A few days before writing this, I must confess that I hadn’t played Burnout 2: Point of Impact for quite some time. I had fond memories of the series as a whole, but hadn’t revisited any of them — including last installment Paradise — for many years.
Recording an episode of The MoeGamer Podcast on arcade racers (which you can watch and/or listen to right here) inspired me to dig out some old favourites, though — and Burnout 2 was high up my priority list.
After several hours of utter racing joy flew by without me noticing, it made me realise — or perhaps recall — that Burnout 2: Point of Impact is one of the finest arcade racers ever created. And even with the recent resurgence of interest in the genre thanks to spunky indies, they really do not make ’em like this any more. Let’s take a closer look.
The original Burnout from 2001 was primarily designed as a showcase title for developer Criterion Software’s RenderWare engine, and consequently featured a rather bare-bones structure plus plenty of rough edges. (It was also quite possibly a clone of Konami’s largely unknown arcade title Thrill Drive, but no-one ever seems to want to talk about that.) A year later, Burnout 2: Point of Impact took all the things that worked well in its predecessor, sanded down the sharp corners and ended up being one of the most accessible yet challenging takes on the arcade racer the world had seen since Ridge Racer. And it backed up that immediacy with plenty of depth to its structure — and plenty of design elements that hold up particularly well to scrutiny today.
At its core, the vast majority of Burnout 2: Point of Impact follows the traditional Japanese-style arcade racer format, established and popularised by ’80s classics such as Namco’s Pole Position and Sega’s OutRun. You have a time limit to complete a race, and reaching checkpoints along the way adds to that time limit.
Unlike in the original Burnout, however, the time limit never becomes a huge issue under most circumstances, allowing the game to place more of a focus on the fact that you are racing against several opponents as well as the clock. This is an approach that Namco took with the first few Ridge Racer games; the difference Burnout 2: Point of Impact takes is that in most cases, you only have three opponents. This strikes a good balance between providing you actual rivals to drive against rather than being a pure time trial, and allowing you the freedom to go a bit crazy on the track.
And that “going crazy” is a key part of Burnout 2, much as it was in the original; driving dangerously but skilfully rewards you with boost power, and filling up your boost bar allows you a burst of speed and acceleration. Use the boost long enough to drain the entire bar and you score a “Burnout”, which refills half the boost bar immediately; if you happened to pull off enough manoeuvres during your boosting to fill the other half of the bar, your Burnout will chain directly into another boost, and this can be kept up indefinitely if you can keep earning boost.
The dangerous manoeuvres you can do in Burnout 2 include leaving the ground for a jump; driving into oncoming traffic without hitting anything; drifting around corners; and narrowly missing “civilian” traffic on the roads. You also get a substantial boost refill for completing a full lap without any major crashes. Unlike subsequent Burnout games, there is no reward for trading paint with your opponents or attempting to take them down; the focus in Burnout 2: Point of Impact is very much on skilful, death-defying driving rather than aggressive, violent combat racing. And this is a key point, I feel; while Burnout 2 is where the popular “Crash” mode was introduced, for the bulk of the game, you actually want to try and avoid the series’ iconic, spectacular crashes as much as you possibly can. More on that later, though.
One of the most joyful things about Burnout 2: Point of Impact is that it feels like its course design is actively encouraging you to try your hand at these risky but rewarding manoeuvres. Tight corners inevitably have a large space on their outside edge, allowing you to throw your car into a heavy drift and swing its back end out without hitting a wall or barrier; many tracks involve freeway sections, affording you the opportunity to stay in oncoming traffic while still having space to move out of the way of any civilians coming your way; sections of track that don’t have much opportunity to drift or drive into oncoming traffic inevitably have plenty of jumps or traffic to weave through and earn some near miss bonuses.
The idea of risk versus reward is core to the addictive nature of arcade games — in the glory days of actual arcades, it was what kept people coming back to a machine, pumping quarter after quarter into it. But in a game designed for the home like Burnout 2: Point of Impact, this element of design can be leveraged to keep people playing and interested in the game for a long time, rather than them just enjoying a race or two and then putting it aside. And this being a game from the sixth generation of consoles, keeping people interested in the game over the long term was not a matter of “retaining” them for obnoxious, ongoing games-as-a-service monetisation purposes or any other similarly odious practices from today’s games business — it was simply an attempt to convince them that this game had value, was worth keeping in one’s collection and perhaps telling all your friends about.
Burnout 2: Point of Impact achieves this long-term interest in a number of ways. The most obvious is in its “Championship” mode, which consists of a substantial series of events for players to work through, with more unlocking as you progress. Simply completing an event — i.e. beating the clock, but not necessarily winning the race — is usually enough to unlock something else to do, but successfully winning a race or mini-tournament often provides additional options, such as opportunities to unlock additional vehicles to drive, or new challenges to confront.
One of the most pleasing, subtle elements of Burnout 2: Point of Impact’s overall “macro” structure is the fact that its Championship mode is put together in a way that provides players with a sense of geographical context and setting without making use of an open-world component. The way it achieves this is simple but brilliantly effective: it works by having a series of events in a number of tracks that unfold in similar, recognisable environments, then challenging the player to a point-to-point race that acts as a transition to the new environments they’ll be taking on in the subsequent events. In this way, the game’s Championship as a whole very much feels like a journey through the game’s world, providing you with new places to discover as you progress, and giving the game as a whole a sense of long-term coherence which some earlier arcade racers lack.
