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Crash Generation: Looking Back at Burnout

Criterion Games’ track record is unmistakable. They’ve been making PC games since 1996, notably putting out niche but respected racer TrickStyle and futureboarding AirBlade. But in 2001, they began work on a series of titles that would eventually blow those and a lot of other racing games out of the water. Burnout has humble beginnings, galactic highs, and the luck to go out while still going strong. Today, we’re gonna take a look back at every part of its history and just where car combat racing went.

I did say humble beginnings, but if I’m being honest…the original Burnout is such a far cry from the heights of the series that it’s easier to list what is familiar in comparison to what isn’t. Burnout is actually a much more straightforward racer than its more well known entries, Takedown onwards. You race circuits with three other racers with the obvious goal of winning (although you can ‘pass’ by coming in a certain position in the Championship mode). You can win head-to-head races for new cars (of which there’s less than a dozen overall), and some of these championships often string parts of circuits together for an endurance race. Strangely enough, races have checkpoints and a timer, not unlike arcade games like Daytona USA.

What is absolutely a step back is the driving model, which, coming from modern driving games, isn’t up to snuff, but I find it hard to believe it was back in the day as well. Cars glide across the surface of the pavement, fly around at the slightest tap in the back, or under the influence of boost, and yet they stick to the asphalt if neither of these are true. Driving into other racers has no weight or impact; despite being able to push them around like paper mache, there’s no forcefully crashing other racers yet, unless you can steer them into the path of traffic.

Some other downsides are worth bringing up; that timer I mentioned earlier? It’s really strict; a few crashes can and will cost you a race. You only get three retries too, making each race really matter, only made worse by something familiar to 2000s racers – the rubberbanding is intense. One crash will send the AI speeding past you without so much as a how-do-you-do, even with perfect performance beforehand. The only way you can realistically avoid the AI passing you is to attempt to maneuver crashes into blocking the entire road; the blundering idiots will go straight into it, giving you a few seconds of time to get back up to speed. One crash at the end of a race can and will cost you it, every single time.

This is complemented by boosting, which well and truly wasn’t figured out yet. Burnout and its first sequel had a special kind of nitrous. Earning boost is done by dangerous driving: near misses, driving on the wrong side of the road, drifting and getting air. When, and only when, the boost meter is full, you can hold the boost to go faster; draining the entire bar gives you half of it back, ready to fill up again. It’s all let down by the fact you earn boost so slowly, and crashes drain the entire bar, that it’s entirely possible to go an entire race without being able to boost at all! Combined with the over-the-top rubberbanding and boost ends up feeling entirely useless. Imagine not having to boost at all to win at Burnout, of all series.

There are some positive points to the original that helped it in the press, mainly the crashes, which are just as disastrous and plentiful in flying metal bits as you’d expect from the early PS2 years. The sense of speed is definitely well done, and the tracks definitely are starting to resemble the best of the series, although randomized traffic patterns can screw you over on some of the thinner roads (that “cause a crash that takes up the entire road” tactic also works on you.) And all credit to it, despite some visual glitches, it maintains great performance, despite everything going on.

Many of the issues listed above were tweaked, improved, and disarmed as of the sequel, Burnout 2: Point of Impact. The car model is much improved, definitely being closer to the Burnout physics we know and love, with cars much more responsive to environmental conditions like bumps, terrain, and other cars. The original boost system is still here, but you get boost much faster, and you’re able to refill your Boost meter entirely for infinite boost speed if you’re good enough, definitely adding to the sense of danger.

With a bit of a tweak to the rubberbanding allowing races to not feel as knife-edge, much wider courses, less frustrating traffic patterns, a more forgiving timer, better presentation, improved soundtrack composition, even changing the game structure to more traditional tournaments, and head-to-head races to get rid of the pesky arcade continues…it definitely feels like the game the first Burnout should have been.

The last cherry on top is the introduction of the infamous crosswalk-wrecking, insurance-defying, utterly disastrous Crash mode; you get a car to drive into some ridiculously packed streets, causing as much financial damage as possible along the way by building up some ridiculous amounts of scrap metal. It’s still a good amount of fun, even without some of the features included in the sequels. The unfortunate thing is that the Crash mode is quite limited, with only 30 events on everything that wasn’t the PS2, and a pitiful half of that on said PS2.

