When Covering New stuff in games magazines there is a standard template procedure to follow. A games journalist rings up a PR person (more often than not a pretty lady he has a puppy-dog crush on) and states an interest in, say, Super Death War VI.
After this, the PR person emails someone else, who emails someone else, who emails someone in America, who are on holiday so the trail goes dead, so someone else is asked... In this fashion bureaucracy infects even the wonderful world of gaming.
What never, ever happens - but did last month - is that your phone rings, you answer it and it's Burnout Paradise's senior producer San Shepherd. "Hello, my name is San Shepherd and I'm the senior producer on Burnout," he says. "Do you want to come over and see my game?" Yes please, you big Danish-yet-living-in-Guildford hunk of love! You are more special than you will probably ever know.
This was our first sign that Criterion (a subsidiary of industry megalith EA let's not forget) are something different from your usual development house. We've never come across them before, since Burnout and Black never ventured to the PC - but as I sat on a casually discarded tyre in the gentle hubbub of their studio watching community members, who had been invited in, controlling the PC version of Burnout Paradise with a Rock Band guitar plugged into the machine's USB port (a raised guitar neck providing boost) everything just felt a bit special.
The continued post-release development of Burnout Paradise on console is fascinating, and seeing as we'll be getting it all in a great big lump, with snazzier (yet eminently scalable) graphics, keyboard control above and beyond that of a bog-standard port, and all manner of community features - a little bit of dabbling in history is required.
Burnouts first four iterations were fabulous on console - focussing on a remarkable sense of speed, hilarious crashes, pile-up-centric game modes and, increasingly as the series went on, takedowns of your opponents -ramming all and sundry off roads, into walls and off cliffs. This all lay within the somewhat archaic different countries, different environments jet-set deal that seems to have been with every racing game or fighter since Street Fighter II though, so Burnout Paradise re-threw the dice. Criterion, unsurprisingly to wails of Guns N' Roses, unveiled Paradise City to the world - a free-roaming playground of destruction the likes-of which had never been seen before. Or at least not to this extent.
Crash And Burn
"Carmageddon II was my favourite game of all time," explains Shepherd as I make my first tentative acceleration boost into Paradise City. "I loved that game - smashing and ripping the car in half, sideways, from front to back... I played that game to death. When I came to Burnout Paradise it was an opportunity to take some of that open-world experience and really put it into, what I think, is a much better game because it's got so much more depth."
Paradise City then, split into nine zones of differing style and substance, is a vast network of billboards to crash through, secret areas to pile into, junk yards to store your cars in and cliffs to drive off while giggling. The city also, obviously, has races and challenges of various hues (see Wackier racing) attached to each major junction - all of which lead to car unlocks and untold vehicular carnage. It's a great game too, somewhat daunting in that you have to learn the layout of the city for the best chance of success - but unparalleled in the amount of sweat it coaxes out of you after near misses.
What's more interesting though, and what we'll be presented with as a lump sum at an unspecified point in the future, is the Burnout online presence and the massive updates being piled into the console game for free in this, the self-proclaimed "Year of Burnout? When the PC version rears its head the first thing you'll load is a Facebook-lite community screen detailing the exploits of various friends (from a soon-to-be-unified EA service that's sure to blow Games for Windows LIVE out of the water), Criterion-suggested weekly achievement targets and many and various scorecards and leaderboards. After this, as with the console variant, the city of Paradise City will act as a lobby - any and every online game mode will be accessed through swift taps of the keyboard while you're driving.
Freedom To Play
What Criterion noticed after the release of console Burnout Paradise was that only 10% of people were actually bothering with straight racing. Their telemetric eye hovered over all, and saw that the majority of people were using the game's online capabilities to piss around. They were having a laugh jumping through hoops together at the air field, or doing barrel rolls off ramps on the beach. As such, rather than get all narked about people not playing their game as nature intended, over several free updates to the game Criterion have simply been piling on extra content of the sort that their community is playing, in the areas that they're hanging out in.
Freeburn challenges, for example, have you and seven other punters zooming around the place - not in competition, but in camaraderie. Racking up near-misses over jumps against the clock, then racing to a bridge so that everyone attempts to jump on and balance precariously on its metal girder roof (the latter task being one that I completed to a chorus of joyful shouts from machines around the Criterion offices, after everyone waited atop the bridge watching me comedically fail get any purchase on it time and time again).
Such were the popularity of these Freeburn challenges that online modes like Stunt Run, Marked Man and Road Rage were also recently added -alongside entire new areas, new vehicles, motorbikes (boost-free yet supremely nimble) and the promise of, perhaps in time for the PC version, planes for you to jet around in. I had scarcely believed the plane rumour myself, and it was only signing into the Criterion visitors' book and seeing that the chap who'd clocked in 10 minutes previous was from the RAF that convinced me that they actually were that crazy.
Criterion claim that now is the first time that they've felt comfortable with the concept of getting that smooth 60Hz Burnout feeling onto the full gamut of PC capabilities - from the mid-range PCs all the way up to the technical powerhouses that they hope to make sweat with far more detailed road textures, better shadows, further draw distances, improved motion blur and much technical palaver. They don't yet feel comfortable with opening the whole thing up to modders, this being their first PC title, but don't count out the possibility of people one day being able to set their own Freeburn challenges to mess about in with their mates. What they really want to underline is that this is not another generic port, this isn't a Need for Speed cut-and-paste job. They've got 10 people working on the PC version at any time, alongside 40 content designers, and they're aware of how fussy us lot are when it comes to game controls.
The crucial Burnout factor though, for me at least, is the way the game doesn't simply hold your attention - it causes your jaw to drop, eyes to blankly stare in utter concentration and for trails of saliva to descend from your mouth unbidden as you attempt to avoid oncoming traffic. There's simply no other game that makes me look more of a fool when playing it. And that is where we will have to end our story, with your correspondent happily smashing into barrier after barrier - the PC I'm playing on hooked up to three parallel monitors and looking for all the world like I'm training to be an airline pilot With San Shepherd wondering quite why he invited me to his place of work, and a small pool of dribble slowly congealing on the floor in front of us. Happy days.
The inodes that give meaning to the destruction
You and your opponents race through Paradise City to one of eight locations by any route you see fit. Avoid the traffic, take out rivals and watch the flashing road names at the top of the screen for the most direct route.
- Road Rage
Take down a set number of opponents in a limited amount of time - force them into bridges, ram them off cliffs, gently nudge them into the path of an oncoming bus: you know the drill.
- Marked Man
Offline you find yourself fending off black FBI-style cars, attempting to get to the other side of the city without becoming nose-deep in concrete any more than three times. Online you take turns to be 'it', and everyone places chasey-chasey and crashes.
- Stunt Run
Essentially where SSX and Tony Hawk meet Burnout - points are awarded for boosts, jumps, drifts and the like -either in competition online or self-satisfaction off. The fanboy record is over a billion points - simultaneously an awesome and depressing achievement.
- Burning Route
An offline time trial that you can only complete with a certain predetermined car, the completion of which will unlock a souped-up version of said vehicle. The number of cars in the game borders on the unnecessary in all honesty, but they come in lots of different colours.
- Show Time
At any point in the game you can slap on the slo-mo, and engage in a spot of incessant point-based carnage. The more coaches, hatchbacks and Ford Cortinas that you bounce off the more points you rack up - while any shred of realism joyfully escapes the room.