As I mentioned a couple of months ago, the Big Surf Island expansion expansion to Burnout Paradise got me appreciating the game in a rather more visceral way than I had before then: all the different gameplay options crammed together in one small package hooked me on the game fairly seriously. So I decided to go back and give the main game more of a try, both for fun and to see if I could make sense of it all.

It’s a rather open-ended game; I could potentially keep on playing it indefinitely, but right now I’m playing too many open-ended games rather than too few. (Until a couple of weeks ago, the only games I had in progress were Burnout Paradise, Rock Band 2, and The Beatles: Rock Band, which could easily work together to use up all of my free game-playing time for half a year if I let them.) So I knew that I had to set goals for my Burnout play: clearly I should try to get a Burnout license, but equally clearly I shouldn’t try to get an Elite license, and I should probably throw in some more exploratory goals as well.

While earning my Burnout license, I put a heavy emphasis on burning routes, because I hadn’t completed almost any of them. (In fact, when I started my recent round of play, I’d only unlocked five or so cars from the original game.) And I’m really glad I did: for one thing, on a pure gameplay level, I enjoy them more than the traditional race events. And collecting stuff is always nice, too. But it also game me a feel for the different cars: in particular, doing a road rage event in the higher licenses with an early trick car is a completely different feel from doing that same event with a good aggression car. (And getting a takedown rampage is very satisfying indeed!) I still like to use a good trick car most of the time, and I haven’t yet found much use for speed cars, but I’m glad to have been exposed to the variety.

So that worked well to get me more familiar with the different events and with the different cars. But I wanted to spend time exploring the environment as well: to that end, I decided to try to get 100% completion on Big Surf Island, and to do all the time road rules.

The former brought home the difference between the different discovery objectives. The smash gates are everywhere, giving you lots of little rewards, but finding the last few can be a bit annoying; not too annoying, though, it turns out. (The small size of the island may have helped.) The jumps are much fewer in number; the plus side is that they’re a lot of fun to do, but the down side is that there’s no visual clue as to whether or not you’ve already completed a jump. (Fortunately, I ended up completing all the Big Surf Island jumps while looking for other stuff.) And the billboards are by far the most satisfying of the three: they’re obvious enough that you can locate them all without too much work (though it didn’t hurt that I had Miranda as a spotter while I was driving around), but once you’ve found one, it can take several minutes to figure out the proper approach to it, and a couple more minutes to actually pull off your jump at the correct speed and angle. Which, in the wrong situation, could be frustrating, but somehow that never happened to me.

So finishing Big Surf Island was great. (And unlocking toy cars was a nice bonus!) But I still wanted to delve into the layout of the main game a bit more deeply; doing the time road routes on every road seemed like the best vehicle for that, since it would force me to cross every road on the map.

Which I would normally have assumed that I would already have done, if there weren’t several counters that proved to me otherwise. At this point, I’d done close to a hundred missions, and spent several hours just wandering around during VGHVI multiplayer nights: the map wasn’t that large, surely I’d driven all over it by then, except perhaps for a few cleverly hidden crannies? But no: I hadn’t yet found all the events, even though they’re all located at intersections; I hadn’t found a couple of the drive-throughs; and there was even a car park somewhere that I hadn’t found. (That last still boggles my mind: there aren’t that many, they’re all right there in the city, but I still didn’t find the last one until I had something like 15 road rules left to earn.)

This is an area of the game’s design that I came to appreciate more and more. When you first start playing the game, the events seem somewhat random: you can trigger an event by pulling up to any of over 100 intersections in the city, many of them have you driving to another location, and my initial assumption was that the ending locations were distributed in much the same way that the starting locations were. This turns out not to be the case, though I didn’t realize that until I had put quite a bit of time into the game: in fact, there are only eight final destinations.

One benefit of this is pretty straightforward: the map and its wealth of alternate routes can be overwhelming at first. And having a fixed list of destinations helps you get a grasp on this: you may be starting at a relatively random location (or you may not be—for all I know, the starting locations for events with a fixed destination may be carefully chosen as well), but it doesn’t take too much driving along towards the destination before you start funneling onto a familiar route, which you become more and more familiar with as you play more of the game.

But there’s a flip side to that funneling: there are various routes that are almost never going to be natural paths to take to get to those eight destinations. And this, in turn, leaves surprisingly large areas of the map that you’re less likely to have explored; even with some amount of wandering on your own, you’ll still have several lurking gaps on your map.

And the process of becoming aware of those gaps is brilliant: rather than the game designers overtly telling you what you’ve done and what you haven’t, they simultaneously give you counters that you can use to measure how much is unexplored (events / drive-throughs found) and a game play mechanism that lets you keep track of those areas one by one if you take the effort to do so (time road rules). Also note that ticking off the latter requires you to complete a task, not just to be present in that location: this not only made the ticking off more interesting than it would have been otherwise but also served as a further masking effect, hiding the fact that there were locations to tick off (as opposed to actions to tick off that happened to be at those locations) until I’d put quite a bit of time into the game.

