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Burnout Paradise Remastered (PlayStation 4) artwork

Burnout Paradise Remastered (PlayStation 4) review

"Criterion's open-world opus is a masterpiece in search of a legacy."

Even in its heyday, there was always an element of Burnoutís success that felt downright rebellious, like it was happening despite the desires of the powers that be. Electronic Artsí driving game priorities consistently lay elsewhere, specifically with the Need for Speed franchise, the reasoning being that its sales peaks were higher, with the licensed cars apparently holding enough appeal to continually seduce new customers. Burnoutís lack of marketability was confusing at the time and still is now: I donít get how a game that revolves around fast cars smashing into each other is a difficult sell, but EA found a way. In hindsight, it was an omen of what was to come for EA as a company, as theyíve focused most of their development energy on anger-inducing potential blockbusters and not much else. It is also hard to imagine the modern version of the company giving a smaller developer like Criterion to take this many swings at a concept unless it was related to a larger licensed IP. Games at Burnoutís level are rarer nowadays, which explains why it was so exciting when EA finally re-released Burnout Paradise, the last full game in the series. The announcement also came with some trepidation. In the past year, EA has managed to kill Mass Effect and fuck up a Star Wars game so badly that the fandomís nascent rage actually felt warranted for once. (Although, we should probably be thankful that someone took loot boxes so far that publishers will have to rethink how they extract extra money out of consumers.) It wasnít out of the question that EA couldíve screwed this up in some inexplicable way. But thatís the thing about Burnout games: at their best, their greatness feels unstoppable.

Criterion found Burnoutís best self in increments. The series began life under the stewardship of Acclaim Entertainment, who published the first two Burnout games. As a relative latecomer to these games, itís fascinating to see where the series started and where it ended up. The first Burnout was a fairly traditional racing game. Its three game modes (Championship, Race, Time Attack) more or less boil down to ďdrive faster than the AI in this race/series of races and youíll winĒ. Burnout 2: Point of Impact is where things started getting weird. This is where the Crash mode made its debut, an ingenious remix of the core game that recontextualized driving as a means to solving puzzles. This addition drew a lot of praise, and the game as a whole reviewed very well. But the thing that transformed the series from a sleeper hit to a masterpiece, the last ingredient missing from the formula, was violence.

Burnout 3: Takedown was the moment where Criterionís name began to ring bells. Has there ever been a more evocative subtitle in games? The seriesí latest feature was so groundbreaking that they put it in the gameís title. Itís a hard game for me to think about critically because simply typing out the name of the game puts a smile on my face. There have been plenty of car combat games made in the past, but none of them mixed physicality, speed, and creativity the way Criterion did. Burnout 3ís control of pace is masterful - the still impressive speed of the cars played off of the slow motion-inducing takedowns flawlessly. Discovering all of the special takedowns was a game in its own right. I still go back to that game once or twice a year, via the re-release version for the Xbox 360. If itís not my favorite game of all time, itís on the shortlist.

The problem with instant classics is that you have to follow that work with something that will inevitably pale in comparison. Burnout Revenge is an excellent game, but it couldnít quite hit the standards set by its predecessor. Traffic checking was a neat feature but it shifted the physics balance off too far into the extremes. The cars felt cheap and weightless; all of the action felt chintzier as a result. But Burnout Revengeís other issues stem from a less tangible place. The clear blue skies of Takedown were supplanted by desaturated industrial complexes that made the game look like it took place in the extended CSI: Miami universe. The turn towards the grimdark was in step with the prevailing stylistic attitudes of the time, when it was taken as fact that gritty and dull sepia-toned colors were synonymous with quality. But this aesthetic never felt appropriate for Burnout. Revenge is inherently a vindictive and bitter concept. Burnout is joyous and uninhibited. It just felt a bit awkward.

Burnout Paradise returned to a more welcoming environment. The game takes place in Paradise City, a sun-soaked sprawl that remains one of the most enjoyable sandboxes around even now. The intervening years since Paradiseís initial drop have only made Criterionís maiden voyage into open world games even more impressive.

Itís amazing to think that this new direction was slightly controversial at the time. Itís understandable though. Burnout Paradise is the least structured game in the series - there are few games where you spend less time in menus than this one - and not every feature made the journey forward. One of the most substantial changes Criterion made for Burnout Paradise was the removal of Crash Mode for the first time since its inception. This bothered a lot of people, which is understandable because Crash Mode rules. The gameís closest analog is Showtime mode, which wasnít as good. Nostalgia is a deeply deceptive emotion - getting stuck in the past is rarely the healthiest option - but itís a natural reaction to change beyond oneís control. Burnout 3 will always be my favorite Burnout game, partly due to reasons that have nothing to do with the actual game. It was one of the last games I played with my sister as a kid. Iíve played every race, unlocked every car in the game several times over. Iíve gotten every ounce of fun out of that thing as I could. By contrast, there is a significant piece of Burnout Paradise that just isnít for me. The multiplayer format was ahead of its time. The seamless relationship between online and offline modes was a precursor of modern game design. It was one of the first console games to incorporate MMO-style group challenges. I can recognize its excellence, but ultimately, cooperative multiplayer fills me with more anxiety than excitement. A wave of shame washed over me as I became the only person in an eight-player game unable to power park my car. But I canít complain much considering how eagerly I spent dozens of hours riding around the pier again. Criterion picked a direction and went for it. A direct sequel to Burnout 3 is likely better in my head than on my console. Instead of making another standard car game, Criterion made a freeform landscape where you mostly have to make your own fun. But there are few games where fun is as readily available as Burnout Paradise.

