Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The Pixel Diaries - Burnout Paradise Edition

This’ll be a new mini-feature for the blog. I’ve already mentioned why I’ll avoid normal reviews, mainly down to how I myself have only a few select sources which I trust when deciding whether to make a purchase. Instead, I’ll post simple impressions of the game as I work my way through it, stating the things I’ve come across, good and bad, and basically giving a small narration of my experiences. In a perfect world the readers would comment and a discussion would be born, but I won’t expect anything like that to happen so soon in this blogs development.

So I’ll start with something that a lot of people will be playing around the time of writing, the newly released (and rebirth) of the great Burnout franchise.

Some history: I’ve bought or rented every Burnout console instalment since Point of Impact, and often have felt the same mix of excitement and frustration. It’s definitely been a love/hate relationship. The Burnout 2 theme song filled me with nostalgia when I heard it pop up on the Paradise soundtrack, reminding me of the sunsets, the brightly coloured Japanese tuner cars, the Hot Pursuit mode and multiplayer Crash sessions. Burnout 3 reminds me, of course, of the takedowns, of squeezing in a ten minute Road Rage event before breaking away for school. For Revenge, I’m unfortunately left with only the frustration that met me in aiming for Gold medals in every event, and the easiness of blasting through traffic. Paradise is bravely different this time around, and after a few hours of play (around the 20% mark) I’m still deciding whether it’s for better or for worse.

The free roaming world, the biggest change, has met me with a divide. On one hand, I love being able to mess around with Burnouts perfected driving mechanics to my hearts content in an open playground. I love the absence of menus, the sense of scale, and it looks fantastic. My problems? Burnout is a fast game, and trying to navigate at speed has come to be an issue. I’m in a race; I’m at the head of the pack, ahead of me the road splits out to multiple routs. I’m in mid-boost and my eyes flicker to the mini map for a split second so I can prepare myself for the sharp left I need to take. But by the time my eyes are back on the road I’m already their. I powerslide to the left, but I miss it completely. At best I crash into the divide barrier. At worst I head down the wrong rout. Driving too fast to pull a u-turn now I can only hope I can find my way to the finish. This has happened many times for me, quite often by naively taking a short-cut which consequentially throws me onto a highway or rail track I have no chance of escaping from in a hurry. Multiple routs to the finish sounds great on paper, but not when only one will get you there quickly, the others extending your drive distance by miles. If u-turns weren’t so hard to do in a hurry it may not be all bad, but I find myself often pulling 3-point turns instead. In the meantime I bring up the city map every minute to plan ahead. It works, but it kills the pace and urgency of a street race.

The rest of my time has been pretty great. Once learning the city centre I can tend to avoid hitting into barriers and buildings which were originally too hard to figure out on the horizon at speed. I felt a little cheated (read, psychologically tortured) when after a particularly hard, frantic, near ever-lasting Marked Man event I spun out, one life remaining, meters from the finish line. No problem, I’ll just shift this beast into reverse and skid along the line backwards before the bad guys catch up with me, I though. Instead reversing apparently cancels the event you’re in. Why? No idea, but it pissed me off having to go through it again. Whatever, this is just nit picking, but it’s what stands out. I typically play the game for a very enjoyable and progressive hour, before turning it off in rage after something annoying happens, usually not my personal fault, but it’ll pass I’m sure.

Overall, so far so frantic, but not so perfect. Expect an update with my first online experiences (at least since the demo) and thoughts on Showtime’s replacement of the beloved Crash mode.

Update, 31st January 2008

Last time I was pretty much complaining about the frustration the game brought me, and although that hasn't completely disappeared in recent sessions, it's certainly not as predominant as it first was. I believe this is mostly down to me learning the map, laying off of the boost more often, and driving different, more controllable cars (with more spare crash lives).

The things that stand out this time are the little things that only an open world game can achieve. Two given examples of this are when I stumbled upon an abandoned stock car racing track, complete with banked corners, completely cut off from the streets and buildings. I imagine that when online (still haven't pressed that D-pad button yet...) I'll be able to create races around it. The second thing I stumbled upon was what appeared to be small airplane runway filled with ramps. What was cool was the giant concrete tubes hanging from cranes 50ft high in the air for corkscrewing through after boosting off a superjump ramp. It reminds me of similar things in GTA and (gulp) Driv3r, where the world can seem like a playground of car flying destruction. Other than that, I've taken to streaming off an all-star grunge soundtrack from the iPod after Alice in Chains sounded so great on the game's original soundtrack.

What I think the game needs to do is push more in the 'playground feel', and give the overall world of Paradise a bit more beauty and character. A day-night cycle would be out of the question for disk space (at least on 360 - as was the case with PGR4), but sometimes I long to cruse over a hill to be met with a warm orange glowing sunset. It's those moments where you just lay back and smile about how great the game is making you feel. Drifting down GTA: Vice City's neon strip at night while listening to Jan Hammer on EmotionFM gave the world a real sense of being and beauty, the kind of thing that gamers look back on with nostalgia. I know Burnout Paradise could have so easily achieved this, but I think it's a missed chance.

Nonetheless, the game has really picked up for me. I'll proberbly post once more in the coming days about my online experiences and Showtime playthrough, two things I just haven't got round to exploring yet.

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