Croal And Totilo Tackle 'Burnout: Paradise' -- Vs Mode Round One

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For the first time in 2008, Newsweek's N'Gai Croal and I are locking horns for one of our Vs. Modes. For the unitiatied, these are unapologetically long debates between me and N'Gai about major video games.

The game up for debate this time is "Burnout Paradise."

When we signed up for this exchange we had two very different views on the game. As I state in my kick-off to today's Round One:

Over the last month, you have been identified as N'Gai Croal, champion of "Paradise." You have been declared as someone who gets it by none other than head "Burnout" developer Alex Ward in a worldwide pre-Christmas address to "Paradise" demo fans and skeptics: "'OMG The Crash Mode suXXors," Ward parroted his demo's critics as saying, before countering, "Hmm, again, none of you have played it yet. N'Gai Croal at Level Up seems to like it."

I am Stephen Totilo, enemy of "Paradise" ...

Reaction to the game has been sharply divided. So not surprisingly, we had some things to hash out. But there's a big twist in this first round.

Read on to see how this one starts out.

Or just scan down to the very last paragraph to read N'Gai take a shot at me. Round Two will be published later this week.

(These exchanges are mirrored on N’Gai’s “Level Up” bog.)

To: N'Gai Croal

From: Stephen Totilo

Date: January 19, 2007

Re: And On My Fourth Try…

N'Gai

Happy new year. We meet again for a Vs. Mode and this time we are like two prizefighters embodying two conflicted ideologies -- "Burnout Paradise" love vs. "Burnout Paradise" hate. We have already been publicly identified as bitter rivals regarding this game before the first punch has even been thrown.

burnoutparadise2.jpgFor those not familiar with "Burnout: Paradise," we're talking about the new open-world PS3 and Xbox 360 racing game that ships this week from EA. It is designed to buck a bunch of conventions by eliminating menu screens and instead making each of the game's racing events accessible selectable only when the player drives to specific, event-specific intersections. The game is designed for online competition, but largely constructed for friends to drive through the same city and create events on the fly; you can't go to a "Halo"-style online lobby, find a match and then load right into it.

Over the last month, you have been identified as N'Gai Croal, champion of "Paradise." You have been declared as someone who gets it by none other than head "Burnout" developer Alex Ward in a worldwide pre-Christmas address to "Paradise" demo fans and skeptics: "'OMG The Crash Mode suXXors," Ward parroted his demo's critics as saying, before countering, "Hmm, again, none of you have played it yet. N'Gai Croal at Level Up seems to like it."

I am Stephen Totilo, enemy of "Paradise," repeatedly referenced in episodes of the grand 1UpYours podcast because of the instant message I sent show host Garnett Lee in December.

"I loved it at press events. got a review build yesterday and either they were hiding the flaws well or this game doesn't really come together in the first couple of hours. the races, so far, are all rally races (those compass points you love listing on 1upyours), and so they keep taking me away from the neighborhoods I like. I hope there are circuit races but I haven't found any yet. and the crash mode. it was great fun when Alex Ward showed it to me. but it seems way too easy to just keep it going and going. where's the strategy? what's the challenge?"

So we are foes. Opposing forces, like Hillary and Barack. And I am ready to crush you.

Except…I'd like to tell you something first before we start swinging: "Burnout Paradise" makes a really good fourth impression. It makes a good first and second one, too. Just a bad third one. You need to factor this in.

My First Impression of "Paradise": It's E3 2007, July, and Alex Ward is demonstrating the game in an airport hangar that has been converted into a showcase room for upcoming games. He hands me a PS3 controller and lets me race in the open world of "Burnout Paraside." The game's graphics are great; the sense of speed is blistering. We argue -- it's Alex, remember -- about whether "Burnout" is essentially about crashing (so I say) or about speed (so he says). He impresses me with a description of the game's USB camera feature which will takes snapshots of anyone you're playing the game with at the moment you bump them into a wreck. And he lets me activate Showtime, the new crash mode that loosens the gravity under my car's chassis and lets me flip through traffic to rack up damage. Some say it's like a car-based "Katamari Damacy." The more apt metaphor may be "SSX" meets "Mercenaries." It's a tumble of destruction. I love it. "Paradise" gets my vote as best racing game of E3.

