Friday, 28 March 2008

Burnout Paradise Is A Dirty Life Thief

Last week Canyon and I were lucky enough to be able to enjoy a long weekend together (trapped in the house because public transport in the UK shuts down during holidays. True fact!), a period spent catching up on Mad Men (we warmed to it by the time it had finished) and eating large meals. However, our equilibrium was threatened by a very stupid decision made last Thursday. I bought the latest installment of the superb Burnout franchise for Xbox 360, and even though it has failed to do the one thing I wanted it to, it has taken over my life.

At about this time of the week I usually post a long long dissection of the most recent episode of Lost, a week late but just in time for the next episode. Of course, it's off our screens for four more weeks, so I don't have that time limit going against me, but I still wanted to get it done, because, you know, it's Lost. Instead I have virtual-journeyed back and forth across the fictional Paradise City, from the Naval Dockyards to the Observatory, along Angus Wharf and then up around the top of the city into the windfarms, then down to the Wildcats Stadium, trying to memorise everything, find every hidden shortcuts and ramp and destructible billboard, all the time attempting to upgrade my licence and unlock better cars.

Last night I managed to find an untouched section of the city, and spent half an hour trying to crash into one billboard. I went up and down the same stretch of road about 100 times, each time missing my mark by a couple of inches and crashing into the same goddamn tree over and over again. When I finally smashed through that heinous billboard I screamed like Roy Scheider when Jaws blew up.

If you've not heard of Burnout before, a quick explanation. It's a racing game, and an incredible one at that. At least, it started out as a racing game, in the first iteration, but with traffic and suchlike to complicate matters, as well as a Burn Gauge that allowed you to drive faster for a short space of time, like a nitrous injection to your engine. That meter was filled when you did reckless things, a feature that partially explains its popularity. The other was the use of the Renderware engine (designed by Criterion), which ran fast enough to allow crash moments to be animated with more detail than was usual.

It was this feature that allowed Criterion to add a Crash Mode to the sequel, Burnout 2: Point of Impact, which was my introduction to the franchise, and is possibly my favourite version of the game. Part of that is because it's great fun and still remains a very entertaining racing game with only a few distracting bells and whistles (see below for more on the bells and whistles), but most of it is because a few years ago my mother fell very ill and while helping her convalesce I needed to switch off the clatter of worry in my brainblob, so I played this constantly. Like, for nine or ten hours at a time. And this coming from someone who only enjoyed one other racing franchise before (the futuristic craziness that was Wipeout), and usually think racing games are a load of old blah. Perhaps it's because I can't drive. (Another true fact!)

I also liked that it allowed you to play any music you liked while driving, and so I burned a couple of Blink 182 albums to the Xbox hard drive. Say what you like about that band, they are the perfect accompaniment to driving a virtual car at about 160mph into traffic. It's a hell of a rush, made all the more exciting because the music gets louder when you hit the Boost button, and that's before we get into the Burnout chains. Boost is only available once you've filled your Burn Gauge, and as you Boost, your Burn Gauge will run out. If you've managed to Boost without crashing, your gauge gets filled again, and you keep Boosting. If you keep doing it right, it fills up again and again, and you can keep Boosting until you screw up. I think my longest chain was about 13 Boosts in a row, though afterwards I realised I had forgotten how to blink and my hands wouldn't release the controller.

If you're not interested in the racing, Crash Mode in Burnout 2 allows you to use the car like a kind of wrecking ball, sending it hurtling into traffic and trying to cause as much damage as possible. That damage is calculated in dollars, and you get medals for surpassing certain targets. It's great fun, though it was at this point that the series started to concentrate less on the racing and more on unique modes like Crash Mode and Canyon's personal favourite Road Rage (where the tracks become demolition derbys and you have to destroy as many enemy cars as possible by slamming them into walls or traffic).

They're kinda gimmicky, but that's not to say they aren't generally awesome, and they set the game apart from your bog-standard straight racing games. They also work well as a party game, and guests have been sucked into it completely (it's one of those games that will be played by people without their own console who will subsequently talk feverishly about getting their own machine just to play that game). Though I'm nostalgic for the relative purity of the second version, the following editions with their insane multiplayer modes were where our obsession really took hold.

Burnout 3: Takedown generated a lot of attention for its increasingly complex crash physics and astonishing speed and beauty, and I love it dearly too, but it still felt a little gauche compared to its predecessor. There were little tinkerings with the game that annoyed me. The ability to listen to your own music was present but selecting songs was finicky, boosting using the Boost Gauge was made easier (which meant no more Burnout chains, and Boosting was available no matter how much flame you had in your Burn Gauge), Crash Mode was altered and less chaotic, though it was more fun to play with a group, etc.

Actually, I bitch about the music thing, but Burnout 3 features the best soundtrack of any of the games, with a brilliant set of "EA Trax", as they're called (yes, EA are trying to copyright a new word for "music"), including I Wanna Be Sedated by The Ramones, Orpheus by Ash, and many others, though none of which are as reality-alteringly awesome as Decent Days and Nights by The Futureheads [more like reality-stabilizingly boring. Zing! --Canyon], which remains one of my favourite songs ever, an opinion not affected by the weakness of their second album. With choices like that, not being able to play my own music wasn't as big a deal as it would become in later versions where the music is much less interesting.