Paradise City is structured less like a city and more like an intricate, vehicle-based theme park. Certain sections of the space appear to be modeled after different sectors of modern America. (The downtown areas feel like a mix of California with a little New York thrown in, and the more rural areas read as the Pacific Northwest to me.) Streets are flanked by offices and beaches and strip malls. It looks true to life, but Criterion has little interest in making this space seem more real than it has to be. Playing the game for the first time in years, I was shocked at how much muscle memory I still had regarding the cityís terrain. Itís a testament to the achievement of design that Criterion pulled off here. Thereís an official event at every intersection, and various secrets around every corner - a super jump off a mountain, a giant billboard just begging to be smashed, a bright yellow gate blocking the path of an unseen back road. These side activities have their use - itís the most rewarding way of revealing shortcuts for races that will take you across the same stretch of terrain fairly often (there are only eight finish lines in Paradise City.) - but theyíre fun to find for the sake of themselves. Iím not someone who gets obsessive about collectibles in games very often, at least not ones that incentivize such obsessions with upgrades or items for your character. But finding them never feels like busy work, more like a compulsory element of the game. There are 400 gates in Paradise City. I happily found 200 of them in the first time with the remaster.

This is a game that revels in its sense of self, an attitude that seeps into every part of the package. Itís a minor miracle that this game isnít mind-numbingly corny. The in-game radio is controlled by DJ Atomica, who also provides commentary on your driving over the course of the game. He has the douchey affect that afflicts many a West Coast DJ bro, and yet I canít help but like him. The ads are uniformly stupid in a good way, just on the edge of clever and trying too hard, but you're usually driving so fast that you donít get a good look at them. The vibe of Burnout Paradise strikes a balance between irony and sincerity, prime real estate for the mid-aughts emo and pop punk that makes up most of the gameís soundtrack. (It also features that Guns Ní Roses song, because duh.) I wouldnít listen to most of this Hot Topic core-ass music outside of this game, but it fits the tone of the series so precisely that any attempts to resist the charms of Adam and the Ants or Brand New are soon swept aside. Even my love of Avril Lavigneís ďGirlfriendĒ, an undeniable pop classic, started ironically back in the day - it was the safest way for me, a straight, black teenage boy to enjoy a song that societal norms told me I was not supposed to like - but inevitably became legitimate thanks largely to being forced to hear it non-stop while playing this game.

Burnoutís best attributes reveal themselves at high speed when the engines roar loudest and the slowed down takedown replays are at their most effective. No one needs to be told to go fast in a driving game, but some of the ways Criterion encourages riskier driving can be more subtle. The first time through Burnout Paradise, I was annoyed by the AI-controlled carís predilection urges to swerve into your path at random intervals. So many unforced deaths because of fodder cars having the gall to behave like theyíre the star of this town.

As a teen, I defined these deaths as ďsome bullshitĒ. But now I see it as a clever piece of a developer nudging you to play the game in the most enjoyable way, tempting destruction constantly.

The takedown mechanics understandably steal a lot of focus, but Burnoutís proficiency as a pure racer still gets overlooked too easily. Its sense of speed, and the ways it warps the vistas youíre speeding past, has somehow gotten even more impressive over time. What makes Paradise, and the whole Burnout franchise in general, so special is that these games appreciate the physicality of cars without getting obsessive about the specific details of what makes the cars go fast. Criterion kept it simple. Too many driving games get caught up in chasing realism at the expense of good gameplay. This makes sense in franchises like Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport, but even the last Need for Speed game had a needlessly ornate and manipulative upgrade system where you improved minute pieces of your car that didnít jive with the rest of the game. Burnout Paradise understands that the allure of driving lies in the freedom it provides, not the sum power of its technology. Thereís a versatility to the cars at your disposal that makes finding and unlocking new cars immediately enticing.

Burnout shouldíve been a bigger deal, but itís lower status did have its benefits. Burnout Paradiseís DLC rollout felt vaguely illegal in some way. Like, how did EA of all companies sign off on this release strategy? As games became more expensive to make, publishers spent much of the last generation figuring out how they could pass those expenses onto consumers. EA we're at the forefront of this movement, using online passes and one-use codes in an attempt to cut out the used games market. With Burnout Paradise, Criterion chose a different strategy to keep gamers from cutting their losses: just keep cranking out content people want to see. Paradise was supported for a year with an array of updates, both free and paid. The DLC ranged from quality of life improvements - you couldn't actually restart events for months after the original game came out - minor experiments that expanded what a Burnout game could be - the bike pack - and just plain goofy shit, like the unlicensed Deloreon or the Ecto-1. The coup de grace to this "Year of Burnout" as they called it, was Big Surf Island, a beachside enclave dedicated to the art of sick ass jumps. It was thrilling to watch a noted developer tinker with a game so much after release. It was rare, for console games at least, to evolve so much after they came out.

