Unless you've played Metropolis Street Racer for the Dreamcast, you probably don't know what Project Gotham Racing is about. That is, you probably think it's about racing--as its title clearly indicates--and you'd be correct...but you'd also be wrong. Project Gotham is less a racing game than it is a Tony Hawk's Pro Skater with cars instead of skateboards. While you do compete against other opponents in a number of straightforward races, the majority of Project Gotham's gameplay is based around the Kudos system, a unique feature that rewards you for pulling off combos and driving with flair--and not simply for driving fast. The Kudos system was first introduced by developer Bizarre Creations in Metropolis Street Racer, but it's been significantly revised to be more robust and more user-friendly in Project Gotham. That reason alone is enough to make this game noteworthy, but Project Gotham Racing is also notable for its generally impressive visuals, breadth of gameplay options, and sheer number of tracks and circuits.
Project Gotham Racing has three main modes of gameplay, the most important of which is the Kudos challenge. This mode is made up of 12 events, each of which includes anywhere between four and 12 objective-based challenges that are somewhat similar to Gran Turismo 3's license tests. There are nine types of these challenges, and they include style events, which require you to drive with as much flair and precision at the same time as possible; top speed challenges, wherein you try to best a posted speed record; events where you try to run as many laps around a given track as possible; and straightforward races against either a single competitor or a group of cars. Each of these challenges has a minimum number of Kudos points that are required for bronze, silver, and gold awards, and you won't be able to move on to the next set of challenges until you earn at least a bronze medal in each of the events in your current challenge. What's more, you can raise or lower the difficulty of each event before you actually jump in it to compete. For example, a high-speed challenge might award you with 750 points and the bronze for hitting 60mph, but it might require 1,000 points for a gold medal. You can raise the minimum required top speed before competing in this event, and in doing so, you'll be given a small amount of bonus points for each mph increment that you ratchet upward until you're awarded with enough bonus points to crack the 1,000 mark. Naturally, there is the risk of setting the difficulty too high, but with increased risk comes increased reward, as Kudos points are more or less the currency of Project Gotham Racing--the more Kudos points you acquire, the more cars you'll be able to unlock.
This same type of risk vs. reward setup is available before every event in this mode, including the style challenges, which are probably the heart and soul of this game. Style challenges are basically obstacle courses that require you to drive with a level of perfection that no game has forced on you before. You're given Kudos points for successfully navigating cone slaloms, powersliding, catching air, performing 360-degree spins, hopping up on two wheels, and overtaking other cars. After accomplishing any of these feats, you're awarded with a set number of Kudos points that hang in limbo for a few seconds before they get counted toward your total tally for that challenge. However, if you hit anything--a cone, a wall, or a guardrail--you'll automatically lose all the points you had in limbo. Additionally, in a design cue taken straight from extreme sports and fighting games, you can even combo several tricks together for an extra Kudos bonus.
This system of points certainly makes for an interesting driving game, and while the developers have done a good job in making it more appealing than in Metropolis Street Racer (that game actually took points away from you), it still seems more frustrating than challenging. Some of the later style challenges, for example, will force you to drive a perfect line and string as many tricks together as possible if you hope to finish with enough points to earn a gold medal. If you miss a single cone gate, or fail to string a combination of tricks together, you might as well restart the entire event. It's only logical to expect later levels to be tough, but no game should contain this level of frustration. Ultimately, none of the events in Project Gotham Racing are impossible, but they do require that you invest a good deal of time and patience.
Thankfully, the Kudos challenge isn't the only mode in Project Gotham Racing. In fact, the game contains two other modes: quick race and arcade race. The quick race mode is made up of four difficulty settings, each of which pits you against five other cars in four straightforward races for a total of 16 racing events. The AI of your opponents in this mode is no better than that of the computer-controlled racers in Gran Turismo 3. That is, the other cars will pretty much follow the best line, everything else be damned. Don't be surprised to find yourself broadsided during a turn by another car that chose to stick to its preprogrammed course rather than brake or swerve away from you. Additionally, all the cars behave in a very skittish manner, and the slightest bump with another vehicle or a curb will often send you spinning sideways, so a very steady hand is required in these races, especially during the bumper-car-fest that usually ensues on the first turn of any given track.
The events in arcade race are split up similarly, but you don't actually do any racing in this mode. Instead, arcade race is a series of 16 style challenges separate from those in the Kudos challenge mode. And even though these two gameplay modes are completely distinct from the main Kudos challenge mode, all three share the same pool of earned Kudos points and unlocked cars. Sound confusing? The number of gameplay options available to you initially is indeed overwhelming, but you'll undoubtedly appreciate the replay value afforded by these game modes.
