I owe some of my driving skills to video games. I know it sounds silly, but its true. I learned how to navigate curves by playing Sega's OutRun arcade game back in 1988. For some reason, I couldn't get the feel of steering properly during practical driving, but after playing OutRun, things just clicked. Its pretty scary to imagine what would have happened had I not learned this valuable skill. For starters, I probably wouldn't have earned my drivers license; and what worse, I probably would have constantly veered off the road at every turn and that would've been ugly.
Burnout is a racing game, just like OutRun, in which players have to avoid traffic in order to finish the race in the time allotted; however, that's where the similarities end. Burnout is a white-knuckle racing game which actually encourages driving maneuvers which would drive insurance agents crazy. Driving on the wrong side of the road is rewarded. Veering into the path of oncoming traffic and then dodging the cars at the last minute is also rewarded. What is the reward? A turbo meter gradually fills when performing these moves, and when its full, players can drive insanely fast. Driving at these high rates of speed, upwards of 180mph, is the only way to earn a top position and advance in the game. I'm not seeing any possible education value in this game except for what not to do while driving.
In the process of trying to win the race and trying to fill the turbo meter at the same time, players also have to avoid crashes and crash possibilities occur frequently in Burnout. Blindly careening through four-way intersections and playing a deadly game of "Chicken" with oncoming traffic will eventually lead to collisions of some sort. These crashes are the highlight of Burnout even more so than the actual game itself. These are some scary-looking collisions. Glass particles fly everywhere and metal crumples upon impact, and in some cases, vehicles can flip over several times or even catch serious air. These collisions can also cause multiple-vehicle pileups or other chain-reaction wrecks. In reality, these crashes would more than likely result in death and would certainly get a spot on the local news. In Burnout, however, these collisions are the stars of the show despite the fact that they result in other racers either gaining ground or opening up wider leads. Sure, its nice to see more realistic crashes and vehicle damage in racing games, but since when does the racing take a back seat to the crashes? Glorifying crashes might be a game idea all of its own, or there could have been a "best crash" mode in the game, but prioritizing crashes and crash replay over and above the racing experience only takes away from the game, overall.
Once I got by the "wow factor" of these crashes and the maniacal driving style which Burnout encourages, I was then able to see the game for what it was: a slightly above-average racing game that is undermined by its lack of depth and its relatively high frustration factor. While Burnout certainly has its fair share of game modes and its hidden features, they just didn't feel like they were as a big deal as the crashes. The Championship Mode is the "meat" of the game, but it also has the largest amounts of frustration. In the later races of each stage, in which a first-place finish is required to move on, why is that crashes seem to be unavoidable when I'm ahead? Am I playing NFL Blitz here, where everything has to be close? To make matters worse, once I recover from my four-car pileup, I only need to go another few hundred feet before another wreck occurs! There's also a Free Run mode for practice and a Survival Mode for those drivers who want to see just how far they can go before crashing. These two modes can only be unlocked by playing through the Championship Mode, and doing well enough to unlock these is much easier said than done.
It wasnt easy to decide on a final grade for Burnout. The game controls well and there's certainly a fair amount of fun to be had with it. Burnout allowed me to bend the driving rules and get away with it, without being flagged down by my local authorities or causing serious injury to myself in the process. The visuals and sense of speed are quite remarkable, and the techno-inspired music fit the game nicely. At the same time, the game was very frustrating to me at times, with unavoidable crashes coming at the worst possible times and ruining my chances at winning an important race. The crashes were indeed a spectacle to behold initially, looking like something out of a scary drivers education movie, but like all gimmicks, the shock factor wore off over time. The hidden cars and features seemed more like an afterthought than rewards, and the amount of effort that it took to earn them didn't seem fair.
Criterion Studios certainly has a nice foundation on which to improve on for their upcoming sequel, which is due towards the end of 2002. While it was undeniably fun to tempt fate and drive on the wrong side of the road or narrowly avoid being t-boned by an oncoming tractor-trailer, the focus of the game needs to be shifted away from crashes and instead placed back on the race action at hand. One of the things that made OutRun so fun was that it was a race against time that could be won with deft skill and maneuvering. Yes, I learned a lot from OutRun, but I also had fun playing it at the same time and still enjoy playing it today. Burnout simply attempts to capitalize on crashes and wild maneuvers instead of allowing players to simply experience the flat-out speed that the game offers in a fair racing environment. I certainly expect better things from the sequel.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.
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