Racing games, more so than any other genre, have the power to physiologically transform me. My hands sweat. My heart rate doubles. My body temperature rises. I can actually feel adrenaline bubbling like soda water in my veins. Indeed, a well-crafted racing game can make me feel, even as I sit idly in front of my TV set, wholly alive. And no racing game made me feel more alive this year than Burnout 3: Takedown did. It's as if EA took Acclaim's competent Burnout franchise and fed it a steady diet of meat, potatoes, and steroids for the past two years. The result: one of the fastest, most gratifyingly visceral racing games I've ever experienced.
The trademark of the Burnout series has always been the sci-fi conceit of earning what the game refers to as "boost" (i.e. some vague kind of nitro) by taking risks. Weaving through oncoming traffic, drifting around corners, or veering dangerously close to other cars will "fill up" my boost meter. The more risks I take, the more boost I get. Holding down the A button engages the boost. Suddenly, the asphalt blurs beneath me, I'm streaking past cars, and the sound of crackling flames comes out of my TV speakers. My vehicle, for as long as I've still got boost in the tank, becomes a veritable land rocket (which makes controlling my car infinitely more difficult). As a result, the core challenges of the game are deciding when to earn boost and deciding when to use it. Both are risky endeavors. The farther behind I am in a race, the more risks I have to take, which poses an elegant little videogame conundrum.
Aside from the big, brassy graphics and eclectic soundtrack—yes, this game has been fully EA-ified—the newest addition to the series—and it's a doozy—is the concept of the "takedown." A properly timed, properly angled collision with an opponent's vehicle will "take him down," i.e., cause him to crash into other cars, leap guardrails, or to even T-bone into medians. (Taking down opponents, by the way, is also the quickest way to earn boost.) I cannot stress enough how absolutely exhilarating it is to take down opponents. It's visceral, violent, and outrageously gratifying. The physics in the game are superb, and recognizing when opponents are vulnerable becomes almost instinctual. Rumbling along the tracks in search of potential takedown victims is akin to playing a Quake deathmatch while going 195 mph.
The fetishized car crashes—another trademark of the Burnout series—are now more more detailed and stylized than ever. Never before have I seen crashes so lovingly articulated in a videogame. Every wobbling tire, every fractured front end, every pinwheeling bumper, every eye-searing spark—these are truly crashes of epic proportions. Crashing in Burnout has traditionally been a passive experience; whenever I crashed in previous installments in the series, I had no choice but to impatiently wait for the four-second crash animation to run its course. Burnout 3: Takedown remedies this flaw. Immediately after a crash, I can now hold down the A button which switches me into what the game calls "crash time." (Yes, this is yet another cliched Matrix-like slowing of time, but in this instance it's actually put to good use.) During crash time, I can actually steer my burning wreck—again, reality be damned—into my opponents as they attempt to circumvent me. Doing so causes them to crash, and thus prevents them from taking the lead in the race. As a result, even during the game's most chaotic moments, EA has brilliantly concocted a way to allow me the ability to participate in the chaos.
Unfortunately, Burnout 3: Takedown doesn't do everything right: the game's disaffected DJ aggravates (my advice: switch him off as soon as possible); the 170-plus single-player challenges feature far too many cause-as-much-damage-as-possible Crash Events for my taste; and the landscape of the game is still much too impersonal and sterile (making me long for the nuanced noir of Need For Speed: Underground). No matter. EA, by taking the series in a bigger and bolder direction, especially when considering the advent of "takedowns" and "crash time," has skillfully built upon what was a rock-solid foundation. As a result, Burnout 3: Takedown, whether it's making my heart pump or the hair stand up on the back of my neck, not only represents a dramatic step in the right direction for the series, but also for the racing game genre in general.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.