Anyway, behind this cut is a very long magazine article. Seriously...
By Dana Jongewaard
News of the existence of Burnout 4, coming so soon on the heels of its predecessor, was met with more than a little skepticism in the OPM offices. “What can they do that matters?” we wondered. “How can the team improve on what was a near perfect blend of racing and crashing?”
That was where our thinking got off track. Because the Criterion team isn’t looking to improve upon the Burnout formula it’s looking to reinvent it.
Our first 20 minutes in the Criterion offices, located in Guildford, England, have nothing to do with racing. “I’ve picked the winner of American Idol already,” announces Alex Ward, creative director of Criterion. “I’ve picked the winner out of the top 24. I need to call Vegas and see if it’s possible for me to place a bet.”
What seems at first like a random tangent starts leading into the game. He continues, “You know, [England] invented that show; here it’s called Pop Idol. And the difference between American Idol and Pop Idol is that American Idol is about the American dream. In England they say, ‘Oh, here you go; you’re through to the next round,’ and no one really cares. In America, they do a story before you get in the audition room, and you want them to succeed. And they say, ‘Here you go America; here’s your final 24, and you decide.’ In England, we don’t care, but America’s in on it. I swear that I sat down last Saturday night taking notes on American Idol for Burnout. Because America has to be a part of this.”
America was definitely a part of Burnout 3’s huge success. The game won numerous accolades from both the enthusiast and mainstream press, including OPM’s game of the year award for 2004. So is Burnout 4 just a way to capitalize on a hot franchise?
“No,” says Ward. “We were always going to bring this game out this year,” he promises. “Right now, we’re not doing anything next generation. Criterion’s always been based on PlayStation 2. We specialize in that hardware, and we’re out to get as much out of the system as we can, and there’s still a lot more we can do. After Burnout 3 people said, ‘You couldn’t possibly do any more,’ but it was always our plan.”
The team is completely aware of the pressure on the follow-up to such a popular game. Matt Webster, executive producer for the game, says, “We came off the back of such huge success with Burnout 3, and that was the biggest challenge for us. We looked at each other and said, ‘OK, now what?’ So we had a look at what Burnout’s goal was. We are not changing things for change’s sake. Everything we’re doing is part of a progression, of moving the series forward.”
One of the first obvious changes that’s noticeable in Burnout 4 is the look of the game. Previous iterations have always felt more like arcade racers: Skies are clear, views are scenic, buildings are picturesque. They’ve been about as close to reality as Epcot Center is.
The feel of Burnout 4 is much more realistic. “What we’re doing with lighting, what we’re doing with palette is much different than what we’ve done before,” says Webster. “Previous versions have been very light and colorful, almost Sega style; this time we’re going for a slightly more…I hate to say gritty, I hate to say edgy, but I’m trying to think of what else I could say.”
“If the last game was Return of the Jedi, this one is The Empire Strikes Back,” adds Ward.
While previous versions of the game have taken place in locations that are modeled after real places, the names of those locations have been made up. Remember dodging the columns of an overpass as you raced through the urban setting known simply as Downtown on some of the American tracks? That portion of the game was modeled after the Loop in downtown Chicago.
This time around, the team is finally naming the game’s locations after their real-life counterparts. For each location, the team takes voluminous amounts of photographs around the corresponding real-life area. “We look at a location, and we think: Is it perfect for Burnout? Is the vibe there?” says Ward. While the team may draw upon actual structures within the individual cities, it doesn’t do re-creations of a city’s layout. And that’s in part because no city in the world is built destructively enough for the Burnout team—it can always make a city more dangerous.
Eight different locations across North America, Europe, and Asia will be home to the tracks of Burnout 4. We were shown the Detroit location while at Criterion’s studios (we also learned about Rome, Hong Kong, and Tokyo). “Detroit is grimy, it’s aggressive—it’s perfect for Burnout,” beams Ward. The skies were overcast in the scenes we saw. Decrepit warehouses lined the streets, graffiti scrawled across their walls; steam billowed from sewer grates; boxes and crates littered the alleyways; towering overpasses cast shadows across the streets.
The look of the game isn’t the only thing that is different. “We want more explosives, we want more ways to fight, we want more deformation,” says Ward. One of the inspirations for the team as it was going into production was a series of awesome crashes that members had collected from a variety of sources and strung into a two-minute sequence. There’s footage from Bad Boys II and film from Smallville, and, of course, the crashes from Episode I’s pod-racing scene make an appearance as well.
The montage really provides a vivid illustration of the team’s goal. Sparks shower into the air, pieces of vehicles fly off to the right and left and every which way, and the shrieks of metal against asphalt make fingernails on a blackboard sound soothing. After the sequence finishes, some members of the team are smiling almost beatifically. This is what they want for their game.
So how do you get more crashes? One of the primary changes is to course design. Road rage mode was added late in the cycle of Burnout 3, and by the time it was included, all of the tracks had already been designed. The problem with that was that the courses were designed as more traditional race courses. Wide-open roads with few obstacles aren’t as conducive to taking out your opponents as pillars are.