So, Burnout 2 turned out pretty well, a straight improvement over the original and an upwards curve in both the eyes of the players and the press. Criterion could have taken the easy route and made Burnout 3 into another high-speed racer with great crashes when you screw up and gotten better reception as a result. But someone clearly had something else in mind. Maybe it was Crash mode, where your goal is to run straight into cars instead of avoiding them, or maybe someone was fiddling with the physics one day and hit paydirt…

(Quick aside for a fun fact; the original publisher for Burnout, Acclaim Entertainment, was infamous for their marketing gimmicks to try to promote games. Everything from the ‘name your baby Turok’ to ‘buy space on graves for Shadow Man’ to ‘half-naked strippers on bikes for BMX XXX’ was them. For Burnout 2 specifically, they offered to pay people’s speeding tickets…but they quickly withdrew the offer after an obvious, immediate blowback. Video games aren’t real life, kids.)

The development of Burnout 3: Takedown is actually an interesting story. Deals between Criterion and Electronic Arts had already fallen through on things like a remake of Skate or Die, so when Criterion was approached again by EA for a Burnout sequel, their one condition was “we get to make the game that we want to make.” Imagine EA agreeing to that, these days. Development started right after E3 of 2003, and the game was released in September of 2004, promptly hitting the scene like an atom bomb.

Burnout 3, while differing from its predecessors in obvious ways, also maintains a lot of what the previous games started. The main focus is still on risky driving – overtakes, near misses, drifting – but it’s been tweaked to perfection, with every action scored so well that it’s entirely natural to feel out the exact distances, drifts, and jumps, something 1 and Point of Impact were a little wobbly on. The cars are also several steps above Burnout 2, with every vehicle of the massively expanded roster having a much more down-to-earth feel of the road.

Of course, the major change to the boost system was takedowns; cars can slam, shunt, and commit metal warfare on the road at all times, with each hit making audible grinds against the shells of the vehicles. Getting someone off the road entirely is a takedown, which not only gives you boost, but increases your max boost, and you can use boost at any time now. This all results in the intensity of the racing going to 13 out of 10; speed alone won’t get you through this.

It’s almost impossible to describe just how good it feels to accelerate down the road at 140MPH, slam an opponent into a wall, get a massive boost of speed from the buff you get, gain some air, come back down next to an opponent who you slam right into a bus. Even Criterion knew, hence the gorgeous takedown cameras after finishing off an opponent. There are even special takedowns for getting the enemy into the equivalent of a basketball hoop on each track. I and many other players prefer Road Rages, modes that simply let you try to takedown as many enemy vehicles as possible in a time limit.

It’s also helped by the fact that Takedown also happens to be absolutely gorgeous. RenderWare was given a massive upgrade for Burnout 3, and the vistas, cities and everything in between is gorgeous to race on. The sheer amount of bits of metal, plastic, and sparks that fly on every touch thwomps anything the previous two games could do, all amounting to poetry in motion. Poetry that includes thoroughly unsafe speed and senseless car destruction, but hey, isn’t that the best kind of poetry?

There isn’t any other part of the experience that hasn’t been touched up. Tons of new event types for races and a full 100 Crash challenges significantly increase the playtime. The ability to gently nudge your car in singleplayer after a crash to knock out opponents adds that extra little bit of frustration relief. Online multiplayer made its series debut alongside the usual split-screen. To top it all off, EA included a demo for the to-be-released Need for Speed Underground 2 on the disc. There was enough to keep people coming back for years.

The entire thing is backed by the dulcet tones of Gary Ramon Sandorf, also known as DJ Stryker, playing himself as a radio DJ backdropping everything you do, giving you hints on where the signature takedowns are, and some of the best music selections this side of Tony Hawk. “Lazy Generation” is the opening salvo to a night of burning rubber, smashed metal, and a hell of a good time.

And so, history was written. Burnout 3 reviewed incredibly well, selling ridiculous amounts of copies, being incredibly friendly towards new fans and a welcome entry by series veterans, and its legacy carries on to this day. It’s still considered one of the finest arcade racers created, and it is really hard to disagree. You’ll find it on tons of best racing game lists, and many consider it to be the peak of the series. All eyes were on what Criterion would do next.

Before we take a look at Criterion’s shot at a true sequel to Takedown, there were some new platforms to consider. The PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS both came out the same year as Burnout 3: Takedown, and didn’t take very long to enter the eyes of EA, who wanted their new, freshly bought franchise on those platforms. As a result, Criterion worked simultaneously on said sequel and Burnout: Legends. Both games released on the same day.

