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Burnout Paradise 10th Anniversary: Remembering Criterion's Race Towards the Future as it Heads to PS4 and Xbox One

A decade ago, Burnout Paradise went in a radical new direction. We remember Criterion's classic racer on its 10th anniversary.

Feature by Kat Bailey, .

"Take me down to the paradise city / where the grass is green and the girls are pretty."

The opening riff from "Paradise City" still reverberates in my head to this day. Even now it conjures images of explosive crashes and hard-fought races. I'm not even much of a Guns N' Roses fan, but I still find myself humming it from time to time, if only because it was so ubiquitous in Burnout Paradise.

Like the song that accompanies it, Criterion's pioneering racer remains seared into my memory. Every open world racing game I've purchased since—from Need for Speed to Forza Horizon 3—has been an attempt to recapture the pure joy of Burnout Paradise. Nothing has quite been able to replicate it.

Old-school fans still consider Burnout 3 to be the apex of the series, but I've never been what you would call a racing fan. Car culture is about as foreign to me as my sports fandom is to the rest of the USgamer team. Before Burnout Paradise, my favorite racing game was Mario Kart 64.

Like many other games of that period, I downloaded Burnout Paradise on a whim. Flush with cash from my first freelance gig and thrilled to finally have an HD console—I didn't get a PS3 until 2009—I wanted to play a real "showcase game." And that's exactly what I got.

It's easy to forget now what a shock to the system games like Burnout Paradise were back in 2008. The previous generation wasn't exactly ugly, but the leap to high-definition put even the likes of God of War and Metal Gear Solid 3 to shame. What followed was a mini-renaissance for game development. The two year period of 2007 and 2008 alone gave us Burnout Paradise, BioShock, Fallout 3, Call of Duty 4, Uncharted, Portal, Left 4 Dead, Dead Space, Far Cry 2, Braid, and Mirror's Edge. It was a remarkable period that helped define much of gaming as we know it today.

Burnout Paradise was especially notable for the way it brought many of the era's prevailing trends under a single umbrella. Its open world foreshadowed the "open everything" design that would come to dominate the following generation. Its seamless online design heralded the "always online" platforms that would follow. Even its massive DLC packs, coming a mere two years after Oblivion's horse armor flap, felt like the wave of the future.

"Give me my Burnout back!" Critics were initially unhappy with Burnout's turn toward open world racing. They loved Burnout 3 (pictured).

Like most trailblazers, it also suffered its share of controversy. Plenty of old-school racing fans took umbrage at the notion of an open-world driving sim. They complained about the inability to restart races, the need to go to the body shop for repairs, and the lack of structure in the "free driving" portion of the game. The demo was controversial enough that Criterion publicly responded to criticism with a post that's since been lost to the tides of the Internet. Ars Technica complained in response:

Give me my Burnout back! I loved it because the "linear and limited" experience made Crash mode almost like a puzzle game. Everything you've been saying in your defense is just convincing me that this isn't what I'm looking for in a Burnout game. As you're trying to sell me on it, all I hear is, "See, we've taken away what you've liked, and added a lot of what you don't like. But you should still buy it even if you don't like the demo, because there is a WHOLE LOT of what you don't like in it, and we've worked hard to make the largest amount of things that aren't like Burnout to put in there."

Ars Technica's complaints were echoed in forums and blogs around the Internet. Even today, there are fans who just want the old Burnout back. As the old adage goes, "It was different, and therefore it sucked."

When Burnout Paradise finally launched a few weeks later, Ars Technica walked back their criticism with a glowing review:

"I blame much of the bellyaching about the game on the demo: it's too large for what people expected from Burnout and too small for what the final game delivers. When you play the final version with the entire city and spend a few hours getting your bearings, you'll see that the changes made to the game play and the new direction the series is going in is a positive one. Add in one of the better online racing systems in recent memory, and you have a very compelling $60 purchase."

I wasn't aware of this controversy. I just remember the first time I pulled out of the gas station with Guns N' Roses blaring, an entire island with events and races at my fingertips. I remember how shiny and detailed the cars looked in HD. And I remember the crashes. Oh boy, do I remember the crashes.

The crashes were Burnout Paradise's secret ingredient.

Burnout Paradise's crashes were works of art. When you hit a car just right, it would go spinning away in a whirlwind of exploding metal. The same could happen to you as well; and for as frustrating as it could be to lose a white-knuckle race in the very last second, it was still a sight to behold.

Half the fun of Burnout Paradise was driving around and knocking as many cars as possible off the road. It's an element that's sorely missed in Forza Horizon 3—the tradeoff of having reams of licensed cars. Head-on collisions just feel wrong when both cars fail to explode in slow-motion glory.

The collisions made Burnout Paradise's island a high-speed bumper car arena. I'd be driving along a picturesque coastline at Warp 9 and suddenly bam, I'd be exploding. It made the island feel somehow more grounded, more real. It was the video game equivalent of a Michael Bay film, but actually being able to destroy my car felt good.

