With a lot of videogame genres I'm more inclined to play them when they're "arcade-style". Racing games in particular are a huge one because personally I can't stand simulations like Gran Turismo and Forza. What it comes down to is if I can't have a car do slightly unrealistic things like powerslide the racing game just isn't worth the trouble. For example Sega's Daytona USA series is the only reason I even tolerate the existence of Nascar.
Unlike most arcade-based genres the arcade racing game is still alive and well. Unfortunately some signals must have gotten crossed cause when people think arcade racing games they think of titles like Motorstorm and Burnout. To me arcade racing has always been about dodging rival cars, weaving through complicated turns, and finding that perfect line through every track. I'm not sure how this translated into: smashing rivals off the road, doing insane stunts, and getting involved in highly detailed massive wrecks. Still they're fun games and admittedly I've grown to become quite a fan of the Burnout series.
In the past Burnout was fairly traditional in that each race took place on a different track. Some of the games used the Grand Prix style where players would run through a series of races trying to accumulate the most points(by placing 1st or close enough). Burnout 3 introduced the Takedown system which simply put gave the player the ability to cause their rivals to wreck. This feature would become a fixture of the series and while it has issues it does lend the game a bit more identity outside of "racing in traffic".
Paradise takes the basics of Burnout but tosses the individual tracks for a free-world where the player enters events at the various stoplights located throughout. Each race starts from said stoplight and ends at less than ten different locations. Aside from the road rage challenges that focus entirely on smashing rivals each race is simply about getting to the end in 1st, under a certain time, or even simply in one piece.
Despite the lights and constant presence of traffic Paradise feels a bit dead to me. I guess this is due to the fact that there is nobody driving in any of the cars. I know this was touched on quite a bit when the game first came out but it's still rather bizarre. Granted it is tough seeing somebody get caught in a mangled wreck of car and I doubt the technology was there to do it any sort of justice but it still couldn't hurt to have someone in the car in-between crashes(I noticed they did this with the motorcycles but it seems to be purely for aesthetics). More jarring is the lack of life outside the cars. Little things like a moving ferris wheel would have added so much to the atmosphere. Instead it feels like I've entered a ghost town where the power hasn't been cut.
Having working lights in this city is necessary because everything goes by so quickly the player will have to rely on certain indicators or else they will suffer constant horrible crashes. No matter the time of day approaching cars have their headlights on and every little shortcut, ramp, or otherwise is marked by bright colors and lights. Unfortunately this can really take away from the track design since the player will be more focused on following the lights than paying attention to the actual track. It doesn't help matters that like most cities Paradise isn't much fun to race in. The biggest problem is that the city is mostly just a bunch of crisscrossing straightaways with the more mountainous areas throwing in a few hairpins. Since most of the races start in the city and end on the outskirts the races become predictable as the player quickly understands what to expect. This is further compounded by the fact that roads aren't locked away while participating in a race. I myself tend to focus more on whether I'm going the right direction than the track itself. While icons pop up telling the player which street to turn onto next they can get delayed at times or pop up too soon. So the player is forced to either memorize the streets of a fictional city or by always keeping one eye on the mini-map. Neither option is well-handled and though races rarely see beyond two minutes in length it's still massively frustrating to take a wrong turn at the very end and be forced to restart.
The greatest failing of Paradise is that it doesn't even try to hide its repetition. While racing games are no stranger to repeating tracks(heck I've put an absurd number of hours into the pitiful amount of tracks in Daytona), Paradise feels that it's necessary to repeat everything. Progress is handled by a license system where after the player accomplishes a number of challenges they get a new license and the game gets more difficult. There's about 100 challenges to this game(barring expansions) but realistically one can expect to complete them about 150 or so times. This isn't even accounting for the simple fact that a lot of them are just filler. The Road Rage challenges are simply about running rivals off the road. Aside from a different part of the city there's nary a difference between all of them. This extends through all of the other challenges as well and simply becomes more of a grind than anything.
Furthermore while it takes only a few minutes to drive from one end of the city to the other it takes even less time to pick the next challenge out of a menu. I don't mind the free-roam nature for finding new challenges but there really should have been a menu for selecting previously discovered challenges instead of driving back and forth all the time. I couldn't even fathom playing this game without the retry option(to think this wasn't available when the game came out).
It might seem like I'm doing nothing but bashing Paradise here and well..yeah. I'm sorry but I'm drawing blank as to things that make this game worthwhile. There are quite a few selectable cars but when they're constantly looking like heaps of scrap they're not all that different from each other aside from stats and type. The only reason to even switch cars is to complete challenges anyway, making it feel more like working off a checklist instead of driving a car. The city is nice to look at but as I mentioned it's dead. As a bonus while there's a lot of exploration to do it seems the developer couldn't get enough of billboards to smash, jumps to find, or shortcuts to discover. While all of these are handy in the actual modes I tend to forget about them as everything whizzes past at 200 mph and I'm too focused on dodging lights or reading the mini-map to keep track of potentially useful shortcuts.
The word disappointment springs to mind when talking about this game but I think there's something else to it. I've noticed lately that with some franchises even if I think the latest sequel is disappointing I find myself unable to enjoy the prior games. Maybe it's some new feature or some particular ideas that keep me from going back, or maybe the past games have aged worse than I imagined. Whatever the case while I'd like to go back to something like Burnout Revenge or even Burnout 2 (before all this takedown craziness) I'm not even sure if I'll be able to enjoy the games anymore.
It's also possible that Paradise simply wasn't meant to be an open-world racer and either the nature of the system is flawed or Criterion failed at implementing it properly. There is a bit of truth to both sides I think and if the next game worked towards focusing on either aspect it would be a substantial improvement. If nothing else at least try to focus on the track design so it's not always about keeping tabs on a map and following color-coded lights.
To end on an unrelated note the soundtrack to Paradise is pretty terrible. Granted this is all personal preference and I'm sure somebody will have something to say about the soundtrack I came up with for Paradise which includes Prince, Smashing Pumpkins, Lady GaGa, and ABBA.