Franchise Festival #43: Burnout

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss the history of noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be revving our engines and taking down the history of Burnout, a series of increasingly combat-focused racing games from the 2000s. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

With regard to sources, the following were quite helpful in compiling my article:

Background

David Lau-Kee and Adam Billyard founded Criterion Software as a subsidiary of Canon’s European division in 1993. The company was intended to create and sell affordable 3D rendering technology that could be put to use by video game and software developers. By the end of the decade, Criterion Software was primarily focused on making game development easier for Sony’s notoriously challenging PlayStation 2 hardware through the use of its proprietary RenderWare game engine.

To advertise this purpose, and indeed to make some additional money outside of middleware development, Criterion Software opened its own subsidiary. Alex Ward and Fiona Sperry co-founded Criterion Games in Guildford, England in 2000. Even as the RenderWare engine was being put to use in noteworthy titles like Grand Theft Auto III (2001) and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 (2001), Ward and Sperry wanted to create their own showcase for what the technology could achieve.

Burnout (2001)

Originally in development under alternate titles “Driving Hero,” “Secret Driving Game,” and “Shiny Red Car,” Burnout would put Criterion on the map as a competent if unremarkable game development studio. The small outfit had formerly created a handful of forgettable PlayStation 2 titles, but Burnout would strike a chord with racing fans seeking a bit more chaos in their games. This was quite clearly intentional from the start, as Sperry would pitch the game internally with the troubling tag-line “how do you drive when you have a rental car?”

The real reason that Burnout exists. Credit: GXZ95

Even so, much of the mayhem that would characterize future entries is absent in its debut. Burnout is first and foremost a tech demo. Visual design is not the emphasis, though; a rock-solid 60 frames-per-second (fps) framerate and the potential for complex emergent scenarios involving vehicle AI are the stars of the show.

Tracks are comparatively limited, but each features several variants. Credit: GXZ95

Players choose from among a handful of game modes, including Championship, Survival, Free Run, and Free Run Twin. The vast bulk of the player’s time will be spent in Championship Mode, which functions as a standard arcade racer in the vein of Ridge Racer: the player selects a car and uses it to race against three opponents through a series of separate tracks. The mode’s primary distinctions from earlier arcade racers are twofold: (1) numerous neutral vehicles are present, cluttering up the tracks, and (2) the player accrues boost energy by engaging in dangerous driving techniques like navigating through oncoming vehicles or drifting through turns. Once enough energy has been accrued, the player can activate a boost to pick up speed; this comes at the expense of handling and increases the likelihood of a crash.

Note the relatively short countdown timer, which is decreased by crashes, and the traffic. Credit: GXZ95

One of the additional modes – Survival – tasks the player with avoiding any collisions while the other two – Free Run and Free Run Twin – respectively allow one or two players to explore tracks without impediments. Unfortunately, handling is quite poor. The majority of programming time was put into the complexities of traffic and ensuring consistently smooth animation. Cars lack the tactile feel of contemporary console car simulation games like Ridge Racer R4 (1998) and Gran Turismo 3 (2001), so much of the challenge lies in keeping the player’s car from colliding with environmental features and other vehicles.

Engaging in dangerous maneuvers, like narrowly avoiding collisions, fills the player’s boost gauge. Credit: GXZ95

Paradoxically, this would inspire intentional mechanics later in the series. Crashes were to be expected in Burnout, but the lack of visual feedback or a method to slow opponents suggests that combat was not a core element of Criterion’s design. Punishingly tight time limits on races ensure that players seek to minimize risk, yet the game is at its most fun when players are slamming into guardrails and traffic. Criterion would learn these lessons and capitalize on Burnout‘s potential chaos with its next game.

Of course, crashes will occur. They will also be documented with loving slow-motion replays. Credit: GXZ95

The first entry in the Burnout series was released on the PlayStation 2 in 2001. A technical marvel if not a visual showpiece, it was followed the following year by prettier ports to the Nintendo Gamecube and Microsoft Xbox. Criterion Games had somehow managed to successfully kickstart a popular racing franchise while simply trying to show off their parent studio’s RenderWare game engine, securing a small but fervent fan-base that demanded a sequel.

Burnout 2: Point of Impact (2002)

Burnout 2 would represent a fairly sizable departure from the series’ debut entry, even though the core arcade racing gameplay remains intact. Players still race their car against opponents controlled either by AI or friends in the same room. Xbox Live is integrated into the game for first time, but only permits the uploading of performance statistics; online multiplayer remained an as-yet unfulfilled dream.