When I wasn't blowing up my car, I was hunting for billboards. Burnout Paradise brought an interesting layer of environmental puzzle-solving to the table—something you don't typically see in other racing games. It would challenge you to try and figure out just what route you needed to take to reach collectibles. If you hit it, you would be rewarded with a satisfying thwack as it exploded around you.

Stunts featured a different sort of environmental puzzle solving. Stunt runs were all about finding the perfect straight line course loaded with jumps and corkscrews. It was exhilirating to hit everything just so while boosting as hard as possible, the score multipliers exploding as the world ripped past you. The races were fun, but the search for the perfect stunt run was what kept me up at night.

In hindsight, Burnout Paradise was loaded with an astounding number of things to do—a hint of the online platform-oriented development to come. You could look for billboards to break, stunts to undertake, mini-speed records to break. Burnout Paradise kept you constantly informed of your friends' place on the leaderboards, and encouraged you to challenge them. In a era when online console game was only really beginning to truly blossom, this was revolutionary.

Figuring out how to break Burnout Paradise's billboards brought a fun element of environmental puzzle solving to the mix.

Criterion even went so far as to seamlessly integrate an online world populated with other players, which you could switch to at any time. Burnout Paradise felt like the platonic ideal of what a "next-gen game" should feel like back in 2008. It had everything: full online integration, clever leaderboards, massive DLC. While other publishers were still figuring out what gamers wanted, Burnout Paradise was dropping huge updates like Big Surf Island, which introduced an entirely new island to explore. Its online integration was so complete that Criterion was even able to sell ad space to eventual president of the United States, Barack Obama.

You could argue that this trend was not altogether good. Plenty of publishers took Burnout Paradise's ideas and abused them, larding up their games with preorder DLC and leaning hard on grinding for long-term appeal. If Burnout Paradise came out today, it would most definitely have loot boxes.

But when it came out, Burnout Paradise felt fresh and new. It felt like the future of gaming. And that's because it was.

Burnout Paradise in Hindsight

A decade after its original release, some of the shine has obviously come off Burnout Paradise. The textures don't stand out as much, the lighting isn't as vibrant. It's no longer the graphical and technical showcase that it once was.

Nevertheless, it still stands out in my memory as the ideal of open world arcade racing. I've been chasing the high I got from Burnout Paradise for a decade now, and every time I've thought to myself, "It's just not the same."

Forza Horizon 3: A wonderful racer, but also very different from Burnout Paradise.

Criterion's Need for Speed games muddled the pleasure of free driving with cops. Forza Horizon traded the joy of stunts and crashes for more realistic physics and a much stronger focus on straight-up racing. I love Forza Horizon 3, but there is a Burnout Paradise-sized hole in my heart that hasn't been filled in a very long time.

The team that built the original Burnout Paradise is long gone. Burnout Paradise director Alex Ward left Criterion in 2013 to start his own studio. Criterion hasn't made a game of their own since.

There have been rumors abound that Burnout Paradise will be remastered in the very near future, which will be great for anyone who missed it the first time. But otherwise, the Burnout franchise is dead. EA's focus is entirely on Need for Speed these days. Even if it returns at some point, it won't be the same.

But Forza Horizon has shown that there's still very much a future for open world racers; and if someone wants to try their hand at the genre, the blueprint is there. Burnout Paradise may be long gone, but its legacy is relevant as ever.

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Comments 16

  • Avatar for moochan #1 moochan 4 months ago
    I still feel 3 Takedown is the best in the series. Feel just quickly loading up the menus to select the type of race you wanted. Even with fast travel I felt the open road part just made things annoying to navigate. The one part about Paradise I liked is finding new ways around the roads to find quick shortcuts in races. But overall I personally wasn't much of a fan of the move to open world in Paradise like most people did. The one thing that I felt ruined it was crash mode was pretty bad in Paradise honestly. Because everything was just randomized you could easily get a line of cars to just watch the chaos happen or you could just get 2 or 3 of them and nothing else. I was one of those guys the looked at crash mode as more of a puzzle like mode finding the right angel to hit a car and try to domino your way into a massive explosion. Overall I enjoyed Paradise for I really didn't love it like I did with 3.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #2 riderkicker 4 months ago
    Crazy that DJ Atomika (isn't that a feminine name?) and Heero Yuy are played by the same person.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #3 Roto13 4 months ago
    I hope the remaster leads to a new Burnout game in the style of Paradise. The series never grabbed me before that one and the only other open world racing game from Criterion I tried (whatever Need for Speed was out at the PS4 launch) took itself way too seriously. Give me something light and fun like this game.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #4 LBD_Nytetrayn 4 months ago
    Pour one out for another to fall under EA's wretched axe.

