For a few years now, there has been a hole in my gaming heart that has gone unfulfilled. It has been nearly a whole system generation since I could say I was emotionally complete. Back then, there was no PS1 or PS2 — just some thing called a PlayStation. And that gray contraption housed some of the finest arcade racers since the glory days of the arcades (you remember those, right?). Recalling the giddy thrill of no-limits, physics-be-damned joyrides such as Outrun, Pole Position and Race Drivin’, Namco’s Ridge Racer series was a stunning import to the console scene. The great graphics, tight controls, stunning techno soundtrack and drifting madness were pure bliss. But Namco tried to mature and modernize the series, neutering its fun factor in the process. Heartbroken, I tried to fill the void with the usual vices: food, Smirnoff Triple Black, Crusin’ USA on N64? nothing medicated my wounds, and one had me kissing porcelain (guess which one?).
But little did I know that developer Criterion was feeling my pain. Almost like a love letter delivered in secret, they snuck an arcade racer onto store shelves called Burnout. Despite a few flaws the game had enormous potential, as did its fantastic sequel. It was arcade racing, but with an edge- leaner and meaner than the point A-to-point B racers of old. But there was a spark missing, almost as if the developers were holding something back. And with Burnout 3– the inevitable sequel- it appears that the catalyst was being acquired by Electronic Arts. EA’s limitless coffers seemed to be that extra spark Criterion needed, crafting an utter masterpiece of arcade racing. The breathtaking graphics, licensed soundtrack, and deep game play all speak volumes of a big budget. Not to say that it doesn’t have its faults, but you can see past those when there’s so much to love, right?
There’s no real story to speak of in Burnout 3. There is the anonymous racer travels the globe, racking up cars and accolades angle, but it feels a little impersonal. I guess I’m a sucker for knowing the face behind the racecar, but it’s nothing to complain about. I mean, look at the character development of the female protagonist of Spy Hunter 2.
One thing that isn’t a source of embarrassment is the spectacular visuals. The graphics of Burnout 3 took a giant leap forward in technical prowess- not to say that the previous two were slouches. The photo-realistic backdrops will make you swear that you’re tearing up highways, battling along scenic mountainsides and power sliding through picturesque forests. Little details tucked away like realistic lighting effects-especially the insane sparks and explosions- and shadows only enhance to overall visual punch. The sensation of speed- and burring graphical touches- is remarkable; most other games can’t touch it in this department. The car models leave a little to be desired- one coupe looks like a Subaru Impreza with the rear doors magically erased- but look sharper than the candy-coated vehicles of the past games. Car damage looks realistic, and pieces of metal flying off crumbling racers are equally impressive. With all the spastic action onscreen, it’s amazing that the game’s frame rate stays rock-solid (except in Team Crush mode and, oddly enough, in the menu screens). One problem with the remarkable visuals is that while everything is so detailed, certain objects blend into the background. Imagine the surprise of colliding with a fencepost that pops out of nowhere or a yellow taxi blending with the guide arrows (and the cursing afterwards).
In the audio department, Burnout 3 benefits most from EA’s purchase. The most noticeable inclusion is undoubtedly the “EA Trax” soundtrack- a hodgepodge of scrappy bands and rock greats. Everything from the Ramones to Yellowcard is open game and provides some entertainment. Too bad that most of the newer groups sound similar, leading to a pop-rock blandness that sedates rather than energizes. It is an improvement over the synthetic cheese-rock and techno of the previous games (although it still lingers on the start screen). The sound effects pop from the speakers, with every fender-bender, friction of metal on metal and the engine roar plop you in the thick of the action. Speaking of action, there should be a lawsuit against “extreme” announcers such as Burnout 3‘s Striker. The knowledge he provides is only occasionally helpful, and his “too cool” demeanor was eye-roll inducing. Good thing you can turn him off.
Another noteworthy achievement is the game’s presentation. Receiving some tutelage from Electronic Arts, the menus and other front-end screens are crystal clear and of high quality. Throw in the major-label musicians with the stellar visuals, and Burnout 3 comes out looking like the highly polished gem its predecessors strived to be.
Showing its arcade influences, the controls in Burnout 3 are deceptively simple. Car movement is assigned to the digital pad/left analog stick and brake and gas designated to the face buttons. The R1 button handles the turbo boost and impact time (more later). The basic control structure works well here, and is very accurate. Strategies like takedowns and turbo-boosted drifts are a snap with a few effortless button presses.
The game play of Burnout 3 is the main draw here, with a sizable pedigree to live up to. Criterion wisely tweaked the various modes and play mechanics, making a fun series an all-out thrill ride.
Before you can attack the game modes with panache, you have to learn the driving essentials. Techniques like managing your turbo boost and drifting are basic in nature, but need to be mastered to shave time off your score. Your turbo boost meter is affected by the way you drive. Racing in oncoming traffic, avoiding crashes, drifting and tailgating opponents are a few ways you can increase your turbo thrust. Your opponents won’t take kindly to you finishing first, so you’ll also have to learn to drive defensively- and offensively. Sliding along walls and other cars won’t sap your speed like more technical racers. This is good for avoiding wrecks and obstacles. You engage in combative play by one of several methods including battling, rubbing against your foe, slamming and shunting (hitting the enemy from the back). The most important aspect of slowing your opponent is the takedown. With your rival against a wall or railing, sideswiping or shunting at the right angle and speed will send them airborne and out of contention for a few seconds. Special- or signature- takedowns are rewarded with extra points. Takedowns net you a huge increase in your boost meter, so taking out the competition can put you ahead in several ways. It’s all about puttin’ your life on the line, baby!
