Crispy Gamer

Burnout Paradise (PS3)

This might sound ridiculous, but whenever I load up a new racing game, I always run through the controls and look for the game's horn.

It seems like such a minor thing, I know, but I delight in honking at opponents or tapping out simple tunes on my horn. It's a way for me to express myself, and it works to bring the game world just that much more alive for me -- which is why I am sad to report the following news.

There is no horn in Burnout Paradise.

None.

Of course, the Burnout series has never been about horns. Or speedometers. Or cops. Or people, for that matter. Despite obvious signs of civilization -- other cars populate the road; condos and office buildings dot the skyline -- Burnout Paradise, like the previous games in the series, does not feature a single, solitary human form. Even when I squinted at the other cars, there were no windows rolled down, no elbows hanging out, no air fresheners dangling from rearview mirrors. Despite the terrific new cityscape -- which is full of shortcuts, highways, back alleys, on-ramps, off-ramps, parking garages and bridges that perpetually seem to be out -- Burnout's world continues to be surprisingly sterile.

As usual, any traces of actual personality can only be found in the game's various vehicles. There are 75 vehicles in the game, each exaggerated in some obvious way. There are tiny, bug-like sports cars, elephantine roadsters, and pig-like SUVs. Some cars are evocative of particular eras, like the Steve McQueen-ish Calvary or the 1950s boat-like Manhattan, with its distinctive shark fins, which I instantly dubbed "my ?Happy Days? car." Car fiends will no doubt once again be disappointed that there are no real-world licensed cars in the game and no under-the-hood tinkering, though being the car-free New Yorker that I am, I didn't mind.

The game opens, fittingly enough, in the city's Junk Yard, where you can pick up the game's starter hooptie (the aforementioned Calvary). Of course, since this is a junk yard, your vehicle is in an appropriately hood-crunched, sorry-assed state. Press and hold the R2 button to start the engine, then limp your way to the nearest Auto Repair shop. (They're always conveniently located within a two-, to three-block radius of all the game's Junk Yards.) Since Burnout is about keeping things moving, these Auto Repair shops are drive-through accessible. That means you can rip through one at top speed, and your car will magically come out the other side -- still moving at top speed -- all shiny and showroom-new.

The object of the game is to earn successive licenses, which you do by winning events. Events come in five varieties: Marked Man, Road Rage, Burning Route, Stunt Runs and, of course, traditional Races.

Burning Route events, a holdover from previous Burnouts, require you to get from point A to point B in a certain amount of time while driving a particular car. Another holdover is the Road Rage events -- a personal favorite -- which involve ramming a minimum number of cars off the road in a certain amount of time. Meet your quota, and you complete the event. For my money, nothing -- and I mean nothing -- tops the visceral, ?Mad Max?-style thrills of a Road Rage event. When my front bumper swerves spot-on into the gas-tank region of a rival and sends him careening into the far guardrail to disintegrate in gratuitous, glorious slow-motion -- let me tell you, that's poetry to me. It's one of those all too rare this-is-why-I-play-games moments.

New this year are the Marked Man events. They also require you to get from point A to point B, only there is no set amount of time involved, and there is a pack of artificial-intelligence-controlled cars that are hell-bent on stopping you from reaching point B.

Stunt Runs challenge you to boost and drift between the city's stunt locales (I suggest the tops of parking garages) and combo your way via Barrel Rolls, Super Jumps, etc. to a certain target score. As a salty Burnout veteran, I confess that I had the most trouble wrapping my head around Stunt Run events, namely because they seem so damn out of place here. Burnout has never been about racking up style points ? la Tony Hawk or SSX. In fact, they seemed so counterintuitive to me that I avoided Stunt Run events until the latter stages of the game, when I was basically strong-armed into doing them.

All events appear as colored dots on your heads-up display. Looking for a race? Head to a blue dot. Marked Man? Yellow dots are the ticket. Burning Route? Orange dots are the way to go. Once you reach the dot, you'll be prompted to press the L2 and R2 buttons simultaneously to trigger the event.

According to the box cover, there are 120 unique events in the game, yet I still wound up feeling like I was running the same events again and again. I was always running a Marked Man event to the Naval Yard, always running yet another race to the baseball stadium, always running a one-on-one race to the dreaded Wind Farm. (Do not under any circumstances go to the Wind Farm. It's a great many miles outside the city, and there's nothing to do once you get there except turn around and make the long, dull, winding drive back -- and maybe sing along to that Avril Lavigne song. OK, baby, you win -- sure, you can be my girlfriend.)

Even when I tried new, uncharted dots -- dots in remote corners of the Paradise City map that I was certain I hadn't tried -- I somehow still wound up back at the Naval Yard, the baseball stadium, and yes, the god-awful Wind Farm. Despite Criterion's commendable effort to create a dynamic, fun-to-explore cityscape -- and it really is dynamic and fun to explore -- the game still winds up feeling cursed with a serious case of d?j? vu.

I'm also sad to see the exclusion of the cause-as-much-damage-as-possible Crash Mode, a series staple since Burnout 2. Instead, we get the preposterous Katamari-like Showtime Mode, which, after a crash, lets you roll your car on its side around intersections trying to bump into other vehicles. Though the implementation of an open-world city is a step forward for Burnout and Criterion, Showtime Mode feels like a very big step in the wrong direction to me.

Anyone stricken with OCD will find plenty over which to obsess in Paradise. In addition to those 120 events, each and every street in the city holds two additional challenges: Best Time and Best Crash. Figure out where a street starts and stops, then get from one end of it to the other as quickly as possible to break the Best Time record. Best Crash requires you to get into an epic fender bender on the street, and then Showtime your way around, touching/nudging as many other vehicles as you possibly can.

Beyond that, there are 400 Do Not Enter/Private Property fences through which to crash, billboards through which to smash, and Super Jumps to discover, and you can always go online via the game's seamless offline-to-online interface. You can gather friends or rivals (eight total) via the Net, setting up group events or working through the game's dullish online ?challenges.? (Fellow Crispyite Evan Narcisse and I completed a few of these challenges, one of which involved us spending about 15 minutes driving to a specific bridge in the game, then trying to get our timing right so we could collide in midair. Let's just say that no one, not even my own mother, would be proud of me for completing this challenge.)

Paradise gets off to a terrific start, making it the most accessible game in the series. After only a few hours of gameplay, you'll have a garage full of vehicles and a good percentage of the game under your belt. The stinginess and frustrating moments that vexed previous Burnouts -- in particular, Burnout 3: Takedown and the PS2-only Burnout: Dominator (neither of which did I finish) -- have largely been expunged. There are far fewer of the drive-perfectly-or-start-again Burning Route events. Having a wider range of events from which to choose does help resolve that issue. But beyond that, it feels like there's a more gentle ramp-up in difficulty in Paradise, as opposed to the frustrating challenge spikes that were commonplace in the previous games.

In the end, none of Paradise?s flaws prove to be fatal. A bit more event variety would have been nice, sure, but from start to finish, the whole thing cruises along so smoothly that it's nearly impossible not to be seduced by the game.

This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.