With the launch of every new gaming console, certain titles define the technological capacity of that platform and usher in the next generation in style. For the Nintendo 64, it was Mario 64; for the original Xbox, it was Halo. Just days before the launch of the Xbox 360, we have a new candidate for that honor: Bizarre Creations' Project Gotham Racing 3, a gripping and intense racing game that is a welcome addition to the 360's launch lineup.
One of the hallmarks of the PGR series has always been its volume--the large numbers of tracks set in a variety of exotic locales, and a list of drivable cars that, based on sheer numbers alone, set the mouths of car aficionados agape. That number has been pared down considerably in PGR 3, to around 80 vehicles. But what an 80 it is. Instead of starting you out in a modest VW Corrado or Honda CRX, right off the bat in PGR 3 you'll have access to some of the hottest high-performance rides in the world. Models from elite makers such as Ferrari, TVR, RUFs, Mercedes, Lotus, and Shelby are available to you from the get-go--provided you have the credits to pay for them, of course.
Luckily, money comes quick in PGR 3, thanks to the game's centerpiece, the career mode. The mode's been split into two subsections--a solo career that has you take on artificial intelligence-controlled drivers, and an online career mode that pits you against real-life drivers in a number of online events. By completing events over a variety of difficulty levels (like in PGR 2, difficulty is noted by medals ranging from tin to platinum), you earn credits that pile up quickly and let you fill your garages (yes, note the plural) with the coolest collection of performance autos imaginable.
When it comes to mission variety, PGR 3's solo career mode will feel very familiar to anyone who's played the PGR series before. You'll have your straight-ahead street races, of course, which will pit you against one or more other opponents in a fight to the checkered flag, and elimination races--multilap sprints in which the last driver over the finish line is eliminated on each successive lap. There's more to do than simply drive fast--in the PGR world, driving with style is just as important as stomping on the accelerator and pointing your nose at the finish line. So the kudos system is back, serving as a measure of your ability to feather your car around corners, maintain awesome drifts around tight turns, and avoid the ever-present walls and other barriers.
Like the cash in PGR 3, kudos seem to be easier to earn this time around--though that could be a function of the incredible power of the cars in the game, which are at once very agreeable to drift-style driving, and fairly easy to control in the process. If you've got some touch behind the virtual wheel, for example, you can slalom your way down long straights, spinning your back wheels practically the entire time, racking up massive kudos along the way. In some timed runs, earning kudos will temporarily pause the countdown clock that you're running against; thus, these kudos versus time races are challenges that require a fine balance of race speed and skillful touch. As easy as kudos are to earn, however, you won't just breeze your way through the kudo-centric cone challenges. At the hardest difficulty level, these races require not only improvisation on the course, to ensure your combo chain isn't broken, but a sniper's accuracy behind the wheel, to navigate the tough placement of the cones. It can be frustrating or invigorating, depending on your mindset.
There's just enough variety to keep things moving forward, and it won't take you much time to get through either solo mode or the online career mode. We wrapped up the solo career mode with all silver medals in approximately eight hours of play. Obviously, there's an incentive to earn even better medals, as well as more credits, achievements, and badges; but with only 23 trophies available in solo career mode, it won't be long before you begin to explore other options in the game.
The other half of your career in PGR 3 will take place online in the appropriately named online career. Unlike playtime matches, racing in your online career is for keeps, as these are ranked matches. A complex system of player matching ensures that you're racing against opponents who not only share an agreeable network connection with you, but also are of like skill on the track. Unlike the solo career mode, your online career never really ends in PGR 3--you are simply on a quest to win as often as possible and improve your online ranking in the process. The challenge of running against unpredictable real life opponents adds value to a game whose single player game ends quicker than you might hope.
And that's as it should be. The real meat of any competitive Xbox 360 game is (or at least, should be) taking on real-life opponents from all over the world and enjoying the sounds of them choking on your exhaust. Just as in PGR 2, Project Gotham Racing 3's long-term appeal comes in its online features, which include the aforementioned online career mode, as well as the kind of quick-race and optimatch features that you've come to expect in online racing games.
When creating matches from scratch, you have three modes to choose from: street race, eliminator, and capture the track (along with team versions of street race and eliminator). Online street races and eliminator modes play exactly as they do in PGR 3's single-player game. In capture the track, your goal is to "own" as much of a particular course as you can by posting the fastest sector teams in specific sections of a track. The quicker you are over the course, the more of the track you'll own. Online performance was silky smooth in our test sessions with the game--we didn't notice any sort of lag or warping of vehicles. And, because it's been a while since we've played the last PGR game online, it's nice to see that beating loudmouths on Xbox Live is still as satisfying a simple pleasure as online gaming can provide.
Summing up Project Gotham's feel behind the wheel is best served with one term: forgiving. We've never driven a TVR Cerbera Speed Twelve, but we suspect it's a lot more difficult to nimbly drift the rear end of that 8000-brake horsepower monstrosity around tight corners of London's Trafalgar Tour than it is in the game. And that's a good thing. Project Gotham driving ethos has always straddled the line between realistic driving physics and friendly controls; to the game's credit, this approach is in full effect here. This isn't to say that the cars don't feel authentic in terms of acceleration and raw speed--the rollicking kinetic roller coaster of navigating the Nürburgring in a Ferrari F50 GT is as thrilling an experience as you can have on the Xbox 360. At the same time, though, PGR 3's physics seemed designed to give you as much an opportunity to succeed as possible.
