We can imagine what'd happen if the city of Guilford gave Criterion the keys to the city. The Burnout creator would ban pedestrian zones and set up race challenges at every street corner. It'd build a bio-dome over the city so the sun would always shine. There'd be no road works, no travelling under 100mph. Ever visitor entering the city would be handed a set of car keys, a tuned automobile of their choice and waved off with the simple maxim. "Go have fun." In short, it'd be racing Paradise.
Unfortunately, reality isn't that way inclined. However (and fortunately for us), Criterion has transferred its ideas perfect driving commute into videogame form, most recently realised in 2006's Burnout Revenge. Now after months of tinkering under the Xbox 360's hood, it finally has the technical know-how to match its craziest idea yet. The idea, the reality, is a free-roaming world. Burnout style.
We're huge Burnout fans, and have followed as Criterion has grown and altered (note: not evolved) the franchise since its PlayStation 2 origins. Not every change has been welcomed, and so there stands divisions within the series fan base over which is the 'definite' version of the premier racer. Paradise won't unite the divide. Quite the opposite - the recent Xbox Live demo has had people loving and hating the new direction in equal measure.
OLD AND NEW
It's a new execution of familiar gameplay. Gone is the globe-trotting race challenges navigated by a tiered menu system. Races, Road Rages and every new event all take place in Paradise City, Burnout heritage condensed into 65 streets, stretched across a game world that takes seven minutes to transverse. To get to an event you need to drive to it. Everything now takes place from behind the wheel of your ride. You can travel anywhere on the map from the very beginning - but that map is blank. Challenges need to be found first before they're marked on the city overhead.
Races, Marked Man, Road Rage, Stunt Run and Burning Routes are accessed from separate junctions around the city. Stop at the traffic lights, and a event is flagged up. If you want to enter it, pull LT & RT and you're dropped right in. If not, just drive on and explore some more.
Exploring is a good thing. Paradise City cannot claim the size of Test Drive Unlimited's massive island, but here every street has something to offer. There's enough within Freeburn, as the free-roaming section is called, to be a game in it's own right. Shortcuts to find across the city. Open areas nestled away that are perfect for pulling off stunts. Billboards to smash. Automobiles to hunt down and takeout to add them to your garage. Drifts, time trials and stunt scores to beat on every street...calling up the statistics screen shows an impressive array of completion scores to clear. It means that travelling between events, there is enough to keep you occupied. But that's not the only intention.
You learn the city inside out. There's a reason why every street is named in Paradise, why nearly each has a distinguishing landmark or visual maker to help you remember it, and the roads that branch off it. It's an essential for the Race events. You not only need to know how to get to the finishing line (one of eight across the city, lined up to the eight compass directions) but how to get there by the quickest route possible. To win, especially in the later tiers, you need to utilise every shortcut and jump to keep ahead of the competition.
NO RESTART FOR YOU, SIR
In the smaller city streets a wrong turn can be swiftly correctly at the next junction, but along the long winding mountain routes one misdirected powerslide can scupper your chances of winning. You can pull over and park to end the event, but there's no quick restart button here. To try again, you'll have to drive back to the relevant set of traffic lights. And there's a good chance you can't remember which ones. Completed events will be ticked off on the map, but we'd have liked a quick jump option to starting, or even restarting events. Freeburn is great fun, but we can see the need to learn the city streets and shortcuts, and the excess travelling turning some people off.