People just love a good car crash, especially when it’s in a fictional setting where there is no associated human tragedy. The developers of Burnout decided to embrace this in their game’s design, touting its crashes as the main attraction.
However, Burnout is not a game about crashing on purpose. Instead, it takes the typical car racing game formula and implements some ideas that are more conducive to the spectacle of car accidents. A race in Burnout is still about trying to get to the head of the pack before it’s over, but getting there isn’t just all about speed. Burnout’s tracks are all set on roads where regular civilians are still driving about in their vehicles, meaning they’re constant hazards that must be avoided. If you do ram into one of them though, the game’s camera will take over for a moment, replaying the impact a few times from different angles to real nail in the damage, and while this is a nifty feature the first few times you see it, it does lose its appeal once it becomes oversaturated. However, the player can try to cause as much insurance damage as possible for their own personal enjoyment, a price of the crash flashing on the screen and players being potentially added to a “Worst Driver” leaderboard if they cause a lot of damage… something they can do even if they get first place in the race. Burnout is well aware you will be crashing many times, so wrecking your car isn’t a disqualification from the race. Instead, a bit after the impact, your car will be set back to normal and you can continue the race. A crash won’t doom you either, as even against the game’s AI, the other racers will be getting in their own crashes, ones you can even force them into with some aggressive driving. While being too sloppy will make a comeback unlikely, it’s nice that you can recover from multiple crashes so long as your general driving ability is strong.
Racing in general is already a high speed affair that values balancing your movement with your speed, but having the roads filled with cars to avoid makes things even more intense. Having to constantly weave through traffic makes the moment to moment driving of Burnout challenging and involved, and there are still the typical racing challenges like tight turns and track barriers to avoid. Difficulty in Burnout is actually handled in a rather interesting way, as it’s tied more to your cars than any game setting. Rather that identifying the game’s selection of vehicles by their stats, the game refers to them with difficulty terminology. An Easy car has excellent control but is slow to compensate, while a Hard car is much faster but comes with decreased control. The good news is that the car still controls well even at that harder levels, and it is certainly recommended you work your way up to it to stay competitive, but the lower difficulty rides can ease you into the game mechanics on the easier starting courses.
In a game so enamored with car crashes, it’s no surprise that they want you to play recklessly, and that’s where Burnout’s Boost mechanic comes into play. The Boost is the game’s mild comeback mechanic, the player able to give themselves a surge of speed if they have the bar filled up, but filling it up requires driving dangerously. Things like barely missing another vehicle, driving into oncoming traffic, or drifting into turns all fill up the meter, but the meter usually fills so slowly that you won’t have to worry about impacting races heavily, the player not really needing it to stay competitive if their driving skill is good enough. When you do have it though, you can attempt to be even more reckless, using up the whole meter to get an immediate refill so long as you stay boosting until its drained, rewarding you for taking the risk of going incredibly fast on such dangerous roads. Some courses do try to feed Boost to you by having long stretches where you must race into oncoming traffic, giving that course a bit of a unique feel as you can use Boost much more frequently. If you crash though, you’ll lose a chunk of accumulated energy for the bar, which is one reason it can be difficult to build it up.
The main mode of play in Burnout is the Championship mode, where multiple courses are raced back to back, the player needing to place somewhere in the top to continue. Early championships allow the player to place in third or second and keep going, but the last few require top placement every race. The game alleviates some of the difficulty in doing so by giving the player three credits per Championship run, these credits allowing a player to retry a race if they didn’t place properly. Naturally, in a mode with continues and placement requirements, the course designs are incredibly important, and Burnout does have some good courses… but a few flaws as well. Racing the city streets is an exhilarating feeling as you must keep dodging cars, and there are breaks where fewer cars are present or you can race in the shoulders or off-road to avoid traffic, but a few tracks have cross junctions that intercept the course. The game values both going fast and driving well, but the junctions have cars driving across the road perpendicular to you, often with very little time or space for the player to spot how an oncoming junction will play out. These areas either encourage the player to slow down to scout if it’s safe or plow through and likely crash, and since you can’t see these cars coming very well, it’s essentially random how reaching one will play out. The game also has a checkpoint system where if you don’t reach a certain segment of the course quickly enough, you’ll lose the race, so it actively encourages speed and sometimes you can’t afford to slow down. Checkpoints do allow a bit of crashing, but a course with a junction means multiple laps of encountering it, leading to the potential of hitting cars too often at them to hit the next required checkpoint or losing ground to the other racers.
Most courses don’t have those junctions though, allowing for the more fair and speed-friendly car dodging to shine, but the game does start stretching its content a little thin. Later courses will feature the reverse version of a regular track, and the marathons string together a few tracks to make one long race that is frankly a bit too long. The USA Marathon, for example, is an almost 20 minute race where you are expected to take first, and while Burnout does have comeback mechanics, regaining a lost lead in such a long race is sometimes impossible, and failing right at the end is just frustrating. Most courses are speedy with reasonable lap times, but reusing tracks does make them a bit less interesting, even if being in reverse changes how you approach some of them. Because Burnout resorts to this, the energy and thrill of the game’s mechanics starts to wane a bit as the game becomes more familiar, but there are a few other modes to play outside of Championship. Face Off involves you racing against a single game-controlled racer who is driving a car you’ll unlock for beating them, and while this isn’t much different than racing three cars in Championship, the rewards make it worth checking out. There is of course two-player racing available, and you can always just race a single course or try to better your completion times in Single Race and Time Attack.
THE VERDICT: Burnout’s idea of racing on roads where regular traffic is still running adds a whole new level of intensity to racing at high speeds, control and reaction time more important than ever to avoid crashes. The game definitely could improve by making the crash cam optional and removing some of its areas that are too crash friendly, but at the same time, Burnout makes sure a crash isn’t the end of your race, allowing comebacks through excellent driving alone and even giving you the Boost meter if you need an extra push. The amount of unique courses is low, but Burnout is still enjoyable even when you’re hitting the same tracks, the constant threat of collision making it more than just a battle to be faster than the opposition.
And so, I give Burnout for the Playstation 2…
A GOOD rating. More than a regular racing game, Burnout values control over your high speed vehicle, and the constant moving hazards that are other cars means you stay engaged in the race at all times. Embracing the car crash in its design does mean it leans into it a little hard at times, but most of your races are going to be dynamic dodging as you try to keep your speed up to outrace your opponents. If Burnout hadn’t spread its track design thin through reuse it could have stayed strong and varied, but outside the annoying junctions and the absurdity of the marathons, Burnout still rewards the player for excellent driving and doesn’t hurt them too harshly for the crashes it wants to emphasize so much.
Burnout embraces the hazardous nature of street racing to its benefit, mixing the thrill of high speeds with constant danger. While it is a bit too crash-happy at times, it does allow players to both experience the satisfaction of driving expertly to avoid them while indulging a player who just wants to see a bit of carnage.