Just as in previous games, there's no real penalty for crashing into walls and obstacles, other than losing momentum. Damage is once again only cosmetic, and not even that is impressively modeled. A high-speed collision will usually only result in a cracked windshield or a busted side-view mirror, and running into an opponent ahead of you will usually do little more than bend their spoiler. Therefore, you don't feel that guilty for driving aggressively and aren't really surprised when the game's AI-controlled cars do the same. They aren't exactly blind to your presence on the road--they just don't care that much.
The game makes no concessions in authenticity, however, in the car models and race environments that populate the game; these are among the most impressive sights we've seen on the 360. Actually, let's qualify that statement. PGR 3's car models, when viewed from the exterior camera angles, are certainly impressive. Bright colors, sleek contours, and striking lighting effects all make for attractive models that will make your right foot twitch in anticipation. That said, the car models, whether from a lack of complex reflections or just relatively simple lighting techniques, also have a vaguely plastic appearance to them, which doesn't always mesh with the striking visuals that comprise the backgrounds. Those environments, modeled on real-life locales such as Tokyo, Las Vegas, and New York City, are impressive both in scope and quality. Hit the Big Apple and you'll rocket down both spans of the Brooklyn Bridge; attack the Shinjuku district of Tokyo at night and you'll run smack-dab into the fireworks display of neon signage lining the streets.
These are merely visual appetizers for the game's graphical main course, though. The in-car camera view is PGR 3's single most impressive aspect. Each of the game's 80 cars features a stunningly authentic interior that places you directly in the driver's seat. Driving in a McLaren F1 LM, for example, will place you in the car's unique center-seat setup, with rearview mirrors at both corners of the cockpit. The F1 style paddle gearshifts you'd find in a real Ferrari 355 GTS are also in the game. Look down at your feet in the McLaren F1 and you'll see your virtual driver's feet working the gas and brake as you drive along. It's great stuff.
It's no exaggeration to call the sense of speed and kinetic energy generated by this viewpoint a visceral thrill unlike practically anything we've ever played. Off the line, your car shudders under the forces of its massive acceleration; in high-speed turns, you'll watch as your car struggles under the forces acting upon it, while your "driver" viewpoint jostles independently because your virtual head is struck by those same energies. The windshields alone are a wonder--multifaceted reflection effects combine with the grime that gathers on the windows to really put you "in" the car. This stunning marriage of obsessive modeling, gorgeous lighting, and attention to detail conveys a sense of immersion that is still rare in gaming today, and it is PGR 3's visual hallmark.
Of course, these gorgeous graphics require an HD setup to get the most out of them, though we were pleasantly surprised to see that even on a normal television, the game still retained a good deal of its visual splendor. If you've got a newer TV set capable of playing in widescreen ratio, be sure to enable it, as this setup greatly enhances the game's visuals.
And as good as it looks, PGR 3's audio package is even better. The soundtrack alone is nearly worth the price of admission--it's an eclectic mixture that mixes bubbly J-Pop with sultry bhangra and elegant classical (along with the requisite electronica, hip-hop, and rock tracks). The soundtrack is a welcome addition to the vanilla playlists of most racing games, and it just might be the cure for what ails on you on the track. Pop Verdi's awesome and ominous "Requiem, Dies Irae" in your car's virtual CD changer, for example, and watch your lap times fall. The music isn't the only aural treat, however--the intricately modeled car engines have a sweet melody all their own. The hollow roar of the Ferraris, the whining protest of the Aston Martins, the sheer menace of the McLaren F1 LM--without exception, each entry in PGR 3's car lineup sounds as good as they look, especially when enjoyed through a Dolby 5.1 setup with a nice, beefy subwoofer.
Project Gotham Racing 3 gets so many other, smaller things right: The Gotham TV feature that lets you access your saved-race replays and pictures of your cars taken in the game's new photo mode, as well as watch the world's best racers run live on the Internet; the seven garages you can earn in the game (complete with two playable versions of Geometry Wars, the arcade shooter that appropriately has you fighting geometry); the custom-route feature that lets you build unique courses on any of PGR 3's racing locales; the Nürburgring, this time featuring a behemoth version of the legendary German course, which combines the full 13-mile Nordschliefe with the modern-day F1 circuit; the insane level of stat tracking in the game, in which total kudos earned by pulling off moves such as braking power overs, power feints, and braking feints are all saved to your profile, as are the total number of times you've pulled off a particular stunt.
Project Gotham Racing 3 isn't the longest game in the world; indeed, the majority of its long-term value will be via Xbox Live play. Still, for pure style, speed, and immersion, grabbing a seat in any of PGR 3's intricately modeled high-speed rigs and tearing through the streets is what the next generation of gaming is all about. All that's missing is the smell of burnt rubber and the feel of the wind whipping through your hair.