into a gray area. It neither requires annual roster updates, nor does it have a mascot to task with a new quest or mission each year, à la Ratchet, Jak, or Sly. That said, its updates must come solely from tweaks to the existing gameplay. The Burnout franchise has evolved to become one of the most adrenaline soaked and fun-to-play racers in a market strewn with racing games. This status was certainly warranted by the outstanding Burnout 3: Takedown, but it leaves developer Criterion with an interesting challenge. How to up the ante in the Burnout universe again without disrupting those elements which made previous games so much fun.
Certainly the game is still about the white-knuckle intensity of finishing a race first combined with the visceral thrill of causing an opponent to crash into oncoming traffic. Also thankfully present is the balletic and quasi-pornographic careening of car wrecks through the air. This gameplay mechanism still elicits the same voyeuristic glee. The crash mode still seemingly creates a compelling puzzle game out of thin air, tasking you with trying to figure out how to cause as much damage as possible at a particular intersection.
New to the series are race time "Crash Breakers", previously present only in puzzle mode. Now it's possible to make your car explode when you crash, potentially taking out any enemies within the blast radius. Traffic checking also makes its first appearance. It is now possible to drive through traffic either moving in the same direction as you or stopped, so long as the vehicle you are hitting is not of a vastly greater size than your own. These traffic checked vehicles then become flying projectiles that you can either launch at foes, or that tumble in your wake, causing obstacles for the competition to navigate. While this addition certainly represents an interesting and enjoyable gameplay dynamic, I'd wager that it would be very difficult to go back and play Burnout 3 again, as that game required you to dodge all but your enemies.
One thing that did not make it over from Burnout 3 is the array of icons in Crash Mode. Previously, it was possible to essentially see the correct route to take in the puzzle mode, given that the intersection was littered with instant Crash Breakers, Multiplier icons, and other score boosting power-ups. Now the playing field is empty save for the target traffic. While this certainly does make the game a little more challenging, I feel it's a step in the wrong direction. Crash Mode used to be about being able to accomplish what you could see was the right technique. Reflexes and timing were king. Clearly, that dynamic is at home in a racing game. Now it has become more about figuring out what to do. Unfortunately, that is a little at odds with the intensity that defines the rest of the game's experience. Further, it would have been nice to have the Crash Mode completely separate. As events unlock themselves, I found myself disappointed to have only Crash Events left after having finished everything I wanted to do.
Another negative difference between Burnout Revenge and Burnout 3 is the navigation of the main tour mode. In Burnout 3, a world map system showed you where new events were available at all times. Now, however, the mode is discretely separated into 10 classes. New classes become available to you, even while contests in the current class remain not only un-played, but still locked. That means that you have to check previous race classes constantly to see what new tasks are available for you. It's a rather cumbersome mechanic. Although it's jarring given the elegance of the majority of the rest of the game, by the time I was actually in the middle of a race, I found myself so focused that I didn't care.
The argument has little to do with whether or not Burnout Revenge is a good game. It is. End of debate. Very few games are as enjoyable, and the criticisms raised here simply underscore the fact that almost no game is flawless. The argument here is whether or not it's a good sequel. To put this into the context of the previously discussed changes, Burnout Revenge introduces gameplay dynamics that make it very difficult to play the previous games in the series. These marked differences are a brave (and enjoyable) choice in an industry that normally embraces franchise stagnation as a mechanism to guarantee sales. While I obviously don't agree with everything that was done to the gameplay formula, I do applaud Criterion for making another phenomenal racing game in a series that, unlike the Tony Hawk franchise, has not yet started to wear out its welcome.
5 October 2005