Burning rubber: the race to recreate Burnout

Not so long ago, the industry was awash with great arcade driving games. The Need for Speed series, Blur, Driver, and Split/Second: Velocity all offered a jolt of adrenaline between the late 1990s and the 2010s.

One arcade racing franchise enthusiasts could always fall back on during this time, however, was the fabled Burnout series, which began in 2001. But ten years since the release of Paradise, and a new entry in Criterion’s series is still nowhere to be seen.

Thankfully, a small subset of indie and triple-A developers are trying to fill the gap. Not all are explicitly attempting to recreate Burnout like for like, but they’re all trying to find their own way of recapturing the series’ sensory delights: hurtling through the open road against a scenic cityscape, among heavy traffic, often with the cops hot on your tail.

Released in April 2019, Dangerous Driving was an arcade racer that aimed to revive the thrill of early Burnout titles. It hopes to put the aggression back into the racing genre and – as developer Three Fields Entertainment itself puts it – “recapture the spirit of the past and take it to a new place.”

The studio was formed by the original mind behind the series, Alex Ward, who, alongside his fellow Criterion alumni, are enthusiastic about continuing the Burnout legacy.

“Driving games have been a lifelong passion and interest for me going back to the mid-eighties,” explains Ward, Three Fields Entertainment’s co-founder. “Driving at high speed, weaving in and out of traffic, and having accidents… Arcade driving games are 100 per cent pure gameplay. You have to entertain the player as quickly as possible and then build on it. It requires concentration and focus every step of the way.”

Burnout Paradise has the same sense of anarchy, despite making the move to open world.

That arcade focus was a key part of the Burnout franchise from its PS2 debut, which introduced such trademark features as the boost meter, driving through oncoming traffic, and rewards for narrowly avoiding other vehicles. The original Burnout may have featured only a small collection of cars, but it didn’t matter when driving them felt so exciting.

Simon Phillips, designer and artist at Three Fields Entertainment, says this rebellious attitude to driving was something the team pay direct homage to in Dangerous Driving. “In my work, it’s all about helping to evolve and advance that spirit,” he says. “I loved the irreverent humour and anarchic, non-stop, seat-of-your-pants action in Burnout 3: Takedown – it changed my view on what a driving game could be.”

Crash and Learn

Dangerous Driving borrows many familiar mechanics fans of Burnout will recognise, and offers them up with a modern spin. The boost bar, for example, gives players an extra thrust when edging past rivals, while slamming into other cars delivers the same satisfying crunch and slow-motion view of the resulting destruction. These crash and takedown elements are what put the original Burnout games on the map, and Dangerous Driving offers some new but similarly anarchic modes.

Boosts and crashes aside, Ward believes that cutting out unnecessary noise is equally important to making a Burnout-style game. “Smashing cars up is just great fun,” he says. “No storylines, no cutscenes, no complicated controls, and not much to explain to anyone playing with you. Just pick up the pad, step on the gas, and away you go.” Three Fields Entertainment has proved this numerous times now, first building Danger Zone and its 2018 sequel entirely around Burnout’s legendary Crash mode, before eventually capitalising on this further with Dangerous Driving.

Dangerous Driving offers ample opportunity to re-enact cops and robbers.

While the Burnout brand might not be high on EA’s list of priorities right now, Need for Speed most definitely is. Both arcade racers shared fierce competition right up until the former was retired in 2008 with Burnout Paradise – at which point Criterion Games moved over to work on the Need for Speed series.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, released in 2010, saw the developer merge elements of both franchises, with a notable emphasis on what Criterion producer and senior designer Paul Glancey calls “heroic driving.”

“The unfortunate truth is that most of us are average drivers,” Glancey says, “but the average driver doesn’t think they’re average. In our heads, we all have incredible driving capability, and that’s why our games should fulfil those fantasies.”

To this end, Criterion’s Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit could be easily picked up and played, just like Burnout, while its cars still handled with depth. “When we created our Hot Pursuit, it was the first time we really had an authentic simulation running under the cars,” Glancey tells me. “Layering on the handling that you expect from a Criterion game took a ton of hard work and talent.”

The first Criterion game not directed by Burnout creator Alex Ward, Hot Pursuit saw the Need for Speed series edge further than ever into arcade racing territory. Another element Hot Pursuit lifted from Burnout was its open world, an idea first introduced in Burnout Paradise.

While Test Drive Unlimited toyed with the concept only a year before Paradise‘s release, Ward cites games like Pandemic’s Mercenaries and Realtime Worlds’ original Crackdown as the inspiration for Burnout’s jump from linear racing to full-scale sandbox. “My mantra for the game became ‘not playing the game is the game’ – and I wanted to give the player the power to do whatever they wanted to do, whenever they wanted to do it.”

Hot Pursuit placed emphasis on playing the part of the police more so than any other Need for Speed entry.

Despite Ward’s departure, Criterion quickly adopted a similar set-up to Paradise in Hot Pursuit, letting players complete challenges, trials, and objectives inside the game world rather than constantly kicking them back to a menu screen.

