Saturday, May 2, 2009

Analysis: Burnout Paradise and the Corruption of Youth and Man-Boys

If online play wasn't so much fun, it would suck.

While that seems to be a contradictory sentence, another way to say it is that the best thing about online play is the fun had while playing. Fun, as it is often pointed out, is the point of playing games.

But at what cost? Since online play features opponents that are exclusively human, other factors come up that dimminish the fun and provide an otherwise flaccid experience. Such factors include: griefing (ie. the active harassing and interference during online play), unbalanced matchmaking where the wide gap between players in game knowledge and skill cause uneven game play, overhearing via the headset information you don't need to hear and is not conducive to the game play (ie. overhearing arguments with someone else's mother, or listening to someone whine about how "this game sucks") as well as general douchebaggery in which normal people with normal lives suddenly turn into raging douchebags when they become armed with the anonymity of the internet and trash talk devolves into invectives hurled by trash.

However, let's forget that everybody on Xbox Live is a 12 year-old douchebag. (Really, let's forget). The real problem of online play is that the fun provided by online gaming allows game developers to make and release a game that comes up short in design; in the ensuing chaos on the internet, no one will notice these shortcomings.

And that's where we come to "Burnout: Paradise" (2009), the online racer made by Criterion and published by Electronic Arts. Burnout is a maniacal game of speed and reckless abandonment; it's the rush at deadly velocites and the subsequent spectacular crashes that happen when you go wrong. And you will crash. And it will be spectacular.

Burnout has had a long history as a franchise; I remember it back on the Xbox in its #2 offering, but it was "Burnout 3: Takedown" (2004) that made a jump in graphics technology, rendering crashes in spectacular fashion, as well as introducing takedowns, race combat where you can slam and shunt into other cars and clear the circuit of your competition. Burnout 3: Takedown revitalized the franchise and also still stands as the franchise's top entry, because this latest offering isn't it.

Let's recap: Burnout has been a fantastic single player game up to now. It has had to be; a key feature of the franchise is the "Aftertouch" option, whereupon crashing the game shifts gear from a breakneck pace to the etheral calm of slow motion, where the choral strains of sopranos accompany the sensational spectacle of a car crashing and disintegrating into the tiniest bits of car the current generation game platform can render. Aftertouch is important because it allowed the player to use his apparent mistake to his advantage by controlling the movement of the crashing car in slow-motion to strategically place it in the path of your opponents.

Aftertouch and the depiction of dramatic and impressive car crashes have long been staples in the Burnout series, but not here. Burnout: Paradise emphasizes online multi-player, not single player, and so can not implement the Aftertouch feature since time is a constant when you involve two or more people (Einstein may have something to say about that, though). Likewise, since competition takes place between people the interval between crashing and the resumption of racing is at a minimal; this means those lovely crashes that would go on for half a minute and feature barrel roll after barrel roll and flips and roof slides and nose grinds - it's all gone. Burnout: Paradise features car crashes that have all the excitement of crushing of piece of 8 1/2" by 11" paper. In slow motion.

Burnout: Paradise also does away with the criminally enjoyable "Crash Mode" to replace it with the limp and ineffectual "Showtime Mode". Crash Mode has never since been as fun as it was in "Burnout 2: Point of Impact" (2002) in which the player must rack up points by crashing their car into traffic and cause an ensuing pile-up that causes further additional collisions from other cars and trucks. It was basically a puzzle you had to figure out, and the points were in the form of money, money made in insurance claims. That's right: Crash Mode started out in the Burnout series as insurance fraud claims. It couldn't be more fun; Crash Mode awaits you in Heaven, along with your 40 virgins and an eternity's supply of smooth peanut butter and ramen noodles.

Like most other modes in the game, Showtime isn't really much fun, as does Stunt Run, which by the name alone suggests otherwise. Really, the only fun modes are "Road Rage" and "Marked Man" which feature car combat, the one fulfiling and fun thing to do with this game online. While not much can equal the satisfaction of shutting up someone by slamming them into an oncoming tractor trailer, the question is still there: at what cost does the fun come in the form of online play?

Paradise City, the city depicted as the place for all this gleeful car carnage and douchebag racist-racing trashtalk, is well designed as a place for this speed depravity. It has alleys, jumps, hills and valleys. Paradise City is a place that, once you get to know it well and all its shortcuts, is awaiting you to exploit it. However, as a place it's eeriely hollow and cold; for a city designed for racing it doesn't have any destinations really worth racing towards.

