Reviewed: August 2, 2002
Released: April 30, 2002
Racing games are a dime a dozen these days, so it takes something really special to make a new one stand out. The gimmick or hook for Acclaim’s Burnout is wrecks, big wrecks, spectacular wrecks, wreck replays, wreck editors, even a Wreck of the Week on the game’s website. But beneath the carnage and twisted piles of sports cars turned scrap metal is a really cool racer.
Burnout first appeared on the PS2 last November and has now made it’s way to the Xbox in a stunning example of how a game can be ported and enhanced to make use of updated hardware. It would have been so easy for Criterion to dump their code onto the Xbox and turn out a quick and generic port, but they have taken the time to tweak this game to the extreme.
Check out these Xbox-exclusive features:
This is a barebones games in the strictest sense of the word. There is no opening movie, cutscenes, or pre-rendered cinematics, there are no licensed vehicles, and there is no rocking soundtrack with hot tunes from all the typical and popular artists we have come to expect from other games in the racing genre. What does exist is a pure and simple racing game with minimal menus and options putting you behind the wheel that much faster.
Burnout comes with these exciting factory options at no extra charge:
Car selection is a bit sparse. In the beginning you have only a very few cars to choose from and even in the end the selection is a mere fraction of your typical racer. Despite the lack of actual manufacturer licensing, the cars are modeled well enough so you can tell the “muscle car” is in reality a Dodge Viper. Other cars range from tiny compacts to powerful pick-up trucks and other mid-ranged sports cars populate the middle slots.
One interesting feature is that your car selection also determines your level of difficulty. You can pick the speedy Viper but doing so will increase the opponent AI, traffic density and overall difficulty of the race. Faster cars also handle a bit more awkwardly than the mid-size Mitsubishi clone or the tiny compact that can weave through traffic.
There are no RPG-like stats to worry about, no car parts to buy, no modifications to make between races. Just pick your car and drive. Driving is pure joy in this title due to some incredible analog control. Whether you are using the standard Xbox controller or a wheel such as the MadCatz MC2, driving has never been this easy, fun, or intuitive.
You only have gas and brake, plus the Burn button. There is no handbrake so learning to powerslide is a careful mix of normal braking and tight turning followed by subtle steering adjustments. You can actually “feel” when the back end is about to break loose and control that powerslide around the curve or swing the tail around for a 90-degree turn into a city street.
As good as the control is, the one thing that I found annoying was the lack of view options. You basically have two views; a bad “chase view” and the not-so-good “bumper view”. The chase view allows you to see your car but the camera is at such a low angle you won’t see much else. The bumper cam puts you on the bottom of your front bumper for an amazing sensation of speed. The only problem with this view is that you are so low that some cars can blend into the road or horizon making them impossible to see until you are right on their tailpipe. When most games are offering four or more views, I was disappointed that there wasn’t at least one additional chase view (preferably higher) and a cockpit perspective with or without a dash.
Once you get used to the views and master the controls you can start to learn the tracks. There are 14 amazing courses that take you all over the US and Europe. These range from traffic-packed interstates to the narrow streets of England, to the rolling seaside highways and dangerous roads that twist around and through mountains. Regardless of where you find yourself racing, be prepared for lots and lots of traffic.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Burnout is the traffic, not because it exists, and not because there is so much of it, but because it behaves so realistically. This is the first racing game I have played where oncoming traffic will actually swerve to avoid you. If you are rushing up on somebody’s tail you can honk your horn and they will move (or try to move) out of your way. Racing through cities is a totally rush. Traffic will obey automated signals so you can be cruising down Main Street doing 127mph only to come up on a pack of cars stopped for a red light. Even if you are lucky enough to snake your way through these cars you still have to dodge the cross traffic. I can’t count the times where I simply held by breath as I streaked through an intersection narrowly missing some evenly spaced cabs that had the right-of-way.
