Project Gotham Racing 4 REVIEW

Project Gotham Racing 4 Review (Xbox 360)

In 2005, the XBox 360 launched with one of my most highly anticipated titles: Project Gotham Racing 3. In the days that followed, I felt myself somewhat underwhelmed with the title—mostly because the progression through the game was so similar to previous PGR’s, and the development team had made the decision to focus entirely on supercars like Ferraris and Lamborghinis. It was the first PGR that I didn’t drive all the way to completion, as my interest faded the further I got through the challenges.

Fast forward to 2007. Project Gotham Racing 4 arrives, and I had almost no clue that it had an impending release. I had caught word of the title through a message board post here and there, but really had no expectations for the game at all. Something about motorcycles and a different career progression…nothing really got my interest piqued. Suddenly it was release day, and I contemplated passing on what was once a marquee racing franchise for me, dating back to Metropolis Street Racer on the Sega Dreamcast. I decided to give developer Bizarre Creations one last try, if for no other reason than Project Gotham Racing 2 was probably the game I played on XBox Live more than any other on the original XBox. Was it worth it? Hell yes, it was.

From the moment I booted up the disc, I was confident that I had made the correct decision. Upon choosing the sex of your driver and editing the colors of his or her riding leathers and fire suit, you’re able to hop into Arcade or Career mode single player action, or choose to go online and see what you’ve got. Naturally, I chose single player and decided to run with the career mode to get my feet wet. I was instantly staring at a calendar that had days circled…events on a specified day? Who’d have expected that?!? Changing the career progression from a tier-after-tier approach to a calendar-year approach helped make the game seem fresh to me.

What really helped, however, was seeing the “lesser” cars make a re-appearance. Mini Coopers, Corvettes, DeLoreans…all kinds of decidedly non-supercar makes and models greeted me with open arms. Now, I enjoy a high-octane racecar as much as the next guy, but I like to occasionally mix it up and grab some slower vehicles for some fender-banging, bumper-pounding online races. Especially with newer players, lowering the car class creates a much more competitive race, so the exclusion of old faithful classes in PGR3 (like the Mini from PGR2) really left a void for me. I was giddy like a school girl with a secret crush after seeing some of the “dogs” that they chose to include in the car lineup.

Once you choose an event to compete in and the vehicle that you’ll be driving, you’re off to the races (literally). Here is where a game either falls flat on its face or will really prove to be a keeper. I’ve always enjoyed the PGR driving model, more so in PGR2 than PGR3, mostly because it felt a little “tighter” in the former than the latter. PGR3 felt a bit rushed on the control to me—it felt slightly loose overall, especially from the otherwise wonderfully implemented cockpit camera. The cars slopped around a bit too much, especially for the models that Bizarre chose to represent. A Ferrari shouldn’t feel like a really fast Toyota. I’ve never driven one, but I can’t imagine that they would feel quite so slow-to-react when pitching into a corner as they did in PGR3. It wasn’t bad, mind you, but didn’t quite achieve the level of balance and precision that PGR2 did.

Thankfully, that’s in the past. It would seem that the time spent in between the release of PGR3 and PGR4 was put to very good use. Everything about the game is more polished. The handling model is back to feeling very tight, with good predictability. Predictability is a key ingredient for me, because some games just don’t seem to “get it”. If you are basing a game around powersliding, you’d need to have a predictable handling model, so a gamer will know exactly when and where the car will break loose. PGR2 had this down, whereas PGR3 kind of “loosened” the whole handling model up a bit, giving me a much harder time while trying to really nail lap after lap with any sort of precision. It was still enjoyable, but never got the kind of play time in my XBox 360 that PGR2 did in the original XBox.

Speaking of PGR’s handling model, it has always been based on precise corner entry and smooth throttle control. When compared directly to Forza 2 on the 360, it’s definitely the “lighter side” of racing. You’ll hardly ever lock up the brakes, no matter how hard you try. There’s no real damage other than some cosmetic scratches and broken windows going on. Yet the game still finds that perfect “raceable” blend of throttle control and cornering speed. You can plant your brake foot firmly on the floor trying to get into a corner, but try the same with the throttle and most cars will break the drive wheels loose, leaving you spinning your tires while the competition rockets out of a corner. It takes some serious massaging of the gas pedal to get out of each corner at maximum velocity, giving the game the oft-desired, rarely-achieved goal of being “easy to learn, tough to master”.

