Ah, the racing game: one of those gaming genres where my enthusiasm for the sport is often inversely proportional to my actual skill level.† While, admittedly, my skill in most racing games is at least somewhat more proficient than my usually abysmal technique in RTS games, this slight advantage is usually undone by the fact that when it comes to most racing games, there is little in the way of difficulty levels, just an AI that starts out bruising and gets worse from there.† And in the few racing games that actually start out relatively easy, another bane of the genre quickly becomes apparent – the often-used gimmick of unlockables as the sole means of progression through the game.

As an example of this, take the supposedly ďcasualĒ handheld racing game, Mario Kart DS.† As one of the more accessible-seeming games in the genre, Mario Kart has long been a favorite of mine, pretty much from the SNES on up.† Mario Kart DS picks up on this, and features a collection of ďretroĒ tracks from previous games in addition to an all-new series of tracks.† And generally speaking, it lives up to its name – you can jump right into it, with easy-to-use controls and fairly forgiving game mechanics. †

But hereís the catch:† Out of the box, you can only race on half of the available tracks in the game.† To access the rest of the tracks, first you have to beat a ďtournamentĒ race on the first two sets of tracks, which opens up a third set, and youíre required to beat another tournament to unlock the final set of tracks.† And because there are two circuits, one for the old tracks and one for the new, you have to beat a total of 6 actual racing modes simply to be able to freely drive on any track in the game.† And the unlocking doesnít end there – want to unlock more vehicles?† Want to unlock additional racing modes?† You have to beat more tournament modes, each of which get progressively harder. †

Admittedly, I was eventually able to beat the initial tournament modes, so that I could at least explore all of the tracks that the game had to offer.† However, the harder racing modes still remain out of my grasp, and the only way I have ever been able to access the alternate vehicles and modes is through using Action Replay DS codes, the method of last resort for an otherwise locked-down and uneditable console game.† As Iíve said before, if I have to use unauthorized cheat codes to access all of a game, then something is wrong with how the game was designed – I paid full price for the game, and so I should be able to access the full range of gaming options, regardless of my skill level.

On the PC side, another example of this is the Trackmania series of games.† Again, this is a track-based racing game, but with even more severe lockouts – at the start of the game, you have access to only around 20% of the total tracks, with the rest locked up until you have beaten a certain time for the available track.† Additionally, each track only unlocks one additional track once you beat it, so thereís quite a lot of work to do to fully access all of the tracks in the game.† To this day, Iíve only unlocked perhaps half of them, and while thatís still a lot more tracks than in most other racing games, itís frustrating to know that I will probably never be able to experience half of the game without resorting to underhanded tactics to unlock everything else.† The only saving grace is that once you get bored with your unlocked tracks, thereís a full-featured editor for making and racing your own, and Iíve honestly spent more time working on that than racing on the in-game tracks.† Without that, though, I would have felt fairly angry at only getting to play half a game.† (At least with trackmania, you donít have to worry about unlocking extra vehicles – mainly because there arenít any.)

So, given these decidedly mixed experiences with racing games, Iím always a bit nervous about buying a new one outright, only to find out that due to my mediocre racing skills, Iíve only purchased a small fraction of a game.† Add to this the fact that the games I have cited are among the more easily accessible and playable in the genre – most of the more ďrealisticĒ racing games on the market have difficulty curves that are far out of reach to all but the most dedicated racing enthusiasts.† This unfortunately means that, if youíre not the kind of person who has an actual racing wheel as part of their setup (and no, the wii wheel that comes with Mario Kart Wii doesnít count), youíre going to have a hard time getting much out of these games.† Because of this, I tend to avoid them entirely, looking for the more casual style of racing games, such as the FlatOut series and the ones Iíve already mentioned. †

With all this in mind, I took a look at a relative newcomer to the PC, the moderately casual racing game Burnout: Paradise.† Unlike most racing games, with a fixed series of tracks, Burnout Paradise (henceforth BP, a fairly appropriate acronym given how much virtual gas you must be burning through) takes a page from GTA-style games with a full, open-world city to explore from behind the wheel, racing modes integrated into each intersection in the game. †

