Burnout 3

Takedown! Oh, it was close. Trading paint and shedding sparks, we were shoving and bumping the muscle car for nearly two hundred yards Nearly won, too - or at least, we would've done if that bus hadn't decided to change lanes at the last minute. SMASH!

In most games this'd be the end. But then you spot it - the cheeky bastard is actually trying to navigate underneath your airborne chassis for bonus points! Easing the stick left, you use the aftertouch to bring your crumpled bodywork down directly on top of his windshield. Takedown. Avenged.

"Crashes," explains Criterion's design director Alex Ward, "are not the worst thing in the world". Well, not any more. In the first two instalments, the odd bumper-crumpler was the price you paid for the insane speed and 'take risks to earn boost' game dynamic. Caning it into oncoming traffic and actively trying to get that telltale 'Vwip!' from a Near Miss, you were never more than a millisecond from disaster, but experienced players could run an entire race without chassis-on-chassis contact. Here, though, that's all changed. With five opposition cars in every race (two more than the last game), you're awarded points and boost for Brawling, Raging and Grindin' - all different euphemisms for mixing it up with the pack. The real art, though, is the Takedown - that expert yank on the wheel that nudges another car into a wall or an 18-wheeler. Each Takedown expands the famous Burnout bar, letting you store more boost for a prolonged blast of speed. It's virtually impossible to win the race with a standard-sized meter - careful drivers need not apply.

Not that you'll need much incentive to cause some carnage, of course. The pile-ups are breathtaking, like an aerial ballet of crunching metal and broken glass. Pull a Takedown, and the camera flicks back for a super-slow-mo look at the wreck you've caused, switching back seamlessly as the race continues. Wipe out yourself, and the intelligent Impact Time smash-cam pans around to give the best possible view of your concertinaed front end, the bus you've just taken out or the cars ploughing into each other behind you. And these are Hollywood crashes, baby - if they're not spectacular enough, Criterion aren't above tweaking the physics to give gravity a hand. If a shunt's too pedestrian, you'll see the explosion as a Hollywood device known as an air ram - a big log fired from the car's underside - detonates to flip your motor skywards. Chats with the Industrial Light And Magic crew mean that every slam's accompanied by belching smoke, and every scrape produces a blizzard of sparks. It's now possible to twist and crumple the car's actual shell - it makes Burnout 2's crashes look kitten-tame.

Other enhancements to the fender-bending include 'payloads' - stack it into a truck and it'll shed its cargo all over the road, creating a hazard for other drivers. Each track also comes with 'signature takedowns' - areas where extra bonus points are available for easing a rival into the scenery. In Bangkok it might be a rack of conveniently-parked tourist coaches - in Vienna it's one of the trams buzzing along the streets. Criterion haven't yet decided whether they'll be including explosions or burnt out shells, but they're considering it - especially for those moments when a car goes ricocheting down a cliff. By the way, if all this sounds a bit too violent, there are rewards for evasive driving skills - negotiate your way through a pile-up unscathed, and you'll get a special Crash Escape bonus, letting you leave the pack behind. It won't last long, mind - vicious AI means they'll be back on your ass unless you're boosting constantly. The opposition almost always tries to take you out, and they'll even jostle you into oncoming traffic - perfectly emulating the feeling of two-player mode in Burnout 2. Conversely, stay glued to their exhaust for long enough and they'll freak out, earning you a Psych bonus. Losers.

Of course, this wouldn't be Burnout if it wasn't matched with more technical clout than a roomful of cyborg monkeys. Burnout 3 might well be the best-looking game on PS2 - side by side with Gran Turismo 4 it's a close-run thing, but consider the sheer volume of traffic and it's a clear victory for the street-racing boys. The speed's been ramped up to insane degrees - the cars unlocked at the end of Burnout 2 come in as the default selection for this instalment - so best get the eye-drops and Red Bull in now.

But what about the surprise hit from Burnout 3 - the stress-relieving, metal-grinding delights of ruining an entire motorway's day in Crash For Cash mode? Criterion are keeping quiet, except to say that it'll return in even more spectacular form, partly thanks to the fact that it's now possible to 'steer' a destroyed car slightly. It'll also - tantalisingly - be playable with six human players online. Which is where the real fun starts.

"We didn't want the playing experience to change online," explains Alex - a none-too-subtle dig at the way games like Midnight Club ditch all the traffic as soon as you plug in a network adaptor. "We wanted it to be like a fight." Forget the frustration of Moto GP, where cheats and spoilsports can ruin your lap time with one vicious nudge - this is all about aggression. It'll be playable against up to five other people, and Alex (unsurprisingly) reckons it'll be the killer online title this year.

And Pursuit mode? "People who drive recklessly," Alex points out, "don't tend to join the police". That's why the Chase HQ-theme has been ditched in favour of Road Rage mode - same idea, just more aggressive. Each level has multiple targets and it's a battle to put them out of action while keeping your own damage in check.

Old-skool and arcade-immediate all the way, Burnout 3 might lack the car-fiddling that appeals to boy racers, but in all other aspects it's potentially the 'best racing game ever'. And with an explosive appearance set for E3, what can Criterion possibly still have left to worry about?

"Well." says Alex, "it's usually around this stage of development that the team starts getting a lot of speeding tickets."

Burnout 3 will be leaving a trail of rubber on your PS2 from this October