Legends can most easily be described as a “greatest hits” compilation of Burnout content while running the same rules as Takedown. You’ve got plenty of cars and a good selection of tracks from across the series, along with the majority of modes in a compressed but recognizable form. It’s limited to four cars in one race and there’s the obvious graphical drawbacks, but everything’s still there; the metal-to-metal warfare, the massive crashes, pretty vistas and EA Trax. They even re-introduced Pursuit mode, which was missing from Takedown. It’s a fantastic example of a handheld port, and remains just as fun as Burnout 3.

But wait, did you forget I mentioned the DS as well? Yep, the same game made its way to the Nintendo platform for the first and only time a few months after the PSP port…and man, if there’s any game in this series that can be emphatically described as a car crash, this is it. The first sign of trouble is that the game wasn’t made by Criterion. Visual Impact, a shovelware developer, was given the reigns.

The one thing worth noting is that, all things considered, the game is one of the better looking and sounding games on the DS. Outside of the car models, which are not exactly the greatest, the tracks actually do bear a resemblance to the big brother’s circuits, and it does maintain a decent soundtrack, although definitely not the licensed stuff that the PSP version had. They even manage to maintain a lot of the same modes, everything from road rages to crashes.

The unfortunate downside is that the game plays even worse than the first Burnout. Cars skid all over the place and are almost impossible to reasonably handle. There’s no sense of speed whatsoever unless you hit the boost, in which case your screen becomes so blurry that it’s impossible to see where you’re going, even on a screen several times larger than your regular DS. The collision physics are anything from “faulty” to “inverse of the rules of the universe;” you’ll go flying out of nowhere from no physical collision, but you’ll pass right through a car in almost identical conditions.

This set of weird physics and the limitations of the DS result in Burnout Legends being the worst game in the series by far, by virtue of being simply boring. The lack of cool effects, effective handling, or enjoyable metal warfare really take down the game a few pegs, and it was absolutely blasted by anyone who’s ever played Burnout before. As unrelenting a joke as the Asphalt series has become, the two entries on DS actually capture the Burnout formula better than this. Thankfully, Criterion had already gotten their revenge.

The funny thing about Burnout Revenge is just how similar it is to Burnout 3, ignoring the elephant in the room. Cars drive just as well as they always have, and everything’s been given just a tiny touch up to look even better than Takedown. There are minor things here and there – a slightly different campaign structure, shortcuts that resemble what would come in the final entry, some updates to how Crash mode worked. Nothing that really disrupted the field.

However, the big change is something that really needs to be emphasized. Takedown is well known, in my opinion, for mixing together two things: high speed, dramatic racing, and head-to-head metal warfare car combat. But it didn’t just mix these things together; it mixed just the right amount of racing and combat. Burnout and Burnout 2 focused on the racing side of things–not bad, not great. Burnout 3 added in some combat and got the mix perfect, whether on purpose or by accident. But Burnout Revenge? It takes a big heaping dose of combat and dumps that sh*t in.

It’s not a bad thing on the surface! Some of the changes they made are actually neat ideas. Traffic checking is the main one; you can take out cars around your size if they’re going your way, throwing them around to take out opponents and clear your way. The amount of effects has been turned up quite a bit, resulting in sheer chaos every time the steel joust occurs. Even the soundtrack, another good set of EA Trax selections, definitely feels more aggressive track-on-track compared to Takedown. This even goes so far as to ask you to “choose your weapon” instead of your car. If Burnout 3 was a battle, Burnout Revenge feels like war.

As a result, Burnout Revenge feels even more intense than Burnout 3…about too much. It becomes tiring after a while, the same way Burnout 2 does, but in combat. It’s not a bad game, not by a long shot; Road Rage events are at their best in Revenge, I will not deny that. But the amount of sheer combat, flashiness and encouragement to be as extreme as humanly possible all the time (helped by a ‘rating’ system that you need to fill out with the usual dangerous driving to move forward in the campaign) can definitely drain after a while.

A lot of people agreed, and it was clear that someone at Criterion felt the same way; they took a long break after Revenge (it released just one year after Burnout 3) to work on what would be the last true title in the series. You can even see hints at their approach in the design of Revenge’s courses; they’re much more freeform, with some areas coming straight from Paradise. But EA wanted more Burnout in the inbetween, so they turned to one of their internal studios, EA UK…

I’ll just take a moment to mention that there are a couple of Java mobile phone games for Burnout that had come out by this point. The platform wasn’t capable of much, so they aren’t exactly the best, but they’re okay for what you got. It’s hard to really criticize them when they’re on platforms even less capable than the DS. With that kind of power, you take what you can get.

