Taking the Lead

Video games are spoiling me to death. The “Burnout” racing series already was fun enough, but the newest, “Burnout Paradise,” is bigger, cooler and gives me something I didn’t even know I wanted from it — freedom.

Freedom, as in: I get to drive any of 75 cars around a huge inner city the size of Manhattan and Chicago combined. It might even be bigger than that. I can drive wherever I want — an observatory, a Wrigley Field-esque infield — wherever.

In previous “Burnouts,” you could race only along specific tracks. After you finished one track, the game would force you to take on another track. This wasn’t a problem, since “Burnout 3: Takedown,” especially, was a masterpiece.

But now, game developers understand that gamers want the freedom of such “open worlds,” established by the “Grand Theft Auto” series, where you can travel roads, jump off of ramps, or accept goal-oriented missions whenever you want.

That’s what “Burnout Paradise” offers, minus the guns and blood and cinematic scenes of “Grand Theft Auto.”

The racing events are awesome: A) compete against seven racers on loads of roads; B) cause a number of rivals to crash their cars in a given amount of time; C) race alone against a clock; D) pull off stunts, like crashing through billboards.

The steering controls are the best in the business. And detailed cityscapes look lifelike as you speed past them at more than 100 mph.

The game’s artificial intelligence is great. It recognizes if you’re a terrible gamer and slows down other cars so you can catch up. It also sees if you’re a fantastic driver, then speeds up rivals to make races competitive.

In other games, that form of artificial intelligence seems like computer cheating. What’s different here? AI is just tuned up better, perfectly balanced so great gamers don’t get overly penalized for being great, and new gamers don’t get overly helped.

Online, things are harder. Instead of being able to drive any of those 75 cars the moment you enter multiplayer, you get access only to cars you’ve won offline. So, you have to win offline to win online.

The one missing ingredient from previous “Burnout” sessions is there are no levels where you pull off explosive stunts at intersections.

You may have noticed I’ve been reviewing a collection of car games, lately. That’s because it’s racing season, for some reason. In fact, “Wipeout Pulse,” a fun PSP sequel in the excellent “Wipeout” oeuvre, comes out Tuesday.

“Pulse” looks like every other “Wipeout” ever. You race sleek spaceship cars along tubelike tracks in the future. You try to drive over markers on the road; those load weapons onto your ship. You shoot rivals in front of you. Boom, you win.

Coincidentally, “Wipeout Pulse” and “Burnout Paradise” are my two favorite racing games of the past year. I cruise “Paradise” on my couch. Then I “Wipeout” on the PSP in bed. They’re both more enticing than a good night’s sleep.

(“Burnout Paradise” retails for $60 for PS 3 and Xbox 360 — Plays as fun as racing gets. Looks amazing. Easy at first, then challenging, and oddly challenging online. Rated “E 10+” for violence, language. Four stars out of four.)

(“Wipeout Pulse” retails for $30 for PSP — Plays addictively fun. Looks great. Moderately challenging. Rated “E 10+” for fantasy violence. Four stars.)

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