There is a whole new stable of racers to play with in Burnout 3. Starting out with the compact cars- i.e.: hatchbacks- you work your way up to more powerful vehicles. Coupes, muscle cars, sports cars and off-roaders are just a few choices to toy with as you go along.
New to Burnout 3 is the impact time. As with most games of the post-Matrix era, impact time is a slow-motion play mechanic. Unlike most games, it isn’t purely for show. Impact time can have an influence on the race itself. Crashing your car starts the impact time, in which you can slow the game down and do one of two things: take in the sights and sounds of destruction, or maintain some control over your car ala crash aftertouch. In crash aftertouch, you can send your careening car towards oncoming vehicles. If used effectively, you can perform takedowns with your mangled wreck and knock out the nearest rival for a bit. It is a useful technique for advanced play.
Another major addition is within the Crash mode itself. Brought back from Burnout 2, there are a few new tricks to learn to have success. There are several parts to the Crash mode: regular Crash (one player), Double Impact, Party Crash (two to eight players) and Team Crush (two players working together for the best score) modes. The objective is still to crash and rack up expensive damage, but part 3 takes a more complex approach. Power-ups now add boost, increase the cash and multiply the total score. Crash aftertouch plays a major role, as well as the exclusive “Crashbreaker” feature- earned after hitting several cars. The crashbreaker is literally a self-destruct for you car, sending it skyward. Used in tandem with the crash aftertouch, you can hit multiple cars and grab otherwise unreachable power-ups- which will send your score skyrocketing. This adds a ton of strategy, but also requires memorizing every nook and cranny of the crash site for the best crash point. This is a change from the car go boom, watch cars fly now tactics of part two, which had its own merits. I wish there was an option for playing both types, as I kind of missed the simplistic- but by no means easy- nature of old.
There are four main modes of play: Burnout 3 World Tour, Single Event, Multiplayer and Online. World Tour is undoubtedly the time-waster, packed to the gills with a diverse selection of events and tracks to conquer. Spanning three parts of the world- the U.S. of A, Europe and the Far East- there are more than one hundred and seventy different events. These are spread out over several categories: the standard race (up to three laps with five opponents), Road Rage (getting a set amount of takedowns before time runs out/totaling your car), Faceoff (you and one rival battling on one lap), Grand Prix (two or three consecutive races), Preview Lap/Special Event (one lap fighting the traffic), Eliminator (five laps, with the loser of each lap exploding), and the various Crash events. These modes are spread out over different racetracks, which branch and overlap within the same layout cleverly like Ridge Racer. The Single Event loses the career mode aspects of World Tour, but still has most of its events. Multiplayer houses the Race, Road Rage, and the three buddy-friendly Crash modes. Online mode puts you and up to five other racers on numerous tracks. Either playing solo or with some friends- in the same room or across the globe- is equally a blast. You can track your progress, stats and even how much damage you cause- a plus for stat-freaks and completists.
Placing in the top three of each event nets you a gold, silver or bronze award. Netting an award unlocks cars and events, as does earning a set amount of points and takedowns. There are dozens of cars and hundreds of events to unlock, greatly adding to the replay value. To earn the better cars and novelty rides, be prepared to put in a few dozen hours of play. The more advanced rides are better equipped at handling the gradual challenge of the game, but never get to the point of overexerting yourself on either end.
I did have a few small gripes with the game play. When performing some of the actions (drifts, shunts), seeing it highlighted in big letters onscreen was distracting at first. Eventually, I learned to squint past it. I also didn’t like having to redo the training modes when entering a race or crash event (in single event), and there should have been a marker in my profile to prevent that. I also wished there was a damage meter, as the visible car damage is a little deceptive. The rubber band AI of the opponents- keeping them in the game no matter how far back they are- isn’t bad for an arcade racer such as this, but having them pop out of nowhere (after being assured that they are seconds behind) is a little annoying. And why in the heck isn’t there an onscreen map? I can’t be the only one that wants to know where the opponents and finish line are. Again, these are minor setbacks, and can easily be corrected for?Burnout 4!
Burnout 3 is, without a doubt, one of the best racing games to grace the current generation of consoles. EA’s acquisition has paid big dividends in the qualities Burnout 3 exudes, as well as exposing the critically acclaimed series to a wider audience. The Burnout series always captured the essence of action-packed racing, and the third installment ups the ante in almost every aspect. The already great arcade-bred game play is tweaked to near-perfection, making for a enthralling and addicting experience. The superb graphics, sharp audio and precise controls make the time spent that much better. Everything comes together in a way that only Namco’s best could accomplish. They always say that the third time is the charm, and Burnout 3 has made me fall head over heels. I guess you could say that hole in my heart has finally been filled.