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Review: Racing Games Get Adrenaline Pumping

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A screen shot from the racing game 'Burnout Paradise.'Electronic Arts

If you've ever been in an automobile accident, even a minor one, you know there are few noises more sickening than the sound of metal crunching against metal.

No matter how bad a day you've been having, that noise means it just got a whole lot worse.

And yet we love watching other cars crash, whether they're driven by NASCAR pros or Hollywood stuntmen.

Video-gamers are no different. It's fun to total a virtual car, safe in the knowledge that no one will get hurt and your insurance rates won't go up.

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The Model T of car-combat games was the 1976 arcade classic "Death Race," in which the object was to run over stick-figure pedestrians.

The premise was enough to get the game banned, making it a true forerunner to "Grand Theft Auto."

But it also spawned dozens of crash-and-burn competitions, from the ultraviolent "Twisted Metal" and "Full Auto" to the innocuous "Mario Kart."

Criterion Games (now owned by Electronic Arts) took the genre to the extreme with 2001's "Burnout." But while the mayhem has gotten more visually spectacular, the "Burnout" series has somehow avoided the controversy that greeted "Death Race" and "GTA."

—"Burnout Paradise" (Electronic Arts, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99): The latest "Burnout" installment combines the chaotic races of the previous games with a nifty open-world setting reminiscent of "GTA."

You're plopped down in the middle of "Paradise City" (cue the overplayed Guns 'n Roses tune), where everyone drives way too fast and pedestrians stay out of the way.

At just about every street corner you're invited to participate in some high-speed competition.

Sometimes it's just a straight-up race. Take on the "Road Rage" challenge, and your goal is to cause other vehicles to crash.

In "Marked Man," you're just trying to survive while the other cars try to destroy you. And in "Stunt Run," you're leaping off overpasses and crashing through billboards like you were in a Michael Bay movie.

Some players may be frustrated by the need to hunt down your favorite events, but I found the lack of menus and loading screens refreshing.

And there's so much to destroy in Paradise City that you'll be tearing through its streets for a long time. Three and a half stars out of four.

—"Pursuit Force: Extreme Justice" (Sony, for the PlayStation Portable, $29.99): Pursuit Force is an elite police unit dedicated to wiping out Capital City's street gangs — all of whom seem to have spent their ill-gotten gains on really fast, heavily armored vehicles.

What's a cop to do other than hop in his cruiser and put the pedal to metal?

There are a number of ways to bring down the miscreants: You can ram them, shoot at them or, best of all, pull up beside them, leap into their car and beat them silly.

Jumping between cars at 100 miles per hour is one of the most exhilarating things I've done in a PSP game; I'd love to see Sony bring "Pursuit Force" to the PS3.

The side missions, where you're on foot or behind a turret, aren't as thrilling, and the cut scenes between races are tedious.

But the core action of "Extreme Justice" gets the adrenaline pumping. Three stars.

—"NitroBike" (Ubisoft, for the Wii, $49.99): The relatively sedate "NitroBike" is a fairly straightforward motocross racer — except that your cycle has a rocket engine strapped to the back.

Pulling off midair stunts earns you nitro power; hitting the boost button sends you soaring past your opponents.

As with most Wii racing games, you tilt the remote to steer and press its button to accelerate and brake.

The steering feels a little unresponsive, and it's hard to pull off the tight turns that become second nature in "Burnout Paradise."

And overall, "NitroBike" feels unfinished, with drab graphics, jagged animation and an unimaginative career mode.

Even the perverse addition of a motorbike bowling event doesn't do much to distinguish "Nitrobike" from the crowd of generic Wii racers. Two stars.