Narrow misses are what this game is all about…well, next to crashes. Every time you skim past a car, powerslide through a turn, or race into oncoming traffic your Burn Meter increases. You can use this power to turbo boost your car giving you that extra edge that may just win you the race. Dangerous driving also gives you greater points to put you on that high score list.
Dangerous driving will ultimately result in the occasional fender bender and this is where Burnout truly shines. It’s almost as if Criterion designed the crash engine first then built the game around it. Sporting some amazing physics, deformable car models including cracked and shattered glass, and incredible replays, crashing can often be as fun as driving. Wrecks can be as simple as sideswiping a bus to hitting a semi truck head-on and involve two cars or ten. Some of the larger wrecks reminded me of those glorious orchestrated crash segments in CHiP’s.
When you wreck, the replay engine immediately takes over to repeat the chaos from multiple camera angles. These replays flash in fast succession reminiscent of a style seen in low-budget action movies where you might see the same explosion from several angles. After the replay you are placed back on the track a few hundred yards ahead of where you wrecked. This helps to ease the time penalty of each wreck and subsequent loss of any lead you may have had.
Each wreck has an insurance value assigned to it. These can range from a few thousand dollars to a few hundred thousand depending on what you are driving, how fast you were driving, and how many cars were involved in the pile-up. There are no insurance investigators and nobody cares whose fault it was – you are the one that gets socked with the bill at the end of the race – a bill that can often reach sums of over a million dollars. You don’t actually have to pay anything, although your insurance bill is deducted from your winnings. Cash is only used for high score lists, but there is a Worst Drivers high score list that ranks those with the highest insurance bills.
As good as the traffic and opponent AI is you will be please to learn that it is not perfect. You will quite often see your opponents zip past you only to smash into a car, truck, or bus, allowing you to swerve around the wreckage yelling, “Serves you right sucka…” Traffic will also make mistakes such as trying to pass a truck on a two-lane mountain road putting you grille to grille at 120+mph.
One thing I did notice after many hours of racing is that the traffic is on a preset pattern and will appear in the same place each race. A good example is knowing that on lap 3 of the first Interstate race you can expect to encounter a white van coming at you in your lane near the end of the race. Or that on lap two of the seaside race when you powerslide onto the mountain road there is a semi truck blocking your turn. This gives you an immediate edge on learning when and where to expect oncoming traffic, but only until you win that particular series. Once you move deeper into the championship you will most likely forget these patterns before you ever return to these tracks.
You will be racing against three other opponents and the clock. While the checkpoint timer is easily ignored in the earlier races, the later races will have you sweating each and every wreck, as precious seconds are lost. There were numerous occasions where I actually coasted through a checkpoint after the timer expired and my engine shut down only to get a reprieve from an otherwise frustrating loss.
Despite the simplistic nature of this game it packs an amazing amount of gameplay into its basic premise. The Championship will take you many days to complete due to an interesting design decision. You are not awarded points for placing in these races. Instead, you must place within a predetermined finishing position for each race. This may be in the top 3 in one race; top 2 in another or you may be required to place first. These requirements are totally arbitrary and are not based on your performance in any previous races.
The races are larger than what you might expect from an arcade racer. Each race consists of three or more laps and laps can range anywhere from 2-6 minutes. This can generate some intense pressure when you realize you have 15 or more minutes invested into a race that you may or may not win. You are given three credits (or retries) for each series so if you run out of time or don’t place in one of the required positions you can try again, but not forever. Run out of credits and you will have to restart the entire series.
Of all the racing games I have played for the Xbox, Burnout is bested only by RalliSport Challenge when it comes to graphics. Stylistically, Burnout is more comparable to Project Gotham Racing, but Criterion has created a graphics engine that blows that launch title out of the water.
The first thing you notice is that the game plays at a fluid 60fps, so you never experience a single glitch in gameplay. This game looks as fast as it drives. The RenderWare engine is pushed to the max to render some stunning environments and detailed tracks populated by dozens of vehicles. Racing down the interstate has never been more realistic with lines of cars four lanes wide complete with lane changes, merging traffic, and cars exiting on the off-ramps.
