Burnout Retrospective, Part Five: Burnout Revenge (2005)

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After the third game in the series, Burnout was finally a mainstream success. Burnout 3: Takedown made a whole bunch of money for EA, so obviously they put Criterion to work on a sequel for a late 2005 release. That was nothing new for Criterion, Burnout 2 came out only a year after the first one after all, but now they were facing a dilemma – how do you follow up a 10/10 game like Burnout 3?

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Really, how do you improve on what is already as close to perfection as you can feasibly get? Do you go the safe route and just polish what’s there? Or do you try to fix what isn’t broken and change things up, and risk disappointing your audience? Whether the decision was in their hands or EA’s, I don’t know, but in the end Criterion took the latter path.

I’ve been waiting for this part of the retrospective with a bit of anxiety, because there’s really no way around it: Burnout Revenge is not exactly my favorite. In fact, I think it may be the weakest Burnout game, not counting the DS version of Legends and the Crash! spinoff. It’s not a bad game per se and still handily beats most arcade racers from its era, but it’s just not as good as the other titles in the Burnout series.

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I know there are many fans out there who absolutely swear by Revenge and if that’s you, good for you! I can understand why you’d love this game, I just personally don’t care for the changes Criterion made to the gameplay. Revenge is probably the most divisive Burnout game to this day (Paradise has its detractors as well), with some fans loving the new mechanics and others being decidedly less enthusiastic.

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Burnout Revenge takes the focus on Takedowns and combat racing that was introduced in Burnout 3, and dials all of that up to eleven. The US version’s tagline was “Battle Racing Ignited”, which really hammers home what this sequel is all about. Even the car select menu instructs you to “choose your weapon.” I’m surprised the back of the box doesn’t say that this is not your old man’s Burnout, although “FORGIVENESS IS FOR LOSERS” isn’t all that much better.

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Racing is still very much a part of Burnout Revenge, of course. You’ve still got your Grand Prix events (which no longer allow you to retry individual races, because Criterion hates you) and Burning Laps and all that stuff, but the focus is so heavily on the crashes and destruction that racing feels almost like an afterthought at times.

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The Crashbreaker has been added into the races and becomes available after you reach a certain rank, so now you can blow up your car after a crash to exact some explosive revenge. That, or lose all of your boost when you fail to hit the opponents. I usually get the best results by detonating the Crashbreaker nearly immediately following a crash.

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While the game is named after the Revenge mechanic introduced in Burnout 3 (wreck an opponent who has wrecked you, and you earn a Revenge Takedown), this year’s main gimmick is traffic checking. Cars going in the same direction as you can now be punted right out of the way with no penalty whatsoever (in fact, you earn boost and Burnout Points), which kills a lot of the intensity of the racing in Burnout stone dead.

Sure, you can still weave through the cars, but what’s the point? Just smash your way through that traffic like a wrecking ball, who needs skillful driving? It’s not like the game doesn’t have a generous rubberbanding system.

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To be fair, traffic checking isn’t quite as all-powerful as it might seem, as you can’t check anything larger than a delivery truck and checking a lot of cars will obscure your vision so you can’t see the trucks or buses lurking ahead. Still, this is a mechanic that should either have stayed on the drawing board or at least been confined to its own special mode (Traffic Attack, which is admittedly quite entertaining in short bursts as you make crazy trick shots for extra time and bonus points).

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The introduction of traffic checking absolutely reeks of EA forcing Criterion to add a new game-changing feature they can plaster on the back of the box and demonstrate at press events. Maybe this was the case, or perhaps Criterion just decided to try something new, but traffic checking would be seriously toned down in Burnout Paradise.

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Okay, so they’ve messed with the racing and made it less fun, at least as far as I am concerned. Surely, though, other modes like Road Rage are still as entertaining as before, right? My favorite way to play Burnout 3 was Road Rage in Single Event mode, where Road Rage had no time limit and you could keep punting your opponents into space until your car ran out of health. Well, there’s no more Single Event mode, that’s gone now.

You can do single events in multiplayer (there’s local and online, although the latter no longer works), but that means only in multiplayer. Those who want to do single player Road Rages must find the events in the Revenge World Tour mode. Why?

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Well, that’s a bit of a hassle, but I can live with it as long as the actual Road Rage events are still fun. Unfortunately, those have been meddled with as well. This time around, you start with a 30-second time limit (60 in the first couple of events) and earn more time by taking down opponents. That’s all well and good since taking those guys down is what we’re here for anyway, but the problem is that Takedowns now work far less consistently than before.