“We loved making Paradise,” says Matt Webster, VP and general manager for Criterion and Ghost Games. “Well, actually, [we enjoyed] the first year of Paradise’s launch. It taught us a huge amount about how players interact with an open world and how we could extend and enhance games post-launch with game-changing content – a precursor to what we call ‘live service’ in games today.”

Those lessons eventually went on to inform Hot Pursuit’s successor, 2012’s Need for Speed: Most Wanted, and fed into the way its online component gave players the feeling of driving in a persistent open world. “With Most Wanted, we wanted to couple [racing] with the joy of exploration and discovery,” says Webster, “hence the controversial move to make the car discoverable rather than the tradition of unlocked through progress.”

Bring us that horizon

The Burnout legacy is still very much alive, then, with the developers who had a hand in the series, whether it’s via the original creator’s new studio Three Fields Entertainment and Dangerous Driving, or Criterion’s continued influence on modern Need for Speed games.

If there’s one other developer that springs to mind when it comes to great arcade racers, though, it has to be Playground Games, the studio behind Forza Horizon.

After its first game made its debut on the Xbox 360 in 2012, the Microsoft-owned Playground Games quickly built a name for itself as a developer of exceptional open-world racing games. The series might not explicitly be tied to Burnout, but Horizon’s unbridled sense of freedom has helped fill the void left in the wake of Paradise.

Principal designer Mike Brown says the series’ success is thanks to an evolving ethos supported by four pillars: fun, freedom, beauty, and community. “Horizon is fun, carefree, and energising,” he says. “Its freedom is about creating a feeling of discovery and adventure; its beauty doesn’t simply mean having good graphics – it’s about creating a world that’s scenic and vibrant.

Set in the English countryside, Forza Horizon 4 looks stunning, especially in the snow (not pictured, of course).

“And finally, Horizon’s community doesn’t just mean ‘multiplayer’; it means creating a game that is welcoming and encourages friendly interactions between players.”

Where Turn 10 Studios’ mainline Forza Motorsport series is a more pure simulation, Horizon continues to act more like an open-world amusement park, with each game revolving around its own event – the Horizon festival of the title. If Burnout Paradise had you crashing through billboards between races, Forza Horizon sees you outrunning fighter jets, competing in multi-seasonal events, and making friends with other racers along the way.

Every Forza Horizon entry is defined by the location they’re based in – Forza Horizon 4 was set in England, for example – so how does its developer decide where to set each new instalment? “We treat choosing the host nation of the Horizon Festival as the single most important decision we will make during development of a Horizon game,” Brown says.

“That means we spend months researching and deliberating over the choice. When we make the decision, it’s going to define what our artists, level designers, and world-builders will be working on for the next two years, so we owe it to them to make sure we’ve shown our working out.”

Life is a highway

Away from the heavy hitters covered so far, arcade racers are comparatively few and far between – we can only wonder where the Burnout series might have gone had it continued past Paradise. Criterion may have been able to turn their talents to EA’s Need for Speed series, and Playground might be doing great work with Forza Horizon, but you don’t need to look far to find people who are eagerly awaiting the franchise’s return.

Evidence of this hunger surfaced in early 2018, when the PS4, Xbox One, and PC remaster of Burnout Paradise raced to the top of the UK sales charts.

“It’s great to see Paradise’s influence on modern racing games,” says Criterion’s Paul Glancey. “It was so much fun to see the reception to the remaster. In many ways, it showed how revolutionary that game was; that a decade on, it still feels fresh and exciting. We get to work with our friends at Ghost Games creating Need for Speed, so it’s cool to be able to stay a part of the games that way, if indirectly.”

Glancey cites the variety offered in open-world driving games as one of the genre’s key appeals. “I love racing, but I also love to do other things with a car, too. So having a break from racing, to do something different, is fun and exciting.”

The original Burnout began as an early ‘Shiny Red Car’ concept.

Reflecting on his time working on the Burnout series, and the current dearth of competition found in the arcade racing genre, Alex Ward cites the lack of creative freedom as the challenge most developers working in the genre need to overcome.

“While I still love open-world games today,” he says, “I don’t think there are other game designers who are empowered enough to be able to do whatever they want with their games in the same way that EA bosses at the time let me. It all feels a bit safe and similar to me at the moment.”

Before its release, Burnout’s success was far from assured, Ward recalls. “Burnout was spectacularly misunderstood all through its development, promotion, and release, like all classics are. I remember being truly heartbroken taking the game to the annual E3 show and no one being interested in seeing it whatsoever.”

In Dangerous Driving, however, Ward recaptured Burnout’s sense of danger – albeit on a slightly smaller scale. Criterion, meanwhile, hasn’t led the development of a Need for Speed game in six years; instead, the studio’s helped out on other high-profile EA releases like Star Wars: Battlefront and Battlefield.

But when asked whether the team would ever consider returning to Need for Speed should the opportunity present itself, Matt Webster simply says: “We never say never.”

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