I very much enjoy the VGHVI game nights on Thursday evenings (we’re playing the Beatles game this week, by the way), but they don’t interact well with my normal style of going through games. I have to budget my game play time fairly strictly; since I normally like to go through games in depth, this means that I’m lucky if I can finish two games a month. And my time budget for multiplayer is even more limited than that for single player, so I generally favor single player games.

The upshot is that, while I think our choice in VGHVI games to play is quite good, they’re almost always games that I have very little experience with. I give them a brief solo spin before to get my fingers used to the controls, and we frequently return to games; even so, I constantly feel like a novice on Thursday nights. (The two exceptions being Rock Band 2, which I play quite a bit at home, and Catan, the board game version of which I played several times a decade ago.)

Burnout Paradise is a perfect example of this. It was the game we inaugurated the VGHVI gaming nights with, and we’ve returned to it six times since. It’s a quite good game, but each time I finish another game, I’ve asked myself “what game do I most feel like playing next?”, and Burnout Paradise has never been the answer. The result is that, when playing it together, I always feel a bit lost: I know my way around at a basic level, but I still find myself making wrong turns frequently, and I’ve unlocked a tenth as many cars as other players. (Fortunately, these flaws rarely restrict from enjoyment of most of the game’s fine multiplayer modes!)

But then, earlier this month, we gave Burnout Paradise yet another go; for a change of pace, we decided to explore the Big Surf Island expansion. I wasn’t all that actively excited about the expansion going in—I’d gotten the impression that it was rural sandboxy areas, and in general I prefer a bit more structure than that—but playing it has completely changed that opinion.

First, let me step back and talk more about the original Burnout Paradise content. It’s an open-world driving game, with a quite large map. The objects in the world generally have excellent affordances, with yellow signs clearly inviting you to smash through gates to explore; blue cones inviting you to step on the gas and try a big jump; red billboards inviting you to figure out how to set up a jump and smash them; and so forth. (And you get a little reward in the form of an incrementing counter the first time you smash each gate / make each jump / smash each billboard.)

This makes it a fair amount of fun to just tool around the map with no particular goal in mind, seeing where your interests lead you; if you want a goal, though, most intersections present you with challenges of various forms (traditional races, stunt runs, aggression runs). Combine this with a well-done license system, a range of cars to earn, and focused multiplayer challenges (“all players should meet at location A on the map; then drive to the top of parking structure B and jump off of it to the top of the building across the street”), and you’ve got a really good game.

Having said that, it didn’t quite grab me enough to put in huge amounts of single-player time. I’m sure I would have enjoyed doing so; but I’m not lacking in games I haven’t played that I’m sure I would enjoy. And the big map is a double-edged sword: in particular, when a race led me up the mountains on the west side of the map, I’d often get a bit frustrated by getting lost on the roads up there, and then I’d find myself up there with relatively few events that I could use to try to make my way back. There are enough fun jumps that making your way down is pretty entertaining the first half-dozen times, but eventually it got a bit stale for me.

So, while I was happy to play it on VGHVI nights, I gave up on the single-player mode once I earned my second or third license. (Which is, admittedly, more time than I’d spent on single player compared to almost any other VGHVI game!)

And then came Big Surf Island. It turned out that the others had gone through it on a previous VGHVI night when I’d been on vacation, but they were willing to indulge me and go through the 10 Big Surf Island online challenges a second time. And I quickly figured out why: the challenges are excellent. From a newcomer’s point of view, they bring you all over the island, giving you a lovely tour of it without having you feel that you’re repeating yourself. The island, rather than being the monoculture that I’d feared, turns out to be a microcosm of all the different sorts of locations in the main game: mostly urban space, but some nice playgrounds even within that urban space, and there is a more rural side as well. Unlike the original game, though, the island is compact enough that you can get quickly from any point in the island to any other; the 10 challenges do a great job of showing you the high points of the island without exposing all of its secrets. Also, they take that “high points” quite literally: the island has many more vertical spaces than the original content did, and a couple of jumps in particular are just stunning.

So we spent an hour or so going through those, and then finished off with the usual tooling around various areas of the city. After which, looking at my Big Surf Island license, I realized that I had a very nice chunk of content remaining for me there. In particular, I had 15 single-player events waiting for me to accomplish them; I’d enjoyed the online challenges enough that I was confident that I’d enjoy playing through those challenges, and it was a a small enough collection that I figured I could spend a couple of hours going through them and stop, without its interfering with other games I was in the middle of playing. Also, I was somewhat surprised to learn that I’d only discovered 8 of the 15 events: the island is small enough that I would have assumed that we’d driven through all of the intersections while going around the island, but apparently there were more nooks and crannies than I’d realized?

