Just a few short years ago Microsoft and Bizarre Creations started the niche racing game Metropolis Street Racer and branded a new franchise from its Dreamcast ashes with Project Gotham Racing. Forming a game around style points felt a little like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, but the crowds grew because the system was built upon a fun premise of driving well and trying to pull off moves that formed combos. With Project Gotham Racing 2 came improved graphics, performance, greater accessibility, and with the most impressive trait, its vast online component, PGR2 landed on an Xbox shelf in gamers' game library. Even with a handful of Need For Speeds, two Midnight Clubs, and a Forza Motorsport, dedicated Xbox fans say one of their favorite games on the system -- that they still play online today -- is PGR2.
What a legacy to build upon, and what a bar to have to surpass with Project Gotham Racing 3. Right now, in fall 2005, Bizarre Creations has fashioned a supremely good-looking racing game with a trunk-full of superb features and is totally prepped for the next generation launch of Xbox 360. Bizarre's racer is beautifully crafted with 80 genuinely gorgeous cars and primed for a long-lasting career on Xbox Live, and yet this arcade-style racer with a flair for realism also doesn't feel like a complete and fully whole sequel in the way a sequel should feel like. When you get right down into the roots of this next-generation racer, it's unmistakably similar in almost every way to PGR2. It feels like PGR 2.5, or maybe PGR 2.75, and that's fine. But it feels like it's just barely scraping the surface of the next generation, and given the power and promise of this system, Project Gotham Racing 3 settles so easily into a nice comfy and very familiar place.
Straight-up Kudos Racing
Project Gotham Racing is a well-crafted, well-honed racer. There is a slight change in weight and physics, a slightly heavier feel that can be determined in every car, providing each with a mass that's harder to control and powerslide with and straighten out. All that means is that PGR3 is a little more fun when things get really fast and hairy. When I took up the controls I felt immediately at home. The right trigger is acceleration, the left is brakes, and the left shoulder button (or bumper, as MS likes to call it) is for changing from any one of the five camera angles (three in-car, two over the shoulder). The course designs all bring a strong familiarity, and it's clear that Bizarre didn't stray too far from home when drawing them up. What you will notice when driving is that same generally flat surfaces, enclosed in tracks that challenge your turn-speeds, e-brake slides, and powerslides.
There are as many as 16 kinds of kudos from e-brake slides to feints to combo bonuses to airs and 360s. The more you earn, the higher your ranking. The progression structure goes like this: Kudos earn higher ranking and unlock concept cars; credits, earned by exceeding the given expectations, earn you the ability to buy new cars. And medals and trophies unlock new races. The higher the difficulty level, the higher potential credits and kudos. The only slight flaw in this system that I've noticed is that it's way too easy to earn gobs of cash after just a few races. Perhaps the game is perfectly balanced and I'm better than the average player, but I think that Bizarre is handing out the cash for players to make things easier than before. And if the loosening of the structure and class system is any indication of this, then it is much easier than before. Luckily, you can always up the difficulty level before each race.
The A.I. and racing balance is just about as unforgiving as in the past. This means that once you reach the medium or higher levels of difficulty, each mistake you make could be your last for any given race. Just like PGR2, if you spin out - which often happens because of ambitious opponent AI -- or misjudge a turn and curve in too early, you'll stop dead in your tracks. It takes a few seconds to recover and hit the pedal to the medal, but in almost all cases, the opponent is gone. Oftentimes it pays to get a really good start and keep it. I have become good enough to occasionally catch opponent AI, but honestly, once they get too far ahead of you, give it up. This type of AI balance is good and challenging, and I like it, but it leads to a lot of trial-and-error gameplay which grows tedious.
Big Features, Bright Cities
But strangely, it's not the courses or the handling that's most impressive about this driving game. They're so familiar, neither is much of an issue. What's striking about this game comes in two flavors: features and graphics. Let's start with the features. First, Bizarre Creations separated the Solo career from the Online career to split the offline racers from the online racers. I didn't know the mixture of the two was an issue, but Bizarre felt compelled to split them so that online gamers would earn their kudos online and only online to prove their mettle. That's fair enough, and it gives each kind of gamer, both offline and online, an incentive on each end. Kudos are still earned the same way: by pulling off a variety of moves and stringing them together within a time limit to form combos and without smacking into walls. The variety of moves hasn't grown much if at all, and the courses still don't provide much jump space or obstacle-style courses of any variety to promote such extreme extravagance. Instead, they're more like broad empty palettes waiting for you to spin and slide around in.
