Project Gotham Racing 3 (Xbox 360)
Bizarre Creations has had a heck of a run. Piling up the kudos from a rolling start with Metropolis Street Racer (Dreamcast), then power sliding around a huge turn to land launch title Project Gotham Racing on the original recipe Xbox, they’ve kept the crowd cheering for more than five years. When they surged ahead of the racing pack with PGR2, fans wondered if anyone could ever catch up…and now they have their answer. With a ridiculously showy Never-ending Drift, Project Gotham Racing 3 has crossed the finish line as the Number One racer for the Xbox 360 at launch – and the competition wasn’t even close.
In case you haven’t played any of its predecessors, the first thing you should know about PGR3 is that its gameplay occupies a unique spot on the racing continuum. Not quite a Forza-like pure sim racer, the PGR series has rather tight controls, but takes on an “arcade-style” tinge by actively encouraging risky behavior: you get points for style, drifting is a vital strategy, and – most significantly for race fans – small crashes, even at top speed, won’t automatically cripple your chances to win.
When MSR came out, that was enough to categorize it (and its descendants) as “arcade racers”. In these days of Burnout Revenge, which sees gamers regularly driving sideways around hairpin turns on dirt tracks at 200MPH, however, the distinction between the pure sim of Forza and the semi-sim of PGR seems a little smaller than it once did.
Certified frequent racers, though, will surely appreciate the difference in feel. If you start the game, as I did, immediately after spending 40 hours completing that latest Burnout, you’re going to spend a lot of time crashing into barriers at shallow angles and wondering why your wreck didn’t immediately detonate like a dynamite storage shed on wheels. Ultimately, all it means is that the controls of PGR3 are probably going to take a bit of getting used to, unless your primary racing experience has been with the PGR series. That said, if you are a PGR junkie you’re going to feel right at home behind the wheel of the latest model. Kudos – the scoring system that rewards drivers for any of 16 stylish moves on the track – are still the heart and soul of the game. And, as always, cars drive differently enough from one another for you to develop favorites in each of the five classes (though, unlike in PGR2, there aren’t any slowpokes to be found – every ride in the game is capable of doing at least 170mph) and store them in your personal garage. Also returning is the now-standard conceit of avoiding racing monotony by offering different race “types”, with ten unique events representing the widest variety of race categories yet.
Speaking of variety, flexibility and choice have always been hallmarks of the Project Gotham series. PGR3 escalates this diversity to an art form. Between the Single-Player Career (and its aforementioned ten race types) and the “Playtime” mode (which allows gamers to skip the career mode’s progressive feature unlocking and simply pick their favorites from the game’s 80 cars and 61 tracks), gamers have a huge array of solo racing options at their fingertips without even delving into the game’s “how could this not be a separate $5 download?” build-your-own-track system.
Then there’s the multiplayer. Yes, PGR3 has a separate Online Career mode, with unique challenges and even more game types. Yes, it’s got Playtime races against online friends, recently-whupped fellow drivers, and even folks sitting next to you on the couch. And yes, that is all handled with the same aplomb that Bizarre has shown in the past, and then some – from the well-designed menus to the smooth integration of the Xbox 360’s upgraded Live functionality.
What’s that? “Upgraded for the Xbox 360,” eh? If you’ve been waiting for the point in this review where a sentence like “and that’s how you can really tell it’s a next-gen game” comes up, then wait no further. PGR3’s utilization of the Xbox 360’s spit-polished version of Live is nothing short of astounding. Actually, it doesn’t even do PGR3 justice to have waited until the “multiplayer” portion of this review to mention the online features; this is the first console game that I’ve ever played in which the online component feels like an integrated aspect of every part of the game, rather than just an adjunct feature that enables distance gaming.
In PGR3, you will see other players’ high scores scroll by on an ESPN-style “Bottom Line” as soon as they’re set. When you finish a race, you will immediately see how your score compares to, well, everyone other Live user who’s ever played the game. And, with a feature Bizarre is calling “Gotham TV”, you can actually watch other gamers (both leaderboard giants and folks from your Friends List) race live, from your choice of camera angles, twenty four hours a day.
So what if South Korean RTS fans can watch televised Starcraft tournaments in prime time? If other developers follow Bizarre’s Gotham TV lead, the 360 itself will become every gamer’s personalized game channel. Yeah, improved graphics and dual-cores are great and all, but surely this type of thing is what Microsoft had in mind when they kept telling us that the next generation would change the way we experience games.
PGR3 is the best looking console game ever. It wouldn’t be helpful (or thorough) to end this section with that one sentence, but it would be true, especially for HDTV gamers. The car models are not quite jaw-dropping if you’re used to pouring over photos of real cars, but they’re certainly the smoothest, roundest, shiniest, least-jaggy ever to grace a non-PC title. And the environments…oh, my.
