Car lovers find a new flame in Burnout Paradise

Long have we waited to be taken down to the Paradise City, where the girls are green and the grass is pretty, or whatever. Now, thanks to Burnout Paradise, we know what all the fuss is about.

Burnout, the crash-happy racing series from EA, puts the pedal down once again — this time boldly veering away from the style of play that made past entries a hit. Like my rusty Oldsmobile, Paradise reaches cruising speed fast and rides like a dream, never mind that it sometimes leaves you stranded.

In a step away from the linear racing courses of past Burnout titles, this one drops you and your hooptie in the middle of the open-ended West Coast-style Paradise City. Like in a chase scene worthy of Fox News, you'll slam into other motorists at incredible speeds and with no consequences — or, y'know, air bags — whatsoever.

The enormity of Paradise's fully explorable cityscape is initially overwhelming. You'll spend loads of time familiarizing yourself with the endless roads, ramps, and hidden shortcuts before racing at all. Think of the game's freewheeling, go-where-you-wanna-go model like Grand Theft Auto minus the dead hookers and cocaine.

Once you've admired the gorgeously rendered backdrops (truly, this is the Scarlett Johansson of video-game cities), it's time to burn rubber in one of 75 unlockable cars. Like a modern-day American Graffiti, pulling up to any red light and revving your engine initiates one of several high-speed events, from a straight-up race to "Road Rage," Burnout's urban demolition derby.

As usual, the game's patented slow-motion crash replay accompanies every symphony of steel and glass (roughly every five seconds, given the crumple-friendly nature of the game). The smashups may be fabulous, but the relentless replays get tiresome — like watching those Allstate "accident forgiveness" commercials on an endless loop.

Burnout shows some dents when it comes to race design. You can take any route in the city to get to the finish line, but one wrong turn usually costs you the race — and there's no prize for second best. Imagine driving through downtown at 120 mph and dodging intersection traffic while reading a map, and you'll understand the challenge at hand. So until you're intimate with Paradise City's streets, you'll feel less like Tony Stewart and more like Toonces, the Driving Cat.

Also frustrating: You too might drive your car straight into a river at the sound of Avril Lavigne on the irksome soundtrack. And losing a race means trekking all the way back to the start line if you want to try again — there is no way to simply restart a failed race. Before starting over, you probably ought to fix your damaged car and recharge your "Boost" power, a dull and laborious process that makes an oil change seem like a laser light show in comparison.

Burnout's online play, however, is not only flawless but utterly seamless. With the press of a button, you can hop on- and off-line without any load screens, "host server" waiting rooms, or breaks in the action. Add the hundreds (yes, hundreds) of unique online challenges offered in single-player mode, and you've got a ride that won't soon run out of gas. Won't break down at stoplights either.