And if those three aren't enough, there's a time attack mode that lets you drive any of the 204 tracks that you've unlocked throughout your progress. That's right, 204. Project Gotham Racing takes place in four cities--Tokyo, San Francisco, New York, and London--each of which has three distinct districts, like Shinjuku in Tokyo and Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. Furthermore, each of these 12 districts is broken down into 17 individual circuits for a grand total of 204. Granted, many of the tracks located in the same district look the same and differ only in a turn or two, but it's still refreshing to see a driving game brimming with such a selection of courses.
Another memorable feature of Project Gotham Racing is that it's the first game of its kind since Need for Speed: High Stakes to boast both the Ferrari and the Porsche licenses, a feat that even Gran Tursimo 3: A-Spec couldn't accomplish--that game had neither. In fact, there are a total of five Ferraris (two variants of the F355, two of the 360, and the all-powerful F50) and three Porsches (the Boxster S, the 996 GT2, and the Carrera GT) in Project Gotham. Strangely enough, those eight cars make up about a third of the entire selection of vehicles that is available in the game. Project Gotham Racing has no more than 29 cars that you can unlock throughout the course of the game, but while that number pales in comparison to Gran Turismo 3's 150, for example, it's important to note that its gameplay is focused more on unlocking new tracks than on unlocking new cars. Regardless, car aficionados will find the unusually small number to be somewhat of a sticking point, especially considering that there isn't any of the customizability or upgrade options that other driving games offer. The small number of cars does offer an unexpected benefit, however, that being the feeling of accomplishment that you experience every time you unlock a new car. With less than 30 vehicles to choose from, you'll never take any of them for granted, especially considering that nearly all but your initial cars are high-end exotics, the likes of which grace the covers of Car and Driver and Road & Track. Indeed, the frustration that you might experience in a particular style challenge will quickly be tempered after you're awarded with the Ferrari 360 Spyder, which not only makes quick work of most style events thanks to its speed and remarkable handling, but is also simply a sight to behold.
In fact, nearly all of the game looks remarkable. The car models themselves aren't quite as polished as those in Gran Turismo 3, but they do reflect their entire surroundings--from trees to lampposts to buildings--in real time. Additionally, the vehicles in Project Gotham Racing do absorb a significant amount of damage, which is a feature that was notably absent from Gran Turismo 3. While you'll never be able to completely total your car, a few sloppy laps will result in bent bumpers, broken taillights, and cracked mirrors. Understandably, all this damage is purely aesthetic and has no effect on your cars' performance whatsoever. The game pushes a lot of trackside geometry as well--easily the most in any driving game to date. The city streets of New York and Tokyo are re-created true to form and are simply packed with 3D buildings, subway entrances, storefronts, streetlights, manholes, and other objects on the periphery. It should be noted, though, that while the levels in Gotham are "busier" than Gran Turismo 3's, the individual objects like buildings and whatnot aren't quite as detailed. The textures throughout the track are generally a bit washed-out, and a keen eye will be able to pick up some tearing and seaming on some of the roads. There are even a few instances where the game will slow down noticeably from its otherwise smooth 60fps frame rate. Otherwise, Project Gotham Racing is a feast for the eyes.
The sound isn't quite as impressive, though. While there is a fair level of variance between each of the car's engine sound and exhaust notes, they all seem to be high-pitched and largely weaker-sounding versions of their real-life counterparts. Likewise, while the soundtrack that comes with the game contains many songs from artists like Sir Mix-A-Lot and Chemical Brothers, the selection is underwhelming. However, you can copy your own music CDs onto the Xbox's hard drive and listen to those songs during gameplay. In fact, Project Gotham features three real-life DJs from each of the four cities in the game, and they'll actually talk over the start and endings of these songs just as they normally would. This effect, and others like static in tunnels, adds a nice touch to the otherwise average sound department.
At the end of the day, Project Gotham Racing is a unique driving game that pulls off its Tony Hawk approach better than its predecessor, Metropolis Street Racer. The Kudos system would have probably benefited from a longer development period, but the developer wasn't afforded that luxury because of this game's launch status, and while it may be sometimes frustrating, it ultimately ends up being fun. While its unique spin on driving and its scarcity of cars might put people looking for the next Gran Turismo off, anyone who considers themselves a car fan should seriously consider adding Project Gotham Racing to their library of Xbox games.