A Burnout Revolution
Since Criterion added the Takedown in Burnout 3 and made racing cars at ridiculous speeds through crowded streets not just intense, but refreshingly aggressive, the series has played it fairly safe with the basic formula, only adding a few new tweaks in Burnout Revenge. But with Burnout Paradise, they've changed everything, setting the game in an open world. And it works beautifully.
It's a big change, and at first, it feels disconcerting. Instead of racing through confined, navigable courses, most events end at one of eight landmarks on the edges of the map. This means that when you're starting out, you'll often get lost and make wrong turns, completely screwing you up. It can be frustrating. But as time passed for me, I began to learn the layout of the city, and I began to learn how to use the minimap and the onscreen cues the game gave me to help me get around, and things started to click.
The city is the real star. The city of Paradise is a monumental achievement on Criterion's part, stacked to the brim with secrets and shortcuts that lend the game a constant sense of discovery. Not only that, but once you're dropped in the game, there are no loading screens at any point, whether you're starting events, changing cars, or anything. The experience is seamless, and while it's hard to describe why that's so important, it makes it feel different than any Burnout before it.
The game is packed with over a hundred events, all of which you can choose at any time (with the exception of the car-specific time trial Burning Routes). As a result, despite the lack of a retry option, you'll rarely be without something to do for long. The progression, as a result, is as open-ended as ever, leaving you to pick and choose between what types of events you want to clear to advance through the Burnout licenses and get new cars (some of which are received automatically, but many of which are attained by taking them down on the streets of the city, leading to some thrilling impromptu hunts and chases).
What else do you need to know? Burnout has always had spot-on arcade handling, coupled with an insane sense of speed that no other racer can touch, and Paradise is no exception. Besides the relatively poor soundtrack (even as someone who enjoyed the punk/alt soundtracks of Burnout 3 and Revenge) and the lack of a Crash mode (replaced by Showtime mode, a fun diversion, but nowhere near as rewarding), Burnout Paradise is a unique racing game that really feels next-generation in more than just its polygon count. And with Criterion's excellent free DLC support post-release, it will only improve.