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200 mph boost slams that would’ve sent opponents soaring into the stratosphere in Burnout 3 may not even faze the AI in Revenge, yet sometimes they go down from the lightest touch. This is especially the case on the 360 version, where your opponents often simply refuse to die no matter how hard you shunt into them. The PS2 and Xbox versions feel more like Takedown or Legends in this regard, so if you like to perform lots of Takedowns you might want to play the original release instead of the 360 port.

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The game, especially on 360, seems to give the AI’s attacks higher priority than yours, so even if you’re clearly the one doing the slamming you still often lose boost because the game says no, you got slammed by the opponent and that’s your lot. Naturally, when you crash, the game will usually give credit to one of the opponents as long as they were within twenty feet of you before the impact, making that opponent your new REVENGE RIVAL.

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I don’t know why they tried to make these Revenge mechanics a thing in single player. The AI opponents are generic drones with no personality and you’re not going to want to take revenge on them for wasting you, especially when half the time they just get credit when you bin it yourself. I still curse Jack Benton’s name and his overpowered yellow car whenever I think about FlatOut 2, but somehow Driver #3 in generic car #5 fails to elicit that sort of response. One reviewer even suggested adding a storyline to give Burnout more personality, but I wouldn’t go quite that far.

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Eliminator, the other mode introduced in Takedown, has also gone through a couple of changes. This time, instead of the last-placed driver being eliminated after each lap, they now get removed from the race every thirty seconds. This makes the events shorter, but also a hell of a lot more difficult because if you crash (and you will at some point), you probably don’t have much time to mount a comeback.

Speaking of which, the races in the series in general have gradually gotten shorter with each sequel, with the lengthy tracks and point-to-point marathons now a thing of the past. There are long and short versions of each track, but the number of laps tends to be smaller on the longer variations.

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The race and crash careers are now combined into one big Revenge World Tour, and you try to earn a Perfect five-star rating from each event as you progress up the ranks. Earning five stars from an event means not only winning, but also driving dangerously enough to earn an Awesome rating of four stars. These stars are then combined with the star you get from winning a gold medal.

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Earning that Awesome rating and keeping it isn’t that difficult as long as you keep boosting a whole lot, which isn’t much of a challenge since you now get boost from pretty much everything. Naturally, Takedowns are still the most effective way to earn boost, so the game definitely encourages being aggressive against your opponents at all times.

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REVENGE RESULTS. You know, if you keep adding that word to everything, it starts to lose all meaning after a while.

Remember when boosting in Burnout was a reward for skilled driving, and how you could chain several Burnouts together if you kept at it? Well, EA and Criterion don’t, at least until the next game. You’ll also want to watch yourself out there when you’re boosting, because Revenge loves putting obstacles next to walls, presumably to discourage grinding against the geometry too much. It also really likes obscuring your vision with all sorts of clutter, especially when you’re taking a shortcut.

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Oh yeah, the shortcuts. Those are a new addition to Revenge, and each track now has multiple routes to the finish. Some of these alternate routes are actually slower than taking the main path, others are incredibly dangerous, and most of them don’t have any good ways to earn boost. As such, you’ll usually want to consider whether or not to take one of the routes marked with the blue arrow lights.

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The main issue I have with the shortcuts is that you now have cars taking different paths around each lap, so the pack kind of gets spread apart. The presence of shortcuts also makes Burning Laps very difficult, because if you want that Perfect rating you have to learn where the best shortcuts are. Maybe it’s because I’m a hardcore racing fan at heart, but I like time trials better when they’re about how well you can drive a car around a race track rather than memorizing how you can most efficiently skip parts of the course.

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Crash Mode has a couple of new additions as well. Every junction now has a target car that is worth a lot of points, and all the pickups from Burnout 3 are gone. No multipliers, no extra cash, no Crashbreaker tokens. Crashbreakers now require tapping a button to reach full power, which is is a completely pointless addition but the new boost start mechanic in the PS2 and Xbox versions is even more so. You’ve got this golf swing meter that requires you to time your button presses perfectly, and if you screw up you’ll stall or even explode. The timing isn’t hard to get down, so it just feels like pointless busywork.

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The Xbox 360 port removes the golf swing and just boost starts automatically. Good riddance, as far as I’m concerned. Criterion got the Crash Mode right the first time, it doesn’t need silly gimmicks like multiplier tokens or golf swings. Well, I suppose the Crashbreaker and Impact Time can stay, because they’re pretty fun mechanics that actually enhance the experience.

