UK-based developer Criterion Studios is an outfit that seems to have been heading toward greatness for a few years now. Though the studio is probably best known for its middleware-development arm responsible for the ubiquitous Renderware engine--the same engine that powers favorites like Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance and the GTA series--it has also managed to producer several games of admittedly varying quality. Criterion's most accomplished and most simply likable title was easily 2002's visceral, crash-happy racer Burnout 2: Point of Impact. And from the taste we've had of its follow-up, Burnout 3: Takedown, this may be the game that puts all eyes on Criterion.
For a series that has never earned a rating beyond an "E "(for Everyone), the Burnout games have always appealed to a dark, primal side of human nature. Criterion has built the franchise from the ground up on the notion that reckless, ridiculously high-speed driving and apocalyptic auto wrecks are really, really fun--which, unsurprisingly, has proved pretty true thus far. It would appear that Burnout 3: Takedown won't be making any philosophical changes to the series, though it will contain a host of improvements. The power plant that runs Burnout 3 is the gameplay, and Criterion is installing superchargers on the system that was under the hood in Burnout 2: Point of Impact, making the action faster, more visceral, and brutal (almost to the point of excess).
Burnout 2 would fill your boost meter for driving into oncoming traffic, having near misses, and drifting around corners, and Burnout 3 does the same. However, Burnout 3 will allow you to tap your boost meter at any time, not just when it's filled completely. Central to the improvements being made in Burnout 3--as you might infer from the game's subtitle--is the takedown system. Going toe to toe with other highly skilled racers is one thing, but wouldn't life be so much easier if you could just run them off the road, taking them out of the equation? The takedown system will let you answer this question yourself, because it rewards you with boost multipliers and a full boost bar for slamming other racers into walls, medians, and other vehicles on the road. It also encourages more-aggressive, combative driving, because simply making contact with another racer will earn you boost, and it will sometimes rob the other racer of his or her boost.
With the incredible speed and the constant close calls, crashing your car is not only inevitable but also it's actually encouraged in certain event types in Burnout 3 (more on that later). So, rather than just leaving the fender benders up to fate and physics, the game will introduce the aftertouch system, which will, with the push of a button, slow time down to a crawl to subtly influence the trajectory of your twisted, post-wreck chassis, which can earn you some nice bonuses. And, if you're able to actually run another racer off the road in the process, you'll be rewarded with a prestigious aftertouch takedown that restores the boost multiplier you might have lost and refills your boost meter for good measure. Based on the way that it makes crashing that much more satisfying, we have little doubt that the aftertouch system will be one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Burnout 3.
All this garage work is all well and good, but what happens when the rubber meets the road? The primary single-player campaign will take you to events across the globe, with the three hotspots being the USA, Europe, and the Far East. It's a pretty straightforward progression of completing events, unlocking new events, completing these events, and so on. However, the events you'll actually compete in promise to keep things interesting by providing a nice variety of action.
Burnout Around the World
You can expect straight races, where your objective is to simply cross the finish line first. There will also be elimination races, where each lap finds the player in last place being, well, eliminated from the race. There are also basic time trial events, though Burnout 3 ups the ante by basically requiring you to hammer down on the boost button the entire time for a chance of even placing.
Returning from Burnout 2: Point of Impact will be the crash mode, which was one of the more endearing features in that game. Burnout 3 will see the crash events getting an elephant-sized shot in the arm, because the game will feature a whopping 100 unique scenarios for you to unlock over the course of the main single-player game. The setup is basic: run your car into a busy intersection and cause as much monetary damage as possible. The action seems a bit deeper now, thanks in no small part to the aftertouch system and the various power-ups that litter the setups. These power-ups can give you instant, always-on boost, a cash bonus, and a total score multiplier, among other fun, little tricks. The crashbreaker mechanic also does wonders for the crash mode. Once you've wrecked a predetermined number of cars within a scenario, you can hit a button that essentially causes your car to explode, creating an appropriately large fireball and sending a shock wave out that will deal a nice amount of damage to any vehicles unlucky enough to be nearby. This will definitely be the mode of choice for the nihilists in the audience.
Brand-new to Burnout 3 will be the road rage events that aim to create an unholy union between the incredible speed of the racing modes and the incredible devastation of the crash mode. Rather than racing toward any kind of finish line, your goal here will be to take down a number of your opponents before time runs out or before your opponents take you down one too many times. You'd think that such a balancing act might be difficult to sustain, but Burnout 3 makes it look easy.
It would seem that EA and Criterion have put some serious R and D into Burnout 3, because even in this unfinished state, we feel comfortable saying that the game looks fantastic. The solid frame rate makes for a great sensation of speed, which is augmented by a motion blur effect that borders the screen as you start hitting the higher gears. But even when you're hitting 160mph on surface streets, Burnout 3 can stop on a dime, automatically freezing the action whenever you take down an opponent, swinging the camera around to let you appreciate the mess you've made right before it snaps back to you at full speed. The game uses heavy motion blur that reminds us a lot of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time during the camera movement between your car and the downed opponent, and it's indicative of the kind of small graphical touches that you can expect from Burnout 3. And, of course, you can also expect some downright gruesome car crashes, complete with horribly twisted bodies and glass, metal debris, tires, and often entire cars flying through the air. We've had time with both PlayStation 2 and Xbox builds of Burnout 3, and, at this point, they seem about neck and neck in terms of graphical quality--which should translate to a nice-looking Xbox game and an astonishingly nice-looking PS2 game.
Burnout 3 will benefit from the EA Trax program, which will inject the game with a solid 40 licensed songs that stick pretty closely to the punk and indie rock genres, with contributions from The Vines, Franz Ferdinand, Pennywise, Sahara Hotnights, Modest Mouse, and The Mooney Suzuki, among others. The Xbox version will also feature support for custom soundtracks for those players who don't cotton to the musical selections offered up by the stock Burnout 3 soundtrack. However, if you're not quite that choosy, both versions will let you tweak the soundtrack to your liking, forcing certain songs only to play during the menu or during a race; furthermore, the soundtrack can be turned off. The game also introduces an enthusiastic radio DJ who will provide plenty of chatter before, during, and after races. In fact, we were reminded a bit of the DJ in last year's SSX 3, though we can't say we noticed as many contextual quips.
We did notice a few minor points that might benefit from a little more developer attention. Specifically, these points involve some peculiar scoring and occasional slowdown issues that crop up during the crash mode. But by and large, Burnout 3: Takedown appears to be finished and should be ready to wreck retail shelves on its current September release date. Stay tuned to GameSpot, where you can be sure to see more on this game in the near future.