Burnout 3: Takedown – Second Opinion

Scenario 1: You've taken out the race leaders and now you're speeding down a lush seaside highway in first place, weaving in and out of the oncoming traffic, gaining boost from every car you pass (and so nearly clip) while the blaring radio fuels your speed addiction and helps widen the already broad smile on your face and moisten the maniacal glaze in your unblinking eyes. It's the full-on Burnout 3 experience: an exhilarating, gleeful gaming moment.

Scenario 2: After crashing into a bus that just drove through the trackside barrier as you skimmed along it, you're now desperately trying to catch up with the single car (faster than yours) that you've been pitted against in this Face-Off event. But he's nowhere to be seen in your speed-hampered field of vision, and an unhelpful on-screen message only increases your exasperation by informing you (at effectively random intervals) that you're now 11 seconds behind (but where's the on-screen timer?) as you try to boost off of the oncoming vehicles whose headlights you can't properly make out because the sun is glaring violently off of the tarmac ahead of you. Suddenly, you see a set of "sharp turn" arrows pointing left and powerslide in anticipation. But it's not really a sharp turn at all; the road just veers to the left slightly. How slightly it's impossible to tell until it's too late. Crash!

That's risk and reward gameplay for you I guess, and to be fair both scenarios conjure up some thrilling moments (of the kind praised in Scott's review), but Burnout 3 never loses its potential to frustrate in the blink of an eye. Literally, because this is one fast game. While I wouldn't want to say that it were too fast, it's worth noting that its breakthrough predecessor (Burnout 2: Point of Impact) managed to create an effective sensation of speed—and still does—without ever reaching the brain-numbing velocities capable in Burnout 3. Certainly, not since F-Zero GX has such a big-name game's appeal rested on such a thrilling/infuriating knife-edge.

Still, if nothing else the blistering speed is at least proof of Burnout 3's considerable technical achievement. The colors are vivid, the textures distinct, and the real-time reflections are way beyond what PS2 gamers are usually treated to. The fact that it all flies past at such a fantastic lick must really be quite humbling for the other racing game developers out there. And yet, as with all console racing games, these elements soon fade into insignificance while the most prominent aspect gets put under the microscope, namely the structure.

And unfortunately, Burnout 3's structure approaches sheer ineptitude. Players will spend their first few hours unlocking something for every single race they finish (accompanied by over-long and unskippable "You have unlocked …" screens), a process that becomes tiresome very quickly indeed. In fact, as the player slavishly plays catch-up to the ever-unfolding roster of new events, it's ironic that the most palpable sense of progress is achieved after winning a race in which no new features are unlocked (an all-too-rare respite).

Furthermore, the overly easy—and in my opinion hugely over-estimated—Crash Mode is too heavily weighted in the structure, offering some 100 of the total 173 medals, with each event lasting under a minute. And just when you think to condemn Burnout 3 as a game of cheap thrills for short attention spans, those enthusiasm-sapping load times and unskippable screens butt in to dispute even this. It's a game that could have been the ultimate stress-reliever, but it just comes with too many of its own frustrations attached.

I even found the multiplayer mode to be significantly underwhelming. The races lose much of their sensorial impact when stripped of the (predictable but appropriate) rock soundtrack and the excellent slow-motion 'Takedown Camera' cutaways. Meanwhile, Crash Party mode is hampered by the aforementioned loading screens (which last as long as the events themselves) and a reliance on power-ups to drastically increase a player's score. Online modes offer more promise, but even these have been beset by early technical problems.

So what saves it? Well, the fact that I've been hooked to the game enough for me to notice all of the above must count for something. After all, the biggest critics are typically the biggest fans too.

Don't get me wrong, Burnout 3 is a triumph, and it's doubtful that the next EA-backed instalment will advance the series as dramatically (and successfully) as this one. But this is a review of my personal experience of the game, one in which the quality of the gameplay was frequently overridden by those niggling little annoyances that all too often dictate how we remember a game in the long run.

Reading my two opening paragraphs again, it is clear that whilst the second scenario attempts to articulate the game's frustration factor and design imbalances, both descriptions are evidence that, through the good times and the bad, Burnout 3 has kept me nothing less than enthralled and addicted. Although I found it to be a lesser racing game than its predecessor (in which skilful driving was rewarded over aggressive driving), Criterion ought to be applauded for the bold design choices that have turned the third title into a wholly unique and brilliantly realised game on its own terms. It may not seem like the most flattering analogy, but Burnout 3 is much like the crunching high-speed crashes it depicts so ruthlessly: a little unsavoury at times, but utterly impossible to ignore. [And it probably deserves a higher rating than my 7.5 out of 10, but it won't get one from me]

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation2 version of the game.