You could argue the mark of a good sandbox game is how hard it is to reach your intended goal without getting distracted along the way. By this measure, Burnout: Paradise excels.
The long-running crash-happy console series makes its first appearance on PC, porting last year's 360/PS3 island of arcade driving anarchy into our glad hands. The result is an interesting mix of themes, but one that doesn't quite draw it all together.
Arriving on Paradise Island, the first sensation is that of being overwhelmed. While the surprisingly un-hateful radio DJ, Atomika, will pipe up with suggestions, at no point does he tell you what you should do. You're just given complete access to the game and left to it.
As you drive across the detailed and intricate land, your minimap shows the available activities. Drive into their area and trigger them, and the game begins around you. There are five categories, firstly and most obviously: Race. This spawns varying numbers of opposing cars around you, and tells you where the finish line lies. Rather brilliantly, it doesn't mark out a route. The mess of main roads, back-alleys, dirt paths, shortcuts, jumps, train tracks and subways offers many and various paths, and if you think you know a sneaky way the AI opponents don't, go for it.
The driving is magnificent. It's idiotically unrealistic, designed to let you enjoy yourself, rather than time everything to tedious perfection. The speeds you can reach are astonishing, and yet you feel in control. The only problem here is that while enjoyable, it's rarely a challenge to complete an activity. Higher difficulty levels would be appreciated.
Unlocking cars represents Paradise's only regular sense of forward progression. You gain news cars by spotting the latest charging around the island and running them off the road. They'll then be available in one of the five junkyards. Completing activities also scores you points for your licence, which will provide upgrades and make new tasks available. And that's it for any sense of cohesion to the haphazard array of... stuff. Paradise doesn't so much feel put together as spilt on the ground for no reason. Apart from the having-a-lot-of-fun reason.
As you drive between activities you'll spot features in the scenery: red billboards to smash up, yellow barriers to crash through, and Super Jumps to jump in a super way. Hundreds of them. And they're irresistible. I've cancelled races midway through upon spotting a billboard I haven't broken yet. In fact, getting to any planned destination becomes almost impossible when you spot a new shortcut which might well lead you to the rooftop of a building, with a jump off the edge that could allow you, if Boosted enough, to reach that billboard you spotted earlier.
Yet crashing, Burnout's joie de vivre, is peculiarly bylined. While crashes look spectacular - as the whole game does - they play a minimal role. Burnout 3: Takedown's wondrous junction-based crashing games are replaced by a deeply silly car-bouncing thing, which is neither satisfying nor nearly as extraordinary. Also, the insistence on unskippable slo-mo after mistakes in races is maddening. Plus the porting, while perfect in-game, is a dreadful mess for starting up and menus. It's hard to believe a human had anything to do with it.
The 'Ultimate Pack', as the PC release so boldly calls itself, contains all the additional free content that's been released since the original console version. This includes a Party Pack that allows you to play with up to eight others on one machine, in a mode designed to satisfy the SingStar generation. There's also the enormous Bikes Pack, that reimagines the island for motorbikes, with new tasks. Also included are all the improvements that have been made, including day/night cycles, and an option to instantly restart failed events, rather than laboriously driving back to where they start. Much more is planned, including a complete expansion to the city due soon this year.