This isn't the only way that Burnout Paradise is forward-thinking. Criterion's decision to periodically dole out content updates gratis, long after its initial release, has already earned it well-deserved praise. Its integration of simple and elegant multiplayer functionality into the open-world structure should be emulated by other titles.
But what I really appreciate about Burnout Paradise is that its innovative take on open-world game design addresses some of major complaints with open-world gaming and the racing genre at once..
One of my major problems with the sandbox games is that they often don't give the player all the tools they need to set the pace of their own experience. There's two ingredients to open-world cookery: scripted missions you initiate by appearing at certain points on the map, and scattered incentives towards exploration. The idea is that the player can mix these two to suit their own tastes. But the mixing isn't always easy. I love to wander around and get lost in the scenery every once in a while, but when I'm tired of playing the flaneur and get the yen for more structure, the mission node I want to find is often a long slog across the map. This turns exploration into business travel, and that's a problem. (This was a huge problem in Far Cry 2: often there were 10 minutes of thickly murderous transit between you and your next desired objective.)
It's surprising enough that the exploration side of the open-world recipe works at all using a car as your main character. Matt Gallant's friend said that Paradise is “a platformer whose dude just happens to be a car” and that's totally right; it's kind of incomprehensible that this conceit functions at all. But the genius part of Burnout Paradise, to me, is that the moment you get bored of wandering around-- getting new cars and looking for stunt jumps and smashing billboards-- there's always a variety of structured events to do right where you are. More than any other open-world game I've played, it succeeds in offering the player everything they need in order to tailor the pace of their experience. I never feel like I'm more than a block away from whatever I want to do.
On the other front, I love the way that this same mission-density in Paradise overcomes the fail-and repeat cycle you find in so many racing games. Even the previous games in the Burnout series, despite falling on the more arcade-y end of the arcade/sim racing-game spectrum, often forced you to commit to trial-and-error memorization of each course in order to proceed. (This is a problem I have with videogames in general: the only way that the designers know how to teach you to play the game correctly is by forcing you to repeat the same identical task.) I happen to love wipEout, too, but in the end the gameplay often amounts to rote memorization-through-constant-repetition. In order to pass the higher ranks, it comes down to always hitting that one speed arrow on the left side after the third turn. If you miss that one speed arrow on the left side after the third turn, you might as well restart the race and save yourself the time.
I think a lot of racing game fans, and those on the fringes of the OCD spectrum, enjoy the experience of perfecting their lines (lord knows, I even did this in the original Mario Kart when I was 15 years old, so the idea is not alien to me), but I squander enough of my life already. After a while the grinds down the experience for me.
Burnout Paradise doesn't have this problem, because by the time you fail you're usually on the other side of the map and ready for something new. Scott Frazier recently wrote that “Failing in racing games has never been fun before Burnout,” and I feel the same way. The thicket of new challenges awaiting you just past the finish line takes the sting out of defeat. Criterion patched in a restart option in the last update, but it goes against the spirit of the whole experience, which incentivizes novelty and experimentation over memorization; like Flower, it's essentially non-punitive. Why impose punishment on yourself?
Burnout is such a gorgeous, smartly-designed racing game that we are likely to lose sight of the fact that it's a gorgeous, smartly-designed video game. I hope that other developers will swipe its many good ideas.