You can pick up and play PGR4 and feel good about getting around a track without much penalty for going head-on into a guard rail at 90 miles per hour. New players will be able to at least keep the car on the track, unlike the aforementioned Forza 2. My brother was down for a weekend, where we attempted some split-screen action for the better part of two days. At first, I would lay off the gas and kind of plod around the course while he diced with the AI cars a bit, but was actually racing. In Forza, he had all sorts of trouble just getting the car slowed down for a corner. In PGR4, he was actually racing. At first it was just with the AI cars, and suddenly I wasn’t slowing nearly as much because he had figured out how to get into a corner hot and come out hotter. Some of the best races we’ve ever had (dating way back to Atari 2600 and Indy Racing) were last weekend in PGR4. Any time you have a game that’s easy enough to get into that a new player won’t get frustrated, but tricky enough to master that a real veteran still has new things to learn…you’ve got magic.

The polish in PGR4 extends to other areas, as well. The tracks are probably the single biggest improvement to me. While re-using a lot of the same areas from PGR3, Bizarre added red-and-white striped racing curbs to most corners. If you’re like me, you probably clipped the inside front fender while negotiating a 90 degree corner in PGR3 far too many times to count. Since I drive exclusively from the cockpit camera, sometimes the corners are tough to really judge distance accurately. Adding the F1-style curbs to the tracks helps players get a bit more racy. You know where the corner is, because you have a nice arcing curb running around both the inside and the outside. These actually added another wrinkle to the gameplay—get your tires up onto them while under power, and you can quickly lose control in some of the more powerful vehicles.

Aside from gameplay polish, the graphics engine is elevated to another level in PGR4. The trademark 360 “blur effect” is back, but it’s done so exceedingly well in the game that it actually enhances the realism. The cockpits are all well-rendered, and some cars are actually tougher to drive due to the height of the seat. I can’t tell you how little things like that impress me. Some car decisions for the sim-heads might come down to what kind of visibility they have from the driver’s seat if all else proves to be relatively equal. If you have a car that you can really corner well, but can’t judge that corner entry very well, or a car that you can perhaps stomp on the gas a little harder on exit with a very high visibility factor from the driver’s seat…well, I’d rather see what I’m doing than guess and pray.

But I’ve spent a ton of time rambling on about why PGR4 feels tighter than PGR3 to me, and why you should give it a look, even if you weren’t exactly “feeling” the last iteration. What else could there be? Plenty. Bizarre Creations tossed in motorcycles this go-round, and I was probably the most skeptical person you could find after hearing about it. Test Drive Unlimited was a great game, but the motorcycles were clearly a “tacked on” portion. It took several patches to even get them to a handling level that was acceptable, let alone “good”. I feared that the bikes in PGR4 would suffer the same treatment.

Thankfully, I was wrong. While they still have a bit of a learning curve, the motorcycles have a fully-realized handling model that is just as fun as the four-wheeled vehicles. The name of the game on the motorcycles is proper corner entry speed. If you brake too much on a bike, you’ll get eaten up by the cars. If you hit that “perfect” corner entry speed and just lock your turn in on the stick, you can drop the hammer on corner exit and rocket out faster than almost any car in the game can. The trade off is that almost every car in the game can outrun a bike in a straight line, so you’ll have plenty of “dust them in the corners, get eaten alive on the straights” duels if you’re racing a bike against a car. There are the exceptions (like the Turbine bike, which is rocket-fast in a straight line but can’t stop to save its life), but the general rule of thumb for the bike class is slower top speed, much better cornering and accelerating than cars.

The selection of motorcycles is incredible, as well. You don’t just have a few Ninjas and GSX-R’s thrown into the mix here…you have Triumphs, Honda CBRs, Hayabusas, Yamaha YZFs, and older classic “speedway” style bikes that you can actually powerslide around corners with, complete with one-foot-down animations from the rider. Speaking of animations, dragging a peg through a corner at top speed is gorgeous; a shower of sparks trails your rider as the metal peg drags across the pavement. Good stuff here, folks…good stuff.

