Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: Burnout: Paradise

Criterion Games

PS3, Xbox 360

After Burnout: Revenge was ported to the 360 mid-way through last year, adding a couple of HD splash screens, a pinch of native 720p resolution and healthy dose of shinier-than-thou next-gen attitude, there must have been a sense in the Criterion offices that the franchise had reached its logical conclusion – after four solid hits, there wasn’t much more the developers could do, working in the same framework. So what’s next? A series reboot, of course.

Burnout: Paradise keeps the gist of the series – missions in the game include typically shiny graphics, a near-overwhelming motion blur effect, the now-standard arcadey racing through busy traffic, and vehicular combat.

Since January, when Paradise was first launched, the game has actually changed considerably. In any other console cycle, this simply wouldn’t have been possible. Now, however, developers can release patches and updates to any title, just by making the game ‘phone home’ through the player’s broadband connection as it starts up. (This would be also a nifty but intrusive anti-piracy measure, should home consoles be plagued by counterfeit discs.) It also means that developers can still meet shipping dates without getting all the features nailed down, and in extreme cases, developers can be more sanguine about releasing buggy games – if it can be fixed with a quick patch, what’s the big deal?

Recent software updates to Paradise (oddly named ‘Bogart’, ‘Cagney’, ‘Davis’ and ‘Eastwood’ – collectively known as ‘Freeburn 2.0’) have resulted in the addition of motorcycles, day / night cycles and any number of online bug corrections, sequencing errors and gameplay balance tweaks. In a way, it’s a confluence of increased online play and the democratisation of gaming – developers Criterion have truckloads of data from ranked matches to sift through, and anyone who whines loud enough about the game’s balance on forums is likely to have their complaint checked out.

Now, a non-updated retail version of Paradise doesn’t have bugs per se, but the 180-degree handbrake turn away from the series’ common fallbacks has resulted in a few shortcomings, one of which still hasn’t been addressed through software updates. Instead of being based around individual missions, everything now takes place in one huge city, meaning that players have to drive around to find missions. Failing a mission means that you have to retrace your steps (or follow the smoking trail of wreckage, if you will) to the start of the mission – there’s no quick ‘retry’ option. For a series whose original appeal lay in its quick accessible nature, the biggest barrier to new and returning players is its fancy new feature – and it’s a big enough problem to make the game border on tedious. Paradise City is fascinating and exciting at times, but it’s as if the developers stopped halfway through making a sandbox game, and are periodically patching the thing to recreate their initial vision.

Driving something straight out of Back to the Future doesn't hurt, of course.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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