    Never got to play Paradise, though -- it fell prey to the tendency of next-gen games of the time to be rather SDTV-unfriendly, as I recall, and by the time I got an HDTV, I just never managed to come back around to it.

    I don't remember much actual "racing" to speak of in my favorite, Burnout 3: Takedown. Just the big crash courses and the eponymous Takedowns, at which I was great.

    Still hope that becomes backwards compatible on Xbox One. I'll be in heaven then.
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  • Avatar for Maxbeedo #5 Maxbeedo 4 months ago
    Having a car gives you freedom to travel, and Burnout Paradise captures that better than most racing games. Being able to wander around listening to tunes without having a fail-state to worry about is very liberating. I can understand people liking Burnout 3 more for the superior crash mode, but I loved the stunt challenges here which really forced you to see how well the world was designed for continuous ramps/jumps/shortcuts/etc. They're both amazing games.
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  • Avatar for WiIIyTheAntelope #6 WiIIyTheAntelope 4 months ago
    Eh. Paradise was just ok. There was more things that bugged me about it than things I really liked. I didn't care for the open world. I prefer actual tracks to open world gameplay most of the time. Nothing irritates me more than running a great race, only to wind up losing in the last 30 seconds of the final lap because you fell victim to open world traffic pattern randomization. 2 and 3 were better in this regard. You could memorize the traffic patterns and use them to your advantage. If you wrecked, it was almost always your fault, not because the game decided "LOL here's a bus."

    And the other big thing that I didn't like was the camera angles. There wasn't a single camera angle in the game that felt like it was in the right spot. They all just felt slightly off from where I wanted them. It isn't often I find a racing game where I don't like ANY of the camera options, but here it is.

    Also 2 was the best Burnout, not 3. 2 was the best combination of racing and carnage. 3 went overboard with the takedowns. It's still better than Paradise though.Edited January 2018 by WiIIyTheAntelope
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  • Avatar for Cynalus #7 Cynalus 4 months ago
    Super game. Loved it when it came out. Have gone back to again and again. Excellent mesh of features, options, music, graphics, sound, collisions. Constant adrenaline rush. Great races. I concur nothing quite like it has come out since. Still, along with Burnout Revenge, my favorite racing games since Mario Kart and F-Zero.
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  • Avatar for Godots17thCup #8 Godots17thCup 4 months ago
    It's real bummer to see another fun arcade racing series just sorta die off.

    Granted, Revenge is the only Burnout game I've played, but I was obsessed with that game for months after it came out.
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  • Avatar for Galgomite #9 Galgomite 4 months ago
    I bought BP on day one and was instantly disappointed. I vastly preferred the progression system of previous titles over the open world presented here. If I could pick a racing remaster, it would be Burnout 3, original soundtrack and all.
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #10 chaoticBeat 4 months ago
    I appreciate this perspective on Paradise. It was definitely a new feeling game for the time and preceded some popular trends in open world games.
    If I hadn't just come off of the literal arcade perfection that was Burnout 3: Takedown and Revenge, I think I would've appreciated Paradise more for the game it was. I'll totally buy a remake day one and enjoy the hell out of it.
    Burnout should have a place in modern gaming at all times. Where Burnout went hasn't been matched or even repeated by a racing game since (as brought up in this article)!
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  • Avatar for pokingyou #11 pokingyou 4 months ago
    Love this game I still play it love the rush .. it will be if they remove the (kicked) option I don't think they should give the host that power to decide who to kick .. remove the kicked option and replace it with making your own car clubs in naming your own club and making your own club logo and inviting ppl to join and battle with other clubs to be number#1 ..
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  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #12 donkeyintheforest 4 months ago
    I remember one evening playing with random people online and there was some driver who wanted everyone to gather on the beach because there was some trophy they wanted. It required all eight logged on players to perfectly making a jump over the other cars one by one in under a minute.

    Well we did it on the second try and the person was so happy and friended all of us. I'm still friends with them on PSN, and sometimes, when I see their name pop up I'm like, "wow, that was a crazy amount of collaboration by some skilled unknown players." It's the kind of thing you only normally see in weird niche online communities like in roleplay servers or the mod community. Videogames are pretty cool sometimes.
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  • Avatar for jumpin_jeeps #13 jumpin_jeeps 4 months ago
    This piece makes me want to dig out the PS3 and play NFS: Hot Pursuit. Loved the crashes and courses in that. Come on, PS4, sort it out!
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  • Avatar for DrCorndog #14 DrCorndog 4 months ago
    Burnout Paradise is an awesome game, so long as you don't enter any actual races.
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  • Avatar for Damn_Skippy #15 Damn_Skippy 3 months ago
    Here's hoping a remaster of Burnout 3: Takedown is included as a bonus, COW style.
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  • Avatar for lindachaney #16 lindachaney 3 months ago
    ohhh it's my favorite game!
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