Gaming Memories: Burnout Paradise

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list (and possibly beyond), and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

You’re speeding down the streets of Paradise City, jockeying among a pack of cars to gain the lead in a blazing race through the city. You could play this by the book, try to gain ground by gently slipping by on an inside turn, or just plain racing cleaner than those other cars.

But this is Burnout, so fuck that.

If your wheels aren't in the air, you're driving way too safely for Burnout.
If your wheels aren't in the air, you're driving way too safely for Burnout.

Instead, you’re more likely to take a shortcut, hit some big-ass ramp to launch yourself two streets over, or just wreck the living shit out of the other cars. Burnout is barely about racing; I prefer to call it a driving game. The series’ trademark features are its blazing sense of speed, impeccable car handling, and rambunctious spirit that promotes gnarly crashes over clean racing. It’s telling that perhaps the most iconic event in the series, Road Rage, is all about taking down other cars. As for driving lines? Car culture? Trying to avoid scratching up pretty licensed cars? That’s the kind of nonsense Burnout will have none of. You build your boost meter by doing things like driving the “wrong” way into oncoming traffic, nearly missing other cars, drifting around turns, and getting lots of airtime. And you’re encouraged to use that boost all the time to perform a “burnout” to refill it all on the spot. Burnout wants you to drive as fast and as dangerously as you can all the damn time, and the result is a fun-first driving game that aims to deliver high speed thrills at every possible moment.

I jumped on the Burnout bandwagon with Burnout 3: Takedown, which remains a wonderful game. But Burnout Paradise was where I truly fell in love. It was the first “open world” driving game I played, and as far as I know one of the first to successfully pull it off. And it was precisely that open structure that endeared it to me over its predecessors. Rather than follow mostly linear courses, you now had a sprawling city at your disposal to find a path to the finish line. This gave the game’s events a much more dynamic feel, where knowing the layout of the city (which came to feel like its own character) opened up all sorts of options. You were able to take any route you wanted; all you were given was a finish line to reach. More than being able to find your own path during events, however, was the freedom to cruise the city as you please in between them. In the end, the most fun I had with Burnout Paradise came from roaming the streets with no grand goal in mind, engaging with whatever caught my eye. Gates, billboards, ramps and super jumps, and whole playgrounds tucked away in random places made the world engaging at all times. And with how good the car handling was, all I needed was something fun to poke at while I drove around for hours.

It just might be paradise after all.
It just might be paradise after all.

I first played Burnout Paradise a few months after it came out, during the summer of 2008. I had that summer off, and really enjoyed learning the ins and outs of Paradise City, and completed a lot of the game’s events. But it was the next year where I really dove deep. Around the time the Big Surf Island expansion came out I picked the game up again and maxed out my license, smashed every gate and billboard, and played many of the online challenges. I never got as into those challenges as I could have; for as ingenious as they were (which I fully recognize), I wasn’t a huge online guy at the time. Fast forward a decade to the release of Burnout Paradise Remastered, and I found myself sucked right back in. I played a number of open world driving games during that decade, but none of them did it like Burnout. Sometimes they missed the mark in baffling ways too: what’s the point of an open world driving game if you don’t let players pick their own route, instead forcing them through an ordered series of checkpoints in a race? But mostly, it’s the sense of speed, the sick crashes, the still unmatched car handling, and the endless positivity I always miss the most. There’s an infectious spirit within Burnout Paradise that I haven’t experienced in any other driving game, which was made ever more apparent in the wake of its remaster a full decade later.

I even love the silly little details. I love that the cars don’t actually have people in them, like some robot utopian future. I love DJ Atomica’s spunk. I love how non-functional this city is, with its haphazard ramps and smashable objects set up in the most ridiculous places. I love the offbeat rock/punk soundtrack that’s not always great, yet somehow feels just right for this game. It feels like a big vacation for all involved, where you can leave your worries behind and just drive the open road. And I think that’s precisely why I keep coming back to Paradise City. I’ve revisited the game multiple times over the years, and many of those times have been stressful ones in my life. But Burnout Paradise always works as a pick-me-up. It’s a fun, positive, upbeat, carefree experience that also happens to play extremely well. The result is one of the most affecting and memorable games I’ve played, and a personal paradise of my own.

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