If you've spent the last four years on the moon, or dead for tax reasons, you might not have heard of Burnout. For those people only, we have this paragraph. Everyone else can skip ahead to the next one. Burnout comes from Criterion Games, and was originally published by Acclaim, before the latter went tits and the former were bought by EA, who now publish the series. Still with us? It's a street racing game with a difference... and that difference is that you build your boost bar by driving aggressively, drift and driving into oncoming traffic are two ways of doing this. In earlier versions When your boost bar is full, you get to put the pedal past the metal and Burnout, a sort of Nitrous boost that bends space and time, or at least perspective. Boost all the way to the bottom of the bar, and you get a refill. Chaining boost equals big points bonus.
Burnout's fourth incarnation has been around since September 2005, but it's just hit Xbox 360, and it is the definitive version. Ignoring the fact that SPOnG is a big fan of HD for racing games, believing as we do that this is the genre that benefits more from the improved resolution than any other. HD is being pushed on us purely to allow the big media companies to force through the adoption of Digital Rights Management in hardware, the benefits are frankly, risible, and existing formats could handle the software, but we're getting HD-DVD and Blu-Ray foisted on us to force us to upgrade everything: receivers, DVD players, TVs the lot, because if any link in the chain doesn't use DRM, the Big Business won't be able to stop us stealing from their poor impoverished pockets.
So, HD is a big con... but for racing games. IT ROCKS! The improved resolution enables you to plan for upcoming turns better, to recognise and avoid obstacles and to generally drive faster. Of course, with Burnout being available on the PS2 already, we've got a yardstick to measure the 360 version against, and the improvements are considerable. Not just in terms of the improved resolution but also in terms of a few tweaks that have improved the gameplay. Most noticeably, the ridiculous golf-swing start to crash mode missions has been removed.
When EA took the helm of Burnout, many people wondered if quality would slip, as the relentless Burnout 04, Burnout 05, Burnout 06, Burnout Street Racing, FIA Burnout: Road to the Roadrace Cup, treadmill kicked in. And the first EA outing, Burnout Takedown/Burnout 3 seemed to indicate this was the case. The addition of pick-ups in crash mode seemed like nothing more than tinkering for tinkering's sake or, more likely, to justify a new version of the game. The golf-swing start in crash mode on Burnout: Revenge seemed to emphasise this decline, so it's a relief that both of these unpopular additions have been removed in Burnout 4. It's especially impressive that the golf swing was removed between PS2 and 360 releases of the same version of the game, and it shows that Criterion and EA are listening, though how it ever got included in the PS2 version is inconceivable.
Of course, taking out crap things that you yourself added in earlier versions is not a SPOnG approved way of making your latest sequel an improvement over previous versions. And it's hard to say, when pure logic is applied, that Burnout 4 is any better than Burnout 2. That all comes down to whether you personally belief that the "Takedown" features added in the cunningly titled Burnout: Takedown represented an improvement in the gameplay or not. Previously, Burnout was a game of near misses. Passing very close to traffic, or even "rubbing" passing cars added to your Burnout bar, once it was full, you could burn, the skill was very definitely in near-miss traffic avoidance. Otherwise, Burnout was very much a racing game, with a nice sub-game of Crash Mode. In Burnout 3, this was turned on its head as crash mode was incorporated into the game fully, and the idea became to try and hinder your opponents' progress by forcing them to crash. Burnout Revenge builds on this by making traffic moving in your direction your friend so that you can knock it out of the way as if it were a bagatelle. If it then collides with your opponent, it takes them out in a spectacular crash. If we ignore the obvious contradictions from the point of view of physics, there still remains a considerable change in game mechanics. For some this makes Burnout a better game. Those who loved Crash mode in the earlier games (and who didn't?) got more carnage. Those who loved the skill of avoiding traffic on both sides of the road now find the game has been made much easier, and therefore less challenging. Basically, like the TV and the newspapers, Burnout has been dumbed down.