By the time a console has been put out to pasture by its manufacturer, chances are there will be at least 20 different arcade-style driving games to choose from for that platform. With so many choices, it's obvious that developers have to come up with a unique selling point to make their game stand out from the pack. Such is the case with Burnout's elaborate crashes, which send cars careening through the air and spinning out of control. But crashes alone do not a game make, and thankfully there's enough meat on Burnout's bones to provide an engaging, albeit unoriginal, take on arcade racing.
Compared with other games in its genre, Burnout has a healthy roster of gameplay modes. The primary single-player experience is found in the championship mode, where there are four different three-race circuits to compete in and two marathon races spread across 14 different tracks to complete. As you complete events in the championship mode, new gameplay modes are unlocked such as head-to-head races against exotic cars and a free roam mode for up to two players. There are just a handful of cars included in the game, and while they bear a striking resemblance to cars you'll see out on the road, they are not officially licensed. But this allows the game to bash, crash, and destroy cars in just about every imaginable way without angering execs at huge car companies, so the trade-off is a fair one. The cars are rated based on three different difficulty settings, but there are no ratings to show you how differently they're supposed to perform. Perhaps it's because feeling the differences from one car to another while out on the road is no easy task. In addition to the championship mode, there's also a single race option, a time attack mode that places you on the course by yourself, and a head-to-head mode for up to two players.
Playing Burnout is about as easy as playing driving games can get. You have a gas button, a brake button, and a turbo button. The object is to make it to each checkpoint before the timer expires and take first overall. As you weave in and out of oncoming traffic without wrecking, a turbo meter gradually builds until it reaches the top. Once the meter peaks, you have access to a turbo boost that you can use at your leisure. The trick is to get your turbo boost and head into the other lane so that your turbo meter builds just as quickly as you're using it--giving you perpetual turbo.
The steering in the Xbox version of Burnout is a bit sluggish when compared with the steering in the PlayStation 2 and GameCube versions, but after some practice you'll be whipping in and out of traffic in no time. The catch is that if you do happen to wreck, you'll be significantly delayed while the crash is shown from three different camera angles. There's no way to skip the replays, and after the first few hours with the game, the novelty of the crashes wears off. There's nothing worse than seeing other cars leave you in the dust as you watch a fender bender three consecutive times. Another annoying aspect of the game is the seemingly fuzzy criteria it uses to determine whether you've been in an accident. Sometimes you can crash into the wall at 100mph and the race will continue, while other times you'll brush the side of another car or check its bumper and you're forced to watch the dreaded crash replays. Monetary values are given to each crash depending on its severity, but many times a two-car pileup will be deemed more expensive than rolling your car several times. The money values are then added up so the game can show you just how pitiful you are. How is this supposed to motivate players to continue?
You wouldn't think that a game featuring crashes as its sole innovation would ask you to keep from crashing, but after playing Burnout for several hours, it becomes obvious that winning each race is simply a matter of not wrecking. This is due, in part, to the computer AI. If you follow your fellow competitors around the track, you'll find that they make mistakes all on their own and have problems weaving through thick traffic. Not only does it make the gameplay realistic beyond what you'd expect from an arcade racing game, but it also gives you hope that no matter how far behind you are, you still have a chance. Of course, there's no course radar, so knowing just how far you are behind the field is impossible. Traffic will cross each track at several predetermined spots, but the movement of the cars is completely scripted, so it's easy to avoid collisions.
As mentioned previously, the controls for the Xbox version of Burnout aren't quite as tight as those found in the GameCube and PlayStation 2 versions. Thankfully, the forgiving yet realistic physics model used in the game ensures that it's still a joy to play. But powersliding, one of the mainstays of arcade racing games, seems to happen by accident most of the time. Instead, you're forced to manage your gas and brake around each turn and lose valuable speed. Going against the grain where most arcade driving games are concerned, the courses are absolutely huge, and it can take up to four minutes just to complete one lap. This seriously limits the pick-up-and-play aspect of the game and makes Burnout seem more steeped in simulation than you'd think. In all, Burnout does a good job of being a workable arcade driving game, but you're forced to avoid its only unique feature--the dramatic crashes--to succeed at the game.
Burnout was originally designed using Criterion's Renderware middleware program, and this has made porting the game to other platforms relatively painless. What stands out most prominently in the game's visual presentation is the number of polygons being pushed. There are several times where you'll come around a bend in the road only for the course to open up into a seaside drive that allows you to see for what seems like a mile down the course. The amount of traffic on each course is also impressive, though the vehicle models leave a bit to be desired. Luckily, the cars you get to actually drive are handsomely modeled and feature smooth, flowing curves, though they do not approach Gran Turismo 3 or Project Gotham Racing quality. The courses have plenty of offtrack objects and feature a variety of settings such as urban areas and rural country lanes complete with cobblestone surfaces. But anyone who spends more than a minute playing the game will realize that the graphical highlight is the crashing.
The physics engine used in Burnout allows a variety of crashes to occur, and just when you think you've seen them all, a minivan will be left spinning on its roof like a top or a compact will shoot straight up into the sky. As amazing as the physics engine is, the small details applied to the wrecks are what really make them a joy to watch. Windows will spider-web before smashing out, fenders will crumple, and all the windows on busses will explode at once--sending a shower of glass all over the road. It's fairly impressive when you first begin playing the game, but eventually you tire of them and wish there were a way to skip through the automatic replays. But for those who just can't get enough, the game will save 10 wrecks from each race to watch later on.
Burnout also features a bevy of special effects that are pulled off quite well. Tires kick up dirt and will sometimes cause a complete whiteout, real-time lighting moves across the surface of your car as it moves in and out of the shadows, motion blurring is used for when your car is using turbo, and realistic skid marks are left on the pavement after each crash. Despite all its graphical trickery, the frame rates in Burnout are rock-solid and never stutter--even if the entire screen is filled with smoke in the multiplayer mode. The solid frame rates give the game an excellent sensation of speed, but not all is well. The game has a rather aliased look that makes things on the horizon hard to see, and shimmering textures give the game an overall grainy, flickering appearance. Unlike many ports from the PlayStation 2, both the Xbox and GameCube versions of Burnout look considerably better than the original. But telling the two versions apart is practically impossible. Both feature improved car models, more realistic lighting, and cleaner textures. But all these improvements still aren't enough to get Burnout into the upper echelon of graphical offerings on either console.
Burnout's audio features almost a dozen original tracks, so no one can fault Criterion for being lazy in that department. The track selection is predominantly made up of breakbeat trance and other electronic styles that tend to become repetitive after a few hours, but their mindless nature serves them well in a game with four-minute laps. While the different cars sound different, their engines sound more like lawnmowers than high-powered machines. Ambient sound effects are strangely absent throughout the game, so don't expect to hear seagulls crying or the sound of crashing waves while driving near the ocean. The Xbox version includes Dolby Digital support, which gives it a slight advantage over the GameCube version of the game, but it makes little difference in the overall package.
Burnout is a run-of-the-mill arcade driving game that features spectacular crashes. But after a few hours of playtime, the crashes will begin to grate on the nerves, and you're left with a game that can easily be completed in a day. With 14 tracks and just a few hidden cars to unlock, it also offers very little in the way of replay value. If you're desperate for a new driving game for your Xbox, rent Burnout and get it out of your system. For owners of multiple consoles trying to decide on one version of the game, the Xbox version's improved visuals put it ahead of the PlayStation 2 version, but it falls just short of the GameCube iteration because of its somewhat sluggish controls. With more original driving game options available for Microsoft's console, it's hard to recommend Burnout as a purchase because it simply repeats what has already been done in many games before it.