Environments are more densely designed in Burnout 2. Credit: RacingGameArchive

The most important change to the series is an immediately noticeable emphasis on crashes. While the broader goal is the completion of a race, players are encouraged to wreak havoc across the track as they go. This is still not consistently implemented in the standard Championship Mode, as the player’s boost gauge suffers from collisions, but additional modes reveal that Criterion Games had discovered their franchise’s most distinctive selling point.

Crash Mode features the biggest pileups. Credit: Steven Heartstone

Crash Mode, which can accommodate up to four competing players, involves hurtling one’s car into a busy intersection and causing as much chaos as possible. Bigger vehicles derailed and forced into collisions with smaller vehicles gain even more points than standard sedans, offering positive feedback to players who get creative with their destructive streaks. Pursuit Mode, on the other hand, introduces the notion of dueling cars. The player takes on the role of a police cruiser as it seeks to pursue and ram a getaway car into guardrails or off of a racetrack. Though these two modes feature the most conspicuous emphasis on crashes, abandoning the first game’s challenging race timer ensures that players inclined to crash their vehicles in Championship Mode are not dissuaded.

Crashes in standard races are still quite impressive. Credit: RacingGameArchive

Championship Mode is more generally overhauled to engage players rather than challenge them. Boost is more easily achieved, more tracks are present, and a progression system facilitates the steady unlocking of new cars. The underlying RenderWare engine has seen improvements, resulting in more tactile graphics and physics. Cars are now thoroughly shattered by collisions, retaining damage throughout a race unless totaled and fully replaced.

Tailing a criminal in Pursuit Mode. Credit: I Batta

Burnout 2 would be the last series entry published by Acclaim. In its final ill-fated promotion for Burnout 2, the publisher offered to reimburse players’ speeding tickets in Criterion’s native UK. Acclaim would be bankrupt by 2004, though not before releasing a graphically polished and gameplay-enhanced “director’s cut” of Burnout 2 on the Xbox. The Burnout IP and Criterion Games itself would be sold to a new publisher shortly thereafter.

Burnout 3: Takedown (2004)

Electronic Arts (EA) bought Criterion Games in 2004 and immediately green-lit a third Burnout game. The overall aesthetic of Criterion’s alternative racing title was an elegant fit within EA’s broader “extreme sports” initiative of the mid-2000s. In fact, a 2016 interview with series creator Alex Ward confirmed that EA’s extreme snowboarding title SSX (2000) was a direct influence on the increased intensity of the Burnout franchise’s third entry.

Once the series was acquired by EA, new entries began to highlight licensed music tracks. Credit: LohaTrons

Burnout 3: Takedown‘s core new feature is the eponymous takedown. This involves the player actively slamming a competitor into either an environmental feature or another vehicle. Such a maneuver had been possible in earlier games, but it is directly encouraged for the first time in Burnout 3. The boost gauge can now be filled by successful takedowns or diminished by falling victim to an opponent’s takedown, enhancing the risk/reward potential for physically engaging competitors.

Points are tallied for takedowns. Credit: Venom Supreme

When the player suffers a crash, either directly caused by a fellow racer or by carelessness, a new mechanic called aftertouch is activated. This allows the player to move his or her damaged car into the path of oncoming traffic. If he or she is successful, lost boost points can be recovered even as fellow racers are sabotaged.

Sometimes the crash is more spectacular than the tally. Credit: Venom Supreme

The Championship Mode has been fully retooled for the first time. Now called World Tour, it consists of 173 individual events built on various game modes. These include Single Race, Road Rage, Crash Mode, Grand Prix, Face-Off, Burning Lap, and Eliminator. Single Race is a standard race against five opponents (two more than earlier games). Road Rage emphasizes vehicular combat against constantly spawning opponents across several laps. Crash Mode is the classic puzzle mode in which the player seeks to cause as much damage as possible at a crowded intersection. Grand Prix is a series of single races. Face-Off returns from earlier entries, and represents a one-on-one race. Burning Lap is effectively a time attack mode, and Elimination is a single race in which the car in last place is cut at the end of each lap. Each mode can be played individually, but a player progressing through the overall World Tour Mode will encounter them all. A secondary Crash World Tour Mode allows players exclusively interested in the property-destruction minigame to eschew standard races entirely.

Selecting a region in World Tour. Credit: LohaTrons

Unlike the limited progression in earlier titles, Burnout 3 sees the player slowly unlocking numerous vehicles over time. Achieving gold medals through strong performance in World Tour unlocks a staggering selection of cars, putting the small rosters of earlier games to shame. These fall into seven distinct categories: Compact, Muscle, Coupe, Sports, Super, Special, and Heavyweight. The first five categories carry distinct play styles in races, while the final category is fully dedicated to causing maximum havoc in Crash Mode. Online multiplayer was integrated for the first time in the series’ history, but servers for the Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions have since been shut down. A Gamecube port was planned but cancelled. 