But the eye candy doesn’t stop there. The much-hyped weather effects that appear in PGR4 are nothing short of spectacular. I’ve never been the type of racer to really want to mix it up in the rain or the snow…probably the American-style NASCAR racer in me. Europeans have been running F1 races and rallies like the US Postal Service for years…neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow and all of that business. But in my games, I like the purity of clear weather, my vehicle, and the track I’m on. That is, until now. PGR4 simulates weather in such a believable fashion that it actually enhances the experience. Even after you memorize a track, throwing in fog that changes how you prepare for upcoming corners makes it a completely new experience. You might not be able to see more than five or ten car lengths in front of your hood, so flying into a hairpin corner that you can usually whip through becomes a pucker-inducing moment in time. Run through the rain and you won’t suddenly have a horribly handling racecar, but you will have to be more judicious with the throttle to avoid spinning the tires in every corner. Turn laps in icy conditions, and you’ll find strategically-placed ice patches that force you to alter your entry and exit lines…braking across ice patches has the expected result of your car not stopping, going nose-in to a barrier with a forehead-smacking “D’oh!!!” moment. Snow hits your windshield and crosses your headlights during night races in some of the most jaw-dropping visuals that I’ve ever seen from a racing game. The windshield wipers and rain drops on the windshields are particularly impressive. Bottom line: if you think that weather won’t really impress you, or it’s never been your “thing”, much like I did, you’ll probably be surprised. It really adds to the experience and changes it up from race to race.

Weather can be enabled online by the session host, as well. When you get into an online race, you’re able to determine the location, the type of race—street race, eliminator, bulldog, cat and mouse—which, coincidentally, was a common PGR2 user-created mode where two players would pick slow cars, and the rest would pick fast cars. The objective was to get your team’s slower “mouse” car across the line first, while the faster “cat” cars for the opposing team were trying to bash it into oblivion. It was surprisingly fun, and it shows that Bizarre Creations was paying attention to how much play it got by including it as a default mode in PGR4. Ranked sessions are a blast as well, cycling through a sequence of four races: speed trap, hot lap, eliminator, and street race. It’s a good way of gauging a driver’s overall ability since he’s put through the ringer in various disciplines each time out. You even have team ranked sessions where your team is scored as a unit at the end of the session. It’s lag free and incredibly fun, to boot. If ranked sessions aren’t your thing, you can host or join private rooms with AI cars thrown into the mix to fill out the field. Basically, if you like racing online, then you combine all the features that I’ve been slathering on about for many paragraphs here with lag-free online integration, and you can’t go wrong. You’ll have a lot to like here.

Rounding out the exhaustive feature set is an Arcade mode, which allows you to fire through chapters of achievements for medals using pre-determined classes. Pretty standard fare, and good for quick pick up and play sessions. The re-invented GothamTV is really the eye-opener here, however. Like many other releases this year, PGR4 has jumped into the “online renaissance”, as I like to call it. With a TV channel and uploadable replays and photos, PGR4 allows you to relive your greatest races (or even your friend’s greatest races) through small files that can be watched any time you like. There are even user-uploaded photos that appear on your garage walls if you’re connected to XBox Live and wander around the room. Want to know how your buddy blistered a time around the Ring on a Ducati 999R Xerox? Download his replay (if he’s kind enough to upload it for you) and watch it from any camera angle you like. It’s truly “next-gen”, although I hate that term. Doesn’t stop me from using it, though, does it?

In closing, let me say that I know there are quite a few players out there like me—loved PGR2, felt disillusioned a bit by PGR3, and hadn’t planned on giving PGR4 a look due to that fact. That would be a huge mistake. The series has “returned to its roots” in a way, beginning with the handling model. At the same time, it’s managed to incorporate very new features, throwing in motorcycles that feel completely fresh and weather that can change every race you run. The cockpit camera is still the best in the business, and the online play is sublime, whether you’re a novice or a ringer. It’s the most fun I’ve had with a console racer in quite some time, and I don’t see that enthusiasm dampening any time soon. The only thing I’d request is allowing us a user-defined control scheme so I can set the cockpit look to my wheel’s D-Pad instead of being forced to use a controller if I want any kind of ability to look around. That and some actual race courses, although that doesn’t really fit with the history or theme of PGR.

I can still wish, can’t I?

Project Gotham Racing 4 Score
out of 10