Star Wars is my jam. I love it. At one point I was so into the hit-and-miss extended universe malarky that I considered it essential reading. And while these days I limit my Star Wars universe consumption to the films and the rather good CG television series’, it is still the thing I watch when I’m feeling like I need to escape the real world.
But as the world and I collectively sit and wait in anticipation for the next chapter in the history of the galaxy far away, I can’t help but be sad that I wasn’t around to experience that seminal moment in 1977 when George Lucas introduced his groundbreaking space opera to the world. I’m something of a fan of zeitgeists, after all.
But being one of the millions of people who played (and mostly loved) Burnout 3 in 2004, I reckon I had a pretty similar feeling to the one I imagine people walking into the cinema in 1977 had once the lights dimmed. It looked so good, almost too good, that I can imagine scores of people were pinching themselves worldwide to make sure they were playing a real video game.
After five minutes of playing Burnout 3: Takedown it was pretty obvious Criterion Games had a hit on its hands. It was fast. Really fast. Actually, fast doesn’t even begin to describe the sheer pace at which the game moves. I’m not sure whether a game has ever been as technically impressive as Burnout 3 was at the time; everything ran at a solid click despite being packed to the brim with some of the most unbelievably impressive effects I’d ever seen in an arcade racer. It was impossible for your jaw to not to drop to the ground in disbelief at the way the world moved around your car, while debris and opponent cars flew everywhere, and all at a speed the likes of which we’d never seen before. Everyone remembers seeing the game in fluid motion for the first time.
But Burnout 3’s impact extended beyond its technical prowess. In the years since its release, everything Burnout 3 introduced to the world became part of the gaming vernacular, with seemingly every racing game since its release adopting all or part of the language used to describe the daredevil driving the designers encouraged players to pursue. Everyone who played Burnout 3 remembers their first takedown, their first boost, and their first crash.
“There is no way I can play this, it’s way too fast”, I can remember saying while watching a friend play the demo. It was all a flash as the car slips between oncoming traffic, narrowly avoiding concrete uprights supporting train tracks above. All at what seemed like light speed. It all seemed impossible that the electrical impulses travelling between my eyes and hands would be able to keep up with what was going on on screen. And flying into every wall and missing every corner just didn’t seem like my idea of fun.
But within three seconds of having the Xbox controller in my hand all of those fears were dispelled. It just felt right. Within minutes I was sliding around corners easy as you like, taking to the road like a seasoned pro, sending my opponents flying into the side of the track in a spectacular show of twisted metal and broken glass. Within hours I was rapidly making my way through race after race and city after city, leaving a trail of destruction in my wake. Within days and weeks I was wringing out every last bit of content, seeking every star and every signature takedown, in pursuit of absolute perfection. Burnout 3 wasn’t just a racing game, it was the game everyone wanted to play, that every developer wanted to make, and that every publisher wanted to sign and sell. It was everything to everyone. It was a fair dinkum zeitgeist.
Burnout 3 was the rare example of a game coming along and changing what people expected from the video games they play. It was a truly groundbreaking game that I can remember absolutely everyone I knew, gamers or not, talking about. For many it wasn’t just a faster and prettier arcade racing game, it was a technical show piece that blew most of its contemporaries out of the water, all while having the finest-of-tuned gameplay. And very few games can claim to have the lingering video game industry-wide impact Burnout 3 did at the time. Just like Star Wars did for cinema 30 years before.