Burnout Paradise landed in Europe on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC 15 years ago today, setting a new benchmark and laying the foundation for a new generation of open-world racing. It’s arguably the last great arcade racer before the genre’s popularity died away.
Despite its age, Criterion’s classic still puts modern open-world racers to shame thanks to its masterful map design, seamless online multiplayer, and chaotic racing.
To celebrate its 15th anniversary, we’re taking a trip back to Paradise City and looking back at the legacy of Criterion's open-world classic.
The ultimate driving playground
By the mid-2000s, Burnout was dominating arcade racing, with Burnout 3: Takedown and Burnout Revenge achieving commercial success and universal acclaim.
For the next game, Criterion Games took Burnout in a bold new direction. Replacing the fixed tracks of the first three Burnout games was a vast open world set in the fictional Paradise City.
EA was initially reluctant for Burnout to go open world, but the gamble paid off. Within three months, Burnout Paradise sold over one million copies and many fans regard it as the pinnacle of the franchise. It’s not hard to see why.
Open-world racers are nothing new anymore since Forza Horizon popularised the genre. But whereas modern open-world racers focus on scale, Burnout Paradise puts fun at the forefront.
Paradise City seems small compared to modern open-world games, but it’s so much more enjoyable to explore. Maps like Forza Horizon 5’s Mexico and The Crew 2’s recreation of the US are huge, but they’re empty and forgettable with little to do.
Contrast this with Paradise City where there are memorable landmarks everywhere and new activities on every street corner. With every traffic light junction starting an event, you never got bored. These ranged from standard races to Road Rage events challenging you to smash into as many opponents as you can in the allotted time.
Along with standard races, new event types took advantage of the open world. Tony Hawk-style Stunt Runs saw you perform and chain together drifts, boosts, and near misses to get the highest score, while tense Marked Man events had you escaping to a destination while aggressive rival cars on your tail trying to take you out.
Billed as “the ultimate driving playground,” Paradise City was filled with secret locations to discover, billboards to break, and jumps to find, encouraging you to explore and have fun while doing it.
Every street even had its own time record to beat against your friends. Last year's Need for Speed Unbound, also developed by Criterion, inherited some of Burnout Paradise's DNA with you hunting billboards and collectables in Lakeshore City.
A seamless open world
Burnout Paradise was designed to be immediate. Once the game booted up, there are no menus or loading screens breaking the immersion.
Unlike most open-world racers at the time like Rockstar’s Midnight Club, there are no checkpoints to guide you – it was up to you to find the fastest route to the finish line. This proved divisive as it was easy to get lost, take a wrong turn, and lose a race. If you wanted to win, you had to memorise the map inside out.
The sense of fun and freedom is best showcased in the revolutionary online multiplayer. Setting up online races was a chore in most racing games at the time, with you often spending more time waiting impatiently in lobbies for the event to start than racing.
In Burnout Paradise, online lobbies were replaced with an integrated menu called Easy Drive. Tap the d-pad, and Easy Drive popped up in the corner of the screen as you drove without pausing the game, always keeping you in the action.
From there, you could instantly jump into an online match, seamlessly connect with other players populating the world, and meet up with friends at the press of a button. Its addictive multiplayer put Burnout Paradise ahead of its time - Forza wouldn’t pull off the same feat until Forza Horizon 2 in 2014.
Test Drive Unlimited had already pioneered "Massively Open Online Racing" with players able to explore the exotic island two years earlier. But it couldn't match the variety and endless enjoyment of entering Paradise City online.
Up to eight players could race online, cruise the streets, or mess around crashing into each other. Nothing beat the satisfaction and hilarity of executing a well-timed takedown and seeing your rival's shocked reaction in mugshots captured from the console's USB camera.
Online events weren’t just competitive either. There were also over 300 cooperative challenges known as Freeburn to tackle such as working together to achieve a certain jump distance.
Appetite for destruction
No Burnout game is complete without metal-crunching crashes. Before Wreckfest and BeamNG Drive set new standards for vehicular destruction, the damage model in Burnout Paradise was the most detailed ever seen in a racing game.
Bodywork bent out of shape on impact, windscreens shattered, and wheels would fly off. Every crash was an epic event, with dramatic camera angles showing off the destruction in glorious slow motion.
Amplifying the destruction was a new mode called Showtime, which replaced Burnout’s staple Crash mode. Taking advantage of the open world, Showtime could be triggered at any time.
This caused your car to flip into the air and tumble down the road as you tried to wreck as many traffic cars in your path until you lost momentum. While Showtime was even more chaotic than the traditional Crash mode, it lacked the tactical challenge of the old-timed events.
The fun continued long after launch as Criterion supported Burnout Paradise with a year’s worth of free DLC. Even before unwanted microtransactions and paid season passes plagued the games industry today, Criterion's generosity was unprecedented.
Free updates added motorbikes to the series for the first time, along with a local multiplayer party mode, a day and night cycle, and multiple car packs. These let you tear around Paradise City in everything from tiny toy cars and cop cars to vehicles replicating famous Hollywood rides including the General Lee, KITT, and a hovering DeLorean.
But the best update was saved for last. Released as premium DLC, the Big Surf Island Pack expanded the original map with a new stunt-filled island to explore plus nine new vehicles and additional online challenges.
Return to Paradise
Players returned to Paradise City ten years later with the release of Burnout Paradise Remastered, an enhanced version of the original for PS4, Xbox One and PC with uprated 4K visuals, a 60fps frame rate, and all DLC included. Thanks to backward compatibility on modern consoles, this is the best way to play Burnout Paradise.
Even the original soundtrack is included, so you can still race through traffic to the tune of Avril Lavigne’s grating Girlfriend song – good luck getting that earworm out of your head. It's also hard not to associate Guns n Roses’ anthemic Paradise City with the game after it became the Burnout Paradise theme song.
Sadly, aside from the remaster and the forgotten 2011 Burnout Crash! spin-off, the Burnout series has remained dormant for 15 painful years. Paradise ended the series on a huge high, but fans are incessantly begging EA for a new Burnout game.
Criterion wants to bring back Burnout, but EA is frustratingly reluctant to revive the series and greenlight a sequel. This is likely due to Need for Speed generating higher sales for EA than Burnout in the past. But with Unbound underperforming, it's time for Burnout to return.
Bringing back the spirit of Burnout
While we may never get an official Burnout sequel, its spirit lives on in Three Fields Entertainment, an indie studio founded by Burnout co-creators Alex Ward and Fiona Sperry.
After the Danger Zone games reinvented Crash Mode, the small team released Dangerous Driving in 2019 as a spiritual successor to Burnout 3: Takedown.
But the team’s next project is shaping up to be the Burnout Paradise successor we’ve been waiting for. Enter Wreckreation, a promising new open-world racer from the creators of Burnout with a focus on customisation, exploration, and destruction.
Like Burnout Paradise, Wreckreation lets players race, crash, and perform crazy stunts in a sprawling open world.
Taking this concept further, players can work together to create custom game modes and tracks, with the ability to edit tracks and add obstacles from ramps to giant rubber ducks on the fly while other players race. It’s like Burnout and Trackmania had a baby.
With the original Burnout creators at the helm, we're hoping Wreckreation can reinvent open-world arcade racing like Burnout Paradise did 15 years ago. After Need for Speed Unbound failed to set sales figures on fire, it could be the arcade racer's last hope.