[11 February 2008]
There is a burgeoning research field in the concept of “flow” in video games. This refers to the zen-like state of being “in the zone”, seemingly functioning on autopilot, doing without consciously thinking. Certainly, this sort of state seems more achievable in games with fast action, where twitch reflexes are required for peak performance. While some games such as the Guitar Hero franchise and various fighting games encourage flow while offering some sort of soft decrease in reward as the flow state is lost, games like Geometry Wars and classic shooters pull you out of flow jarringly when a mistake is made. In that sense, this second kind of flow game is about the juxtaposition between flow and failure, with no middle ground. The Burnout franchise happens to be of this latter class of flow games.
If Burnout has classically been comprised of the flow-like state of weaving between cars and the more visceral experience of taking other drivers out, crashing in a slow motion ballet of steel and glass, how can the core concepts be further refined? In Burnout Paradise, the answer lies in widening the gap between the two, by making the initial state much more organic. Instead of structured races that are unlocked from a menu screen, the player is immediately dropped into a fully unlocked city with events at every street corner.
In essence, these events are all optional, given that a set number need to be completed to advance to the next driver’s license level. The choice of which events will be taken on to fulfill that goal is completely up to the player, and achieving the next level resets the events in the city which were previously completed, allowing you to do them again for credit towards the next license upgrade.
What’s interesting, though, is that for all of the open-endedness, Criterion has made design choices that seem like attempts to make the player experience the game as the developers themselves intended, which is somewhat ironic. The inability to restart races, for example, is almost certainly intended to force the player into a familiarity with the city. If the player fails an event, the expectation is that they will simply move on to another. Trial-and-error mechanics, however, go hand in hand with the sort of twitch-based experiences that traditional arcade-style racers provide. Certainly, Burnout Paradise strives to be more than traditional, and in many ways it succeeds, but some of the design choices may prove unappealing for people who simply wanted a modest update to the franchise. To be fair, Paradise City is quite disorienting at first, particularly given the sense of speed that the franchise is known for. These design choices, which revolve around an effort to force the player to learn the city might be heavy-handed, but they are arguably beneficial in acclimating to the game.
Burnout Paradise attempts to strike a balance between familiar elements of the series and radically different game design. As such, certain parts of previous entries were necessarily left out. Two of the most notable and unfortunate casualties are Crash Mode (which had been in every entry since Burnout 2 with the exception of Burnout Dominator, the only Burnout not developed by Criterion) and the aftertouch system.
While Crash Mode in its previous incarnation doesn’t quite fit into the environment of Paradise City, given that it was structured as something of a puzzle mode distinct from the other portions of the game, neither does its replacement, Showtime Mode. Altough the player can trigger Showtime Mode at any time, which ties into the freeform nature of the game, there are no tangible rewards for this mayhem. Perhaps a better system would have been to have Showtime or Crash events available at particular intersections, where they would be most feasible. The loss of aftertouch, the mechanic via which a player could nudge their car in midair after having been taken down in an effort to take down opponents and nullify their crash, is somewhat more puzzling. There seems to be no arguable reason for its exclusion, particularly with respect to race events and marked man events where it would be most useful.
In any case, Paradise executes its sense of immersion very well. This isn’t the sort of living, breathing city you would see in a series like Grand Theft Auto. There are no people walking the streets, and all of the cars are eerily empty. What this provides is the sense that the player is 5 years old, crashing matchbox cars into one another, and as such, it proves just as much fun to drive around seeing what the city has to offer, crashing through billboards and finding shortcuts, as it does to actively take on a challenge. A nice touch, only possible in this type of design, is the mechanic of certain cars unlocking in the city, allowing you to add them to your collection if you force them to crash, without any actual event associated. That is to say, after completing an event, you are periodically notified that a new car is now loose in the city, and can be yours if you destroy it.
This adds yet another layer of choice. You can go about your business, taking on events and driving around, taking out one of these cars if you happen to see it. Alternatively, you can actively seek it, which proves to be an interesting game of cat and mouse, particularly given that having spotted the opponent is no guarantee that you can cleanly take it down without crashing and losing sight of it.
Burnout Paradise succeeds, then, because of the chance taken by the developer to radically alter its structure. Had it been largely similar to previous entries in the franchise, it could easily have been argued that the franchise was stagnating. Criterion has wisely repackaged the core of Burnout into a more modern and abstract design. Paradise is clearly a Burnout game, but for the first time, it makes sense to discuss how a game fits into the Burnout universe.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/burnout-paradise/