My Second Impression of "Paradise": EA interrupts my busy November with a New York City hotel demo session for early 2008 titles. Company product manager Derek Anderson sits me down in front of a PS3 running "Burnout" and lets me drive through more of the game's city. The photo feature is now enabled, and we put it to good humiliating use against the people playing the game on another set-up three feet away from us. The game is fun, though trouble does brew. Derek shows me the "Marked Man" events, which we trigger by screeching tires at an intersection. He explains that enemy cars will now be in hot pursuit, trying to thrash my car into scrap before I reach an indicated end point. I make a few sharp turns in Paradise City and immediately lose the cars. Part of the open-world "Paradise" philosophy is that you can take any route you can imagine to reach a prescribed goal. But this seems too easy. I've outfoxed the artificial intelligence in seconds. Derek says this doesn’t' usually happen. I'm willing to consider it a fluke. I leave feeling pretty good about the game.

My Third Impression of "Paradise": EA sends me a review build in December. I play it in my PlayStation 3. My wife and I love "Burnout 3: Takedown," me for the racing, she for the crashes. I drive through a few intersection-triggered events in my first sitting, winning enough of them to unlock the crash mode so that I can let me wife give it a try. But I give crash -- Showtime -- a go before her and it all falls apart. It seems too easy. I tumble my car farther and farther down a road, causing massive property damage and waiting for the mode to get hard. Surely there must a time limit I'm going to have trouble with or a score threshold I can't easily meet. Not really. It's easy. It reminds me of how "Lumines" got on the PSP, too easy for too long before any challenge emerged. This is happening in my first un-supervised session. I want out of Showtime mode and put the controller down so that my car goes still and, at last, the mode does time out. This seems wrong, even broken.

I try a few more races, but grow weary, as I later note in IM to Garnett, that the races keep sending me away from the places I want to be, from the exciting, bustling downtown in the east to the hilly winding roads of Paradise City's west side that I don't enjoy as much. The game feels too open. And it's got me worried. Is this what happens when text menus are turned into virtual-world navigation, when you have to move a car or a character to get to the next thing, instead of just highlighting a line of text? Does this mean PlayStation 3's "Home" virtual world social space is going to feel just as wrong when compared to the text menu interfaces of Facebook and Xbox Live? I'm getting into a panic. At some point I call and tell you this and you remind me that I'm the guy who calls for radical innovation in sequels instead of more of the same. I don't appreciate the rhetorical checkmate, but you get me thinking. I am bummed out.

My Fourth Impression of "Paradise": It's early January and EA has sent me a boxed copy of the finished game and I pop that into my PS3 to start all over again. This time I ignore the intersection-triggered racing events. I don't get in a rush to unlock Showtime mode. I just drive around and smash into things. I do that thing that is supposed to be the most important thing in any video game: I just play. I drive off cliffs and boost through billboards. I careen up the ironwork of an arched bridge. I smash other cars off the road and burn black circles into pavement with my tires. OK, then I race. Just enough to unlock Showtime and to get reminded about the online features. No one in the world is playing the game online at the same time I am, so I don't get to invite anyone in or join anyone in their version of the city. But I do turn on the score indicators which denote the fastest driving time and most damage caused on whatever street I'm on at the moment. A lot of the streets don't have records yet. So, to steal a line I used last week, I make like Neil Armstrong setting the long jump record on the moon. I make a lot of giant leaps for mankind in Paradise City. I realize I'm enjoying my favorite type of multiplayer gaming -- asynchronous competition. While everyone else is sleeping, I'm trouncing their records. At least that's what I tell myself. I keep ignoring the races. I'm having too much fun. And then I listen to 1UpYours and hear myself being touted as the poster child of "Paradise" hate. Oh, what they don't know…

So, before we start swinging, N'Gai, I just want you to know that I think I'm on your side now. I still think Showtime mode should have been more hemmed in -- damage should only be calculated for a given street while you're still on or above that street, not when you've tumbled three boulevards away. But, if anything, "Burnout: Paradise" has challenged some of the traditionalism I had and turned me to the other side. I'm a convert.

N'Gai, how about you? Have you ever had this kind of trouble appreciating a game before? Have you done any flip-flopping of your own? I know you've already said the game is "open world racing done right"; you still think that? Surely you've spotted some flaws….

-Stephen

Burnout

To: Stephen Totilo

Fr: N'Gai Croal

Date: January 27, 2007

Re: Open World, Closed Minds

Stephen,

You've written 1600 words that basically amount to, "N'Gai was right." If you had just started with that premise, you could have saved yourself a lot of time. Try to keep that in mind for future Vs. Modes.

When I'm previewing a game—whether it's hands-off or hands-on—there are two questions I generally ask myself: Is this going to be interesting to write about, and am I personally going to have fun playing this game? For some journalists, those might be one and the same, but I've often found that not true. Will Wright's games, for instance, like "The Sims" and "Spore," are always fascinating to write about, but I have little to no interest in playing them. On the other hand, I haven't been terribly interested in writing about Bizarre Creations and Sega's "The Club," the just-released, way-too-limited demo got my pulse quickening in a way that I didn't expect, and I can't wait to get my hands on a review build. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: we "see" games with our hands, and my hands tend to prefer action to reflection.

