Criterion Games' Burnout franchise changed the way a lot of gamers looked at (and played) racing games. The balls-to-the-wall ethos of the first few Burnout titles broke away from the ultra-precise driving styles encouraged by simulator games like the Gran Turismo series. Instead, the London-based developers' games encouraged players to weave through oncoming traffic, steer their cars just a hair's-breadth away from danger, and plow into crowded intersections just to watch the insurance claims pile up. After peaking on the last generation of consoles with Burnout 3: Takedown and Burnout Revenge, the franchise seemed to lose its edge with Burnout Dominator. Even though the series had had its Xbox 360 debut, that PlayStation 2/PSP release felt like a placeholder, something to keep fans' appetites whetted while Criterion Creative Director Alex Ward and crew figured out how better to exploit the power of the PlayStation 3 and the 360.
Later this month, the next-gen iteration of Burnout makes its way to Sony's and Microsoft's systems. Having gotten our hands on it, we can say that there's enough refinement and new elements to represent a true evolutionary step for the offensive driving franchise. The new game takes place in Paradise City, seemingly a fictional stand-in for Hollywood. Players start off with a learner's permit from the PC DMV -- which you can personalize with a headshot from an attached USB camera like the PlayStation Eye -- and must earn upgrades by succeeding in a variety of racing and stunt-based events. Paradise's new open-world format marks the biggest departure from its predecessors. Instead of backing out into multiple menus for Racing or Road Rage events, you can seamlessly drop into these while driving in the game world. You can start a race simply by simultaneously pressing the brake and accelerator at a stoplight.
Paradise adds new event types to the action, too. The new Burning Routes have nothing to do with getting rid of last night's super-spicy burrito. They're special paths that only open up for specific automobiles. Marked Man has players trying to reach a destination on the map without getting completely wrecked by other drivers. This mode takes advantage of a few tweaks to the wreckage and boost management systems. Car damage is no longer an all-or-nothing proposition, since you can drive through an auto body shop and regain the shiny structural integrity you started off with. Likewise, passing through a gas station will add Boost to your meter, though you can still earn it by reckless driving, too. Another new open-world change comes from how you acquire cars. As you progress through the game, new models appear on the streets, and you'll have to track them down and take them out to earn the right to sit behind their respective steering wheels. The revamped Crash Mode -- now called Showtime -- happens right on the same streets as everything else. Pressing two shoulder buttons after a wreck starts a sequence where players must bounce from one car to the next, earning a multiplier for every bus they hit. Criterion's taking the same open-world approach to multiplayer, too. Drivers jump into the online Free Burn mode simply by pressing right on the d-pad; this opens up a list of online options, including game types in which you can challenge your friends to compete.
With a revamped structure, an on-the-fly lobby-free multiplayer interface and tons of new cars and challenges, Criterion's latest bid at reinventing the wheel looks very promising, indeed.