Monday, August 14, 2006

Project Gotham Racing 3 review

Welcome to part 1 of my Xbox 360 week. We start with Project Gotham Racing 3, and this Bizarre Creations really have hit the nail on the head when it comes to what make the definitive racing game for the 360. It's easily accessible to all with it's multiple difficulty settings and Trueskill ranking system, yet it has layers of depth and enough options to keep you entertained for months.

Format: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Bizarre Creations
Genre: Driving
Region: PAL (Europe, Australia)
Price: £50 new, around £30 pre-owned

First off, a short history lesson. Although there's a 3 in the title, PGR3 is really the fourth game in the series. Way back in 2000, Metropolis Street Racer arrived on the Dreamcast and was way ahead of it's time. It featured three cities - London, Tokyo and San Francisco, a real time day/night cycle (which actually caused quite a few problems as it was very hard to see where to go in night time races), many different race types, and was obscenely large (I never finished it). It also introduced the concept of Kudos - points you earn for skillful driving and stylismaneuverses, which remain the cornerstone of the series to this day. You can check out a review I wrote way back when it was released on Gamefaq's here.

With the demise of Sega's beloved Dreamcast and the rise of the Xbox, Microsoft snapped up Bizarre Creations (who had also made quite a name for themselves with the first two Formula One games on the PlayStation) as part of it's own Microsoft Game Studios and work was begun on Project Gotham RacingOriginallyly this title was only meant to be a code name - Gotham being aaffectionatete nickname for New York, which was the major new addition to the game. The day/night cycle was dropped, the kudos system was refined further and made a bit more forgiving, and the game was just as large as ever. It did fairly well, so a sequel was planned.

Project Gotham Racing 2 was a big turning point for the series, and the Xbox console as well. The graphics were turned up to the max, the online play was one of the pioneers of the fledling Xbox Live service, and a large range of new cities were introduced, making this the biggest PGR by far. A medal system was also introduced, from Steel through to Platinum, which let players set their own difficulty and have something to aim for should they choose to replay the game later on. But the game was perhaps a bit too big, as in an interview with Edge magazine Martin Chudley from Bizzare stated that very few games actually bothered to play through all of the chapters.

Which brings us to Project Gotham Racing 3, arguably the best game on offer amongst the Xbox 360's launch line up. A conscious decision was made on Bizarre's part to pare down the number of cars, cities and race events to the bare essentials. Only the worlds finest sports cars make the cut this time - you'll see no Mazda Miatas or Toyota Sprinter's, instead you get 80+ supercars, such as the Enzo Ferrari, the Noble M14 or the TVR Custom Speed 12. There are only 4 cities in the game instead of PGR2's 12 or so, but the amount of detail lavished on each one makes previous games pale in comparison. Finally there are decidedly less events to complete in the solo career mode, but the online career and Playtime modes should see you playing a lot longer than before, plus you should actually be able to complete the solo career this time too.

Get your motor runnin'...

Graphics: 9 out of 10

Any of you that have played the game will probably be wondering why I have only given the graphics a 9, but I decided that as this is only a first generation 360 title, there's probably still room for them to get even better in later titles. As such, even though these are without a doubt the best visuals I've yet seen on the 360 (bearing in mind I've only owned one for a week) I think a 9 will do. Who knows what Forza Motorsport 2 or even a potential PGR4 will be able to achieve in the future?

Anyway, the graphics are one of the major draws to PGR3, as it's most likely the first thing you will notice about the game. The amount of detail featured in every track is insane. Veterans of the series will recognise certain areas of London and Tokyo from older games, but they've never looked this good. Then there are the cars. Oh my god, the cars!

Every car is accurate down to the tiniest detail, including the interior which you can look around using the right stick in the in-car view. In the replays you will notice that your surroundings are reflected in the paintwork of the car, which is particularly impressive on the night time Las Vegas tracks as all of the coloured lighting from the casino shineacrossss your car as you drive along the strip. You will even notice that the glass of the windscreen is accuratelmodeleded, and should you be driving at night with a rival behind you, their headlights will shine off it! The amount of work that has gone into the presentation of this game is quite remarkable.

Head out on the highway...

Sound & Music: 7 out of 10

The music in PGR 3 is quite a varied and weird mix. There's everything from Bangra, to Classical, to Rock, Rap and Hip Hop. Personally I would have liked a more consistent feel to it but I suppose it does reflect the world spanning nature of the game. However, thanks to the excellent feature of the 360 that lets you easily replace the music of any game with your own, you don't have to listen to the music in PGR 3 if you don't want to.