I’ve lived in New York for most of my life, and I have never seen anything come anywhere close to the quality of reproduction that Bizarre have managed here. My favorite Chinatown lunch spot is in the game. I mean, it’s IN the GAME. Not a generic restaurant where it should be, not a rough representation of the building that it’s in. The actual restaurant itself is there, in 3D, true enough to life to make you feel that if you could just get camera mode to zoom in close enough, you could copy their take-out number off the menu in the window.
Graphics aren’t just eye-candy, though – or, at least, they shouldn’t be. In the best video games, graphics work to enhance gameplay by allowing developers to do what high school English teachers are always yammering on about: “Show, don’t tell.” And PGR3 does just that…sometimes.
Take, for example, the PGR3 damage modeling system. Visual damage feedback is in the game, but in comparison to the level of detail lavished upon even the most insignificant of environmental objects (a jersey barrier, say), it seems unfinished. You can dent hoods and scrape fenders, but no matter how hard you try, you can’t render a car undriveably banged-up, nor can you pop a tire. In fact, I am pretty sure there is no performance difference at all between the shiniest new model and its busted-up twin.
Of course, this is probably due to restrictive license agreements rather than designer or artist choice, but it’s about time for a clever developer to come up with a different solution to this problem. Because of the unrealistic damage modeling, cognitive dissonance is introduced into a game that seems groundbreakingly realistic until that point. If you smash head-on into a wall at 210mph, you should not simply hear a muffled thud and speed off none the worse for wear. If I’m looking at a car (or especially a world) this realistic, it’s jarring when the rules of realism – rules as basic as “inertia” – don’t work properly. It’s graphical “showing” that’s not connected to gameplay “telling”.
All told, PGR3’s graphics are a blessing and a curse. I stand by my assertion that this is the best looking console game yet released, but I also think that graphics this good almost oblige a developer to create systems that use them to their best advantage. So while the new in-car view is amazing (with its working dashboard that definitely shows rather than telling), the presence of would-be jumps off the track that can be stopped by chain link fences is unsettling. And while the lack of weather is unfortunate (especially considering how well Bizarre’s done it in the past), I’d gladly punt rain if I could get animations just a little bit smoother…enough to consistently avoid the so-called “uncanny valley” of creepiness.
Even the best ever, it seems, still has room for improvement.
Wait, why did they get rid of the radio stations? I understand that the gag is a bit played out now with a GTA box set now on the discount shelves, but it was so cool to hear an announcer hype up, say, one of your own band’s songs in an almost-plausible way. Don’t get me wrong, the built-in music selection in PGR3 is terrific, and the implementation of the 360’s system-wide soundtrack customization is top notch, but I do miss the feeling of personality that came with the old faux-FM.
Thankfully, the rest of the game’s sound is so good that unless you were a die-hard PGR2 player, you won’t even know it could have been better. Distinct engine sounds and precision-placement of every moving element within the surround field mean that you can hear trouble approaching (and hear yourself approaching the tire squeals of trouble) without having to look for – or worse yet – be told about it.
Sound and graphics both enhancing gameplay in subtle, yet incredibly useful ways? Sounds like good game design to me.
For me, at least, PGR3 could very well be the Halo 2 of racing games. Maybe it’s missing a couple of features here and there, and maybe it does one or two things differently than it could have, but this is the Xbox 360 racer I want on my desert gaming island.
There are enough options in PGR3 to keep you exploring for months (even if the core single-player career is shorter than some Japanese racers I could name), especially once you start making your own tracks. And of course, if you’re into Live (and there’s a mode for everyone, so you should be), the potential is there for PGR3 to be one of gaming’s rare perennials; the kind of title you only get sick of for a bit before inevitably coming back for another run behind the wheel.
If you have an Xbox 360, or plan to get one, you should also plan on picking up Project Gotham Racing 3, even if you’re not a die-hard racing fan. It’s not only the game that best shows off the system’s amazing graphical capabilities, but it’s also a peek into the future of videogaming in general. Online play is so much a part of this game that non-Live subscribers (and there are apparently some of you out there, for some reason) should probably just consider a year’s subscription a part of PGR3’s cost and bite the bullet right now.
Even with its few small rough spots, PGR3 builds on its predecessor’s excellent core mechanics, redefines what an online racing experience can be, and shows an awareness of how great gameplay derives from the combination of all of a game’s elements (and not just good graphics, music or, for that matter, innovative design).
If this is what Bizarre can do with a launch title, just imagine what Project Gotham Racing 4 will be like!
Official Project Gotham Racing 3 Website
-D. G. Detsaridis