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Critical Reception: EA/Criterion's Burnout Paradise

This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Burnout Paradise, a free-roaming racing sequel for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 that game critics say is "both a disappointment and a must-play" - full comments within.
This week's edition of the regular Critical Reception column examines online reaction to Burnout Paradise, a free-roaming racing sequel that critics say is "both a disappointment and a must-play." Burnout Paradise has been described as both a new beginning and a great risk for Criterion's popular destruction-based racing franchise. As the first non-ported Burnout to be released for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, expectations ran feverish in anticipation of how an upgrade in hardware would impact the franchise's newest entry. Far from being a mere visual upgrade, Paradise was advertised as featuring retooled gameplay and an open-world interface. Fans wondered if the free-roaming approach would work well in the context of an arcade-styled racer, however, and a recently released demo was met with criticism for its lack of certain features seen as essential in previous Burnout titles. Burnout Paradise has earned widespread acclaim from critics, and currently averages a score of 89 out of 100 at Metacritic.com. Chris Morell at GamePro notes that previous entries in the Burnout series had set high standards in quality for each successive follow-up. "Burnout Paradise deserves to be recognized as a game that truly has it all," he begins. "It more than lives up to the high expectations that surround the Burnout franchise and it stands as one of the most entertaining titles that I have ever played." Awarding Burnout Paradise a score of 5 out of 5 in Fun Factor, Morell notes that Paradise represented a risky venture for developer Criterion. "Instead of simply adding a 'new-gen' sheen to the tried and true formula, they forged a bold path and started completely from scratch," he explains. "Gone are the confined races, cluttered menus and online lobbies, replaced by a huge city, on-the-fly racing, opened-ended objectives and an online mode that is seamlessly integrated into the overall experience." "From the moment you hit the streets of Paradise City, there is almost no loading screens or menus to contend with," he continues. "The game employs a true sandbox principle that truly allows you to play the game as you wish." Morell cautions that this new style of play may take some time to accept. "There is a bit of a learning curve as you get acclimated to the system," he says. "The absence of menus is also two-way street. It makes everything cleaner but it can be intimidating for gamers who need a little handholding to get accustomed to everything the game has to offer." "Despite these minor imperfections, there is no doubting that Burnout Paradise offers once of the most intense racing experiences around," Morell states. "It won't wow you with a high degree of realism like Gran Turismo will but for pure racing action, it is one of the best titles ever produced. Give it a chance and you might find yourself having the most fun you've ever had in a virtual car." 1UP.com's Shane Bettenhausen rates Burnout Paradise at 9 out of 10. "As someone who's closely followed Criterion's racing series for the last seven years, it warms my heart to see it evolve into something as innovative, satisfying, and polished as Burnout: Paradise," he writes. "While the most recent franchise offerings (Revenge and Dominator) feel like playin'-it-safe rehashes, Paradise brilliantly reimagines Burnout as a go-anywhere, do-anything open-world adventure in the vein of Grand Theft Auto." Bettenhausen praises Burnout Paradise's reworked gameplay, which he describes as appealing to both longtime series fans and casual gamers. "Paradise City offers so many cleverly hidden secrets to discover (Super Jumps, shortcuts, gas stations, targets to smash, etc.) that you need not even tackle the 120 instantly accessible events to get lost in the engrossing metropolis," he says. "This is a genius move: Casual players can have a blast while merely exploring the world, unfettered by the consequences of crashing or losing a race." Even the Burnout series' standard challenges are improved upon in Paradise, according to Bettenhausen. "Devilishly aggressive enemy A.I. transforms point-to-point races into epic high-speed battles while Stunt Runs demand familiarity with Paradise City's finest trick playgrounds," he says. "Those unpredictable computer-controlled drivers also amplify the fun in Paradise's most rewarding challenges -- the takedown-centric Road Rage and everyone's-out-to-total-you Marked Man -- achieving a new industry standard for automotive intensity and carnage." Bettenhausen also responds to the criticism leveled at the game's controversial demo. "Contrary to all of that message-board bellyaching, this new go-anywhere, do-anything approach unequivocally works," he claims. "No, you can't instantly retry an event after you fail...but ultimately, that's an inconsequential punishment." "Since every single intersection in Paradise City boasts a new opportunity for fresh victory, you're never left idling the engine and weighing your options," Bettenhausen concludes. "Paradise forces you to reconsider how you approach a racing game, and that innate unpredictability renders it amazingly accessible." At Game Informer, Matt Helgeson contributes a review scored at 8.5 out of 10. Helgeson notes that his Paradise experience was marked by disappointment. "The tragedy here is that, with just a few errors in judgment on the part of the developers, what could have been the year’s greatest racing game settles for being merely good," he says. Helgeson emphasizes that he enjoyed much of Paradise, and concedes that "merely good" is more than many games can hope to be. However: "While there’s so much good to talk about with Burnout Paradise, it’s not hard to spot its flaws," he says. "For reasons I’ll never understand, there is no 'Retry' option for races. That means that after you’ve lost a race in the last seconds, you’ll have to trek all the way back across the map, go to the intersection you began at, and restart from there. This is highly annoying and often confusing, as it’s sometimes difficult to remember at which of the myriad dots you began." "There’s also no 'skip to' option, so you’ll spend far too much of your time aimlessly wandering the countryside," he continues. "This is especially frustrating because, as a result of the poorly designed on-screen map, you’ll frequently lose races simply because you took a wrong turn in the huge maze that is Burnout’s roadways." Helgeson also laments the loss of the popular Crash mode present in previous Burnout releases. "It's been replaced with Showtime Mode, which allows you to start crash sequences anywhere by clicking the top shoulder buttons," he explains. "In this mode, you can bounce your car and “steer” the crash at will, crushing cars that are suddenly streamed into the environment. While it’s fun at first, it quickly feels too artificial and gimmicky, and lacking in the “puzzle game” element that Crash’s preset levels provided." In spite of his criticism, Helgeson finds the bulk of Burnout Paradise to be enjoyable enough to be worthy of a recommendation to all gamers. "It’s not often that I can say that a game is both a disappointment and a must-play, but Burnout Paradise certainly fits both of those descriptions," he summarizes. "What’s here is nothing short of amazing, but I can’t help but wonder what could have been." Interestingly, Burnout Paradise has earned relatively high scores from all review outlets thus far, even though a handful of reviewers express strong dislike of its navigation-related flaws. No review yet disputes the quality of Paradise's core gameplay, however. Though some critics say that its drawbacks can be difficult to overlook, Burnout fans will otherwise find a worthy sequel in Paradise.

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