This weekend, Burnout Paradise will be 15 years old. The last entry in the Burnout franchise before developer Criterion was shuffled off to work on Need For Speed, Burnout Paradise remains one of the best racing games of all time – and my personal favourite – and it’s not even the best game in the Burnout series.
But what was it about Burnout Paradise that made the franchise so beloved? It starts strong with the introduction, the opening bars of Guns N Roses classic ‘Paradise City’ playing each time you start the game over a panning shot of the titular city, cars smashing into each other all the while.
From there though, I think it’s the energy. There’s something quite loose and arcadey about Burnout Paradise that racers have struggled to match since: you don’t need to be good at racing games, or even really think that much about cars, to be successful in Burnout Paradise. Powerslides, airborne 180s and even the occasional mid-race barrel roll are all incredibly easy to pull out with just a couple of button presses, but there’s also a series of different events. Racing is not the only way to be successful in Paradise, with players free to progress in a series of different events, including marked man (huge AI cars hunt you as you drive across the city), Road Rage (take out cars) and stunt runs (do stunts).
It keeps these sensibilities in other areas of progression too: to unlock a new car you merely need to spot it driving around while you’re free roaming around the city and take it down, wrecking it and adding it to your collection, available to switch into from your next visit at the scrapyard.
There’s a real sense of fun at all costs to the game, something that bleeds into Paradise’s online offering too. The multiplayer encouraged the sort of free-roam dicking around that personified the best of the Xbox Live era, and it regularly became a part of my Xbox 360 rotation, friends rolling between titles like Rainbow Six Vegas, Halo 3, Red Dead Redemption and Burnout Paradise chasing thrills with no real aim in mind.
Seeing ‘TAKEN DOWN!’ splattered across your screen after your friend in a beefed-up transit van has trashed your car and left you, with a giggle, in the dust encourages the sort of low-grade trash talk and friendly competition that can make a multiplayer game something special. Paradise leans into it perfectly, giving you a series of multiplayer challenges to tackle either competitively or cooperatively. Until you’ve had four university friends desperately trying to parallel park with handbrake turns or sniggering to themselves as they try to escape across the city with everyone else in hot pursuit in a Paradise-sanctioned game of high-speed Tag, you haven’t seen the sort of fun you could have with multiplayer.
It took advantage of the Xbox Camera, something that really was only used for people trying to play Uno on Xbox Live, and let you take a photo for your in-game driving license, but would also let you snap a photo of yourself to show to someone you had taken down. The two-second timer before a photo was taken was – and I unfortunately speak from experience, but it was 15 years ago – almost exactly enough time to stand up and turn around to moon someone, showing your underwear-clad butt to the friend you had just rammed at high speed.
This is all capped off with the game’s soundtrack, which for my money is the best racing soundtrack out there. Pulling a smooth handbrake turn through traffic as the opening bars of Killswitch Engage’s ‘My Curse’ feels phenomenal, while scrambling through the city to N.E.R.D’s ‘Rockstar’ is a memory I’ll probably never shake. I discovered LCD Soundsystem playing Burnout Paradise, a band I’ve listened to regularly ever since.
Unfortunately, the free-roam city does lead to one of the game’s biggest issues: so plentiful are the shortcuts and alternate routes that it often feels less like you’re racing and more like orienteering. It’s easy to hang a left into what looks like a shortcut and end up in a dead end with no chance to regain your now-fading lead. In making a large city and dropping players into it, we lost the tight well-tailored tracks of the earlier Burnout games in exchange for freedom.
However, this would be an easy fix for a future Burnout game, adding railings or a GPS in the same way that Forza Horizon, a game that captures Paradise’s sense of freedom but not its fun, already does. Sadly, no Burnout sequel seems to be in the works and the franchise lay dormant.
Thankfully, EA recognised what it had with Paradise at the time. Expansions added motorbikes, toy cars, several licensed offerings, a day and night cycle and even a whole new island to explore, each coming with a collection of extra events and challenges. Sadly, since then the only crack of light has been a modern-day remaster released in 2018.
So, let’s pour out one big glass of petrol for the last of the great arcade racers and hope that maybe, just maybe, EA might see fit to put Criterion back where it belongs: creating a pulse-pounding racer that’s less about the cars and more about having fun with a dizzying sense of speed.