The result is the most subtly unfolding open-world game I’ve ever seen: on the one hand, the entire map is open right from the start (no bridges to magically get repaired), on the other hand you’re always finding that there are more areas for you to explore than you realized, and on the third hand you’re given gentle guidance in that exploration, you’re not just dropped in a world with a map that you can’t even color in yourself and told to have fun.

So the time road rules were quietly awesome from a game construction point of view; as a bonus, they were quite a bit of fun as well. I particularly liked the range of times (sub-10-seconds all the way to 2-minutes-plus) and of difficulty levels. Also, doing the road rules (and driving back if I spotted something interesting) revealed that the exploration discoverables were distributed in a fair manner across the map: in particular, without making an exhaustive effort to search them out, I’ve gone through all the smash gates in a couple of the map regions, and 391 of the 400 in the game overall.

A great game, and I could easily keep on playing for quite a bit longer: I’m so close on the discoverables that it’s very tempting to finish them off (and I know I would have a lot of fun on the billboards), there are still quite a few more burning routes for me to do, and doing some googling while writing this blog post reminds me that there’s bike-specific content that I haven’t done. But there are quite a few games out there that I really want to play, starting with the sequel to last year’s game-of-the-year. So I’m giving the game a pause for now, stopping to collect my thoughts one more time.

Incidentally, as part of the prep work for this blog post, I searched for what other bloggers had said about Burnout Paradise. There’s a fair amount of good stuff, and I’ll include links to what I turned up at the bottom of this post, but there’s one particular dialogue that interested me. Mitch Krpata posted a trio of posts on the subject; he and Michael Abbott then discussed the game on a podcast episode. And reading/listening to them, my first reaction was: how can a couple of people whose opinions I generally respect a lot be so wrong on this game? They treat it as a racing game with open-world elements grafted on in a faddish and misguided manner; Mitch, for example, goes on about how the inclusion of “hidden collectables” (the smash gates, billboards, etc.) is “obligatory inclusion” of items which are “anithetical to the Burnout ideal” (because they “reward stopping”) and “worse still, … [don’t] actually have an impact on gameplay.”

That last quote in particular reveals the lens that Mitch was looking at the game through, equating gameplay with races. In fact, though, there’s quite a lot more gameplay that you can do; the list that I came up with is as follows:

  • Races.
  • Road rage events.
  • Stunt runs.
  • Mixtures between the above, e.g. marked man events.
  • Online variants of the above.
  • Unlocking cars, via three different mechanisms.
  • Discovering objects/actions strategically placed through the game. (Smash gates, jumps, drive-throughs, car parks.)
  • Discovering billboards and figure out how to smash them.
  • Systematically exploring all the roads in the game.
  • Showtime mode.
  • Objective-based online gameplay.
  • Exploring sandbox areas of the map that are particularly well suited to a specific style of play.
  • Just drive around the map seeing what there is to see.

That’s a lot of stuff to do; and I personally found each item in that list to be rewarding on its own merits, rather than to be judged solely as to how it helps or fails to help another row in the list.

But, having said that, and assuming you accept my claim that Michael and Mitch were coming at the game from a needlessly limiting perspective, I think their having done so is fairly reasonable. I don’t know if Mitch changed his mind on the game, but Michael did a complete about-face on it: it just took him four months to reach that point. And, while it’s hard for me to reach back into my memories of first playing the game, I’m fairly sure that I started off with opinions a lot closer to Mitch’s than to my current state of mind: while I’d never played a Burnout game before, I’d played a bunch of racing games, so the events were what I focused on, and the races were my priority within those events.

And it took me quite a while to get over that; I doubt, if Big Surf Island hadn’t come along, that I would have chosen to invest the time in the game that I needed to get to where I appreciated the range of what it offered for me. Maybe somebody without prior racing game experience (or somebody who had racing game experience but didn’t like them) would be more open to the gameplay possibilities than I was; but I suspect that Michael and I aren’t alone among traditional gamers in needing time to see what’s there in front of us. (In fact, here’s another example!)

Doing something new is hard for developers, and helping players appreciate those new aspects is doubly hard; I’m grateful to Criterion for the work they’ve put in changing the game and making it easier to appreciate the variety that is there. And, while I’m taking a break from the game now, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, in a month or three, I find myself taking a spin through downtown Paradise City again trying to find all the billboards, smash gates, and jumps, or taking the bikes for a more serious rice, or trying to improve my stunt run scores.

Some posts that other people have written on the game; my apologies for not touching on most of them:

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