Project Gotham Racing 4
Project Gotham Racing 3 was pretty impressive for a launch title. Tasty graphics and a fine sense of speed were married with a smorgasbord of enjoyable arcade racing options to deliver a title that holds up well to this day. Time stands still for no man - nor machine - however, so now Bizarre Creations bring us number four, arguably their brightest and best game to date.
Other than the truly sumptuous graphics and those motorbikes, the most immediately noticeable thing is this new 'career' mode. Pitching players headlong into a full campaign of racing, this mode at last provides PGR with a consistent core around which the rest of the events can hang like so much optional decoration. At first it's a bit jarring to not be able to pick and choose which event is next, nor precisely which car to take along for the ride, but it soon becomes apparent that the game benefits greatly from compelling players to focus on their racing ability rather than their stamina for retrying failed sections again and again. If you do poorly in a section of any championship then you have to endure the consequences. Do well and you earn the points needed to rise up the ranks and unlock the more challenging courses and opponents. To temper the pain of failure there's not a massive difference in the number of points awarded between first and last place in a championship, so even if you win at failure you'll be able to slog your way to the coveted master spot. The addition of the career mode initially seems to sit uneasily with the style of previous PGR games but it soon becomes apparent that Bizarre have successfully expanded the scope of their game without infringing upon its core elements. In fact, for those of us who enjoy driving really fast more than the Time vs. Kudos challenges and their ilk, the career mode allows us to put our nose to the tarmac and just race.
If you get frustrated with the regimented style of the Career mode than Arcade mode is lying there suggestively at the head of the menu screen. Succumb to its charms and it's back to the framework of old; earn medals in a variety of challenges and try to max out your kudos in the process. Earning kudos seems to be less about fishtailing from one side of the track to the other with a lot more focus being given to taking corners well and actually driving with flair rather than cynically abusing the game mechanics. To this end kudos is capped in a number of events which comes as a bit of a shock the first few times you experience it. There's a new Cone Attack mode where the object is to knock over a set number of cones within a time limit, which makes a nice juxtaposition with the regular Cone Challenges, which are still here and still continue to frustrate this particular gamer. At least the loading times are appreciably more brief than in PGR3, which means no more untouched cups of tea waiting to be knocked over when you face another 45 second wait to retry hitting 101.07 MPH. Or, as is now the case, 435.62 MPH as measured over four checkpoints. In the rain. The new weather effects are not only immersive and atmospheric they have a noticeable effect on your vehicle's handling. Having to overcome the effects of hydroplaning or black ice while trying not to get eliminated adds a lot to the overall racing experience and PGR4 is the better game for their inclusion.
The driving in all modes of PGR4 seems to have had an extra injection of fun, even when the sun is shining and the birds are singing. The point of an arcade racing game is to provide thrills and entertainment and the repositioning of the game modes along with the blistering pace and bountiful eye candy conspire to make PGR4 just about the most fun I've had since Rallisport Challenge 2. Which, as far as this reviewer is concerned, is the highest praise I can offer. Bizarre have ironed out a few of the rough edges to ensure this opinion holds firm. For example, the corners are much easier to anticipate thanks to them being a lot less prone to popping into view 1/5th of a second before the braking point.
Arcade mode is the only single player way to earn kudos with which to purchase new vehicles. You can also buy more tracks to whizz around and cars are now bought in packs. It's also nice to see that you cannot buy the F50 after winning just three races, which means you now need to put some time into the game before you can get your mitts on the monster cars. If you want to get lots of kudos quickly I can suggest popping online for some ranked match action. Online play is super-smooth for the most part and from my experience the community is reasonably well behaved. Matches are fun although if you don't absolutely adore class A cars you may get a bit disillusioned with the choice of most gamers. So it's a good thing that there are more customising options in PGR4 than you can shake a gear stick at. There's even a livery editor this time, although it is simplistic in comparison to the one included in Forza 2.
All is not champagne and garlands though. I noticed a very occasional bug where you can lose a race that you actually won, or vice-versa. While the latter can be wickedly pleasing the former can grate like a building alarm at four in the morning. I was also less than pleased to fail a couple of overtake challenges even though I had most assuredly passed the correct number of cars without letting any of them get past me again. PGR4 also has another infuriating ace up its sleeve in the form of automatically ending any race session if for any reason you lose your connection to Live. Quite why I must repeat the last nerve-wracking eight minutes slip-sliding through the snow on the Nurburgring because my router belched is beyond me. It seems likely to me these issues would be a relatively simple matter to sort out in any future patch yet until then they are the fly which has comitted suicide in the ointment. There are also occasions where you get the feeling some evil person at Bizarre figured they needed to balance out all the improvements in PGR4 with the occasional retrograde step. I struggle to think of another explanation for the near-banishment of leaderboards. If you want to know how your Friends are doing on a track or compare thyself to the best in the world you're pretty buggered. Unless you're time-attacking the only way to check things is on the very buggy PGRNations.com, which apart from being less stable than Liza Minnelli in 6 inch stilettos only records times when you are logged into Live. It's a fairly minor issue but it is disappointing to witness such a baffling oversight in such an otherwise wonderfully integrated game.
The music selection is, of course, a highly subjective issue but as it is something you will be exposed to almost constantly I feel it bears mentioning. Fortunately you can choose which genres to listen to so if you cannot abide the dross that passes for music these days you can console yourself with some jazz or classical tunes. Blazing past the opposition on a rainy night in Macau while pondering the metatextuality of listening to Hall of the Mountain King while playing a seventh generation console game is just delightful.
The difficulty in PGR 4 seems pitched just right. Challenges progressively get harder as you march down the chapters in arcade while your opponents are quicker as you work your way through the career. Often it can seem necessary to pass as many cars as possible within the first few turns in the later stages of either campaign as race leaders tend to pull away quickly. Then again, this is probably a subjective observation due to the magnetic attraction between my cars and the barriers. One on Ones are particularly gripping affairs as there's no need to worry about the pack and balls to the floor racing can be enjoyed for its raw pleasures.
The courses also deserve a special mention thanks to their huge variety and the depth of challenge they provide. From the simple oval-like courses that populate the beginning of the game to those wonderful long runs in Macau and St Petersburg where being slightly off your line leads to a crash, but getting that line just right is a sublime thrill as you careen down a gently twisting straight while earning Top Speed kudos. This isn't racing in Holland either, with lots of variation in height and gradient. The Quebec courses are particularly notable for this, encouraging drivers to be mindful of how many wheels will be on the track as well as the line they are seeking out. Macau dips and rises with alarming frequency thanks to it's abundance of elevated roadways. The cars themselves seems to have been tweaked to allow them the freedom to really soar with the birds; Air and Two Wheel kudos are no longer rarities with A class cars in particular kissing the sky with gleeful abandon.
Overall PGR4 is a solid package with enough content to keep you entertained for a long time. Getting that all-gold achievement in Arcade is going to take some time and the career mode can go on for a good while, especially if you chase all those invitationals. Of course there is loads of time to be dealt with by the online modes and if you are particularly obsessed you can chase after the Gamerpic reward in the PGR Shop, yours for only one million kudos. PGR is also the kind of game you can drop into for a quick thirty minute blast, maybe as you wait for the missus to get ready for a night out. And I haven't even mentioned the stellar Geometry Wars: Waves, which takes the winning formula and cranks it up to 11. This little arcade shooter is worth a decent amount of cash on its own, so its inclusion in the package only makes PGR4 that much more attractive. Oh. And there are motorbikes in it too. They bump the score up an extra few percentage points.