Two years after Project Gotham Racing set the standard for Xbox driving games, Microsoft and Bizarre Creations present Project Gotham Racing 2, an impressive overhaul of the original that adds more cars, features more racing venues, and offers the ability to play online against up to seven other players. These key new additions should be more than enough to convince fans of the previous game to pick up the sequel, while those new to the series will find in PGR 2 a long-lasting, fully featured racing game that's much more impressive, overall, than most of its competition. Like its predecessor, PGR 2 is a relatively arcadelike racing experience that really can't be considered a realistic simulation, despite its use of real-world cars and locations. In fact, its driving mechanics would be very straightforward were it not for the unique "kudos" system, the likes of which first appeared in Bizarre Creations' Dreamcast game Metropolis Street Racer. This system rewards you for racing with style and grants you an increased number of points the more often and the better you slide around corners and perform other such maneuvers. These rewards may be used to unlock more cars, though plenty are available from the get-go. "Plenty" seems to be a fitting word to describe PGR 2 in general. It's a game that most any car enthusiast would greatly appreciate.
PGR 2 offers a variety of modes of play that can seem pretty overwhelming at first. Fortunately, one of these is called instant action, and it does exactly what it says. Choose this option, and, after a brief loading time, you'll be on the track in some nice car, in some racing circuit, somewhere in the world. However, the main single-player mode of play in PGR 2 is the Kudos World Series, a long sequence of racing events organized by car class, of which there are more than a dozen. Though you must complete each event within each class sequentially, PGR 2, thankfully, lets you choose from one of five difficulty settings for any of the events, and they range from novice to expert. These difficulty settings influence the victory conditions for the event, the speed of any computer-controlled competitors in the event, and how many bonus kudos points you'll gain when all is said and done. So, essentially, you can pretty easily unlock all of the events (though it'll still take you a while) on the novice setting. Bear in mind, however, that you'll be scoring a minimum number of kudos as you do so, thus limiting your ability to unlock new cars. You can always go back and try any race event at a higher difficulty setting, though your kudos for that event won't add up. Instead, you'll be awarded kudos exclusively based on your best run on a given track.
The car classes featured range from the relatively modest compact sports class (featuring the MINI Cooper S and the Honda Civic Type-R), to the sport utility class (with the Mercedes ML55 AMG and its ilk), to the classics class (like the Jaguar E-Type), and all the way up to the ultimate class (featuring the Porsche Carrera GT and the incomparable Enzo Ferrari). Obviously, there's a significant difference in speed and handling when you compare cars from the lower classes versus those in the higher classes, but, overall, the game's 100-plus cars don't really handle in a completely different manner. Each is rated differently for top speed, acceleration, powersliding, and handling, and though you may choose a different paint job for your vehicle of choice, you can't customize it (apart from changing the license plate and driver helmet) or tinker with it under the hood in any way. Right off the bat, about 30 cars are available, including a couple from each class. As you race and earn kudos, you'll earn tokens with which you can unlock additional cars at your discretion. Earning lots of kudos tokens is a gradual process, so it's fortunate that you can test-drive that new car you have your eye on prior to spending the tokens to unlock it.
In addition to offering many more cars than the first game, PGR 2 offers much more variety in its settings. Actually, the previous game boasted hundreds of tracks, but they were all set in San Francisco, London, Tokyo, or New York City. Now there's a brand-new set of venues spread across more than 10 cities, including Stockholm, Moscow, Hong Kong, Barcelona, Sydney, and Yokohama. Races can take place during the day or night and in rain or shine. The tracks themselves--though they tend to be quite narrow--vary significantly in size and shape. Some feature numerous hairpin turns, thus requiring continuous skillful cornering, while others sport long straightaways where top speed rules. One small issue is that, though you'll see a map of the track before a race, you're given no sense of its scale. In unrestricted online races, players naturally gravitate toward their faster cars, but you might feel a bit silly in that Ferrari F50--never getting anywhere near your top speed--while trying to navigate a track that happens to be a lot smaller than you expected. Of course, you could eventually memorize the 100-plus different tracks, and that's a challenge any racing fan ought to be eager to try.
On the street, there are four perspectives to choose from, including a default behind-the-car view, a closer version of that view, a first-person view from the driver's perspective, and a first-person view that's inches above the pavement. Unfortunately, (but unsurprisingly) you won't see the cockpit of any of the vehicles from the first-person perspectives, but you will get a rearview mirror, whereas the prettier third-person perspectives let you see what's coming up behind you at the touch of a button. It's hard to resist the perspectives from which you can see the beautiful car model for the vehicle you happen to be driving, but you do get a better sensation of speed from the first-person view, and the mirrors give you a competitive advantage.
As previously mentioned, the core action on the track really isn't as remarkable as all the content surrounding it. Nevertheless, there's definitely some real depth to the racing. You'll strive for surgical precision when negotiating the twists and bends of all these tracks, as the analog sensitivity of the gas, break, and handbrake buttons, as well as the steering, make it so that each time you're about to round the bend, it presents its own unique challenge. On the other hand, though, much like its predecessor, PGR 2 offers next to nothing in the way of damage modeling. You'll see your car pick up some fender benders and such if you're banging around a lot, but this superficial damage doesn't look serious, nor does it have any effect on your car's performance. Not much happens when you collide with a rail or with another car, anyhow. You just slow down. Though if you take a bad turn, you might find yourself spun around backwards, and by the time you recover, you'll have little hope of winning the race.
