At work, we frequently play a few rounds of Burnout Revenge after lunch. (Video games seem to be a general startup thing, not just a game startup thing.) Which is a lot of fun; the only Burnout game I’d previously played was Burnout Paradise, and while I think that game is a masterpiece, I’m also under the impression that it’s quite different from its predecessors, so I was happy to have an excuse to try another entry in the series.

It took me several weeks of lunchtime matches to get used to the feel of driving in the game, but I have the basics under my belt now. And now that I’m somewhat competent at the game, I’m finding that the game gives me a rather different feel from other racing games that I’m used to: decisions in it can, in large part, be interpreted as being about risk management.

The distinguishing feature of Burnout Revenge (compared to others in the racing genre) is its use of traffic. There’s a lot of traffic; but you can plow right through cars going in the same direction as you (in fact, it fills up your boost meter, helping you go faster), while if you run into traffic going in the opposite direction (or, more rarely, cross traffic), you’ll crash. And you’ll also crash if you hit very large vehicles (buses, generally) going in the same direction as yourself.

Most of the time, this means that you stay in the correct lane, plowing through cars to fill up your boost. But if I’ve got a fair amount of visibility and not many cars to run into in my direction, I’ll move to the other side of the road, because you also earn boost if you’re going against traffic. (Going against traffic even if the lane isn’t empty is far from a death penalty, but it does increase your risk noticeably.)

It gets interesting, though, when you come to a turn. In a normal racing game, you want to approach a turn from a line designed to let you maintain as high a speed as possible. In Burnout, however, the distinguishing characteristic of turns is that they have a different risk profile. You have traffic approaching the intersection from multiple directions; if you’re making a left turn (or a right turn in the Tokyo/Hong Kong courses), you’ll always be crossing lanes that may contain approaching traffic, and even if you’re making a right turn, if you maintain any sort of decent speed, you’ll almost certainly slide into the left lane after the turn. (And if you approach from the best line from a pure racing perspective, you’d also want to switch over to the left lane before a right turn.) You can mitigate some of that (for right turns, at least) by sliding, but unless you’re better at sliding than I am, you’ll still fishtail enough while doing so to end up in the oncoming lane even while making a right turn. (This also applies when going around switchbacks on mountain courses, even without cross traffic.)

The result is that, when approaching a turn, I don’t think “how can I get through this at as high speed as possible?” Instead, I think “how can I maximize the number of options that I have, in order to react to surprises in traffic conditions?” Assuming it’s a left turn, I’ll rarely want to cut the corner sharply: if I do that, I’ll be in the oncoming lane with absolutely no information about what cars are there, so it’s a roll of the dice as to whether or not I’ll survive. Instead, I want to position myself so that I’ll get a good view of the oncoming traffic as early as possible, so I’ll have a few more tenths of a second to react to the conditions and plot a course to thread through traffic. Though, of course, the traffic as I approach the intersection may make that impossible: if that’s the case, I have to figure out how to avoid the oncoming cars that I can see (or the buses going in my direction) while getting a view of what’s approaching as early as possible.

This also plays into the design of shortcuts. There are a lot of them, and they often have traditional sorts of shortcut dangers: there might be jumps that are hard to make, or pillars to thread your way through. So their presence puts a premium on both course knowledge and driving skill.

What the shortcuts don’t have is traffic. Which can actually be a bit of a bummer, because if you’re low on boost, you may wish that you had more cars to run into, or oncoming lanes to cross into! But it gives the risk profile a quite different feel.

Except: occasionally they do have traffic. Some of the shortcuts lead you through alleys in the middle of blocks: so no traffic most of the time, but then you’ll blow through a street and be exposed to cross traffic. Even in the best such situations, you have very little time to react, and if a bus shows up at the wrong time, you’ll almost certainly crash no matter how good a driver you are.

The ends of shortcuts are also quite dangerous. They’ll dump you on a road, but they’ll frequently drop you on the wrong side of the road, without much time to react to oncoming traffic. That’s not as dangerous as cross traffic, but it’s still significantly more dangerous than a normal turn is. And it certainly puts a premium on your ability to parse a situation quickly: my improvement in that regard has been a bigger help in my recent increased competitiveness than my learning about the track layout.

So the upshot: shortcuts are generally shorter (duh) but tricker to navigate (which is normal in a racing game), but they also lead to riskier interactions with traffic at their ends and in street crossings in their middle (which is less common in a racing game). They’re still generally worth it, but you’re trading off better average returns for increased variance. Which makes the game more fun from a multiplayer point of view: your preferred amount of risk will change depending on your position in the race, and increasing randomness (within reasonable bounds) lets the best player win most of the time while increasing the chance of close races and upsets.

Fun game.

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