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The Crash events themselves are excellent, as has traditionally been the case. You now have a choice of vehicles for each junction, with different boost speeds and Crashbreaker strengths, and the wind is now a factor as well. The junctions are also extremely tough, and earning that Perfect five-star rating can be a real challenge. I have no problem with this whatsoever, and I’d say the Crash mode on the 360 in particular is easily the strongest point of Burnout Revenge.

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Criterion designer circa 2005: “Guys, maybe we should ease off on the bloom and all, you can’t see a bloody thing! Seriously, is this necessary?”

As you may have noticed from the screenshots, Burnout’s visual presentation is very different this time around. That’s fair enough, because Burnout never really had a strong visual identity in the first place and the industrial vibe of the menus (especially on the PS2 and Xbox versions) works all right since this is clearly meant to be a darker and more aggressive take on Burnout, but there’s another problem that may or may not be evident by now.

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EA executive circa 2005: “The car doesn’t quite blend into the road yet! Add more bloom or I’ll have your family killed!”

2004-06 was the height of the Next-Gen Filter aka “Let’s cake the entire screen in bloom lighting and mute all the colors because that’s realistic! Or cinematic, we don’t really know!” As a result, many games from that era look very unappealing unless you’re one of those people who use ENBseries and SweetFX to turn every PC game into a glaucoma simulator. Burnout Revenge is one of the games that suffer from those muddy brown visuals, which is a shame because the underlying visual design isn’t bad at all.

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I believe this race takes place in the final act of Doki Doki Literature Club, and if you’re not familiar with that game I have just confused you immensely.

While bloom and brown are a major part of the visuals in all versions of the game, the 360 version is by far the worst in that regard. One of the big next-gen bells and whistles was “improved effects work” which means the bloom is EVEN MORE overblown than it was in the previous-gen versions. To be fair, the bloom effect sometimes does look alright even on the 360 and gives Burnout Revenge that nice cinematic look they were probably going for, but for the most part the effect is far too overwhelming.

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Other games from this era such as Jade Empire show that bloom can look perfectly fine and actually enhance the visuals if used with care and if someone on the team has heard of the term “art direction”, but Burnout Revenge misses the mark on a regular basis. Again, the 360 version is the main offender here, as even its box art has too much bloom! The PS2 and Xbox versions look almost restrained in comparison.

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The actual environments look great and feature tons of detail, but the bloom and the muted color palette can make the tracks look rather samey. However, there are times even on the 360 when the bloom filter lets up as the sun is blocked by environmental geometry, and the game suddenly looks very pretty indeed. Those moments give us an idea of what might have been if someone with even a vague sense of restraint had been in charge of the Next-Gen Filter slider.

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Angel Valley, the Los Angeles track is rather painful to look at even on the PS2, and if you’re using composite video you probably won’t see a damn thing when racing on this course.

The Xbox 360 version of Burnout Revenge was released in early 2006, so it’s one of the earlier 360 titles. While it does boast some genuine upgrades such as more cars and events, 720p resolution, higher-res textures and the Crash Mode changes I mentioned, the lighting actually makes it look worse than the standard-def editions and I also don’t like the new car damage texture they added. I could live with that if it wasn’t for one major problem: the frame rate on the 360 can get downright abysmal.

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Yes, the game targets 60 frames per second and hits that target more often than not, but some tracks like Eternal City chug incredibly hard when there’s a lot of action on screen, sometimes seemingly dropping to the single digits. Such a dismal level of performance is completely unacceptable. I suppose this may be an issue with the digital and/or PAL release or something, but I doubt it. The PS2 and Xbox versions feature a more solid level of performance, although the PS2 in particular occasionally has some minor hiccups with the frame rate in busier scenes.

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EA made two versions of the PAL PS2/Xbox release for the European market, one with English, French and German language options and another with Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Swedish and Finnish. This meant the countries that got the latter edition could not play the game in English at all, having to settle for a localized version. It did not work all that well, especially in Finnish where we’ve got lots of lengthy compound words and complex grammar rules (the bane of many a software translation project).

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Now, this sort of localization is not exactly uncommon and, in fact, Burnout 3 got the same treatment but with a different set of languages in each edition. The problem here is that unlike most folks in France and Germany, Swedish and especially Finnish gamers are used to playing their games in English because they were almost never localized until the late 90s, and even then it was mostly EA Sports titles for many years. Even now that a lot of games have Finnish text and subtitle options, I never use them because English tends to get the point across more efficiently and, frankly, these localizations are usually mediocre anyway.

