With 2005's Project Gotham Racing 3, Bizarre Creations ushered in a new era of racing on the Xbox 360 with a game that continued the long-standing quality of its Project Gotham series with amazing graphics and extensive online options. Here we are, two years later, and Bizarre has turned in the fourth game in the PGR series, one that opens up the vehicles list a bit and adds to the online fun, yet still follows the tried-and-true PGR formula. In short, Project Gotham Racing 4 continues the series' tradition of brilliant visuals and fun gameplay, and adds to the list with new rides and weather effects that must be driven to be believed.
Weather abounds in Project Gotham Racing 4. In fact, along with motorcycles (more on them in a bit), weather is one of the biggest additions to PGR 4's gameplay. Dense fog, ice and snow, and, of course, lots and lots of rain are examples of the variety of weather conditions you find yourself driving through, and each affects your vehicle in a different way. The most successful weather implementation in the game is the rain effects.
Visually, it's stunning; rain droplets bounce off the hood of your car, or your windshield when driving in first person view, and they'll collect into pools of standing water that become a hydroplaning nightmare for your car or motorbike. In fact, pools of water strategically placed in the optimum braking zones are part and parcel of the tracks the Bizarre crew has carved from real-life locales such as Tokyo, Shanghai, and New York City. Find a way to brake early, or deal with the consequences of slamming your car into a wall after surfing across the water. The water effects in PGR 4 are entirely convincing, while the snow and ice effects are slightly less so--only in a video game would you attempt a lap of the ice-laden Nürburgring in an Enzo Ferrari and make it across the finish line in one piece--and typically pose a serious challenge for your throttle control skills.
While the game's weather effects are often simlike, PGR 4's car handling still treads the fine line between arcade approachability and simulation depth. You can hop into a car right away in the game and begin turning laps without fear of spinning out or locking your brakes in a tight turn. It also helps that the car list is more varied than the "all exotics, all the time" roster of PGR 3. This time around, the list has opened up a bit more to include everything from the pokey Mini Cooper S to F1 replicas, and even a pickup truck. Certainly at the highest classification, PGR 4's car list is as exotic as it comes; it's nice, however, that the roster includes a more representative sample of low-end models this time around. As in the past, the game doesn't feature vehicular damage beyond the merely cosmetic.
Then there are the motorcycles, which make their series debut here. As with the car list, the two-wheeled choices include everything from the relatively modest Buell RR 1200 to the frighteningly powerful MV Augusta F4 Senna. When it comes to handling, the motorcycles in PGR 4 have their ups and downs. Bikes are extremely easy to drive--there's no split between front and rear brakes to worry about--and it's tougher than you might think to get yourself thrown from the saddle. Toss in the fact that bikes are extremely quick off the starting line (due to their power/weight ratio) and that kudos--the in-game currency you earn as a result of stylish driving in the PGR series--are typically easier to rack up on a bike than in a car (thanks to endos, wheelies, and a responsive drift model), and motorcycles seem almost overpowered.
True, the fastest cars in the game will typically be quicker than the bikes but, in our experience, if you can grab an early lead in PGR 4 on two wheels and can maintain some consistency in your laps, you'll be awfully tough to beat. Bikes have their control quirks; for instance, when coming out of a turn, you'll want to let go of the analog stick in order to bring yourself back up smoothly, as manually bringing your rider upright can result in serious overcorrection errors. But for the most part bikes aren't much of a challenge and, as a result, aren't really as fun as we were hoping.
Regardless of your vehicular predilection, you will have plenty of road to drive on in this game. In addition to earning medals for beating challenges in the arcade mode or turning laps in the time attack mode, you'll have plenty to do in Gotham career, the anchor of the single-player mode. The goal here is to become the number one driver in the world by progressing through championships and invitational events strewn throughout the PGR world. The events are based around a calendar, so you'll have access to only a handful of races at any given time.
These races comprise of a variety of the challenges--including hot lap, cone challenges, eliminator, gate challenges, kudos vs. time, and standard street races. Kudos determine your overall position within a particular challenge; in addition to earning a bonus for finishing well within a race, any additional kudos you earn are added to your overall score. At the end of a championship series, you're awarded championship points based on your result and move up the ladder accordingly. In addition, you can buy items such as new tracks and cars, and even a custom Xbox Live gamer picture, with the kudos you've earned in races.
On the default difficulty level, we were able to win the Gotham career mode in just over three calendar years (or between 10 and 15 hours in real time); at the hardcore level--where the competition is significantly tougher--it will likely take a good deal longer. In addition to standard championship events, you can also try out the occasional invitational, optional race challenges based around a single vehicle; win the challenge, and you'll add that vehicle to your ever-growing garages. Interestingly, the cars available to you for certain events can vary in total performance--and there's really no reason other than personal preference for you not to choose the most powerful vehicle available to for an event.
While zipping your way through career mode won't take that long, the game's online play is just as compelling as in the past. You can race in single and team events through a variety of race types such as elimination, street race, cat and mouse, and the new bulldog mode. In our experience, online performance was slick and mostly lag-free, with the game's frame rate dipping only in the sharpest of corners with multiple vehicles piling up. While you're online you can even check out the new PGR On Demand service, which lets you upload photos and race replays for others to watch and rate. With some simple paint tools, you can even customize your cars a bit. It's not nearly as extensive as the customization options in a game like Forza 2, but at least it gives you the chance to give your online ride a unique flair.
Beyond being a fun racing series, the PGR series has come to be known as a standard-bearer for visual style, and that continues in spades in Project Gotham Racing 4. New locales such as Shanghai, Macau, and Quebec are all lovingly reproduced in the game. Blast your way down a neon-soaked night track in Shanghai with the Oriental Pearl Tower looming in the background, and you'll be hard-pressed to think of a game that has done as much with urban landscapes as Project Gotham Racing 4. That level of visual quality doesn't come at the expense of performance, either; again, for the most part, the game runs at a rock-steady frame rate. Certainly, it's one of the most impressive-looking games of the year on the Xbox 360. The soundtrack for this game is just as varied as PGR 3, featuring a healthy heaping of world, rock, hip hop, jazz, and classical tunes, though the quality of the individual tracks doesn't seem to be as strong as in the previous game. However, the only music gearheads will care about is the roar of the engines, and thankfully PGR 4 delivers here as well, with a huge variety of authentic-sounding engine sounds that change in tone and quality depending on the driving viewpoint you prefer.
With such an intense level of focus trained on the weather effects in PGR 4, it makes you wonder what the team at Bizarre Creations could do if they threw their hat into the simulation ring and took on the Forzas and Gran Turismos of the world at their own game. Still, that doesn't take away from what Project Gotham Racing 4 is: a worthy successor to the previous games in the series and a game that will create entirely new calluses on the hands of racing fans.