Editor’s Note: I have way too many video games. So, in a completely selfish effort to supply content to the blog while simultaneously cutting down on my backlog, I’ve introduced a recurring segment devoted to taking some of those games off the shelf and discussing them. Today’s pick is a racing game I messed around with for several hours a few weeks ago, but have been too lazy to write about before now. – Z.H.
If “Paradise City,” the fictional setting of Criterion Games’ 2008 Burnout Paradise, was a real place, it would be the biggest misnomer imaginable. Having spent about 13 hours there, I can confirm that it’s far from a “paradise.” In fact, if we’re going to get Dantean about it, it’s more like a purgatory: a bleak, nightmarish limbo where no one ever leaves their cars, horrific traffic collisions are a minute-by-minute occurrence, and the only radio station plays nonstop mall-punk and bland alternative rock, with frequent interruptions by a smarmy douche factory known only as “DJ Atomika.”
So yeah, Paradise City is a miserable shithole that seems to be populated entirely by daredevil motorheads with a complete disregard for the sanctity of life. Which just happens to be why Burnout Paradise is a fun game for people like me: people who never really got into racing games until they started messing around with cars in open-world sandboxes like the Grand Theft Auto series, and realized that causing absurd wrecks and somehow surviving them was basically the funniest thing ever. You know how some people defend first-person shooters by saying they give troubled teenagers a safe space to vent their violent urges without real-world consequences? Well, I consider Burnout Paradise to be nothing short of a public service, allowing me to drive like a maniac and carry out rampant vehicular manslaughter without actually endangering myself or others.
Burnout Paradise is nominally an open-world racing game, but it could more accurately be described as a car crash simulator. The game’s primary raison d’être is to make you gape in awe at the minute realism of its physics engine as cars crumple, shatter, and explode into tiny pieces across Paradise City’s somehow impeccably-maintained roads. In some “events”–what Burnout dubs its races and other challenges–you’re tasked with “taking down” competitor cars, which means running them off the road or into traffic and brutally incapacitating them. Every once in a while, a rare car will enter the city–DJ Atomika always announces its presence, raising disturbing questions about the level of surveillance over private property this radio personality is able to maintain–and you can hunt it down, wreck it, and claim it as your own. Yes, that’s right: in Paradise City, if you destroy somebody else’s car, it belongs to you, a fact that is advertised by the numerous junkyards–does any real-life city have as many junkyards per capita as this one?–with neon lights blaring “NEW WRECKS HERE.” It’s a bizarre, piratical economy that only serves to underline what an awful place Paradise City would be to actually live in.
In all of these cases–or, as also happens frequently, if you just lose control of your own vehicle and plow into another car, or a highway railing, or basically anything that could conceivably wreck a car moving at dangerously high speeds–the game slows down to a downright pornographic “crash cam,” so you can watch the cars smash in multiple angles with all their lovingly-rendered little details. Watching so many brutal wrecks in slow motion, you start to notice things: like how none of the cars have drivers, or how the game’s camera cuts away when you go off a cliff before you see the car hit bottom. It’s a weird kind of demureness for a game that is otherwise all about pandering to our base desires to see shit blow up. I’m not asking for brains splattered across the pavement here; that would be horrible, and not fun at all. But there’s a part of me–the part that cackled every time I managed to eject GTA IV‘s Niko Bellic through a windshield and watched him sail through the air, faceplant 20 yards away, and then miraculously dust himself off and get back up again–that kind of wants to see where the people are in this whole cartoonish scenario.
As weird as it seems, that’s really my only major complaint about Burnout Paradise (my other complaint, about that horrible music, was rendered moot by the simple if tedious act of turning down the radio, minimizing the game, and hitting shuffle on iTunes). Play too much too fast, as I arguably did, and the whole thing starts to feel a little detached and clinical: just crash after crash, with no consequences but a few seconds lost in the race, and nobody in the driver’s seat to endure all the carnage. I’ll probably come back to Burnout Paradise again; it’s a fun and, frankly, addictive arcade racer, and its open-world elements make even the act of driving around and exploring the city a pleasure. For now, though, if I get the urge again to see shredded rubber and hubcaps strewn across the street, I’ll just drive home and visit Detroit.