On top of this, incentive to replay earlier events is provided by the fact that the game not only tracks your best times for specific events, but also other statistics such as the largest crash you caused, the longest drift you maintained and the highest score you achieved. The score aspect is particularly interesting, as most other developers making arcade racers — including big guns like Namco and Sega — had abandoned the idea of score by this time in history, seeing it as mostly meaningless. Given Burnout 2: Point of Impact’s focus on successfully taking risks and driving stylishly, the inclusion of a scoring mechanic makes perfect sense, however; when taking into account the ability to chain Burnouts together and the huge scoring potential this provides, one can see the “endgame” of Burnout 2 becoming one of chasing high scores rather than increasingly fast times.
Burnout 2: Point of Impact’s scoring mechanic has a markedly different feel from the “kudos” system Bizarre Creations was exploring with its Metropolis Street Racer (2000) and Project Gotham Racing (2001) titles at the time, too. While those games feel like they punish mistakes as much as they reward risk-taking — particularly in the case of Metropolis Street Racer, in which you can finish a race with a net negative Kudos rating if you’re particularly careless — Burnout 2 is all about making numbers go up as fast as you can, not caring if you scrape a few walls in the process. And another simple but effective difference that gives Burnout 2 a strongly “arcadey” feel over Bizarre’s titles is the scale of the numbers we’re dealing with; while in Metropolis Street Racer and Project Gotham you’re often lucky to get over a thousand points in a race, in Burnout 2, some particularly rambunctious driving can net you several million points by the end of your first lap. That’s a very “’80s Sega” design element.
The arcadey feel in Burnout 2: Point of Impact continues with its music. While the soundtrack to Burnout 2 is perhaps not something you’d sing along to or spin up to just listen to devoid of context, it is remarkably effective at what it does for a few reasons. Firstly, its emphasis on its high-frequency rhythmic sounds mirrors the way that many arcade soundtracks were constructed; remember that arcade machines were designed to be played in a noisy environment rather than in isolation, so many games featured sounds and music with an element that could easily be picked out over the ambient sound. In the case of racing games, this was often achieved with drum-heavy music tracks.
Secondly, if you do actually pay attention to what the music is doing — which is something you can actually do in the home — then you’ll notice that the music is dynamic, reacting to how you’re playing. Most notably, the game plays a relatively thin-textured mix of each music track while you’re racing normally, thickening this out with additional instruments to provide the “full” piece of music only while you’re boosting. This encourages you to spend as much time as you can boosting, because it’s inherently satisfying to contrast the two mixes. When you come off a boost and the music thins out again, it suddenly feels like something’s missing; most players will want that richness to the audio back having experienced it, so they will throw themselves into earning another boost as quickly as they can. That’s effective use of audio-visual presentation to support gameplay, and just another means through which Burnout 2: Point of Impact is masterfully designed and polished to a fine sheen.
And then, of course, there’s the Crash mode. This was an incredibly sensible inclusion, given that a core part of Burnout’s appeal ever since its first installment was the series’ spectacular cinematic crash sequences. But there was a problem with them, too; while they were always a delight to watch, if you saw too many of them you would never be able to progress in the game. This was a particular problem in the first Burnout, which was seemingly designed to be as unforgiving as the original Pole Position — crash more than once or twice in a race and there was no way you were ever going to beat the clock, let alone win the race. Burnout 2: Point of Impact was much more forgiving in this regard — not only did it add the much-needed differentiation between “clipping something slightly and continuing on your way” and “slamming into an oncoming truck at 200mph” that its predecessor lacked, you could also beat the clock even if you crashed a few times. You probably wouldn’t come in first (unless you caused a pile-up so severe that all your opponents ploughed into it too) but you’d still be able to progress.
The genius of Crash mode is that it allows players to enjoy those wonderful crashes without penalty — indeed, the whole point of Crash mode is to cause as big a pile-up as possible. Not only does it allow players to enjoy one of the series’ defining features without feeling like they’re hamstringing their progression through the game as a whole, it also presents an interesting new challenge that hadn’t really been seen in racing games before prior to Burnout 2. It combines the driving mechanics of the core game with what is essentially a puzzle of observation, physics and timing; with fixed, learnable traffic patterns at each of the junctions presented, Crash mode is much more than simply flinging your car into the thick of things and hoping for the best.
Criterion didn’t need to include Crash mode in Burnout 2: Point of Impact; they already had an immensely solid arcade racing game for people to enjoy. But its inclusion in the package demonstrates an admirable understanding of one of the series’ core appeal elements, and a desire to make that specific appeal element more accessible and enjoyable to engage with without having to compromise the game’s core design. An aspect that quickly became frustrating and annoying in the original Burnout became something to be celebrated and enjoyed in Burnout 2: Point of Impact. And a fantastic party game, to boot.
As a complete package, Burnout 2: Point of Impact remains a particular high point for the series as a whole. It’s a game that is still a joy to play even nearly 20 years after its original release, and a title in which you can feel the developers’ joy, enthusiasm and understanding of what makes arcade racers really work seeping through every element of its design.
I feel we’ll probably never see anything quite like it ever again, and that’s a real shame — but at least it’s a game that is still reasonably accessible to the gaming audience today, what with how easy it is to get hold of PlayStation 2 hardware and software. The Xbox and Gamecube versions, which have a smidge more content, are a little harder to come by — and it’s worth noting the Xbox version is not backwards-compatible with more recent Microsoft systems — but they’re out there too, if you care to hunt them down.
If you lament the decline of arcade racers over the years and you don’t currently have a copy of Burnout 2: Point of Impact in your collection, I recommend rectifying that at the first opportunity. It’s been an absolute pleasure to revisit this game — if also a bittersweet reminder of how much gaming has changed over the years, too.
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