There are some franchises that are sufficiently known quantities that I don't feel the need to spend much time previewing them; I'd rather wait until a final or near-final game is available so that I can truly get a sense of whether or not I like the newest installment. "Burnout Paradise" fell into that category. I chatted with Alex about the game last February during the D.I.C.E. conference in Las Vegas; I played it at EA's pre-E3 event last June; I discussed it with Alex some more over dinner during E3; and I played it one more time at an EA media preview event in November. And since I saw nothing at those events that worried me—it looked great and drove fast—I didn't feel the need to focus on it heavily, from a quality assessment point of view. Instead, I could wait for EA to send me the review code and enjoy it (or not) at my own leisure.

I very much enjoyed the review disc that EA sent us in December, but I also knew that it would piss off some longtime fans of the franchise. That's why I wrote in my preview:

As excited as we are about the game, we suspect that the "Burnout Paradise" will nevertheless be somewhat polarizing. Traditionalists may find it difficult to accept the go-anywhere, do-anything freedom which has replaced the event-by-event structure that typifies the majority of racing games; it certainly took us a good half-hour or so before we could finally let go of what had been and open ourselves up to what could be.

So said, so done: many a "Burnout" aficionado was freaking out after playing the demo that Criterion and EA posted on Xbox Live Marketplace and Playstation Network. That's why it's sort of funny seeing the majority of the GAF-ers who were outraged by Alex's impassioned defense of his game singing an entirely different tune now that they've been able to get their hands on it. I guess you can identify with them, eh?

I dropped Alex a line immediately after my first play session with the review code to tell him how much I'd liked it; his reply was my first inkling that he and the team were extremely anxious about what kind of reception it would get. Then again, I'd already drunk the Kool-Aid, at least when it comes to Criterion's publicly stated development philosophy, which is that they deliberately introduce significant changes when they're making sequels. As Alex has said to me more than once, if someone wants to play "Burnout," "Burnout 2: Point of Impact," "Burnout 3: Takedown" or "Burnout Revenge," they should take them out of their collections and play them. It's an admirable philosophy—and an extremely risky one, which no doubt gave a nice case of heartburn to the bean counters at EA.

It would have been so tempting for Criterion to have made the open world optional and layered a structured event system on top of the game as it exists today. Everyone wins, right? Especially since I'm a fan of developers providing players with as many options as possible so that we can customize the experience to be exactly what we want it to be. At the same time, I can't help feeling that we've all benefited from Alex and his team fully committing to making Burnout Paradise an open world racing title. They've embraced it in ways large, small and highly instructive for anyone who follows in their footsteps. Driving through gas stations to replenish your boost; through auto repair shops to fix your car; and through junkyards to switch vehicles. Taking out cars to add them to your collection. Anywhere, anytime Showtime mode for your destructive delight. Having different three different burnout systems--Stunt, Speed and Aggression—which both harkens back to Burnouts past and lets players drive the way they want to drive.

I don't like everything about the game, though. Specifically, the absence of closed off circuit races is a bummer. I'm terrible at navigating the point-to-point races on open roads, so both Race and Marked Man events are more of a pain than I'd like. So when I'm not casually tearing through Paradise City, near missing, crashing and Showtiming my way through its streets, I break up the Sunday driving with Road Rage and Stunt Run events. In other words, I've been playing Burnout Paradise as more of a laid back, drop in-and-drop out kind of game rather than dedicating myself to completing as many of the events as possible. For someone who's always been more casual than hardcore in his approach to racing games, this has proven to be the perfect structure for a not-quite-perfect game; an Xbox Live Arcade or Playstation Network title on steroids. If only I could store it on my PS3's hard drive…

So in the final analysis, when a studio is as good as Criterion has proven itself to be, I wholeheartedly support a radical approach to sequel development. I suppose you would have preferred that Criterion stopped making these games after "Burnout 3: Takedown," since you subscribe to the theory that once a title has been perfected, once you have achieved gaming "satisfaction," a sequel isn't necessary. Not me. I subscribe to the theory that it is a developer's job to make all of its games essential, whether it's a new IP or the umpteenth sequel, and I don't presume that just because a developer manages to hit one out of the park, they've wrung everything out of their game mechanics, or even scratched the surface. I don't know whether Criterion will be able to top "Burnout Paradise," but I do know that Alex and company aren't going to rest on their laurels or play it safe. It's an attitude that we all benefit from, and one that more developers should take to heart.

Cheers,

N.

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Round Two of this "Burnout: Paradise" Vs Mode will be published later this week. I'll have a few words for Mr. Croal...