Wednesday, January 16, 2008

PGR4 review

Way back in August of 2006 I reviewed PGR3, which performed well in all areas earning it a 9 out of 10 overall. The presentation, sound and gameplay were all top notch, but I was slightly disappointed at the relative lack of cities compared to PGR2. PGR4 brings plenty of new cities to the forefront, all of which feature many fantastic tracks to race around. These include the twisty Asian cities of Shanghai and Macau, the hilly Quebec, and the scenic St Petersburg. The game also has some other new features to help differentiate it from its predecessors, but do they really add to the experience or is it just a case of more of the same? Let's find out...

Format: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Bizarre Creations
Genre: Racing
Region: Europe (PAL)
Price: Around £30 new, or £18 pre-owned

9 out of 10
PGR3 was a launch title for the Xbox 360 and at the time the graphics were a huge leap beyond those of the previous hardware generation. They're still pretty impressive today, but the sequel manages to outdo them on every level. There's more detail in the track and car models there's a much wider array of lighting effects due to the different times of day that the races can take place at. Then we have the weather effects which are simply amazing, especially as a race can turn from wet to dry and back again in real time. As well as rain, you will also have to contend with varying levels of fog, snow and all out thunder storms. Snowy weather can also result in patches of ice on the track which can be very treacherous (especially if found on a corner). The tracks take on a completely different dynamic when they're wet or icy compared to in the dry, and this helps add to the variety and depth of the game.

You can once again view replays or take photos of the action but this time you can also post them to PGR on Demand, which is like Gotham TV but the players have much more control over the content. This is a growing trend in games (see also Halo 3) and is clearly aimed at the Youtube/Facebook generation. Personally I think it's a good thing, and these modes are usually optional extras anyway and not forced upon you.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
As well as the accurately sampled engine noises which are just as good as the last game, there is a new and highly varied range of music to accompany the racing action. Popular artists such as Goldfrapp, Bloc Party and Lilly Allen are featured along with a more eclectic mix of classical, world and jazz music. The only musical style I usually find myself skipping are the rap tunes, which have little appeal to me, but the rest is of very high quality.

Here you can see a... car. It could be a Lamborghini, or maybe a Lotus, I don't know. Do I look like Jeremy Clarkson to you?

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
I'm not really going to go into the basics of the PGR franchise because I have already done so, instead I'd rather focus on what's changed. Firstly, you have a whole new Gotham Career mode which takes place on a rolling calendar of events and sees you clawing your way up from the bottom of the rankings all the way up to the number one spot. You will proceed through several levels of events before you get to the top, each of feature new, more challenging championships. These include Rookie, Professional, Hotshot and Master. There are regular championships that feature one to six events that can be made up of any of the different game styles (Street Race, Eliminator, Hot Lap, Speed Challenge, etc), and there are also one off Invitationals that can involve you doing something a bit more out of the ordinary and usually result in you winning a vehicle. Finally there are the Majors, which happen three times in a season. These are the really big championships for the best drivers and they can be really challenging at first, and you will also have to qualify until you get into the top ten drivers.

On top of this new career mode there is also an Arcade mode, which essentially the same as the single player from PGR3 with multiple chapters made up of numerous events where you can earn medals ranging from Bronze to Platinum When you're done with all of that you can take the plunge into the world of online racing, which this time can include entire championships as well as single events, and a much improved lobby system. You can also try your hand at a Tournament, but these are really only for the very best players in the world as the qualifying conditions are extremely harsh indeed.

The other major addition to the game on top of the variable weather that I've already mentioned are motorbikes. As you'd expect they handle rather differently than their four-wheeled counterparts and can be a really thrill to drive. They also feature they're own exclusive range of Kudos earning moves such as wheelies and endos. However, you are extremely prone to being knocked off of a bike which is the major reason why you won't see a lot of people racing them online.

There are also are few new race types including Superstar where you have to chain kudos earning manoeuvres together in order to earn a certain number of stars within a time limit, and Super Cone Sprint which is a bit like the standard cone sprint but instead of featuring gates on a regular track, the entire track is made up of cones.

Finally, the PGR Shop has had something of an overhaul and now you have to buy everything in various packs, and not just the cars and bikes. There are also game types and track variations that have to be bought before you can use them. For example, there is an endurance track pack, a Bulldog game type, or a pack of Ferrari cars. All of these can be bought with the kudos points that you earn in single player or online.

Another car... but this time in black. It's very shiny isn't it?

Innovation and Cleverness:
6 out of 10
Much like last weeks game, Mass Effect, PGR4 is more of a refinement of an existing idea rather than anything truly new. The motorbikes, weather and overhauled career mode add to the game tremendously but none of them are truly revolutionary. I feel that the PGR series has now reached its peak, especially now that Bizarre have moved from Microsoft to Activision. I suggest that Microsoft should retire the brand now rather than giving it to another developer who probably won't make anywhere near as good a job of it. Some of the smarter ideas of the PGR series will make a modified appearance in Bizzare's next game, The Club however, as the game is set to take the kudos systems and apply it to a shooting game.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
The single player Gotham Career will last you a considerable amount of time on it's own, but then you have the arcade mode, and the online mode which in theory could go on forever (or at least until no one plays it anyone and they shut down the server). There is a lot more to do in PGR4 than there was in PGR3, and you're not likely to get tired of it anywhere near as quickly. So far there has been no downloadable content released, but hopefully this will change soon. I would like to see Microsoft add some new cities this time rather than simply releasing car packs, as there's nothing wrong with the cars already in the game, but new tracks are always welcome. Even if they are just tarted up versions of old cities from PGR2 (Barcelona or Edinburgh maybe?) that would be better than nothing.

9 out of 10
If this indeed the last in the PGR series then it has gone out on a high (engine) note. The handling is more satisfying than ever, the sensation of speed is spectacular, the range of game options is extensive and the weather and motorbikes make the old feel new again. Is it worth buying if you've already got PGR3? That depends on how avid a racing game fan you are, but I was more than happy with my purchase. The game can also be found quite cheaply if you're prepared to buy a pre-owned copy. Take the Marketplace demo for a spin and see what you think.

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