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Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely nothing against Finnish localization – hell, that sort of thing is part of my job description and I would love to work on a game like this – but at least give us the option to use the original language if we want. If you don’t, it feels rather patronizing. I’m not saying the lack of the English language option was a dealbreaker or anything, I got used to it pretty quickly when playing on my Xbox back in 2005, but it was just one more little annoyance on top of all the others this game had. Thankfully, the 360 release fixed this particular issue.

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Now that I’ve spent entirely too many words complaining about various aspects of Burnout Revenge, I will once more give credit where credit’s due: the controls are as tight as ever (although the PS2 version doesn’t let you customize the button config, which even Burnout Legends managed), and the speeds are just as blistering as they were in the previous game.

Despite the gameplay changes, the essence of Burnout is still here and there is still a lot of fun to be had. It’s just buried underneath too much poor design and unappealing visuals for me to really enjoy playing Revenge as much as the earlier games. I’ll also admit that this article was a lot more negative when it was based on the 360 port alone, the PS2 version doesn’t frustrate me nearly as much.

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Can you tell if the playing order is set to sequential or random? I can’t. (It’s set to random, by the way)

One definite advantage Revenge has over its predecessor is the soundtrack. This time, the music selection has more of a metal and electronic slant befitting the more aggressive tone of the game, and the irritating mall punk from Burnout 3 is mostly gone. What’s more, DJ Stryker has thankfully been sent packing, so the only things you hear during races are the music and sound effects and the introduction is now narrated by a seductive robot lady voice (who, oddly, sounds less robotic on the standard def version) which I would say is an improvement.

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Sadly, a lot of the songs on the soundtrack are censored for age rating reasons, which can be quite annoying especially on tracks like Avenged Sevenfold’s “Beast and the Harlot” which has half its chorus edited out and has been renamed “Beast…” I will say, however, that I was delighted to see “Life Burns!” by Finnish cello metal band Apocalyptica on the soundtrack. It’s a really left-field choice and most importantly rocks quite hard. Overall, the soundtrack here is quite solid and using your own custom playlists is no longer as tempting, and many of the songs used here found their way to my Burnout Paradise custom tunes.

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Burnout Revenge sold and reviewed well, although some critics such as Eurogamer’s Kristan Reed (a longtime fan of the series) were a bit mixed on the direction the series was taking. Still, as I said earlier, many people do love this game and consider it their favorite in the whole series and while I don’t personally agree, I can totally understand where they’re coming from. This is not a bad combat racing game, it’s just not quite what I wanted from a sequel to Burnout 3.

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We’re nearing the end of the Burnout retrospective here, because of course I already covered Burnout Paradise in my review of the remastered version. We’re not done just yet, though, because there is one more Burnout game that is often forgotten and Criterion doesn’t even consider it part of the series, as they had nothing to do with its development. Join me next time, when we take a look at Burnout Dominator on the PlayStation 2 and PSP!

UPDATE MAY 8th: Literally two days after this article was published, the Xbox 360 version of Burnout Revenge was added to the Xbox One backwards compatibility list. And that isn’t the only good news – at least on the Xbox One X, the performance is now flawless. No more frame drops, no matter how complex the map is or how many cars are exploding in your face. Sadly, I wasn’t able to test the game on a base Xbox One as I no longer own one, but the X at the very least offers an extremely solid experience. As it really should, to be honest, but considering how bad the performance was the last time I played this version, a fully locked 60 fps is very welcome indeed.

But wait, it gets even better! For whatever reason, possibly due to the emulator handling the rendering a bit differently, Burnout Revenge on the Xbox One tones down the graphics filters. Yes, that means the bloom is much less severe now, the white and black crush is eliminated (in retrospect, I think there is a chance my RGB range settings might have been incorrect when I recorded the 360 footage for the screenshots, but Burnout and Burnout 3 looked fine on what I assume were the same settings so who knows), and you can actually make out fine details! I still prefer the look of the PS2/Xbox release and its more restrained lighting model, but the 360 port is now much more pleasant to look at than it ever was before.

Now that the two biggest issues with the Xbox 360 version have been more or less fixed, it’s probably the definitive way to play Burnout Revenge. While I still like how much easier Takedowns are to perform in the original release, the good now very much outweighs the bad here. You should definitely give the backwards compatible release a shot if you’re a fan of Revenge or if you were disappointed in the 360 port back in the day.

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