One of the criticisms of Criterion's Burnout series of late is that the games aren't really changing much. The latest in the series, Burnout Dominator, cemented that fact as, while it was far from a poor game, it simply didn't excite like previous entries in the series have done. Thankfully this slump seems to be a temporary one, as the studio's real next-gen debut, Burnout Paradise, is one of the most exciting arcade racers in development right now.
For the first time in the series the game world is completely seamless and free-roaming. In Paradise you've got a huge city to explore that features numerous districts and it all runs at a silky smooth 60 frames per second - as is the Burnout way. When the game was announced there was some scepticism over whether Criterion would be able to translate the thrilling gameplay over to an open city, but after seeing a full demo of the game in action those concerns are a distant memory.
The key to this seems to be the city itself. Rather than use an existing city, Criterion has built an original city designed with the Burnout gameplay in mind. This has meant that the trademark speed and destruction the series is famed for hasn't been sacrificed, and many of the most popular game modes have been included.
In the dazzlingly fast 20-minute demonstration I wasn't able to see more than a fraction of the city, but many of the new features shown were mightily impressive. The first to be shown was Road Rules, which essentially makes every road in the game a challenge. Put simply, each road is its own Time Trial event, so by driving down its entire length you record a time for that road. This is of course all tied into the game's extensive online features, so you get real-time updates on other players' performances in the game.
Just as Road Rules brings Time Trials into a free-roaming racer, Crash mode is joining the party too. Each road in the game will have a high score table for the damage caused while crashing on it, and again it's all tracked with the game's online stat system. I didn't see this new Crash mode in action, but the vast number of streets in the game points towards a lot of destructive action.
Burnout Paradise is one of the few multi-format releases that is being primarily developed on the PlayStation 3 and the demonstration showed one area that the game will probably have the edge over the Xbox 360 release. It seems strange to say it, but the online features seem like they'll work more seamlessly on the PS3. By pressing right on the Sixaxis d-pad you open Easy Drive, which is the game's online system. There's no lobby and no waiting around; the game simply takes your offline game and takes it online.
On the Xbox 360 the system's Xbox Live service means that the 360 Blade menu will need to be opened, slowing down the process slightly and making it slightly less seamless. The functionality is said to be the same though, which is good for gamers as a whole. When online the city is just as it is in an offline game, but this time you're racing around with real players.
Numerous online features are planned, but one of the most unique comes from the dev team's use of the PlayStation Eye camera and Live Vision camera. One of the goals with the online game is to encourage competition, especially between friends, so Criterion has tapped into what we hate most about playing against friends: their smug faces when they beat you. Whenever you beat a friend's performance the game uses your connected camera to take a 'smugshot', which is basically you gloating over your new best time or score. On the opposite end of the scale, if you take out a friend while playing online, the camera will take a 'mugshot' of them the moment your car sends them flying to their doom.
These little touches are seen throughout the game. Take something as simple as cars parked on the roadside. Wouldn't it be great to have parking challenges that score you for successfully sliding your car between two others? It would, and it's in Paradise. How about a new system that makes small scale crashes less of a hindrance to driving, perhaps letting you continue on your way if your wheels stay on your car? It's in Paradise. The whole game just reeks of attention to detail and making sure that hardcore fans and newcomers alike will love it.
And that ended my time with the game. What's clear is that Criterion won't rest until they've made Paradise a real classic on both the PS3 and Xbox 360, with a vague 'winter' release date all that's being talked about. Whenever we do see the game on store shelves Burnout fans across the globe should be truly excited; Paradise looks certain to be one of the premier next-gen racing titles for the foreseeable future.