The Undefeated King of Racing
No other racer comes close to Burnout 3: Takedown
Fifteen years ago, Burnout 3: Takedown was released, and as far as I’m concerned, no other racer has come close to matching it. Yes, there have been other truly great racing games. I still play Forza Horizon 4 regularly, and Mario Kart 8 — the very best Mario Kart — is a multiplayer staple. I’m sure that if I was into heavier simulation titles I might feel differently, or at least list a few other games. But right now, there’s nothing within spitting distance of Burnout 3, and very few games that really feel anything like it. The closest thing, at least on an aesthetic level, is Dangerous Driving, which is made by many of the same people who worked on the classic Criterion racer. But even that game simply doesn’t have the budget or polish to live up to its predecessor.
Not even the two sequels — Revenge and Paradise — stack up. Revenge was a lot of fun but being able to smash through traffic ahead of you took away some of the danger, and Paradise’s open world always felt, to me, like it was getting in the way of the racing. Burnout 3 remains a game of pure vision, a perfect mix of blazing speed, crunching metal and early-2000s awkward rawk, and races that encouraged driving dangerously without ever shying away from the consequences of doing so. I’m not sure that it will ever be topped.
Burnout 3 is divided between 73 race and driving events and 100 crash events, and just to show how much time I spent with the game, those numbers are from memory (it might, I admit, have only been 72…or it could have been 74). The crash levels weren’t, to my mind, the main meat of the game, but they were still tremendous fun. You would hurl your car into set heavy traffic situations and try to do as much damage as possible, hitting cars to cause a chain reaction of crashes. You could collect bonuses scattered around, or even activate a ‘Crashburner’ after-effect, which would let you explode your car after impact to do more damage. The goal, of course, is to surround yourself with the shattered husks of cars you’d already destroyed, or to position your twisted chassis next to a fuel tanker, so that your Crashburner would do as much damage as possible.
Crash mode was a wonderful puzzle game, but when I think of Burnout 3, I think of the races. The secret to Burnout 3’s success, and the thing it got more ‘right’ than any other game in the series, is that crashing is always a little scary, even if you can, thanks to the game’s Aftertouch mechanic, steer your wreckage into the path of your opponents and wreck them too. Curiously, I think Aftertouch actually makes the crashes feel more impactful than they were in the first two games — not just because Burnout 3 revels in its destruction, but because when crashes mid-race are no longer purely frustrating and can actually be an exhilarating and strategic part of the race, they become a much bigger part of the experience. Steering your wreck in slow-motion, looking to do more damage, really emphasizes just how big a deal a bad car crash is.
Truthfully, I avoid driving in real life. I have an anxiety around it, bordering on a phobia. That’s not to say that I can’t drive — I’ve had my full license for over 12 years — but my anxieties around what can happen on the road stop me from getting behind the wheel. I’ve known people who have had horrible accidents, I’ve nearly had them myself, and I find that I have a mental block in my head around how dangerous cars are.
It’s a thing I should work on, yes. But at the same time, I feel, perhaps weirdly, seen by Burnout 3, a game in which shoving your opponents into oncoming traffic while powersliding down the wrong side of the road is seen, generally, as a good move. Here’s a game that acknowledges, better than any other game I’ve ever played, the real dangers of driving, even with its heightened and exaggerated take. It’s a game that says ‘it’s absolutely wild that we all travel around in these metal death machines.’ It’s a game where letting your attention slip, misjudging a turn, or simply being impatient can result in a slow-motion ballet of shattered metal as you try and steer your wreck to do the most damage possible, revelling in just how severe the damage is.
The fact that the steering could feel a little sticky, or that there’s a lot of track repetition is completely irrelevant in the face of what the game does right. When you’re chaining boosts, smashing your opponents into walls, and just completely disregarding the road rules, Burnout 3 is extremely satisfying, and feels dangerous in ways that are both exciting and kind of subversive. There’s an honesty in the game’s depiction of shattering glass and collapsed vehicles, and the (by 2004 standards) realism of it all feels almost like a duty of care issue. Here’s a game that shows the consequences of dangerous driving, even if it is, at the same time, literally one of the most fun games ever made. The key is that the game never preaches to you, or stops for a PSA, because it knows full well that no one is going to come away from the experience feeling like they should pay less attention on the road.
And, look, here’s a guilty, dirty secret of mine — I even kind of liked DJ Stryker, the very-early-2000s announcer for the game who chimed in between tracks to encourage you to keep driving recklessly. As Burnout 3 ages into a retro product, and the raucous DJ becomes a relic of another time, I think that’s all part of the charm. The game might never be topped, but perhaps there was also nowhere further to go — even going back to it now with 2019 expectations, Burnout 3: Takedown is the best racing game ever made.