Burnout 4, or Burnout: Revenge as it is known, was the first game in the franchise to graduate to a next-gen console, and the result is staggering. The non-racing stuff is more prominently featured, often with differences from previous games that harm the game as much as they improve it, but those next-gen graphics were astonishing, making the experience even more exhilarating and immersive. I have both the Xbox and Xbox 360 versions, and playing the older version is now a waste of time. Burnout: Revenge is the version we've played the most (as Road Rage is particularly incredible in this version), though some of the choices (such as fiddling with the Crash Mode and adding Traffic Attack, where you can knock traffic out of your way if you crash into it) are not so great. [Admiral Neck only complains about Traffic Attack because he sucks at it. Traffic Attack is awesome! --Canyon] But that Road Rage. Hooboy! I'm serious, Canyon is more than formidable at it. In the apocalyptic Mad-Maxian future, I'm calling shotgun with her, soon-to-be-crushed bitches!

So, being huge fans of the franchise, we figured getting Burnout Paradise would be a smart choice, filling our long weekend with much Road Raging and Crash Moding, in-between watching Don Draper ruin that weaselly little shitball Peter Campbell. However, it was not to be. Much to our disgust, Paradise doesn't feature offline multiplayer modes, so we can't play it together. Canyon is particularly disgusted by that, and though she likes the game in general, she considers the loss of offline multiplayer is the biggest strike against it, and I have to agree.

This version is the most different of all, gambling on reinventing the franchise by creating an enormous and complex city to drive in, with four types of event - Race, Road Rage, Burning Routes, Stunt Run and Marked Man (the latter two new twists on old formulas) - starting at junctions throughout the metropolis. As expected, this new format has angered a lot of people. Screw up an event, and you have to drive back to the junction you started at to redo the race, which can be very difficult if you haven't memorised the city. As I'm happy to forget about an event if I've screwed it up, I'll just move on to something else. Canyon is much less happy about that, and I see her point. If you want to get an event right by redoing it over and over, it's totally counterintuitive.

However, even though neither of us are fans of sandbox games (though I did enjoy Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and Crackdown), the sheer size and complexity of Paradise City is a marvel. This interactive map of the city doesn't even begin to show how much is going on. I've been playing it all week and have only completed 24% of the game, though I have been concentrating on exploring and trying to memorise the city instead of trying to finish the events. What's most amazing is how real it feels. When trying to explain my love of gaming to others, I have tried to describe the joy I get from exploring virtual spaces and being moved by their design. A truly great game, like Halo or Silent Hill, will often exist in a virtual world so well designed that it feels like a real place.

Burnout Paradise is one of the best examples of that I've ever experienced. It has a character all its own, helped by the road names, range of different areas, Crash FM radio station (whose DJ Atomika is that rarity, an in-game narrator who is helpful and not annoying), etc. It's cohesive and varied and beautifully designed. Plus, its theme song is Paradise City by Guns n' Roses. Perfect.

The music in this version is frustrating. When I loaded it up the first few songs made me think I was onto a winner: Us v. Them by LCD Soundsystem, Would? by Alice in Chains, Stand and Deliver by Adam and the Ants, My Curse by Killswitch Engage, and a few other great choices (the Avril Lavigne song included, Girlfriend, works much better than you would expect). Then the generic rock anthems kick in, many of which sound like they're sung by Chris Cornell imitators, made all the more embarrassing by the inclusion of the mighty Rusty Cage by Soundgarden to show them how it's done. Once the rock tracks have stopped the game cycles through themes written for earlier versions of the game, and that's kind of the whole point of the game, something I have grown to realise after hours of gameplay.

Beyond the enormous city with its shortcuts and secret playgrounds (and coming soon: downloadable expansions!), and the awesome visuals, and mostly great soundtrack, the best thing about it is the nostalgia. Different cars have different attributes, allowing you to play the game as if playing previous versions of Burnout. Some cars are powerful enough to use in a Traffic Attack mode, knocking smaller cars out of the way. Some allow Burnout chains (yay!). Many allow Boost whenever there is a flamey thing in your Burn Gauge. It's like a compendium of previous versions, which is the sweetest surprise of all. Basically, you can make the game into the version of Burnout you want it to be by making a few selections. Though Canyon is right when she says that the amorphous nature of the game makes it less appealing than the very linear previous editions (especially in terms of being able to replay certain events), you still have the ability to make it resemble the game you once played.

And yet, and yet... That multiplayer option is still missing. Yes yes, I know, it can be played online, and is probably intended to be played online more than as a single player experience (Microsoft love to get people to subscribe to Xbox Live, after all), but a) it's still too expensive (not prohibitively, obviously, but I still think subscription fees are steep) and b) playing Halo 2 online for a couple of months meant I've had a lifetime's fill of being told to go fuck myself by 12 year olds. In theory I love the concept of online gaming, but the little jerks who are on there all the time waiting for their genitals to drop are not worth dealing with, and no, it's not because they are much better at gaming than me. Seriously. It's not that. Seriously. Oooh look, an interesting shiny object behind you! ::jumps into virtual car and drives into oncoming bus::

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