For many people Criterion's Burnout Paradise demonstrated for the first time what racing games could, and perhaps should be on this generation of consoles, but a few people were missing out. The PC and its army of fans weren't invited to the next-gen party. A year later, with numerous additions to and improvements over the original, Burnout Paradise: The Ultimate Box has boosted onto the PC (and consoles too incidentally, including a DLC upgrade for existing owners) and it has well and truly been worth the wait.
Right from the off you literally have the entire city at your disposal, with no load times, no menu screens and no hiccups - it's seamless. To start with you must create a Drivers Licence and add a photo (if you've got a webcam hooked up), but from then on all you'll be seeing is game. You start with a pretty slow (relatively speaking) car or a not so slow bike (part of the released console DLC but included from the start here) and you're off, exploring Paradise City and taking part in the huge number of events scattered about - of which there are even more than when Xbox 360 and PS3 owners were screaming around Paradise city in January 2008. You're free to do as you wish.
The structure of previous Burnout games has been replaced with a pick and choose system where you simply cruise up to some traffic lights to start the associated event, be it a Race, Road Rage, Marked Man, Stunt or Burning Route. Some are familiar, some play very differently and some are brand new. Road Rage events see you taking down a required number of opponent cars, smashing them into walls, into oncoming traffic, into each other or however else you manage to remove their wheels. It's brilliant fun and made all the better thanks to the free-roaming city, with the carnage being taken far from the starting line.
Marked Man requires you to drive from one location to another while a pack of powerful black cars attempt to take you out, relentless in their attack - total your car and you'll be staring at failure. This mode perhaps makes best use of the open city, with your cunning often being the key to survival - shortcuts and small alleys are perfect for staying out of harm's way.
'... in races it's all too easy to miss a turn while you're moving at an insanely high speed.'
Stunt events ask you to tally up a certain number of stunt points by driving with some style. It works by utilising a combo system, so it's key to link together stunts. Whether you're simply power sliding around a bend, barrel rolling off a ramp or getting big air, your stunt combo will continue. An on-screen clock will indicate how much time you have to perform another stunt and keep the combo going, ramping up the pressure on spotting another stunt opportunity. Luckily a tap of the boost button acts as a stunt so you can use this to move between awkward areas of track.
Of all the event types it's Stunt that seems to have benefited from the city's design the most. After a while you'll be spotting ramps all over the place, getting big air off a side road or power sliding for whole roads at a time. Had we still been racing in closed streets this event type would likely reach a score limit pretty quickly, but in Paradise City you're always discovering new routes and stunt possibilities.
Burning Route events are car specific and ask you to complete a time trial. The problem is that unless you complete each route as you get into a new car, towards the end of the game you're going to have to do a lot of car swapping, which can become quite tedious.
It's the Race events that will polarise opinion on the game though. The only way to complete an event (and in turn get one step closer to increasing your drivers licence rating) is to win it, and this soon becomes pretty tricky. The open nature of the city isn't a problem in the other event types, but in races it's all too easy to miss a turn while you're moving at an insanely high speed.
The game tries to help you out, with the on-screen compass and blinking indicator-like street name image telling you a turning is coming up, but in the heat of the moment these are nowhere near as helpful as giant flashing corner signs seen in previous Burnout games. During races on the more restricted roads, you'll often only have one route to take towards the end, so miss that one vital turn and it's effectively race over.
Thankfully Criterion has listened to fans and realised that a restart event option is needed, so newcomers to the game won't have to contend with the same tedium of driving back to the start point that the rest of us have had to put up with for a year. If you realise you're performing badly during an event you can simply bring up the in-game menu and hit restart, whereas if you've finished you can simply choose to replay the last event you tried.
Don't get us wrong; the open nature of the city is brilliant, but the race events don't suit this set-up and we'd have preferred barriers to be put in place during these events, making for less frustration and more fun. It might have shattered the illusion of street racing in an open city, but considering the benefit to gameplay it's a sacrifice we'd have accepted.
How well you do in each of these events also depends a lot on the car you're driving. You've got three types: speed, aggressor and stunt. They're pretty self explanatory but do handle and use boost very differently. The speed class cars can only boost when you've got a full boost bar, but the benefit is the ability to perform burnout chains, effectively giving you an endless boost reserve - if you're good enough to use an entire boost meter in one go.
Aggressors are the heavy duty vehicles that can take more damage before getting totalled, making them the vehicles of choice during Marked Man events. Boost for these beasts is most easily earned by taking down other drivers. And stunt vehicles can perform the best power slides and barrel rolls, can boost at any time (essential for stunt runs) and can take a bit of damage - making them something of an in-between car class.