Perhaps it's because Paradise City is an artifice and not meant to be a real city. As such, you'll notice that there is no real heart of the city; this also comes to no surprise when it's mentioned that there are no people depicted in this city. None. Every car driving on the roads, racing or otherwise, is piloted without a driver as though it is KITT from "Knight Rider" or "Christine" by Steven King or "The Car" (1977). Gas stations have no attendants; sidewalks have no pedestrians; parks have no mimes trapped in invisible boxes.

This is likely a ploy by Criterion to make this "family friendly" and feature a game that has both racing and car wrecks but no violence by not showing any people to do violence towards. And, it worked: this game is rated "Everyone: 10 and Up". However, this admission to allow minors who can't drive a car legally but can play a game that simulates racing in a city is nothing short of insidious and contemptable. Criterion, you're teaching children how to drive before any licenced driving instructor will ever reach them - and Burnout rewards aggressive driving like driving on the wrong side of the road and near misses.

However, this isn't as irresponsible as the impact it will have on the single most dangerous demographic in driving and the one with the highest insurance rates - male drivers from 16 to 29. While these people are arguably responsible and mature adults who should be able to make well informed decisions, a game like Burnout: Paradise doesn't help things. The "non-violence" of this game also has another outcome: it suggests that there are no ramifications to reckless and dangerous driving. A car crashes in Burnout: Paradise, but it's okay because there are no people in the car, ror any people in the other car, nor any people on the sidewalk or any people in the entire area. As realistic as this game is in depicting cars and buildings, it doesn't realistically depict the outcome of one's actions when one is careless.

Flatout (2004) demonstated this to great comic relief by featuring a character model that was ejected out of the body of a car with the resultant humor gained from gimmicky rag doll physics; this was put to great practical use in the game's mini-games which required you to launch your driver out of the car to knock down a set of bowling pins, for example. This showed the outcome of a crash, but for comedy relief and not the grave realism WWII shooters would propagate upon catching sniper bullet to the head. All the same, a car racing game with crashing set in a city without people is like a knife-stabbing game without any blood. If you have such a stabby game but no blood, what's the point? Are you teaching children, if said game is allowed for children to play, that there are no ramifications to stabbing people? That people aren't full of blood?

This leads me to the conclusion that Burnout: Paradise is worse for children than pornography or Mortal Kombat. Sure, porno is bad and children should never see it (I think, however, the internet might have changed everything, so look out parents). In the case of Mortal Kombat, while it is a violent game that should be intended for adult use only (I think, however, that minors may have played this game in arcades) if the depiction of violence doesn't show the realistic end result of your actions it will influence one's perception of reality.

So, don't buy your children porno or Mortal Kombat, but especially don't buy them Burnout: Paradise. If they're going to learn anything from boobies or blood though, let them learn something useful and wise.

Review: Burnout: Paradise - The Ultimate Box


+ big expansive city; so, this is the place Guns N' Roses was singing about - the grass may be sweet, but where are the girls you're singing about, Axl?
+ the furious and the fast; Burnout is still sleek and sexy (in a Jessica Alba MILF sort of way)
+ Crash TV/Radio announcers suitably cheesy; taking the right page from Capcom, the sultry cougar announcer encourages you to race rather than fantasize how she looks like


- several bad modes make this yet another bad Burnout game; Criterion, at this point please re-release Burnout 3 with better graphics
- arcade racer tradition replaced with an open city; I just wanna go fast. Why do I have to keep pausing the game to look at the map? Give me back my invisible walls marked by huge reality-defying arrows
- terrible music; does the fact that every racing game released has a terrible soundtrack mean that I have nothing to do with the demographic it was released for? C'mon - Depeche Mode's "Route 66"? Quiet Riot? Criterion, I never ever want to see what's burning up on you iPods.
- online play dependent; if you're not playing this online, you're not playing this right. This doesn't make up for the fact that enemy car AI sucks and there are hardly any traffic on the streets in this "living, breathing city".
- "Checking Traffic" still exists; you can plow into the back of same way traffic and not suffer any consequences. Just like real life.
- too easy on single player; everything since Burnout 3 has been casual gamer friendly, making for a poor game. Rival pop up from out of no where to await your takedown. Every race is winnable, even if you are in last place on the final leg of circuit.
- no people depicted means no consequences to actions; Burnout, stop corrupting our youth and immpressionable 20-something man-boys

Played to almost obtaining "A" licence on off-line single player on Xbox 360.
Rated: One out of 3 stars. Not as good as Burnout 3, Midnight Club or Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Also not as fun as racing for real on city streets, but that's illegal and not condoned by the author. Remember, always buckle up!

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