What does 'free-roaming' mean?

· by Steve · Read in about 4 min · (778 Words)

Burnout Paradise has polarised opinion in gamers, to an extent that perhaps only gamers can be polarised (well, religeous zealots too, but they don’t quite have as many online forums yet), driving a steel-tipped wedge between the people who are quite happy to go with the flow of the alternative direction Criterion took with this instalment, and those who consider it to be a defilement of a gaming icon, equivalent to ram-raiding a convent and doing donuts in the nearest cloister.

For the record, I’m in the former camp. Having only played Burnout 2 before, I guess I’m not the most hardcore fan of the series, but I did enjoy that title a lot and even I was quite surprised when I realised the free-roaming nature of the latest instalment. At first, I didn’t really see how it could work, given that, as many people have pointed out, if you fail a challenge, there is no instant restart button, you’d have to drive back to the start of the event to try it again. That sounded boring. However, after playing it for a while (and the demo isn’t a good indication really, because it only has a very small number of challenges), I realised that those particular problems only occurred if you chose to play it like an ‘old’ Burnout, ie based on challenges alone that you have to sit down and beat, one after another in a sequential chain. The key is that if you fail a challenge, far from having to drive all the way back to the start, you can just continue driving and do something else. You might find another challenge which takes you back the other way, or you might just not bother retrying until you happen to be back in that original area again - there are so many things to choose from, it doesn’t really seem to matter. Provided you’re the kind of person who doesn’t mind a bit of objective-hopping, that is.

It’s certainly different. Some people have said it robs the title of the ‘instant arcade’ play that it was famous for, but I’m not sure. I guess it does if you’re the kind of heavily goal-oriented player who just wants to beat all the challenges, so not having them stacked up in a neat row must be annoying. There’s no shortage of goals, whether they’re small ancillary ones like ‘how do I reach that billboard’, or ‘try to take out that new car that’s driving around’ or more explicit ones like the races, but they’re not as structured, and deliberately so - you can pick them off however you like. I personally find that can be just as good for an ‘instant fun’ play mode as jumping directly into a challenge that you retry until you beat it or give up. In fact, the ability to choose to ignore a challenge and go find something else to do is very flexible in terms of finding a play experience that’s fun, in my view.

However, you have to wonder just how many sales they’ve lost because of this split in the community, and what they might have done to avoid it. Not offering an ‘instant restart’ was justified by Criterion as being incongruent with the free-roaming nature of the title. However, in many ways the free-roaming aspect isn’t really about the physical roaming ability that you see on the surface, when you boil it down to the mechanics it’s about the ability to choose what you want to play at any particular point in time. I agree with that model, and for me the implementation isn’t annoying because I don’t mind switching objectives when I fail - however if you really do boil it down to the concept of choice, then shouldn’t people who prefer it have the choice of restarting? Ok it might not be consistent with real life roaming, but what does that matter? Games should be about fun first and foremost, reality should go hang if it gets in the way. In that interpretation, Burnout Paradise should have come with a ‘restart event’ button to preserve that choice.

I’m perfectly fine with the non-linear, change-tack-on-a-whim, non-restarting nature of the new Burnout, and think it’s a superb game. However I do think that perhaps Criterion have concentrated too much on the superficial meaning of ‘free roaming’ and not so much on the gameplay kernel of what that means - freedom of choice. I think they could have sold even more if they’d respected that some people like to choose to defy real life and restart events immediately - and since they’re the customer, they’re always right, right?