Friday, March 13, 2009

Wherever You Go, There You Are

Ah, the PS3. That sinusoid black box is damned expensive, but once you have it ensconced beneath your television, I have some good economic news: 60 bucks will get you very far with this thing. I still haven't played a single disc-based exclusive I'd kill my grandmother for, but that PSN runneth over with affordable ubiquity. The Pixeljunks were some of the of the finest games of 2007, and Everyday Shooter is one of my favorites of all-time. (Full disclosure: just as Flower got Chris Suellentrop to buy a PS3, it was hearing about Everyday Shooter on the 1up show that sold me on the PStriple. Je ne regrette rien.) And then, there is the fact that you can download Burnout Paradise. When you boot up the PS3 and start up your medialess copy of Burnout Paradise you are playing the future.

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.


Anonymous said...

I'm not familiar with Scott Frazier, but I think fun failures extends to all the recent Burnout games, not just Paradise. Burnout Takedown had the after-death controls where you could steer your car's corpse, and try to sabotage one of the cars that hadn't crashed.

I found this really satisfying, especially since if you succeeded you came back with your afterburner meter full.

I agree with all the things you're saying, and yet I did actually find myself missing racing on repetitive tracks. Maybe all those previous racing games turned me into a masochist.


Anonymous said...

There is one reason, and one reason only, for event restart: Burning Routes. There are times when I'll pick a car I know I don't like for the sole purpose of winning that one car-specific event, and I'm not interested in doing a bunch of events on my way back. I want to GTFO of that land yacht as soon as possible. But then, that's probably intentional, to get you to really try out and get a feel for a variety of different cars.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@mike darga: oh, it's always always been fun to crash in the burnout games. That's one thing that's missing in paradise, the aftertouch was pretty great. But failing a race always meant you had to go repeat the thing over again.

Whether or not you like the repetitive perfectionism of is really a matter of taste. I don't mean to say that this style of gameplay is bad or anything. I think it's just that i'm personally not into it much anymore.

@julian: the whole burning-route thing is a notable exception, 'cause there's only one of them on the map. It's also kind of a pain when you finish a race and you're out in the boonies on the western side of the map. These are small things tho, and I"m glad they at least give you the option to restart now if you want to.

thesimplicity said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Brothers said...

What amazes me about BP is the ground it breaks on two fronts - the gameplay aspects you mention here, and the things Criterion has done with digital distribution. As more games begin featuring emergent design and as digital delivery becomes a bigger part of the industry, I have a feeling we'll look back on BP and see a landmark title that isn't fully obvious to us right now, even as it wins a lot of praise.

Agreed about the fun failure. I've never played a game where screwing up feels so damn awesome.

Nels Anderson said...

You all keep talking about Burnout Paradise and I might just have to go and finally buy it. I'm not really into racers at all (I think I liked Excite Truck as much as Mario Kart), but Burnout Paradise might be right up my alley. And I just saw the ultimate BP box on Steam. Just gotta figure out how to hook up a wireless 360 controller ...

F. Scott Frazier said...

@ Mike Darga: I'm Scott Frazier! But seriously, you're absolutely right about Burnout Takedown having the fantastically delightful Aftertouch controls. I have always been sad this was not in Burnout Paradise. But who knows, Criterion has been so good with this game, they might just add Aftertouch to the game at some point.

@Iroquois: I think the most important thing about Burnout Paradise, is that we are still talking about it. It was featured no less than ten times as a headline on Kotaku the first two months of this year.

Quick, without thinking too long, name another game that came out thirteen months ago anyone in the industry is still talking about on a weekly (or more) basis.

@Nels: You must buy it immediately. If you like action arcade racing, it is a must own.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@nels: the man speaks the truth. I'm not a big racing game fan myself but I love the Burnouts. Also, I think it's like 20 bucks or something on steam.

Anonymous said...

It's true, only by replacing the monotony of getting a perfect line with the glee of destroying the lines (and vehicles) of others do I have any interest in a racing game. I think it's time to dip into Paradise City myself, after only the 50th person to commend it.