The intermediary game developed by EA UK released as Burnout Dominator, two years after Revenge. It’s most notable for going back to the original Burnout system of the first two games – fill your boost bar, empty it out in one shot to get it back. They also took the time to step back from Revenge’s combat heavy focus; goodbye traffic checking. Even Crash mode is gone; they’re focusing on the racing first and foremost here – in fact, Road Rage feels almost out of place with the new modes included.

These new modes include Near Miss, Drift, and Maniac challenges, are more on overall driving skill than car combat, clearly pushing away from Revenge’s action heavy focus. Thankfully, these were supplemented by some thoroughly positive changes to the boost system. Burnouts are now much easier to chain, have an on screen indicator that’s very clear on how close you are, and you don’t need to fill your boost bar to boost anymore (great for getting a quick takedown, so you CAN fill your boost bar and start chaining).

It’s also helped by the fact that even the effects and environments, while not bad by any means, have been toned down in fanciness levels and intensity, I’d argue by design. Playing Burnout Revenge, or even 3, after playing Dominator makes it feel quaint by comparison. It still has plenty of speed, fun crashes, and sparkly bits of metal everywhere, but they’ve clearly made an effort to pull back on the wow factor. I didn’t like this very much as a kid, but playing it now after the consistent chaos of Revenge helps me appreciate it a bit more. Heck, they might have found it not flashy enough; the ability to trigger a Crashbreaker explosion during Impact Time only exists in this game…

(Fun fact about the EA Trax selection for Dominator, at least on PS2? It has four selections of Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend.” All different language versions. The game doesn’t treat them as the same song either; you might hear the English version one race, then the Spanish version the next. And you thought Paradise was over the top making you listen to Paradise City every bootup!)

All credit to Dominator where it’s due; despite being developed by a different team, it still carried on the Burnout spirit in that last year of development for Paradise. Strangely, despite releasing in 2007, neither the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 saw Dominator. For that, they’d have to wait. It would be an interesting release; would they bring the focus back to combat ala Revenge, racing ala Dominator, or a mix of the two, ala Takedown?

The answer was chuck in a bit of all three.

Burnout Paradise released in 2008 and overhauled everything about Burnout. If I’m going to be perfectly honest, despite the flaws it does have, it has to be my favorite Burnout. The sheer level of freedom to approach your goals is something Burnout hadn’t really had the horsepower to accomplish before, but with the release of Paradise, it felt like the world was your oyster.

The series took its time converting to a brand new, open world, even with the ‘recycling’ of areas from Revenge. Paradise has everything from wind farms to the North, long winding paths down west, a bustling cityscape, huge shoreline, and mass roads for all of it, stretching hundreds of miles, each of which has their own online time trial for true masters to conquer.

Cars are now split between three boost types; point of impact style speed, takedown style aggression, and a brand new stunt style that earns boost through airtime and dangerous driving. With over seventy cars that are featherweight supercars, to giant vans that can traffic check, everyone can have their own driving style. It’s the most freedom given since the first Burnout game.

Every road feeds back into the next, with the player able to jump from road to highway, back to road, to bridge, to train tunnel. There are hundreds of collectible billboards, stunt jumps, shortcuts (signified by gates) and areas to visit. There are even areas on the map that never get used in the main game; there’s a stock car circuit, an airport, and a few places like parking lots that you might never find on a traditional race.

Let’s talk about events, actually. With the open world, events are now started at crosswalks. Races, time trials, and the new Marked Man events (you being pursued by ultra strong cars) all end at eight points on the compass, giving you all the space you want to make routes end-to-end. Road Rages and Stunt Runs, by comparison, can carry across the entire city! There’s something sublime about six cars constantly swarming every nook & cranny you can drive to, ready to smash you into little pieces.

You get to pick any event you want, and when you win enough, you’ll get a higher tier license, all the events will reset, and sometimes new cars that go even faster get dropped into the world to wreck. Driving across the city is at its most satisfying when you have six cars running around, waiting to just fall into your lap. That plus the soundtrack; all of Burnout’s older tracks, a new set of EA Trax, and the cherry on top – classical pieces! Mozart backing metal warfare is awfully appropriate.

It’s supplemented by the best online multiplayer the series has ever had, bar none. Everyone picks a car, and you can do the traditional races and road rages, but you can explore the open world with friends and enemies, doing a massive list of challenges for anything up to 8 players. If there’s a stunt jump to go through a hoop, hold a boost, drift the longest, anything you can think of, they’ve given you a checkbox and a leaderboard for it, and I’ve wasted hours just doing silly stuff with random people online.