This is the norm now. Games as a service is a much more prevalent concept now then it was then, to the point where games releasing in early access before they're actually done is an accepted practice. One of the many reasons Fortnite is such a phenomenon is that the map is a living document that continually gives players a reason to come back and see how it has changed. (The hell is up with that cube man?) Paradise was a precursor to the increased ubiquity of post-launch support for online games. That strange feeling canít be replicated with a remaster. For this re-release, all of the added cars and motorcycles are available at the start. There was no other option, but having all of that stuff at the beginning of the game gives players the opportunity to break the progression from the outset. The cars you race against level with you, but the unlocks from each license rank donít, so itís probably best not to use those cars until you've earned a higher license.

On the margins, Burnout Paradise has shown slight signs of aging. The inability to set waypoints was annoying at the time, and itís deeply frustrating now. Changing or adding new features to a remaster of the old game can be a tricky balance, but in this case, EA couldíve done something to modernize the game in an unobtrusive way. But the vast majority of the game still stands up today. Burnout Paradise does the most better than any other racing game. Sadly, Criterionís public experiments werenít enough to move the needle for the franchise or the developer. At the time, Burnout Paradise seemed to represent the future of the franchise, and the path forward for the racing game genre as a whole. What initially looked like the fortification of a critically adored studio turned out to be the last burst of a dying star before late capitalism worked its magic to dim their star.

Once you go to paradise, the only place left to go is down. The last few years have seen Criterion backsliding into irrelevance. The writing was on the wall once they designated to the Need For Speed division. Their first take on the franchise, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, was released in 2010, and it received widespread praise from reviewers. I remember enjoying quite a bit myself. But as the first game from the developers who used to make Burnout, you could already sense a taming of the senses. The cars just didnít smash into each other at quite the same velocity. But Burnout wasnít immediately forgotten. The alluringly titled Burnout Crash came out in 2011. Crash mode means a lot to many people. Invoking that name gives fans a very specific idea of what to expect from that game. And those expectations do not lead to a top-down game seemingly made for phones. Again, not a bad game, but it just wasnít what people wanted. The next two years brought two Need For Speed games, Most Wanted and Rivals, the latter of which was a collaboration with Ghost Games, a studio that took on many ex-Criterion employees prior to release. In hindsight, the events of 2014 strike a funereal tone: Criterion co-founders Alex Ward and Fiona Sperry left to launch the independent studio Three Fields Entertainment at the beginning of the year. During EAís press conference at E3 2014, what was left of Criterion released a bizarre concept video for an extreme sports collection that would take players from the skies to the seas to the mountains. It looked like an inert piece of vaporware from the jump. That it was quietly canceled later on surprised no one. Since then, their ambitions have been lowered to being a support studio for EAís poisoned chalice, the Star Wars license. They made a VR game and arranged deck chairs for Battlefront 2ís multiplayer mode before the loot box fiasco derailed the enterprise before it ever had a chance. Criterion Games still exist as an entity, but the freedom and creativity that made them stand out appears to be sufficiently snuffed out. A new Burnout isnít likely, and considering the litany of big-name titles decimated by the slow-moving train wreck that is EAís development processes, thatís probably a good thing.

The death of Burnout coincided with the industry-wide freezing of the arcade driving genre. There was a good mix of longterm stalwarts (Need For Speed, Wipeout, Trackmania) and newcomers (Motorstorm, Blur, Split Second), all attempting to do different things with racing games. That mine was emptied by the time the PS4 and Xbox one came around. The only two series till going into the current generation were the increasingly haphazard Need for Speed (currently stuck in a ditch off of a Las Vegas highway), and Forza Horizon, which is still too indebted to the Forza Motorsport games from which it spawned to get too crazy.

Even the minds behind the best games in the genre couldn't get it together. Three Fields Entertainmentís Danger Zone looked like a fine piece of nostalgia: the sales pitch was a modern version of crash mode from the people who invented crash mode in the first place. The reality was much more disappointing. The environments were bland, the atmosphere was non-existent, the lack of a budget was palpable. At that point, it felt reasonable to be fatalist about the state of the genre. Maybe these types of games went away for a reason.

2018 is mostly a surreal, unending hellscape, but there has been an uptick in this one narrow lane. This year has seen a small renaissance for arcade driving games. The Paradise remaster, Onrush, and Wreckfest are all good, inventive driving games. Three Fields made a sequel to Danger Zone, and itís much better by all accounts. The Crew 2 also came out. None of these games seem to be selling especially well, but itís nice to hope that somebody will take on the mantle Criterion set up ten years ago. There's still nothing like it.


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Community review by sam1193 (September 06, 2018)

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