One of the challenges faced by all developers who have been blessed or cursed with a long-running franchise is how to keep said franchise fresh and appealing with each successive installment. No matter how good a developer or how rich a premise a game has, there's always going to be a point when what comes next looms over the next installment in a series like a giant Monty Python-esque foot primed to stomp the appeal out of a franchise. The recent announcement of Burnout Revenge, with its crazy talk of new modes and an emphasis on revenge, left us wondering what the latest entry in the series would hold.
By all rights, developer Criterion Studios will have its work cut out for it in topping the brilliant Burnout 3: Takedown. The game offered up jaw-dropping visuals and online play for the PS2 and Xbox that had all the addictive qualities of crack (but next to none of the side effects). How on earth do you go about topping something like that? Anxious to find out how Criterion Studios' UK house of ideas is going to do that, we interrogated Alex Ward, mastermind (or creative director, depending on your preferred moniker), on what to expect from the upcoming game.
Gamespot: Were you pleased with the success of Burnout 3?
Alex Ward: Absolutely. We were very pleased with what we did development-wise. It wasn't an easy project. We all worked exceptionally hard. This sounds like a cliché, as all developers say stuff like this...but Burnout 3 was tough. Plus, we had so many people freaking out over the game it almost was added pressure to deliver the game and also to deliver the goods. It was the most successful game we've put out. With numerous Game of the Year awards and something like 43 global awards, I think we'd be insane if we weren't pleased--really, really pleased--with what we all achieved last year.
GS: Did you expect such a positive response to the game?
AW: It's hard to answer that really. I think we were pretty much getting on with what we had to do. We took time out to attend E3 and I think there was another Electronic Arts event in America that we went to, so we met most of the press guys and knew they were excited. But it's never over until it's over.
Whatever software you show, at any event anywhere in the world is obviously not the finished game...it's the latest version. The only place you can play the latest Burnout code is right here at Criterion, and I think that's always in the back of your mind. What's tough as a developer is not pointing out to everyone what you know is broken, or what has changed. You just want to say "ignore that and this," and "we've fixed that now," but in reality, very few people notice, so it's best to shut up and let them enjoy the game.
But when it's all done and complete, then it's out of the door. You know, I can't even remember last September. It's a total blank. I think the success part of the game only started to sink in to us as a team in November and December. By that time, we were all working on new projects, so the previous game instantly becomes "the past"--it becomes history for us. As developers, we're always looking forward.
GS: What do you think worked well? What do you wish you could have done better?
AW: Aggressive driving, which we added into the Burnout mix, worked really well, better than any of us expected. I can remember it first going in and people wondering what exactly it was. Now you can hit your rivals. Getting the AI to attack you and really put you into a high-speed battle worked pretty well, as did the whole speed rush you get from the game. Game progression worked well, and the concept of flying around the world doing different types of races paid off. The presentation team worked really hard right up to the wire, so it was fun to see all the reward sequences go in the game. We still play it pretty regularly online. Sometimes we get beaten pretty badly. Even if we tell people who we are, they never believe us! Retrospectively, what could we have done better? There were a couple of corners on a couple of tracks that we could have tweaked to make it flow better. And I think we all agree that we could have tweaked the handling on the F1 and Indy-type cars we put in. They were a little too crazy for a lot of players, and you really need to understand how drift works in the game to be able to escape with your life in those cars.
But those are minor quibbles really...stuff that only affected a few players who got right to the end of the game, which to us is a good thing. How many games can you honestly say that you play right to the end these days? Most games are so horrible, you're lucky if you can play for more than two hours.
GS: What do you think Burnout Revenge has to deliver in order to satisfy fans?
AW: I'm thinking that this could be a difficult one to answer, but really it's an easy one. All the new game has to do is to be better than the last one. That's what any good sequel must do. Be true to the original but offer up something fresh and interesting to take the series forward. I'm part of the Burnout Team and we're all looking for great new tracks, amazing new crashes, exciting new modes. I hope everyone likes what we're doing.
The last game was about aggression, and we're taking that to a new place with this game. When you get taken down, you're out to get that racer back. You want revenge. You could score a "revenge takedown" in B3 but it didn't really mean anything more than a regular takedown. In the new game, it does. Revenge takedowns are the best takedowns of all. The entire game progression is based around aggression. You'll not only have to be fast, you'll also have to be mean to get through and win.
GS: Can you give us as much detail as you can about traffic in the game and how it's going to work this time?
AW: We bounced around a lot of different ideas at the start of this development. And I mean different ideas. We looked at a lot of different things, from how we make tracks to how we use cars and from how we present the game to what happens right in the middle of a race. You have to have these sorts of discussions. But you also have to know when to draw the line. We came up with a lot of things to experiment with and we spent a lot of time experimenting. It's fun to experiment. But some of the ideas and features we looked at just weren't quite Burnout, if that makes any sense. Some things were especially tough to get working, and then when they were working, they didn't really make the impact we were hoping for when we started. But we're not afraid to do this at Criterion Games and we hate to play it safe.
One of the features that definitely made it through was "checking traffic." It was often confusing to some players in B3 that you could slam your rivals but you couldn't slam the traffic. We thought about it and agreed. Wouldn't it be way cooler if you could slam a taxi or van during a race, make them crash, and take someone down that way? In ice hockey, when the players bounce off each other, it's a "check," so we wanted to "check" other traffic cars.