Paradise was given a lot of updates over the years; downloadable content packs came every few months, adding even more features to the world. Day-night cycles, bikes, special car sets resembling toy die-cast cars, and generic cars from famous movies, a local hot-seat party mode, an extra multiplayer mode, and the major expansion Big Surf Island. It was a thoroughly respectable amount of support, ensuring the servers remained populated for years, only being shut down in 2019, 11 years after the game launched.

Paradise did have its fair share of criticism, though. While some fixes were patched in (the ability to quickly restart events after losing, as an example) some were never fixed. Some people did not appreciate how the open world and open racing required you to learn the map, or consistently refer back to it if you’re not familiar. This would carry over to the multiplayer; players with the highest tier cars and good map knowledge could thoroughly trounce less informed players, every time. Crash mode was excised completely for a “Showtime” mode that would let you ragdoll your car down the road at anytime, but with zero structure or goals, the mode’s replayability is nil.  Combined with needing to repeat the same events over and over, ending up at the same eight points every time, it’s easy to see why some people fell off Paradise.

Nevertheless, Paradise was still very well received, and everybody waited with baited breath to see what would come out of Criterion next. We’d later learn that multiple DLC ideas for Paradise were proposed and scrapped; everything from boats & helicopters to a low-gravity joyride on the Moon! That isn’t even getting onto things like the proposed Road Rash crossover that I will forever remain angry we never got. I’ll get onto what Criterion eventually moved on to do, but there’s one more Burnout title we need to take a look at, although it’s not exactly what you might expect…

Burnout Crash was released as an Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and iOS downloadable title in 2011, and lacks almost all resemblance to Burnout, with only the mechanics being remotely familiar. The driving is nonexistent, the pace surprisingly sluggish, and the overall point of Crash – the massive pileups viewed up close with tiny little bits all over the ground – seemingly lost to something that would work on a mobile phone. Thankfully, very few people are aware of Crash’s existence – you haven’t even been able to get the iOS version for five years as of this being typed – so most people think Burnout ended at Paradise, which is a fantasy I’m more than happy to indulge in.

So, let’s assume that Paradise was the last title. Criterion were reassigned, as of the end of Paradise, to work on an even bigger franchise: Need for Speed. They developed two games in the series, both of which share names with older titles – the 2010 version of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, and the 2012 release of Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Both games definitely share Burnout DNA, especially Most Wanted, which shares a large amount of its gameplay and functionality with Paradise, but without the arcade slice Burnout is known for.

After the development of Most Wanted, Criterion went through a rough patch. 80% of the studio went to studio Ghost Games, which has been handed the reigns of development for Need for Speed. Coincidentally, there hasn’t been a worthwhile Need for Speed game since Most Wanted. The original founders left not long after to found Three Fields Entertainment, which is where the last part of our story takes place. Criterion has since been detained by EA as a helper studio on larger projects; their last major effort was the battle royale mode for Battlefield V.

Three Fields Entertainment has an interesting history. Their first game, Dangerous Golf, is effectively Burnout’s crash mode, but bull-in-a-china-stop-style indoors golf, showing that they still have some of the Burnout spirit in them. After a quick detour into VR, they developed three games – the Danger Zone duology, Crash mode turned into a full game. I personally haven’t played them, but reading up on reviews, a lot of what I have to say next applies here too.

Finally, as of 2019, they released Dangerous Driving, an open book attempt to capture that same spark as Burnout. And…well, they tried. They really did. The problem with Dangerous Driving is that everything feels slightly off. It’s clear they’re trying to recapture that Burnout magic, but every minute you play, you can nitpick something else that seems incredibly obvious in retrospect, but wasn’t fixed for the release. The cars just don’t feel right. Crashes are unsatisfying, and sometimes the physics are wack. The controls are frustrating. Tracks are uninteresting. There’s not even a soundtrack, licensed or otherwise, by default (instead requiring you to use Spotify). The term “second rate clone” fits so well it’s almost comical, which is a shame, because as I said, they really did try. They still are; Three Fields have promised updates for Dangerous Driving for 2020.

Although, part of me wonders if Burnout shouldn’t have burnt out by now. Burnout had a good long time in the sun, and every Criterion developed entry is still fondly remembered to this day; hell, Burnout Paradise got a remaster in 2018 that was still really well received, despite being a ten year old game with a bunch of graphical touch-ups. We’d all love to see Burnout make a proper comeback, but with the industry the way it is, we can’t guarantee that it won’t fall into the same pits as Forza or Need for Speed have in the past few years. And hell, when your third entry is still considered one of the best arcade racers ever made, that’s a legacy you want to avoid tarnishing. Burnout might not be around to get revenge, but they got a fair few takedowns on its way through.