Criterion didn't need two tries to nail the arcade racing genre.
In 2001, British developer Criterion Games did just that. It was the year they released Burnout, an arcade-style racing game that was by no means groundbreaking, but featured such solid and addicting core gameplay, that I dare say that, back in those days, it was one of the best racing games of its kind. And it's still playable today.
While Burnout does stick to conventions at first glance, it is not a racing game like any other. Unlike in Need For Speed, for example, crashing into traffic will not simply toss the civilian car in the air, with the gravest consequence on the player's end being a slight and temporary loss of speed. Whenever you bump into a car at a non-sluggish pace, you will get to see a few replays of the crash, in which you get to see how your car and anything that got in its way is reduced to scrap metal. After this seemingly fatal scene, your car will respawn, allowing you to continue where you left off, until you throw yourself into the next traffic jam.
Crashing a lot is not left unpunished in the world of Burnout. Apart from the obvious time loss, a few consecutive accidents may actually end up in your race being terminated. Every track in Burnout has checkpoints, and a timer on the screen indicates how much time you have left to reach the next checkpoint. If you somehow run out of time, for example by crashing a lot inbetween 2 checkpoints, the race ends there.
Luckily, the adrenaline meter can help you get to your destination considerably faster. This meter builds up as you do dangerous stuff, such as driving on the wrong side of the road, barely avoiding traffic, and drifting. When the meter is full, you are rewarded a rather lengthy boost. On later tracks, where you'll be forced to face more oncoming traffic, this makes the game exceptionally tense, especially if you manage to chain a number of boosts together.
All in all, Burnout, whilst not doing anything spectacular, does have some really neat features. And when you take all of them into account, you've got a racing title with such a strong and addictive core gameplay, that really few other racing games can match it. You can notice by the clunky way the cars in Burnout handle below speeds of 30mph, that this game was designed purely to make you go fast. Really fast.
Some aspects of the game could've used some extra attention, though. The AI opponents mainly resort to rubber band tactics. This can be very frustrating, as a crash in the final turn can ruin an otherwise spotless race. Another disappointment is the overall lack of content. There's only 4 extra cars to unlock apart from the standard 5, two of which are effectively useless, and even though the game has the decent amount of 14 tracks, many of them are just different interpretations of other tracks. You'll often be sent down the same piece of road, but in the opposite direction, or at night instead of during the day. This makes the overall offering feel rather limited, although the tracks themselves are all lengthy and well-designed.
With the strong, intense and thrilling gameplay, however, Burnout never really gets old. Even more than 8 years after I first played it, it's still worth popping in the disc from time to time. Despite the lack of content, the incredibly tight controls, heated gameplay and slick interface are hard to grow tired of. In terms of presentation and technology, the game obviously shows its age, but Burnout as a racing game is, quite frankly, still hard to keep up with.