Demo siren song

Bringing the boost


I heard the other day that Criterion had released another Burnout Paradise update. So I loaded up the game (I have the PS3 version), downloaded the update, and jumped into Paradise for a little night racing. It took all of two seconds for me to stop and do a double take. BP has always impressed me with its stylish visuals and sturdy 60 fps, but I didn't expect the marked visual boost that greeted me. It's really quite stunning. Criterion introduced day/night cycles in one of its earlier updates, and while I enjoyed the variety, I found it difficult to see well enough to avoid crashing, especially at top speeds. This is no longer a problem. The update enables you to see clearly while preserving the feel of night driving.

Dawn arrived with a bit of fog, which soon gave way to bright sunshine, and the full measure of Criterion's visual enhancement could easily be seen. Everything looks brighter and more vibrant. Billboards are easier to see from a distance; jump ramps have a gentle flash that makes them easier to locate; and the quality of lighting and shadowing throughout has been significantly improved. Nothing garish or over the top. Just a series of deft visual tweaks that reemphasize the strong message Criterion has been sending out since they released this game over a year ago: We still care about Burnout Paradise. We listen to the community. And we continue to dream up new ways to make this game feel fresh and fun.

I think we ought to acknowledge developers who go the extra mile for their users. Yeah, I know those blokes in Guildford aren't the Salvation Army. They're driven by the same profit imperative every other game developer faces. But it seems to me Criterion, in particular, has identified and implemented a strategy that works remarkably well in the current games marketplace: release the best product you can and stand behind it; improve the quality and player experience with frequent upgrades; offer additional value-added content worth charging for; nurture the relationship between your consumers and your development team; and give folks what they want.

Six updates in twelve months, nearly all free, have added motorbikes, new multiplayer modes, events, and challenges, a dynamic weather system, a day/night cycle, an in-game browser to manage current and future content, legendary cars, and all sorts of gameplay fixes and refinements. A local multiplayer Party Pack was just released addressing complaints about BP's lack of local competitive play; an event restart was added in response to throngs of users demanding it; an island expansion is on the way that expands the game world and offers more sandbox play; and a new "Cops and Robbers" mode will follow later this year.

Did I mention the first PC version of any Burnout game appeared a few days ago as Burnout Paradise: The Ultimate Box? And did you know they've released 23 well-produced and entertaining episodes of a video podcast called CrashTV? These guys just don't quit.

I think it's also worth noting that Criterion is plugging into a mini-trend among some developers that update existing games, enabling less experienced players to jump in and enjoy the fun. We've seen similar efforts recently (albeit implemented differently) with PixelJunk Eden, Midnight Club: Los Angeles, Runescape, and World of Warcraft.

For BP, Criterion has changed the vehicle dynamics of the cars that appear early in the game, making them more manageable and less prone to crashing. These changes don't affect cars that appear higher up the Burnout foodchain, so experienced players shouldn't notice a difference. I detected a discernible change in the handling of the Nakamura SI-7, for example, which makes me think it's now ever so slightly more possible that my wife will finally pick up and try this game...but I'm not holding my breath.

Wow, this is one gushy post, isn't it? Well, what can I say? We nitpick and complain (often with good reason) about various aspects of game design, wishing for more of this and less of that. It seems only appropriate that we also wax enthusiastic when game developers do things right on behalf of their game and its community. Criterion certainly isn't the only such studio (and I'm sure the EA bankroll can't hurt), but they do seem to me a model of sustainable synergy among developer, publisher, and players that I find exciting and worthy of note. And heck, what's wrong with a little applause now and then? :-)