Second, it's built with a bulging pocket of game modes. In the game's core mode, the Gotham Career Solo mode, players find the traditional racing structure. PGR3 isn't based on classes any longer - and the Playtime mode testifies to that by enabling you to play with as many as 72 vehicles right from the beginning. And so in Career mode, Bizarre has opened up the races for all classes, structuring them around race types instead of classes. This move is good. Each time you beat an event or race types, you'll open up a packet or new ones, playable in any order you want. Furthering the opening process, Bizarre gives gamers the chance to pick their difficulty level before each mission. The less draconian rigidity is welcome. The solo career is a bit of a slog, but that's how PGR3 is designed. It's meant to be played over and over again, so you hone skills good enough to master the highest difficulty. Do cone races and time tests and kudos challenges grow tedious? Yes, a little. I wish there were newer and more refreshing kinds of challenges, like giant jumps and complex skids or double 360 challenges. This list of events is respectable but all too familiar and all too safe.
The new modes centered on Gotham TV are also kick ass in a spectator-friendly way. In the Gotham Heroes channel, you'll be able to see all the best players in the world racing while online. This mode taps into the leaderboards and the crème of the crop and generates their games on Live, so you can always jump on and see who the world's best racers are. As many as 30,000 people can watch the same race in Gotham TV simultaneously! Holy crap! The Friends TV channel enables you to see which of your friends is currently playing, so you can go watch them too. Taking a tip from the NY stock exchange, MS has set up a regularly running ticker tap that runs across the TV screen horizontally with news of the latest dude who broke your record! Aghh, dammit!
Two other less scintillating modes, which are different than Gotham Heroes because you can do something in them yourself, comprise the Photo Editor mode and the Create-a-Route mode. Photo Editor is a screen capture mode. You can grab perfect screenshots during any replay and then "photoshop it" with a custom paint tool box. Add sepia tones, change the contrast, fix the brightness, and even change the focus. You can move the camera almost anywhere. It's very flexible. You could easily get lost in this mode for some time thanks to these impressive tools. The Create-a-Route is a quick and easy way to add a little pep to your daily predictable dose of PGR3. Each of the five cities, Las Vegas, Nurburgring, Tokyo, London, and New York, are re-created as top down maps with pre-laid city streets. You get to set a course inside those city limits with easy tools, and instant accessibility to ride in them. This could make PGR3 super challenging for people who have friends who like healthy competition.
Most importantly, PGR3 supports Xbox Live (as if you had any doubts!). You can get into Xbox Live via the more casual Playtime mode, or you can take your Solo Career-earned cars and enter through Online Career (yes, the cars earned in Solo are the only thing transferred from that Career). There is a bunch of wide-ranging online modes to play in based on the idea of championship racing. So like the offline Career mode, you'll compete in several themed races such as Nordschleife Drivers Club, Gotham Dueling, Urban Rally, DusttilDawn, and Breakneck Racing. Bizarre has fashioned a good, smooth online set of races in which to play. Gamers who loved PGR 2's team based racing and solo rankings are going to love the expanded tracks and leaderboards in PGR3. The ranking system is based on the new, centralized TrueSkill System, which tags you with various labels as you progress (Newcomer, Rookie, Novice, Expert, Master, Gotham Hero, and Gotham Star).
High Definition Racing
What really makes this game next-generation? It's not really the gameplay. It's the graphics and presentation. Visually, PGR3 is set up to look absolutely gorgeous when in 720p or 1080i. It's still pretty in 480p, but it looks more like an Xbox game to be honest. The high-def setting makes a world of difference. If you don't have a High-definition set-up, look into it quick!
First, the normal mapping and texture resolutions are excellent. You can see enormous amounts of detail in the cities if you happen to ever have the time to stop and look around. Underneath that is an unprecedented amount of geometry. There are literally 80,000 polygons per car -- 40,000 just for the interior, and 40,000 for the exterior. When you get into the cockpit mode, the dashboard sparkles with highly refined objects. Plus, the inside rattles and blurs and the driver moves quickly and with motion-captured moves. Crazy!
The reflections on the cars are all in real time and showing true reflections, and they don't just reflect from the shiny metal side panels, they reflect from the tire rims, the side mirrors, the chromed grills, even off the helmet of the driver inside the car. The crowd is wildly varied -- although they're generic looking -- but the roads, the buildings, and trees, the city architecture, they are all extremely well done. Bizarre gave us a little stat sheet to describe its research into the visuals: It took more than 22,000 reference photographs and 10 hours of video to build the game, and the Brooklyn Bridge, by itself, uses more polygons than an entire city on PGR1.
While on the subject of sensory experiences, the sound is nearly equal is quality to the graphics. While the majority of songs are techno, the variety of songs is nonetheless impressive. You'll hear a wide range of rock, alternative, and hip hop, industrial, bhangra, Japanese pop and classical, Yes, classical. Verdi, Brahms, Bach, and Beethoven all bring a fresh take on driving. It's just like when I stole my mom's car back in high school and peeled out in the rain listening to Vivaldi's Four Seasons. So refreshing! The car sounds are well positioned and separated, and you can hear all of the sounds more distinctly when you're in one of the three in-cockpit modes.
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