On its own, the open-world concept seemed like an interesting idea.† While I have played many games in the GTA series, I always felt that by including so many different modes (driving, shooting, etc), that no one mode was as good as it could be.† For example, the shooting was mediocre, especially when the Max Payne series of games featured a similar third-person style of gunplay that wasnít hampered by the various limitations in the GTA series.† As a result, I wondered if BP would be able to do the same, except with the driving aspect – a full city to explore, plenty of things to do, without being compromised by the other game modes.† Still, itís hard to tell anything from a trailer and a handful of reviews, so it became yet another game that I was determined to demo first before buying outright. †

Admittedly, with the demo, the game does do something right – instead of a small, unrepresentative snippet, the demo download turns out to be an actual copy of the entire game – which means that you can explore the entire environment to your heartís content for a limited period of time.† This, at the very least, allows for a decent trial of the game, and makes the purchase much easier – instead of paying and then waiting for the full game version to download, all you need to do is punch in an unlock code to get unlimited access to the rest of the game.

Of course, when I say unlimited, there are certain caveats to that.† But before I get into that, let me mention one thing that they do right: from the very beginning of the game, the entire environment is open for you to explore.† Unlike most GTA games, where you start out in a small slice of the city and have to complete a large number of missions to access the rest of the map (there are those pesky unlockables again), you can literally go anywhere in the city from the very start, through all five of the gameís districts, everything from driving along winding mountain roads to (if youíre observant enough) spinning donuts around the cityís major-league baseball diamond.† I have to give them quite a bit of credit for this decision, as it is the first truly free-roaming driving game that I have come across, and for that matter, one of the few free-roaming games that doesnít require unlocks (the only other one that immediately comes to mind is Fallout 3).† As a result, if youíre just looking for a bit of a cathartic diversion, you can fire up the game and just spend some time driving around and exploring the beautifully-rendered city, without having to worry about running into any arbitrarily-closed bridges or other limitations. †

Also, in another gaming departure, crashes are less of a game-ending factor and ore as a matter of course – while a crash will cost you precious seconds in a race, a single crash wonít take you out of the running in any of the game modes, and after a crash, youíll be right back in the game just about where you left off.† This makes the game feel much more forgiving, and makes completing many of the races (especially early on) much more reasonable. †

However, despite these improvements, BP canít quite escape the bane of gaming unlockables.† While itís true that the whole city is open for you to explore, unlike in a GTA game, you canít just jack whatever car you see that happens to suit your fancy.† Instead, you start out with one single vehicle, and have to earn the other 74 or so through the other various game modes.† Also, as you beat challenges, you upgrade your driverís license, which basically means that you can get more interesting cars, but all of the challenges also go up in overall difficulty.† Which means that, again, as the challenges outstrip your skill, you end up with only a fraction of the cars that the game provides.

Of course, since this is an EA game, hereís where it gets interesting.† BP is one of the first games to have an integrated downloadable content store, which mainly features additional packs of random cars (famous vehicles, toy cars, etc.) that you can have for an additional cost.† However, intermingled amongst the DLC packs is an interesting option – if you donít want to go through the trouble of earning all the cars yourself, you can get a pack that unlocks all of the standard in-game vehicles for your driving enjoyment – all for the low, low price of $7.99!