Use the boost to chase! Credit: LohaTrons

Burnout 3: Takedown would be the breakthrough hit for Criterion Games. It had successfully navigated the world of game design at the turn of the century, but sales and popularity of their flagship series’ first two games were limited outside of the studio’s native UK. By embracing the franchise’s most unique characteristics – putting crash mechanics front and center – Criterion Games was able to significantly expand its international market. Burnout 3 would be critically acclaimed by game outlets across the world and remains widely regarded as one of the best arcade racers of its hardware generation. As Ridge Racer had defined the racing genre landscape of the 1990s, Burnout would begin to take over as the world’s foremost arcade racer in the 2000s with its third entry.

Burnout Revenge (2005)

The last Burnout of the sixth console generation would be well-received, but would lack much of the innovation that took place between earlier entries. Whether due to EA’s increased level of oversight following Burnout 3 or Criterion Games finally having found a commercially successful formula, Burnout Revenge would differ very little from its direct predecessor. The biggest change, arguably, is purely cosmetic as earth tones replace the series’ characteristically bold colors. Alex Ward would later express regret for this decision, but it was in keeping with broader industry trends from the mid-2000s.

The visuals are enhanced overall, but color diversity is diminished. Credit: EliteUcantBeat

World Tour returns and is the only way to play certain game modes in single-player. While old favorites like Road Rage and Eliminator can still be played, with small but important updates like a thirty-second interval for eliminations in the latter mode, they can now only be accessed either through World Tour or multiplayer systems. The ability to pick the game up and enjoy a one-off round of its peculiar modes has been excised in favor of a rank-based progression mechanic.

Burnout Revenge is quite explicit about hitting the traffic. Credit: EliteUcantBeat

The first of Burnout Revenge’s two major new features is the traffic check. This buzzword refers to the player’s ability to gain speed by ramming non-race participant vehicles off the road or into obstacles during a race. Unfortunately, this moves the game further away from any serious emphasis on racing; transforming traffic from a hazard into a resource reduces the likelihood that a player will lose a race, rendering the race trappings themselves largely subordinate to vehicular combat. Happily, traffic checks do serve to enhance the takedown system by giving the player another tool to damage rival racers.

Kaboom! Crashbreaker. Credit: EliteUcantBeat

Burnout Revenge’s second noteworthy addition to the series’ mechanical palette is the revenge takedown. When the player’s car is destroyed by an opponent, that opponent is deemed his or her Revenge Rival. Extra boost point are awarded for destroying this racer’s car. An explosive device called the Crashbreaker can be activated if the player’s car is damaged beyond repair, causing it to detonate and harm surrounding vehicles; this is the easiest way to exact vengeance, assuming that the Revenge Rival is still nearby.

The boost activation would be overhauled with what commentator Doc M has called a “golf swing meter”, though this would be revised in the Xbox 360 port. Credit: EliteUcantBeat

An Xbox 360 port would be released in early 2006, bringing with it a handful of small changes. Textures and lighting are enhanced, though this sometimes has the effect of revealing the underlying models’ geometric simplicity. Porting the game from one generation to another also seems to have resulted in a less steady framerate. A 2018 re-release of this port on the Xbox One eliminates the performance issues, however, making it the best way to enjoy Burnout Revenge.

Burnout Paradise (2008)

With 2008’s Burnout Paradise, Alex Ward and Fiona Sperry would completely upend the series that they had created almost a decade earlier. Around the time that Burnout was in its planning stages, Angel Studios – later to become Rockstar Studios – had released a handful of open-world racing games. These include Midtown Madness (1999) and Midnight Club: Street Racing (2000). Angel Studios’ pioneering open-world racing games had been influenced by 1986’s Turbo Esprit, but would inspire few successors during the sixth console generation, presumably due to the challenges associated with developing vast spaces on the PlayStation 2, Xbox, or Gamecube without incurring serious performance problems.

Durell Software’s Turbo Esprit (1986) on the ZX Spectrum – this was the first open-world racing game, but would inspire no successors until Angel Studios’ work thirteen years later. Credit: RZX Archive

By the late 2000s, however, open worlds were beginning to grow more common. Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006) and Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV (2008) would conclusively demonstrate that the seventh console generation was capable of rendering large-scale environments without compromising complexity or steady performance. Always ready to push the limits of available hardware, Criterion Games anticipated this trend by developing its most ambitious project yet.

Even the title screen belies a major overhaul. Credit: Shotana Studios

Burnout Paradise fully abandons the existence of discrete racetracks in favor of the titular Paradise City. This urban environment is fully explorable as soon as the player begins his or her game. Events found throughout the world function as individual races with distinct win conditions in the style of earlier series entries’ game modes. Unlike those earlier games, however, these events must be found by navigating Paradise City rather than navigating a menu.