So, that weekend, I turned on the game again and wandered around the island. I did complete all 15 of the events, and had quite a bit of fun doing so. The small size of the island meant that point-to-point races didn’t work, and I was fine with two-lap races with intermediate checkpoints. Also, some of the races were “island tours”, which forced you to go off the roads in various areas, giving many of the same benefits that the online challenges had. The trick runs had point targets higher than I’d had to deal with in the main game; I turned out to be ready for that, though, partly because the default island car is a really good trick car, partly because the more compact nature of the game meant that good lines were easier to find, and partly because it finally dawned on me how to properly use taps of the boost button to chain. (I can be a bit slow at times.)

While doing that, though, I got to appreciate more of what the game has to offer. Even with the small size of the island, I was spending some time just driving around to get from event to event; every once in a while, when doing that, a car zoomed by inviting me to take it down. Which isn’t specific to the island—in fact, I don’t think you can unlock cars that way by only playing island content, you have to beat events in the regular game to make cars available as challenges—but it’s yet another mechanism by which the game is always giving you something to do. Also, I’d somehow avoided ever trying the showtime mode until it came up in that VGHVI night; I’m not convinced that mode has long legs, but it’s quite a bit of fun in its own unique way, and there are few enough roads on the island that I figured I’d go and earn showtime road rules on all of them. And, once I’d done that, the natural thing to do was to earn time road rules on all of the roads, which had yet another surprise: again, despite the small size of the island and despite my finding all of the events, there were places on the main roads that I hadn’t noticed yet, places that I only saw when the timed road rules forced me to drive past them.

The upshot was that, three or so hours later, I’d completed almost everything on my island license and gotten quite a bit more appreciation for the different modes that the game offers, the different ways in which it supports various forms of exploration. (The only things on the license that I hadn’t done were a few gates, billboards, and jumps; the island is small enough, though, that I’m fairly sure I should be able to find all of those, and am in fact looking forward to returning to complete those challenges!) So, with that experience freshly behind me, I went back to the main game, and started going through events there, bumping up my license.

And it’s great stuff. As I’d come to expect, it does indeed turn out that there are quite a few areas of the city in the main game that I hadn’t explored at all: you naturally end up funneling through a relatively narrow set of routes on most of the courses, so there’s street after street that I hadn’t explored. In general, I prefer the more compact nature of the island, and would support having the next iteration of the game be somewhat denser than this iteration; but it’s great to have so much to do, the larger point-to-point races have their own charms, and showtime works better on the main city streets than on the island streets. I started exploring the burning routes (and have, as a result of all of this, gone from having four cars to having over 25 of them), and I fully support those as a gameplay option. My improved trick mode skills are carrying over, and I’m starting to find some of the good trick lines; if I don’t get a few hundred thousand points, I feel like I haven’t done my job, I’ve gotten 1.5 million on one of my runs, and I’m sure I could do rather better than that with more practice. Also, billboards have changed from something that I smash into when I happen to run into them into something that can get me to stop and think about where the approach is that would allow me to smash into them.

I don’t think I’m going to end up turning into a super completist for the game, but at this point I won’t rule out the possibility. I’m certainly going to earn my Burnout license and do burning routes for all the cars I can; I’ll probably use the time road rules as a vehicle for exploring the whole map, too.

So: quite a game. As I said at the start, great affordances; and a great variety of options, which (as I’ve come to appreciate) work very well together to introduce you to more and more of the possibilities of the game. The original and its expansion also provide what I suspect could be a quite fruitful lesson in the pros and cons of open-world game design: I love the idea of having a huge map with everything open at the start, but I also didn’t really start appreciating the game until I was given a much smaller subset of the map to focus on. I’m not sure how to meld the virtues of the two approaches, or indeed if my appreciation for the smaller space has more to do with my time constraints than any universal rule of game design (and, I should note, the sequence of licenses and the achievements do a good job of providing a staged set of goals even in the original game). But I would recommend that anybody who is thinking about open-world game design should give both the original game and the expansion a look: having an optional geographically restricted playground worked very well for this player.

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