This time the team has designed the courses with an eye for takedowns. “We’ve built the tracks for aggressive driving; we’re making the tracks root for the game experience,” says Ward. Remember the Downtown tracks in Burnout 3? Plan on course designs that are like that rather than the open scenic routes.
“If you look at the Vineyard track, there was nowhere to take anyone down,” complains Webster. “It was a beautiful racing circuit, and that was the issue. But a couple of those tracks in Downtown…I used to come out of the alleyway and take that right under the El and be scared—I knew I was going to be fighting.”
“We have a saying: tricked out for takedowns,” Ward continues. One way the developers trick out a track is by inserting choke points, which means the track will suddenly narrow so racers have to battle each other to make it through and continue on. You’ll have more obstacles to avoid in the road, such as viaduct support pillars, light poles, sign posts. There are even shortcuts you can take to get out ahead of your opponents.
One of the coolest changes made to racing tracks is the addition of ramps, which let you leap past your competitors or help you execute a new type of takedown: the vertical takedown. In fact, the whole setup of the tracks has added the third dimension of height, thanks to the use of overpasses, ramps, and jumps. The courses have a lot more layers to explore and exploit this time.
The other obvious way to increase the number of crashes is to increase the number of cars on the road. “Lots of racing games that are big right now have you racing at night,” says Webster, “and that’s when the traffic’s down. In Burnout, we have you racing through traffic, because the traffic adds tension. We talked to ourselves and asked, ‘What’s the ultimate challenge?’ And the ultimate challenge to us was, do what you do in Burnout 3, but through rush hour traffic.”
For starters, you’ll be competing against more rivals. The team is still working on balancing issues, so a magic number of opponents hasn’t been established, but one method they may opt for is to have you gradually work your way up to competing against more cars. In one of the preliminary menus that popped up, “Number of Rivals” was the third option you were able to choose, right after “Continent” and “Track.”
“You’re fighting more rivals; you’re fighting the circuits now,” says Webster. “And now you also get to fight against the traffic. It’s the key thing that kind of underpins everything.” For those of you who dreaded crowded intersections in Burnout 3, take heart: This time you can also take down traffic around you. The specifics of how this is going to work are being hashed out right now, but traffic is the key to the new Burnout. Now it will be possible to hit other cars without having to crash yourself.
Another way they’re adding more crashes into the game is by importing the much-beloved crashbreaker from crash mode into racing. “One of the cool things about Burnout 3 is that you could use aftertouch to take someone out as you were wrecking,” says Ward. “But it could be difficult to master. A cool thing we’ve added to Burnout 4 is that when you crash when you’re racing, if you get taken down, you can fire a crashbreaker in the race.”
“This time,” adds Webster, “you can play the crash.”
Ward smiles mischievously. “We’re going to do everything Gran Turismo’s never going to do. We wanted to ruin it, deliberately, for every other team in the world making a racing game, so that when you hit the cars and nothing happens, you’re disappointed.”
It seems only fitting that Chris Roberts, the lead crash designer on Burnout 4, has a slightly awkward time demoing the new and improved crash mode—he has a sling on his left arm, courtesy of a soccer accident that left him with a broken elbow. “Crash mode was always something we started after we got the races done,” Roberts tells us. “On Burnout 3, we used to come in on Sundays—crash mode Sunday, we called it—and play through all 100 to come up with the names.”
Crash mode is no longer the bastard child, however—the whole mode is getting rebuilt from the ground up. In the past, crash junctions were set up at racecourse intersections. This time, each location has its own unique crash course, and the total number of junctions on those eight crash courses will equal, if not surpass, the 100 crash junctions in Burnout 3.
Crash mode’s courses have been designed specifically for multilevel, multiexplosion goodness. As in the racing modes, one of the major new features is the courses’ vertical nature. One of the sites we saw, set in Detroit, started on the roof of a building. Players can launch off a ramp on the roof and land on a freeway teeming with cars. From there, they can use the crashbreaker to propel themselves off the edge of the freeway and into the middle of a parking lot situated below the overpass.
A second junction that was shown is set in a mountainous region. After the initial crash, the player can crashbreak down to a switchback below and then crashbreak again down into a ravine.
Other changes to the mode include multiple start points. Barrels and boxes—known to the team as props—are scattered throughout the junctions, and hitting props on your way to the crash can increase your score. Even better is that some props may explode when you hit them. Multiplier icons are going away, although the team hasn’t dismissed the possibility of hiding pickups throughout the junctions. Crashbreaker icons will still be present on the courses, but this time the amount of power that your crashbreaker generates is tied to the amount of boost you have. There is also the possibility of different types of crashbreakers, though details on how those would work are still being hashed out.
Two problems in Burnout 3’s crash mode were the repeated load times and the lack of camera control while trying to steer your car during a crashbreaker. Both of these issues are being addressed in Burnout 4. Once a crash junction has loaded, you’ll be able to restart and replay it without having to endure all those additional load times. And now when you trigger a crashbreaker, you’ll be in charge of the camera, so you can see exactly where you are and where you want to go.