Honestly, I feel mixed about this kind of development in games.† Of course, similar trends have long been present in various types of MMO games, where people will pay X dollars for a character already brought up to maximum level, or many of the free-to-play item-purchase MMOs, where your character can acquire cool and powerful equipment for a micropayment price.† And, overall, the deal isnít horrible, as BP is already priced a bit lower than most standard games, so you can pay that price and race your way to a full stable of cars, or you can pay about the going price for a regular PC game to get access to everything right off the bat.† While the price isnít horrible, though, it sets a rather troubling precedent for games, in that companies are deciding itís okay to charge above and beyond their retail box price for features that are already included on the disk.† In this case, perhaps, itís not quite as egregious, as everything in the game is technically available through playing (and therefore the payment can be seen as a ďconvenienceĒ fee for those without a ton of time to earn all the cars, or, in my case, a ďyou canít play racing games very wellĒ fee).† In that respect, itís not quite as bad as the Resident Evil 5 multiplayer fiasco, where a portion of the game was available on the disc, but was locked down until you paid an additional fee.† But all the same, itís a troubling trend when game companies want to go far beyond the price on the box for whatís already technically in it. †

For that matter, given the sheer amount of advertising present in the game, EA should practically be paying its players for all of the ads thrust in front of their eyes.† Paradise City is somewhat like Los Angeles, in that huge, tacky billboards are plastered everywhere, only instead of featuring fun or interesting things appropriate to the game world, like in GTA, all of them are adverts for real-world products, which feels especially weird given the general lack of actual licensing for any other aspects of the game.† I mean, if youíre going to make it realistic, get some licenses and add in actual cars, locations, and other such things from real life.† Having a fictitious city, but real billboards, makes the advertising seem quite a bit out of place.† While it at least fits in better than, say, in a futuristic or historic type of game, it does feel a bit irksome that the game, with the DLC and the ads, seems like a way to grab as much cash as possible, and doesnít really speak to a great deal of respect for the people who are actually buying the games.† That being said, itís mainly a small annoyance.

Admittedly, when it comes to overall gameplay, the game is mostly marred only by small annoyances such as these.† Another annoyance is the ever-present, and singular, radio station available, with a fairly large selection of tracks which are, unfortunately, all in more or less the alt-pop genre, and if you want something else, the only other option is to turn the music off (Iím still looking into way to add custom music in, but so far there isnít anything obvious).† Additionally, the minimap is occasionally unclear at times, and only shows items outside of the small section of city it covers when it thinks you need them (which doesnít always correspond to when you actually need them).† And, when you come right down to it, it is a bit weird to be driving around what is essentially a ghost town, populated solely by automated, driverless cars.† But aside from those small quibbles, overall, the game is quite playable, in whatever way you want to play – either through various races and missions, or simply by exploring the expansive city.

So, in summation, Burnout Paradise is a fun and generally accessible game, but get ready for the upsell: unless youíre a racing expert, youíre going to have to shell out some extra cash to get your hands on all the vehicles included with the normal game.† Itís just a shame that only a few rare games manage to go the distance – letting you get the full experience, everything on the disc, regardless of skill level or the amount of time you want to devote to playing the game.

Update:†After playing around with Burnout Paradise quite a bit more, and earning my Class A license, I’m still enjoying the game quite a lot, but there is one noticeable aggravation – for an open-world game, it’s really quite closed off. †Admittedly, it’s not something that you’ll notice immediately, as there are plenty of “hidden” areas to explore behind smashable barriers. †However, after a while, you’ll begin to notice that you can’t pull into many places, as they’re blocked off from access. †You can’t roll up the steps to many buildings to perform tricks because they’ve got concrete barriers, and if your idea of fun is speeding in between the wind turbines or speeding through the plaza that houses the observatory, you’re out of luck. †Even the country club is blocked off. †As a result, the game feels a lot more static, and much more limited, as the exploration is limited entirely to the areas specifically designed for it – there’s no going “off-grid.” †This is a fairly major departure from the GTA series of open-world games, where you could find a way to explore pretty much anywhere (mission-based area unlocks aside, of course, which are a different sort of problem). †In that sense, it’s a bit of a disappointment, because it feels like an artificially imposed limit that takes away from the gameplay. †That being said, though, given that most dedicated racing games are a set of much more linear courses, it’s still a vast improvement in the racing genre – it just doesn’t quite measure up in the other genre it tries to compete in, that of open-world exploration.