Crashes are more spectacular than ever before. Credit: Shotana Studios

Takedowns return, with deformable car models more responsive than ever to damage incurred through crashes. The RenderWare engine had been updated to take advantage of modern console technology after being taken to its limits on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Crash Mode is reintroduced as Showtime, and can be activated at Paradise City’s busy intersections by the player rather than functioning as a separate way to play the game.

When Showtime is activated, each vehicle has a cost associated with it. As in earlier games, a higher cost of damage reflects a higher score. Credit: FOX DIE GAMING

Burnout Paradise had been a surprisingly challenging development experience, however. EA had originally been reticent of the idea, according to a 2018 Gamasutra retrospective. Ward had been inspired by open-world action titles of the PlayStation 2, especially Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction (2005), and sought to introduce more emergent gameplay to the racing genre. He was eventually successful in making the case for the game, perhaps due partially to the inclusion of in-game advertising as a way to recoup higher-than-usual development costs. While many of the in-game billboards feature ads for real-world companies and products, the most bizarre was a month-long series of billboards advertising Barack Obama ahead of the 2008 United States Presidential Election; these temporary ads had been purchased by Obama’s campaign, a first for the video game medium.

An Obama billboard in Burnout Paradise. Credit: Houston Chronicle

The Burnout series’ fifth core release would be critically acclaimed at its release and over the following decade. Earlier open-world racing games had existed, but none were as complete and dense as Criterion Games’ offering. Periodic updates introduced motorcycles and a day/night cycle, along with new areas to explore, retaining and growing the already-sizable player base over the years following its release. A virtually-inevitable HD remaster was published on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows in 2018 to a rapturous fan response.

Spinoffs

Like most racing games, Burnout has had its fair share of spinoffs and portable repackagings. The first of these is 2005’s Burnout Legends. Released simultaneously on the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable (PSP), Burnout Legends was effectively two different games. The PSP version is something of a greatest hits package combining elements and tracks from the series’ first four console entries. Performance is reduced, as the portable title suffers from an inconsistent 30fps framerate compared to console editions’ steady 60fps, but Burnout Legends’ PSP iteration is otherwise a fairly impressive portable racing game.

Yep, Burnout Legends on the PSP sure resembles its console forebears. Credit: AaronBurner05

The DS release, on the other hand, may well be the franchise’s lowest point. Outsourced to Visual Impact, Burnout Legends DS strives for a recreation of the series’ triumphs in much the same way as its PSP counterpart. Unfortunately, the absence of an analog stick and reduced visual fidelity results in a poorly controlled, muddy imitation.

A still showing the limitations of the DS version’s crash damage. Credit: GXZ95

Burnout Dominator (2007) is the next spinoff, and a bit of an odd entry. It’s more closely linked to the core series than the preceding spinoff, but still eschews evolution in favor of recreating past successes. Surprisingly, it was simultaneously published on the PlayStation 2 and PSP rather than being released exclusively on Sony’s portable console. It was developed by a UK division of EA rather than by Criterion games, though in-game text erroneously suggests the opposite. The switch in studios may be responsible for Dominator more closely resembling the racing-oriented Burnout and Burnout 2 than the combat-oriented Burnout 3 or Burnout Revenge. This focus is perhaps a touch overzealous, however, as Crash Mode is absent for the first time since the series’ 2001 debut.

Burnout Crash! looks very different from earlier entries, but the spirit of destruction remains. Credit: GhostRobo

The final Burnout game to be released as of writing in December 2018 is 2011’s Burnout Crash! Played strictly from an aerial perspective, it is the counterpoint to Dominator’s emphasis on racing. It includes only the classic Crash Mode and was published to digital marketplaces on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and mobile devices.

Conclusion

For all intents and purposes, Burnout seems to have ended. After focusing on racing with Burnout and Need for Speed, Criterion Games co-founder Alex Ward announced online in 2013 that the studio would no longer be working within that genre. Since this announcement, Ward and fellow co-founder Fiona Sperry have departed Criterion Games. No core entries have followed 2008’s Burnout Paradise. For a series that existed for such a short period, it burned quite brightly. There’s no doubt among fans that Burnout handily exceeded its original purpose as a demo for Criterion’s RenderWare engine, carving out a distinct identity among competitors of the early 2000s and conclusively establishing the mainstream commercial appeal of open-world racing games.


What do you think? What’s your favorite Burnout game? How about your favorite secret vehicle? There are a lot of funny ones, that’s for sure. Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Please join me next week as we reinvent the wheel again and again with the history of Final Fantasy. Franchise Festival #44: Final Fantasy goes live at 9:00 AM EST here.