Thankfully not content with a shinier sequel, Criterion is reinventing its fabled racing franchise for this generation of consoles (the Burnout Revenge 360 port was more of a facelift). Gone are the linear tracks and tiered level structure; Burnout Paradise takes place in one enormous city that's open from the start and never stops to load. And lest you fret, the game still blazes by at 60 frames a second, the buttery-smooth visuals complemented by cars that crumple more convincingly than ever. The series is still about viscerally destructive driving, and the audio-visual impact of hitting a wall at 200 m.p.h. is as "next-gen" as anything we've experienced.
Paradise makes the most of its open-world structure, assuring that it's more than just a gimmick or several levels strung together. The game encourages you to learn the map, and familiarize yourself with where the major landmarks are (most races end at one of them). Every street has a name, and street signs pop up on the HUD to show you which intersections you pass. Trusting your navigation skills and penchant for experimenting, some races simply give you an ending point marked only with an arrow on the horizontal compass on the top of your screen. Always knowing your orientation to the finish point but never the best route there is a welcome change from checkpoint races that hold your hand, and it makes you appreciate how expertly the city is designed for white-knuckle racing and stunts. If you see a slight ramp off of an overpass facing a possibly-destructible billboard, there's a good chance it's there for a reason.
At an EA press event yesterday, we got some hands-on time with Paradise's new multiplayer modes, and had a chance to see how they are incorporated into the solo stuff. Like creative director Alex Ward recently told us, Criterion is taking a very different approach to online play as well -- "No lobbies, no waiting, a seamless experience and focus on cooperative and social gameplay." The Freeburn system is at the center of this, granting you the ability to invite players into your world with a few taps of the D-pad; you don't even have to take your finger off the gas. Once your friend drops into your city (which happens instantaneously once they accept the invite) you can use the same system to bring up cooperative challenges, regardless of where you and your (up to seven other) buddies are.
We tried out a few different challenges, from the relatively simplistic ones that can be performed anywhere (accumulate 10 seconds of hang time in the air), to the more complex and specific challenges (drift for 600 ft. and do three barrel rolls off of a designated cliffside). Even though it's a cooperative experience, there's plenty of opportunity for trash-talking when you're getting things done more quickly than your partner, as every player's progress is tracked on-screen during the challenge. All of your online progress carries over to the single-player game as well, so if you find and nail a specially marked jump you won't have to do it again by your lonesome.
Taking the social aspect even further, you can use an Xbox Vision Camera or PlayStation Eye to take snapshots of your foiled foes. As long as it's hooked up, it will automatically snap and send over a picture of your opponents a few seconds after you take them out. Seeing your friend's sad or incensed face definitely adds something special to the online proceedings, and you can build up a library of the pictures if you like. It doesn't fundamentally alter the experience in any way, but it's a fun little extra.
Paradise should hit stores early next year, and even in its unfinished state seems poised to deliver on the promise of a refreshingly new Burnout. It looks great, plays as finely tuned as ever, and offers hundreds of challenges and plenty to do online. As long as it doesn't get too unfocused in its own ambition, it should offer fans one of the more gratifying racing experiences around.