We're hurtling down the long first straight of the Nürburgring again. We've driven this course hundreds, maybe thousands of times before, in a series of racing games that stretches from this year's Forza 2 all the way back to the original Grand Prix Legends for the PC. But we've never driven the Ring like this, nestled in the seat of a 1950s F1 car--a long, cylindrical front-engine monstrosity with thin little wheels, and an engine that sounds as if it's liable to rip itself out of the car at any moment. Oh, and it's snowing. It's one of the longest, most challenging courses in the world, and we're tearing around it as best we can in a 60-year-old car that wants to go sideways every time we mash the throttle. On sheer ice. Is this a dream or a motorsports nightmare?
Welcome to Project Gotham Racing 4, Bizarre Creations' latest in its heralded arcade driving series. We've spent the last couple of days tearing through the game's career mode, enjoying what promises to be another fun and fast-paced racing game by one of the best developers in the business. But before we get too far into our retro Ring excursion, let's back up a bit and tell you how we got there.
When you fire up PGR4 for the first time, you'll first establish your in-game identity. This entails choosing a gender for your driver, establishing your country of origin (which will play into the default color choices available for your riding uniforms), and then customizing your look with choices such as helmet and visor styles, as well as additional color options for your leathers and helmet design. It's not exactly Forza 2-level depth in terms of customization, but it's not a bad start.
Like 2005's Project Gotham Racing 3, PGR4 focuses its attention on racing some of the coolest cars around in some of the most cosmopolitan locales in the world. However, unlike PGR3, the lineup of cars isn't confined to exotic hot rods. In PGR4, you'll be racing everything from Aston Martins (complete with counterclockwise gauges) and Ferraris to pick-up trucks. Motorcycles are a big part of the action in PGR4, too. As we discovered when playing the game, certain tracks and events are better suited to bikes than cars, and vice versa.
The single-player game in PGR4 will include a number of different modes: arcade mode, time attack, custom match, and Gotham career. In arcade mode, you'll progress through ten chapters that will challenge your driving skills across a number of different event types that include speed and drifting challenges. In time attack, there are no kudos and no opponents; it's just you and your ride against the clock. In custom match, you can set up the kind of race you want to run--choosing all variables such as location, track, weather type, number, car type, skill level of opponents, and number of laps in the race. Weather effects are plentiful here, and you can select from any variation of weather available in the game: fog, thunder and lightning, icy conditions, snow, and practically everything in between.
We've spent the majority of our time in the centerpiece of PGR4's single-player game: Gotham career. It's your typical zero-to-hero story; you start at the bottom of the world rankings as a lowly amateur racer and then, by competing in a long string of race events, slowly work your way up the ladder into the professional ranks, ultimately becoming the number one driver in the Project Gotham world. To get there, you'll be facing stiff competition in a metric ton of different events, strewn throughout the game's various urban locations.
Career events are based around a calendar system. Only one event will be available per day; some are compulsory, and others, known as invitationals, are optional. For our career, the first event we competed in was the Asia Amateur Open, a three-event race series that took place in Macau. We had several ride choices, from a poky little Lancia Delta Integrale Evo, to a Camaro Z28 and a Sierra Cosworth RS500. However, we chose the motorcycle, a Buell RR 1200. It's certainly not the hottest ride in the game but, considering the choices, it's the best of the bunch--if for no other reason than motorcycles are typically quicker off the line in PGR4. Once you get a lead in the early goings, it's relatively simple to keep it, provided you drive a clean line.
The first two events in the Asia Amateur Open were straight street races. The third was a checkpoint race that challenged us to drive as quickly as possible through a long, winding section of Macau, passing through the occasional checkpoint along the way. The more checkpoints we passed through, the higher up the race ranking we moved. Having handily won in Macau, it was time to tackle the next event in the series, the Nippon Open Championship. Zipping through the streets of Tokyo, we managed another clean sweep of wins in the trio of events that composed this championship.
In any career-mode event you drive, you'll naturally be racking up kudos as you go. In a car, clean sections and hot drifts are great ways to rack up kudos, while on a bike you can earn kudos for wheelies, endos, and even two-wheel drifts of your own (as well as for clean racing). Kudos help determine your position at the end of a race; you earn bonus kudos for finishing a race in first, second, or third place, but you can still end up ahead of an opponent in the series' overall rankings if you earn enough kudos with your hot driving. Also, in the event of a tie, the driver with the most kudos for the series will be determined the winner.
With the initial Macau and Tokyo events under our belt, it was time for our first invitational event. We were strapped in the seat of the oddly shaped 1950s Jaguar D-Type, and our aim was to drive around the course as quickly as possible, while knocking down stacks of cones along the way. The goal was to knock down 125 cones within the time limit, which is easier than it sounds. We had a good time, barreling the drift-happy D-Type into the cones sideways and getting all of the cones at once. Once you pass the invitational event, you'll have access to the model you drive in the challenge. If you fail to pass, you can always try the same invitational event when it rolls around the following season.
When you aren't racing, you can spend your time in the various garages in PGR4. The amateur garage holds a handful of cars, but once you make your way up to professional, you gain access to the Michelin Test Track and a two-story garage. In both garages, you'll have access to Geometry Wars: Waves, Bizarre's latest take on its addictively gorgeous shooting game. You can also enter photo mode in your garage to take pictures of your various cars for saving or posting later to the PGR On Demand feature found in the game.
Overtaking challenges in Shanghai, speed challenges in Las Vegas, kudos challenges in Quebec; you'll take part in all of these different types of racing events and more in the early goings of the Gotham Career mode, and you'll move up in the world rankings as you go. For some events, your world ranking won't be high enough for you to enter--as in the Asia Time Major, which requires a rank of professional. Nevertheless, have no fear, because even when you don't rank an automatic berth, that doesn't mean you can't drive your way in. Special qualifying events will let you attempt to qualify for certain events that are above your driver level, but be warned, because some of these events can be very challenging.
That subject brings us back to the snowy, slippery Nürburgring, where even the slightest miscalculation can send you hurtling into the wall at ludicrous speed. Tackling the Ring in a 1950s F1 car is an invitational event, one that is, as the game puts it, for experts only. The goal is to do a full lap of the Ring in 9:14 in a car that sometimes has other ideas when you initiate steering input, especially considering the conditions of the road. As for the Ring itself, it's a wonder to behold in wintertime. The Bizarre team has done a fine job of showing the behemoth German racing circuit in an entirely new light, with barren trees lining the circuit and the sun gleaming brightly off the icy sections of asphalt. It's a chore to pilot that temperamental car through the twisting sections of the course, and you can expect to spin more than once on your lap. After all, whatever the weather, the Ring takes no prisoners.
There's still plenty more to learn about PGR4, especially the details on the various multiplayer modes that will be featured. We look forward to bringing you much more on this game in the weeks leading up to its October 2 release.