The changes all combine to offer the player the opportunity to do a lot more experimentation and employ a lot more strategy. “Crash mode has got to be big enough to be its own game,” concludes Ward. “This is the crash mode we’ve been wanting to do since Burnout 2.”
So what’s next for the Burnout franchise? The team is not satisfied with where this step will take them—they’re looking beyond that. They’re looking to those film segments they’ve collected. Says Webster, “That Bad Boys II sequence is such an inspiration to us—it’s got the crashes, it’s got the crash escapes, it’s got fast-moving traffic, it’s got action. And I think that’s what, looking forward three or four years, we want to get to.”
Ward picks up the thread: “We want the movies to steal from us. Think of the best car chase you’ve ever seen, and that’s where we want to go. This is our fourth game, and we’re just getting started.
“We want a game that everyone can enjoy. And we’re going forward with that; we’re not going away. America’s just starting to get turned on to this, and we’re going to continue that trend. And that’s why we watch American shows. There are things in this new game that we’ve learned from American TV shows.”
He pauses for a second; then he adds, “We will be American Idol.”
Tickets to Ride
Alex Ward once got out of a speeding ticket when the officer found out that he worked on the Burnout series. The officer let him off with two warnings: one not to speed again and the other to tone down the crashes in the series, because he thought they were over the top.
Get on the Mic
When you’re racing to a crash junction while playing Burnout, your whole body tenses in anticipation of that delicious crunch of metal and splintering of glass. So how exactly do those sounds get made for the game?
In the case of Burnout, it requires a lot of heavy instruments, a crane, a bunch of old cars, and some good recording equipment. Beating sledgehammers into windshields, taking axes to hoods, crunching cars in the giant claws of a crane, dropping vehicles on top of one another—it’s a hard day’s work. The team also uses nontraditional methods to get some of those sounds. For example, they ordered a bunch of dry ice so they could record the sounds of it being dropped on sheets of metal. Another day saw them slashing at each other with swords.
For Burnout 4, the team is experimenting with incorporating nontraditional sounds into the crash symphony, taking cues from car smashups in movies and television. One idea they’re toying with is including animal sounds in the cacophony to heighten the tension; a screech from a leopard might be mixed into the shriek of metal as cars scrape against each other. Another possibility is using sound to warn players of an incoming crash, taking a cue from the horror-movie tradition of prefacing an attack with foreboding music.
Shiny Red Car
Before the first Burnout had been given its name, the team at Criterion was calling the game SRC, after the shiny red car that was the cover image.
See that big semi heading toward the car? In Burnout 3, if a truck like that had plowed into you (or you into it), you would have been toast. In Burnout 4, however, you actually have the chance to take down the cross traffic. Watch out, truck drivers.
Members of the team have lobbied unsuccessfully to have “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. or “Accidents Will Happen” by Elvis Costello as theme songs for various games in the series.
License & Registration Please
The Burnout team has never used licensed vehicles, for the very simple reason that no car manufacturer wants to have a readily accessible demonstration of how easy it is to turn its vehicles into scrap metal.
How do they come up with a racing fleet if they can’t use real cars? In the past, the team has taken designs of existing cars and then changed them enough so they’re legally considered different. But that left a lot to be desired as far as the team was concerned. “We don’t want our cars to feel like ‘cut-jobs,’ where people basically take two cars and put them together,” says Webster. “We want our cars to feel like Burnout cars. We want it to be our property.”
So this time, they’re trying a different approach. Criterion has hired two real-life car designers, Lee Walton and Dan Walker. Walton has worked on designs for European automotive company Peugeot and has been designing virtual cars for videogames since 2000. Walker has consulted for Jaguar, Ford, and Nissan, among others. He’s also done some design work for movie studios—recent films he has worked on include Doom (he designed the BFG) and Batman Begins (he did the interior of the Batmobile).
Together, the two men are creating an entire stable of cars from the ground up, and the vehicles will come in three flavors: Racers are cars that are best suited for more traditional races, muscle cars are designed for road rage events, and crash cars are, obviously, made for crash events.
While Burnout will never be about tuning, the team is discussing ways to give players a bigger sense of attachment to their cars. Specific cars are being designed for specific locations, but whether or not you’ll be able to access any car in any location in any mode is still being worked out by the team.
Also being changed is how the cars actually crash. Senior Tech Lead Hamish Young says, “Looking back at the tech for Burnout 3, there was an awful lot that we weren’t getting out of it. We looked at that again and really tried to push the effects we were getting out of the crashes.”
How will they do that? For starters, they’re doubling the number of bones (the structural pieces underneath a car’s skin) in each vehicle. This allows for a much more complex crumpling system as cars sustain damage over the course of a race. They also plan to make vehicles “heavier” than they are in Burnout 3. Finally, each car will have a lot more individual parts that can fly off, and they’ll break off gradually rather than all in one go.
The Online Experience
“[Burnout 3] is the fastest racing game online; it’s the most exciting racing game online. But to be hard on our own game, we didn’t do enough unique things for online. We put specific crash modes online, but there were no online rewards. This time what we want to do is increase online rewards; that’s one thing we’re working on at the moment.” —Alex Ward
Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine.