The preview build of Burnout 3 we're being shown isn't hugely impressive. It is, in effect, Burnout 2.5 - a slightly enhanced version of admittedly one of the finest racing games of recent times but which shows little in the way of the significant leap the game enjoyed from its first to second iteration.
This particular version, however, is a month old. We're travelled to Criterion's Surrey headquarters to play the very latest code - the first magazine in the world to do so - and the developer has deliberately misled us. It's an effective manner in which to highlight the advancements made because once the second, newer disc is loaded into the debug unit and a race selected, there is no doubt that the journey to Guildford has been worth it.
The current Burnout 3 is in fact a considerable evolution from its immediate predecessor and judging from the 'before and after' demonstration we've just witnessed the work the team has achieved in the last four weeks is remarkable - there isn't a better-looking racing game on Xbox. Which is high praise considering the version we're currently playing is running on a PS2.
The premise has altered, and now focuses on battling against like-minded drivers on civilian roads. You still race, of course (this time against five, rather than just three adversaries), but the idea is to win having capitalised on every opportunity to nudge your opponents into oncoming traffic, stationary obstacles or simply, and perhaps most satisfyingly, slamming them against roadside boundaries. These result in a 'take down,' extending your boost bar (the same section can subsequently be 'stolen' by the opposition) and serving up a healthy dose of points. Needless to say, your adversaries are no pushover and will fight back just as vigorously - you may have managed to guide the first-placed driver into a car park full of coaches (each of the tracks has signature take down spots) but the game's generous catch-up feature ensures that before long they may be on your tail looking to return the favour. And that's the point: Burnout 3 is the automotive equivalent of natural selection, a turbo-assisted, unrelenting illustration of Darwin's survival of the fittest principle and as such, some of the most fun you can have with a joypad in your hands. (Owners of a Network Adaptor not content with proving their evolutionary superiority against the CPU will be pleased to learn the game is fully playable online, with Criterion currently working to ensure that sixplayer battles are technically indistinguishable from the offline game.)
Despite the change in the core experience, the third Burnout inevitably shares some of its predecessors' characteristics. Lap-based racing still mixes with point-to-point and face-off challenges, and marathon rounds fuse tracks from different settings (themed around Europe, the US and the far east). Predictably, though, things have progressed. Visually, the environments are some of the busiest and most vibrant this side of NFS Underground, though certainly more accomplished in terms of real-world quality. The car models benefit from greater detail and better environment mapping, and crashes have been spectacularly enhanced. But the structural developments are of particular interest. The main mode now offers a clever branching progression with a variety of play styles (in addition to those mentioned above, we spotted Eliminator, Hot Lap, Survivor, Battle - Last Car Standing, and Road Rage - a slight reworking of Burnout 2's Pursuit mode). And, of course, Crash mode returns also in enhanced form and with the intriguing promise of competitive and co-op twoplayer options (as well as online compatibility on PS2, of course). As for other modes, Criterion is keeping quiet.
With release currently set for September, the team has ample time in which to balance and fine tune its project, though it's obviously proud of what it has achieved so far. Part of the buoyancy clearly detectable as we walk around the Burnout office is the result of the series' new publisher. The role EA has played in terms of getting Criterion to focus on and push certain aspects of the game is openly recognised. It's an association that has resulted in what looks set to become the pinnacle of the series - structure and presentation in particular are already great benefactors. The team's belief in its creation is patently evident and, from what we've seen, seems entirely justified. On current form, and with the backing of the industry's largest publisher, Criterion Games looks destined to secure its place alongside the world's finest arcade racing game developers.
Burnout 3 is out on PS2 in October