The cars were all modeled with ample polygons, and there were a few shiny surfaces with real-time reflections, but most textures seemed simple and flat. The cars all dented up quite nicely with cracked or shattered glass after a wreck, but everything is fixed before you start racing.
The anti-aliasing made sure I never saw a jaggy and the tri-linear filtering eliminated all of those shimmering textures I have become so used to in other games. Burnout also features per-pixel lighting and realistic bump mapping giving the surface of the road some incredible realism. The real-time lighting and dynamic shadows add to the overall realism and create a near perfect driving experience.
The levels are huge and full of intricate details, both on and off the track. Only when you realize that your Xbox is moving more than 10 million polygons per second and doing all of the effects listed above can you begin to appreciate the design of this game and the power of the Xbox. Even more surprising is that these massive levels load in under five seconds thanks to some innovative use of the Xbox hard drive.
There is an excellent replay mode that will rerun the entire race from a variety of camera angles, plus you have the replay editor that lets you pick any or all of your previous wrecks and play around with them, pick camera angles, add special visual effects such as motion blur and save them to your hard drive.
Burnout is the showcase title for your Xbox assuming you have a Dolby Digital home theater rig to show it off. A lot of Xbox titles claim 5.1 discreet audio, but this is the first to get it right, and it actually uses the center and LFE (low frequency effects) channels. There is some amazing 3D effects that allow you to hear approaching cars and even tell which side they are passing you on.
But perhaps the highlight of the audio is once again the focal point of the entire game – the crashes. Never in my life have I heard crashes like this. The combined sound of crunching metal, shattering glass, and squealing tires are all mixed and separated into unique channels so you hear them in some eerie multi-channel mix. But perhaps the most disturbing effect is the almost subliminal inclusion of some very haunting sounds – almost like distorted, anguished screams, perhaps of the drivers being crushed in these wrecks. Some of the larger wrecks just really freaked me out with sounds alone.
The music is virtually non-existent. It’s there, but it is so subdued and so atmospheric that you will seldom notice it except in the menu screens where you can really appreciate a quality 5.1 music mix with instruments and various tracks that play from each speaker. All of the music is electronic/synthesized much like Tangerine Dream, only not that good so don’t get excited.
While I’m glad to see that no development money was wasted on licensing the typical musical tracks that are already growing stale on every other racing game, I was disappointed that the custom music capabilities of the Xbox were not supported. Even though I don’t mind racing to the subtle synthesized mood tracks provided with the game, others may want to race to their own MP3’s. Perhaps this feature will be implemented in the upcoming Burnout 2: Point of Impact.
Burnout achieves its added value from the additional game modes including the two-player mode and the secret modes you can unlock during Championship play. The Face Off mode allows you to unlock additional cars, and the Survival mode requires you to finish an entire race without wrecking - no easy feat.
While Burnout would have greatly benefited from random weather, more cars, and more tracks, there is still plenty of racing action to keep you playing this game for weeks. I had nearly 20 hours logged into this title at the time of this review and had only completed the first four championship series and a few single player races using the medium level car.
Burnout is one of those rare games that creates its own niche in an already overly-saturated genre. It’s not nearly as involved as Project Gotham, yet you are rewarded with daring and skillful driving. You don’t get a huge stable of cars, but that only allows you to master the ones you are given.
Burnout is all about driving fast, driving well, taking chances, and trying not to wreck. But when metal meets metal at 150mph or even 300mph in a head-on crash, the resulting impact is an experience you won’t soon forget, from the rumbling of your controller, to the stunning visuals, to the shattering sound effects.
This is a definitive addition to anyone’s racing library that will appeal to arcade racers and even those who enjoy mastering that perfect powerslide. And while there were plenty of places this title could have gone and didn’t, we can only hope for a more thorough adventure in street racing in the upcoming sequel.