a review of Burnout Paradise
a videogame developed by Criterion
and published by Electronic Arts
for Microsoft Windows, the microsoft xbox 360 and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by Alex Felix
Once upon a time, Criterion minded their own business, slaving away on some very elegant 3D code under the watchful eye of Canon. After one dot-matrix too many, somebody decided that their time would be better spent making videogames, and right around the time that their Burnout franchise went from a well-kept secret to Game of the Year, certain would-be Electronic Artists ate them up wholesale. A few in-game Obama campaign ads later, I’m told we’re in Paradise.
By hopping on the new-gen wagon and saying to hell with those terrible discontinuous menus, Criterion have reduced a game about nitrous-sodomizing driverless sports cars into a Nietzchean take on Slow Ride. True, EA’s other franchises got there years ago. In Need for Speed, you were lighting up the streetz, looking for trouble; in SSX3, you were careening down breathless vistas with a piece of fiberglass glued to your feet, just before the HD demon days made it possible for us to really asphyxiate.
In Burnout 3, those titles’ chronological brother, you were inserted into setpieces so tight that they had to be selected from a menu*, and told to aim at primary-colored targets in exchange for watching the best Rube Goldberg carnage a middleware developer could come up with. The races ultimately weren’t half as much fun as the domino-like Crash Mode, despite the fact that the latter could be mastered in about fifteen minutes of drift-around-corner-hit-nitrous-aim-for-4x-multiplier and was thus left to numberless lazy Sundays’ worth of trial and error.
With Burnout Revenge two years later, Criterion decided that it was time to intervene. Their technological showpiece about crashing cars had too many blue skies, and entirely too many solutions. What had begun as a racing game that was considerably more fun to look at than it was to play had grown a positively effervescent tumor; Burnout was the best puzzle game on the Xbox.
Revenge, without its power-ups, was a more organic videogame than Burnout 3. Usually, this is a good thing. If a particular genre – say, I don’t know, the 3D platformer – has reached a certain level of maturity, then we typically want the player’s moveset to make complete sense in the context of the game world. It’s OK if, in Ocarina of Time fashion, there’s no reason to perform certain moves out of context, and they prove it by not letting you jump straight up. It’s a little bit less so when your Hydra-slaying dance bears a suspicious resemblance to a Parappa routine**.
By this logic, it’s no small wonder that we remember Deus Ex so fondly, given that it wears its math far enough down its sleeve to slay Yazmat. Recall, though, that the era of “jumping puzzles***” was far removed indeed from Dachola and the Etecoons, and it becomes less of a cardinal sin that lockpicks should be consumable and cumulative. Contra: Shattered Soldier, meanwhile, was almost no fun at all when its winged block letters no longer fell from the sky – nevermind that the only winning strategy in its namesake was essentially “get the S and don’t die” – it’s the OPTION that makes all of the difference. We here at Action Button Dot Net don’t mind abstractions one bit, so long as they blink encouragingly and/or teach us to read. For heaven’s sake, though, don’t take them away without making it worth our while.
Recall No More Heroes, where the world’s being completely devoid of anything interesting to do seemed like nothing but typical Suda-commentary: “I have a point I’m trying to make, and if the actual digestion of said idea isn’t any fun at all, so much the better.” Although Criterion gets the nod for at least trying to entertain the player, this persistent world simply doesn’t have anything to say for itself. With no prostitutes to murder, there’s plainly no fooling around to be done; the idea of scouting ahead for shortcuts (when you just aren’t in the mood for an eighty-car wreck), no matter how well-intended, can’t be half as fun as in Beetle Adventure Racing, and it does little to conceal the fact that racing games have been reusing the same environments for years, regardless. That we no longer have to drive backwards in the middle of the race when we feel like wasting time is hardly fair compensation for not being able to teleport our store-brand muscle car from middle-of-the-freeway golf tee to middle-of-the-rickety-bridge golf tee.
*This is only as much hyperbole as you want it to be.
**And oh how I wish David Jaffe had actually copied one verbatim without anyone noticing.
***See also: “first-person adventure.”
As surely as our increasingly embittered generation scoffs at Yu-Gi-Oh! when they mix up postmodernism and obsessive-compulsion and announce one another’s life points in a James Earl Jones baritone while they’re playing Magic: The Gathering on the TV, videogame developers are trying harder and harder to make something other than videogames. Paradise City is a place where cars explode, and nothing ever happens. You can be sure that Michael Bay wouldn’t have been much of a success when we were still hand-cranking Edison’s picture boxes, and with so much mandatory manual stimulation, Burnout is meandering itself right out of the door. This is post-industrial Burnout, and the one thing it can’t sustain is the perpetual prorogue. For all of this meticulous crashing and burning, I’d be happier just to see Shao Kahn at the end of my checklist.
I’ve come to terms with modern game design, and I miss having God laying the dominoes for me.