Now we have a habit of always introducing a new game mode when we make a new Burnout. In B2 we came out with crash mode, in B3 we added road rage, and both of those modes have been huge, huge hits with the audience. In Burnout Revenge we have something that we currently call traffic attack. This mode is the perfect marriage of the fighting and battling of the road rage mode from B3 with the instant gratification and pure carnage of crash mode. In this mode, you hit the streets alone. You race the clock. The objective is to smash into as much traffic as possible at speed. Each wreck scores you dollars. Pileups and multiple wrecks score even more, so pushing a taxi into a bus, which then crosses over the road and hits some oncoming traffic, scores even more. It's simple, but it's a lot of fun...the way all games should be.
So now you can hit the other cars. It's something that's a lot of fun and straightaway makes the new game better than B3. In fact, it's hard to go back to B3 and remember that hitting traffic makes you crash. I was playing B3 on Live the week before last and got horribly, terribly beaten by everyone else. I think I came last in every single race because I kept trying to check all the cars. (Hello to all the Canadians who were racing with us and hello to the guy from Texas whose first game on Xbox Live was B3!!)
GS: What can you tell us about the revenge theme and how it has affected development of the gameplay?
AW: Well, as they say, revenge is sweet. And the new Burnout is definitely sweet. They also say revenge is a dish best served cold. I'm not sure about that part, but it's fun when it's served up at 150mph with full boost firing as I slam you into the wall or into the path of a semi heading down the other side of the road! The last Burnout was all about aggression, but we didn't make too much of a deal out of it. Takedowns were important, and they were something you did on the way to winning a race. This time, how many takedowns you do and to which cars is important. We had some of this in B3, but again, we didn't call it out too much. You could even get a "revenge takedown," but it was no more important than a regular takedown. This time, revenge is a focus in all of the key game modes. Last time, we showed you who was mad at you during a race with a marker above the car, and this marker changed color depending on how aggressive you had been to each racer. But it was kind of secondary to the main action. You were trying to survive and cross the finish line.
Winning is still winning. But in the new game, winning with superiority, winning by being the most aggressive is important. It's not enough just to be fast. You have to be fast and mean to survive. We have a revenge-based ranking and rewards system that drives offline and online game progression. Traffic can be checked, as I mentioned above, and this can be to clear a path through a hot spot OR to be used as a weapon against your rivals. I can take you down with a good old boost slam or I can send a taxi flying into you.
Also, we're bringing something that everyone loved in crash mode, the crashbreaker, into the race experience. Now you have to really decide whether or not you want to mess with me. If you try to take me down and get me, then I'm going to use my crashbreaker to try to take you down with me--kind of like a dirty tackle in soccer. The Crashbreaker is the ultimate explosive payback: you got me for sure, but you're coming down with me!
Traffic attack is for everyone who has ever wanted to clear everyone else off the road and get them out of the damn way, whereas our face-off mode is more of a fierce one-on-one against an angry rival (this takes this mode back to what it was like in the first Burnout). There's more I could say here, but I'll go into more detail around E3.
GS: Let's talk about the look of the game--what changes are in store?
AW: There's a cool new look to this new Burnout. Our visual quality has always improved massively each time we bring a game out, and this one is no different. Our art team is always pushing for the next level. Our original influence on the first game, five years ago, was a definite Sega style. Our heroes were Yu Suzuki and the guys at AM2. And they still are. But we felt it was time to leave the bright and colorful look behind and move to the next level. So, some of the first screenshots we're releasing come from our Detroit course. I guess you can say the visuals for this track at least are darker and grittier than anything we've ever done before. But remember, it's Burnout we're making, and the game isn't going to look like Silent Hill all of a sudden. And remember, this is one course. Does the whole game look like these screenshots? Nope. One of the other new courses is Tokyo, a course based around the superfast freeways that pass Shinjuku and Shibuya. Is it gritty and dirty like Detroit? Not really. But it does have a unique style.
GS: What can you tell us about the track design and its emphasis on fighting?
AW: When we really got the first takedowns and aggressive battling into Burnout 3, pretty much most of the courses had already been built. They were built to some of the guidelines that the art team laid down for B2--this meant wide lanes, beautiful sliding, and a great "flow" to each course. This meant that some courses naturally felt better suited for takedowns than others. So for example, the "downtown" course was better for fighting than say, the "vineyard" course, which wasn't great for fighting but was perfect for fast high-action racing.
For the new game, the race course designers sat down and studied a lot of movie sequences. They found that what we called takedowns were a natural part of any good Hollywood car sequence. They came up with a brief guide that set out different parts of a course that could be applied to make the track great for fighting. We've never put many hard stops in the tracks before, but this time we've added a few. We're also introducing a few jumps and splits, as well as shortcuts or alternate routes, into the course design. This is new for Burnout and it opens up the action a little more.
GS: What's one thing that will surprise even diehard fans about the game?
AW: I think that has to be crash mode this time. In fact, you probably would not believe me if I tried to explain it right now. So I'll save that for next time. All I will say is that crash mode in Revenge is the best crash yet. It's not quite finished yet to talk about in detail, so we'll be saying more about that at E3.
GS: Thanks for your time.