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How Criterion & Stellar Remastered Burnout Paradise’s Arcade Brilliance

Return to paradise.

The main thing that struck me when I loaded up Burnout Paradise Remastered for the first time was that this game is fast – really fast. It’s strange, but it’s not really something I’ve felt in a racing game for quite some time, but even the rust bucket you start with can widen your eyes as you simply try not to crash into stuff.

That was pretty much the point, according to Criterion Games GM Matt Webster. “Yeah, it is! I think that was a Burnout staple really, of making it fast,” he said. “It’s one of the things that made the original games so hard to do, actually, and we gave ourselves a pretty big challenge when we were moving from PS2 to PS3 – and if you remember at the time that was crazy hardware in the PlayStation 3 – because we were trying to do all these amazing things like going to an open world, but doing an open world at 60 frames per second. The frame rate makes a difference, but there’s also all the tricks we pull to give you a sense of speed. […]

“One of the points was that you want to feel like if you blink you’re going to hit something. To illicit those visceral responses out of people you sometimes have to give them some real challenges, not cerebrally in terms of thinking about it, but in expending an awful lot of brainpower just trying to keep your eyes open and fingers working at that rate. There’s something really visceral in that.”

It’s a feeling that I think has really been lost in recent times, in part thanks to the shift from arcade to sim racers that we’ve seen this generation. Burnout Paradise Remastered just reminds me that I actually missed it so much. It’s just as thrilling as ever, and Burnout Paradise remains a truly sublime open world to explore.

It’s really a game that came at a crossroads for game design. While there were open world games prior to Paradise and plenty of pretenders to GTA’s throne, Paradise made it a standard that EA have stuck with ever since. At the same time, it didn’t lean on fast travel to let you skip from one side of the map to the other quickly, and while Paradise City isn’t actually all that big, that’s something that’s unimaginable in an open world game of even a few years later.

“I don’t know if we even thought about having fast travel,” Matt recalled. “I kind of feel like you want to be able to fast travel if the world is too big and it’s not enjoyable to drive the world. We had this really firm line that we were holding to, which was that there was something to do around every corner, so why would you want to jump anywhere? I’m pretty sure we discussed being able to fast travel between junkyards, but it wasn’t even called fast travel then. I know we considered doing stuff like that.”

“Our philosophy here stemmed from how deep the world design went. We put gameplay around every corner, so there was the distraction of the smash gates or the billboards or having an event on every junction, and also our events started in in different parts of the world but always finished in one of eight options. The point there was to begin to imprint onto the player a way to navigate this world. To be frank, it was all about the world, and we wanted to bring the skill of navigation to be like a competitive advantage – it also happens that doing sat nav stuff was really hard!”

But maybe you didn’t forget about the brilliance of Burnout, the sublime almost unique party atmosphere of the multiplayer? People have been politely asking, nay demanding remasters, remakes or sequels to Burnout Paradise and/or Burnout 3: Takedown. What the hell took EA and Criterion so long? Was it the licensed soundtrack that always seems to be the bane of any classic game port or re-release?

In this case, it wasn’t a problem. “Those sorts of things do add some complexities,” Matt explained, “but the pure reality is it’s freaking hard work to get something 10 years old even compiling again! We have amazing archiving systems here, but it’s still something like software engineering archaeology. It’s really hard work.

“I was talking to someone who was like, ‘Oh, they’ve only really up-rezzed the textures,’ but you know what? Just doing that is really hard work! It’s a huge amount of effort and the modern day bar to impress people is getting ever higher, and I actually blame smartphones for this because they’re a form of magic. They raise the bar for what you think is actually possible.

“A story for Burnout is part of how we put stuff on screen to give players feedback, like the win-lose screen, for example, we built a lot of stuff in an EA proprietary tool that was based on Flash. To get that working again, the team at Stellar Entertainment practically had to go back and open their hacking tools to try and understand what version of Flash we used and rebuild it. Some of these things are just not available anymore.”

One hurdle to overcome is the easy assumption to make that Stellar Entertainment and Criterion simply took the game from PS3 or PC, stuck the game resolution on 1080p or 2160p and patted themselves on the back for a job well done. It’s true that the changes and improvement haven’t dramatically altered the look and feel of the game, but rather touched on all the game’s visuals while staying in the exact same mould and spirit.

As Matt said, “It’s kind of a rose tinted spectacles problem; you always remember things look better than they did, and if you actually go back you’ll go, “Oh, Christ, I don’t remember it looking that bad!” We’re suffering a little bit from that, and unless you put these things side by side, your memory fills in a lot of these blanks.

“In your head, there were no jaggies in Burnout Paradise, but it was filled with them, and there was pop-in on LODs all over the place. Then you throw the different lighting model in there, the car geometry and shaders being lifted, and that you can’t reuse those [original] textures. There’s so many textures in and around that world that needed to be upscaled. Downscaling, you’ve got the source data and remove from it, but many of these 2×6 textures just don’t hold up at 4K, so you’ve got to remake all of that stuff.”

Of course, even taking that into account, the price for Burnout Paradise does feel steep. It’s a step more than the even more impressive ground up remakes of Crash Bandicoot or Shadow of the Colossus.

“It’s a tough one,” Matt admitted, “and I get it that games feel expensive, but I think when you do those sorts of comparisons, and particularly for something like Paradise, that is a shit load of game for £30!

“One of the reasons we made this was not just the nostalgia for people who fondly remember the original, but the much bigger gaming audience that is there now – there’s some people that have never played that game. Just looking at it for the pure money for hours ratio, I think it’s remarkable value. People have got different value models, but for me there’s a huge amount of video game there.”

As great as it is to revisit Paradise City, there’s also a desire to see Criterion making more games in the series, or even leading development of new games. The studio today is very different to the one of five years ago, after the majority of its staff left to join Ghost Games on Need for Speed, its founders left to form an indie studio. However, Criterion have grown once more and made some of the best parts of the Star Wars Battlefront games: the VR Mission for the first and the Starfighter Assault mode in the second.

Matt said, “First off, Starfighter Assault, we had an absolute blast making that! If I’m honest, I think it’s our best work. It’s a huge amount of gameplay, it looks great, it sounds great, we did it from start to finish, and I think it’s our best work to date.

“That took a huge amount of effort. Criterion is now up over 100 people, we’ve learned a huge amount, we’re cooking up new things, and we’re enjoying bringing our own particular view on video games in our collaborations. Particularly the one we’ve had with DICE over the course of the last couple of years.”

Will Criterion get to making arcade racers again? Maybe, maybe not. Matt isn’t telling, but said, “We are cooking up a bunch of things, and unfortunately I’m not able to tell you what they are, but we’re in really rude health, let me tell you that!”

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