At the time, none of us really knew just how special Burnout Paradise was.
We loved it, that’s for sure, but we could never have known. It was simply the next-gen Burnout game. Another series going Open World for the first time, and it pulled it off better than most. A bold new step into an exciting online future, a game that slotted in alongside Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4 in this modern wave of games that existed as hangout spaces for an ever shifting Xbox live party, friends seamlessly joining and leaving as their school day ends, as their shift begins, as they have to go to bed on the other side of the world.
All of that was accurate, but the real greatness of Burnout Paradise is one that could only ever be seen in hindsight. As it gradually stopped being the new Burnout game and became the last Burnout game. As all of its best ideas were one by one warped into unrecognition by the games it influenced. As it stopped being just good and became too good to be true.
When I first played Burnout Paradise I was somewhat disappointed. I adored Burnout 3: Takedown and Revenge, racing games entirely about causing spectacular car crashes while listening to Warped Tour slot fillers. There was practically nothing to do on an Xbox that felt as good as hitting a drift just right to send your rival careening through the barrier, slamming the boost and watching the lights streak as you speed into first place. And while Paradise certainly retained that unmistakable Burnout handling model, the changing of the times and the shift to next gen had brought about a distinct shift in aesthetics. The blue skies of Takedown and the industrial parks of Revenge had been replaced with an eternal gray-metal city tinted sickly green. Every time you loaded the game you had to listen to the same awful Guns n’ Roses song. And most importantly of all: it wasn’t a racing game.
Sure, you can and do spend a lot of your time in Paradise racing. But that doesn’t change the massive philosophical shift at the heart of the game. Previous Burnout games had been designed around the tried and true formula of winning enough races to earn medals to unlock more races, etc. etc. til the credits roll. Paradise, by contrast, did not even have a menu option to retry your last race until enough people complained. The races themselves abandoned traditional courses in favor of eight finishing lines spread around the city. Every event could be started by revving your tires at an intersection; regardless of whether you win and lose, Burnout Paradise wants you to simply keep driving.
This was initially off putting to me; I was 14 and I missed traffic checking because it was fun to take more cars out. But as I got older I simply never stopped playing. Whenever you had five minutes to kill, Paradise was there. If you had an entire afternoon to burn and you didn’t want to think, Paradise was there. It was a game where you surrendered entirely to the moment, drifting around a corner, beating your friend’s time on a single road, taking out a Billboard you noticed. It still had “content,” that dry term we use because “stuff” sounds too childish, but it wanted you to stumble upon it, to never plan, to never turn hitting the perfect drift around a long bend into a dreaded checklist. After casually loading it up enough I realized one day that Burnout Paradise was one of my favorite games, and it had been for years.
This philosophy extended into the game’s online features. Every road in Paradise City technically had a leaderboard, but it only highlighted the time to beat on a road as you were driving down it. Active lobbies would flow seamlessly from open world hangouts to impromptu “last one there loses” style races, into goofy little challenges that send your friends across the map. Paradise hit the perfect sweet spot between giving you structured things to do, and letting you play expressively and do whatever you want.
This is the sweet spot that no driving game before or since has replicated, or even come close. Criterion themselves made somewhat of a spiritual successor in Need For Speed Most Wanted (2012), which is a totally fine driving game but overtunes the social and progression features with a currency reward you get from every action and upgrade paths for each car. Forza Horizon borrows from Paradise’s billboards and dangerous driving systems, combining it with the also tragically dead Project Gotham Racing’s kudos to turn your boost earning stunts into combos, which get turned into upgrade points, which get turned into unlocks on the each car’s individual skill tree. As the years have gone on, Paradise’s successors have added more numbers, more progression, and eventually more monetization until the very idea of an online game as an apathetic social space and not an opportunity for more extraction is but a distant memory. And let’s not forget, points about battle passes or what have you aside: they simply don’t feel as good to drive.
Burnout Paradise stands alone as an aberration, a cul de sac of possibility, closed because the things it valued as an object were night and day with the values of the system that created it. It exists at a very specific nexus, a game that can’t exist without a massive budget, without online infrastructure, without a custom engine that can stream a detailed open world at lightning speed, without the time and resources to polish game feel to a mirror finish. Even before it was released, Call of Duty 4’s unthinkable success had already sounded the starting gun for the numbers-go-up revolution. Burnout Paradise would not have been possible in the years before, and it would never have been made in the years after. It was too good to be true.
And I wish it had a better theme song.
Jackson Tyler is an nb critic and podcaster at Abnormal Mapping. They’re always tweeting at @headfallsoff.