Is there any developer buzz term more meaningless these days than "open-world gameplay"? Let's face it, it's kind of been done to death at this point, so you have to look on with a bit of skepticism when a developer touts the concept as the next big thing for its franchise. It's understandable, then, if Burnout Paradise's concept freaks you out a little bit. Burnout has, by tradition, been a fairly structured arcade racing game up to this point, and one would have to wonder exactly how well an open environment would serve the series' crash-happy gameplay methodology. Evidently, the answer is quite well. Developer Criterion has invented a world wonderfully suited to Burnout's nature, a city built exclusively to cater to your destructive whims. And while a few design hitches here and there get in the way now and again, by and large Burnout Paradise delivers an experience that is both true to the Burnout name and wonderfully fresh-feeling all at once.
The star of the show is Paradise City itself. Coming complete with the titular Guns 'N Roses song (because Burnout: Night Train or Burnout: Mr. Brownstone probably wouldn't have been as catchy), Paradise City is, at first blush, a pretty standard racing game city, complete with all the usual landmark locations and boring background traffic. But it quickly becomes evident that Paradise City is meant for a greater purpose than just being a simple city to race around in. In effect, the city is a blank slate, a pristine canvas on which to paint your own obliterative masterpiece. The simple act of driving aimlessly around the city constantly presents new roads, shortcuts, and destructible objects for you to experience and, often, destroy. Nearly every intersection of road hosts a new event of some kind, and even after you've worked your way through the game's progression of driver's licenses (the only specifically linear portion of the game design), you'll still be finding new things you didn't even know were there.
That might sound a little overwhelming, especially if you've grown accustomed to the rather specific brand of racing that Burnout has always subscribed to. And at first, it most definitely is. Though the in-game tutorials do a decent job of explaining the event types and basic mechanics, you're initially left to your own devices and only have the small minimap to guide you through the many twists and turns of the city as you race -- unless of course you want to hit the pause button regularly and use the larger map, which is a bit annoying to do. Those well accustomed to Burnout's previously track-based racing model might find having to explore to find the best route to the finish a bit frightening, but the good news is that it doesn't take a great deal of time to get a feel for the city's various ins and outs.
Until that time, you will experience some trial and error (with a heavier focus on the error), but the funny thing about that is that while you may initially find yourself failing races, it's not often you have to just go back and keep doing that same race again and again. The focus of Burnout Paradise isn't on doing specific events so much as it is about doing whatever you feel like. If you fail a race, odds are that there are roughly a dozen starting points for other races near the finish line of that previous race, and unless you've done them all, you can just hit up any one of them to get another notch on your license. Toward the very end of the game, when you've bested the bulk of the game's events, you may find yourself lamenting the lack of a quick return feature to get back to a race's starting point. But for the majority of the game, it's not really an issue.
It's a strange design to get used to initially, but once you do, it becomes incredibly rewarding. You can spend hours at a time just dawdling around the city and still make forward progress within the game. Don't feel like racing? Just go break through shortcut gates or bust up billboards, which are tallied up as you break each one. Or, track down one of the cars you unlocked on the road and take it down to add it to your collection. Or, you can opt to pick a road and attempt to "own" it. There are two types of events associated with each of the major roads in the game. Time trials are as you'd expect -- you simply start at one end of the road and start driving down it, attempting to get the fastest time you can. Secondly, there are showtime events, which are the game's effective replacement for the crash mode found in previous installments of the series. Whereas crash mode was sort of like a puzzle mode in the way it made you create elaborate car crashes out of painstakingly built traffic designs, showtime is the polar opposite. These are elaborate car crashes born from little more than a bunch of nearby cars and your ability to control what is, in essence, a sentient car wreck.
In a word, showtime mode is absurd. The goal is similar to crash mode in that you're aiming to create as much damage as humanly possible, with various types of cars offering up different cash bonuses that feed into your final score. All the while, you can move your busted husk of a car around by pressing the boost button, which causes you to bounce around like a rubber ball. Again, totally absurd, but also totally awesome. It might lack the puzzling nature of the crash mode, but for pure visceral thrill and laughs-a-minute wrecking, showtime mode delivers in spades. It would have been nice if Criterion had found a way to have both the crash mode and showtime mode coexisting, as neither would make a particularly good replacement for the other; but on its own, showtime is a great deal of fun.
A number of other elements from previous Burnouts are also missing or altered here. The lack of aftertouch (the mechanic that let you steer your wreck into opponents during races and take them out) is a real bummer, as it makes wrecking during races a pure nuisance rather than an opportunity for more destructive glee. Traffic checking is absent as well, though it isn't sorely missed. The racing artificial intelligence has seen a bit of tweaking here and there. You still get the sense of rubber banding that the series has always employed, but as the game goes on and the racers get tougher, your opponents become more aggressive and don't just tank right before the finish line. By and large, the game is actually a bit easier than the last couple of Burnout games, but the challenge toward the later stages of the game definitely ramps up significantly.