The artificially intelligent racers in PGR 2 aren't very interesting, though at the higher difficulty settings they're certainly challenging. For the most part, they race along the ideal line through each circuit and will run into you if you attempt to bar them from that line. There's no obvious rubber-band AI at work here, which means you shouldn't expect your opponents to slow down for you if you botch a turn and ram a guard rail, and you won't see them magically speed up and pass you by if you're way in the lead. That's pretty much all the realism that PGR 2 has to offer, in terms of gameplay. Mostly, the game serves as a survey of some of the finest motor vehicles to date.
Like its predecessor, PGR 2 offers a wonderfully authentic touch with its location-specific soundtracks, which, in this case, include more than 240 different songs that span virtually every contemporary genre (and include a number of bands with which you may be familiar). Additionally, there are more than 30 different radio DJs, each native to his or her country--you actually have three different Grand Theft Auto-style radio stations to choose from per city. Thanks to the impressive graphics of PGR 2, it's inherently easy to tell one city from another, and, if you've visited any of them before in real life, you should be able to readily recognize their landmarks. Yet, hearing the native sounds of these cities definitely adds a whole new dimension to the racing. It's a wonder why the music defaults to being relatively quiet. Of course, some of us have our particular preferences when it comes to the perfect racing music, so PGR 2 lets you rip a custom soundtrack if you wish.
No matter where you are and no matter what you're listening to, in almost all cases, PGR 2 encourages you to earn kudos. In a manner similar to an alternative sports game trick-system, in PGR 2 you earn kudos essentially by showing off. You can do this by powersliding around corners, overtaking other cars, catching air, getting up on two wheels, drafting behind other vehicles, and more. In practice, the powerslide is how you'll earn most of your points in a race, and the kudos system is a tried-and-true and fun way of rewarding you for pulling off the types of moves that would be entertaining no matter what--though they could possibly be detrimental to your race position. Actually, PGR 2 tempts you to race as calculatingly dangerous as possible, as you may string together kudos-worthy moves in close succession to rack up high-scoring combos. Just be sure not to run into the railings on the side of the road or that showmanship will have been for nothing. Actually, PGR 2's kudos system is somewhat more forgiving than that of its predecessor. If you hit a wall in the middle of a combo, you lose your score in multiplayer, but you won't necessarily lose all the kudos points you would have accrued.
Though you have a separate kudos ranking when you're playing offline versus online, fortunately, regardless of whether you rank up online or off, the kudos tokens you earn go into the same pool, thus providing you access to more cars. Online play is, by all means, one of the biggest highlights of PGR 2. The quick match feature tended to fling us into the lobby of races that were already in progress, but, using Xbox Live's optimatch, it's easy enough to find an open session with up to seven other racers. Hopefully, the host of the match will be quick to start the race rather than be one who will futz around for long periods of time toying with the various options available. In our numerous online sessions, we experienced smooth gameplay regardless of how many racers we were up against. On occasion, though, we did notice that some of our opponents warped around the track due to lag. Fortunately, the lag never impacted our own ability to drive, except in those rare cases when lag affected a close pack, causing sudden collisions.
At any rate, online PGR 2 can be a lot of fun. Drafting behind opposing players, only to overtake them around a bend, can be thrilling, and the host player's ability to force all racers to choose vehicles of a particular class helps ensure that most players will be on relatively even footing during a race. Furthermore, the game rewards you for winning races against relatively higher-ranked players and for using relatively underpowered cars to win these races. It can be quite addictive to play the game online, just by virtue of how you can rack up a ton of kudos if you play your cards right. Another cool bonus is that you can download ghosts of the top racers on Xbox Live to see if you can compete against their best times. In addition to online play, PGR 2 promises downloadable content via Xbox Live and offers a split-screen mode for up to four players and a system-link feature for networking together multiple consoles and copies of the game. What's more, there's even a very cool old-school-shooter minigame nestled in there.
PGR 2 doesn't run silky smooth like some other Xbox racing games, like Rallisport Challenge. However, it runs at a rock-steady 30 frames per second, ensuring that your timing won't get thrown off by sudden fits of slowdown. Beyond all that, though, this is just a great-looking game. Highly realistic colors, lighting, and shadows give PGR 2 a photorealistic appearance, and little details may be found in the environments if you can spare an instant to take your eyes off the road. The road itself looks quite impressive, at times, thanks to the use of some of the Xbox's proprietary graphical tricks, which make the tracks look almost touchable. Occasionally, these effects are a little too pronounced and make some parts of the environments look as though they're made of plastic. At other times, the tracks look a little barren, but you'll be too busy concentrating on what's ahead of you to pay it much thought. As mentioned, the cars themselves are uniformly beautiful. You can easily see their respective emblems and other fine details, like the animated drivers who are operating the controls from within. Support for progressive scan displays means PGR 2 can be made to look especially good on higher-end TV sets. Meanwhile, the music is certainly the highlight of PGR 2's audio, though the rest of the sound is also good. Collisions all sound alike, but, other than that, the roar of each vehicle's engine and the squealing of tires are effectively conveyed. Of further mention, PGR 2 does a noteworthy job of implementing the rumble feature of the Xbox controller, thus making you feel the road as you race along.
PGR 2 is an excellent racing game overall and boasts such a sheer quantity of features and options that most other racing games simply cannot compare. On top of that, solid gameplay and a diverse, flat-out terrific selection of cars help give PGR 2 plenty of long-term appeal. And, you get all this for a mere fraction of the cost of even the most inexpensive vehicles featured in the game! But even if you don't see it that way, PGR 2 is still an exceptionally good deal considering all that it has to offer.