The sound effects fare much better, with every car having it's own engine note and the different views giving a different effect. In the car is where you will really hear the full voice of the engine, as you open the throttle on the back straight and blast past your opposition.

Lookin' for adventure...

Game Mechanics - 9 out of 10

The Kudos collecting nature of the earlier games in the series has been honed and fine tuned even further in PGR 3. There are more ways of earning Kudos than ever before, and more incentives for doing so. Reaching certain Kudos milestones increases your Rank, and gives you access to locked concept cars. This time you will also earn Credits as well, and these are used to actually buy the cars you want to drive. Car prices reflect the value of the cars in real life, so expect to do some saving if you want to buy a Ferrari F50 GTS, for example.

Luckily you will earn credits from offline or online play, so you still get a sense of progression from taking part in the online career. Microsoft's patented Trueskill system is well implemented and it will take you quite some time and commitment to achieve the highest ranks available. From personal experience I found it quite hard to find people to play against, possibly due to the games age (early adopters may well have moved on to other games). Things did pick up considerably at the weekend though, and you simply can't beat the thrill of winning your very first online career race, or coming first out of six people in a heated and very challenging battle around the leviathan track that is the Nurburgring Nordschleife.

The handling in PGR 3 feels a little bit more challenging than in PGR 2, with skilled use of the brake and e-brake being required to drift around corners without slamming in to the sides. It does feel "right" though, and you'll soon get used to it. It's great fun too.

As well as both solo and online career modes, there is a Playtime option. In here you will find options for unranked races, in single player, over system link anacrossss Xbox Live. This is also where you'll find some of the stranger game types, such as Capture the Track or Cat and Mouse. Capture the Track works by awarding a corner to whoever takes it at the fastest speed, and the winner is the one with the most corners at the end of the race. In Cat and Mouse, one player drives an E class vehicle, and his team mates drive A class vehicles, and the winning team is the one that manages to get their E class driver over the finishing line first. Playtime is also home to the route editor, where creative players can design their own routes through each of the cities to their hearts content. Personally, I prefer to drive on routes created by Bizarre, as player created routes often don't play anywhere near as well and feature distracting yellow arrows on the corners. All in all, Playtime is a worthy addition to the game and should be your port of call if all you want to do is enjoy some pressure free racing for a while.

Innovation & Cleverness: 6 out of 10

I've marked PGR 3 down a little bit in this category mainly due to the fact that yes, it is an update of an old franchise and nothing itrulyly new or revolutionary in the way that it was back in MSR. But the way it has been pulled of is very clever indeed and other developers could still learn a thing or two from Bizarre Creations.

The one true innovation that PGR 3 brings to gaming as a whole is Gotham TV - a dedicated TV channel on Xbox Live which broadcasts the best drivers in the world, and regular tournaments run by Microsoft. I attempted to qualify for one of these tournaments myself, in which you had to be amongst the 64 fastest times to get in, and I only managed to come 908th! To get in to one of these it will really take some skill, hard work and persistence. Maybe I'll try again one day, but I need a lot more practice first.

Value & Replayability: 9 out of 10

The multi tiered difficulty settings from PGR 2 have been brought back for number 3 and they work just as well as they did last time. For every challenge in the single player career mode you can choose one of five skill levels from Novice through to Hardcore (or Steel through to Platinum medals). This not only ensures that even the least skilled drivers should be able to get to the end, but it actively encourages replay to try and improve your medal. Like every other game on the 360, PGR 3 features Achievements that you unlock by fulfilling various criteria, in this case collecting all the Ferrari's or getting a Platinum medal in every event for example (which is not easy, let me tell you).

Once you have finished the solo career you still have the Playtime mode, which covers quick one player races, split screen and system link options, unranked online matches and the route creator. Throw in the fully fledged online career mode and there's enough to keep you coming back for quite some time (as long as you can find people to race against that is).

And whatever comes our way...

Overall: 9 out of 10

Of the four retail games I currently own, PGR 3 is my favourite. It featureimmenselyey satisfying handling, an adjustable skill level to ensure you never get stuck and always have something to aim for, the Achievements to give you the incentive to keep playing, and all the Xbox Live features you need to play for rankings or just for fun. The presentation is the icing on the cake and prove that Bizzare Creations still have what it takes after a decade of developing mainly racing titles. The only small niggle I have is that PGR 2 had many more cities, but there's always thpossibilityty that new ones could be put on Marketplace to download, and the quality of the environments that are on offer mean it's never really an issue. If you are a racing fan, then check out PGR 3 now!

Born to be wiiiiiiiiiiiiilllld!

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