Project Gotham Racing 4 is a racing title with a glorious array of cars and tracks to unlock and online multiplayer to explore. Everything is based on a real-world machine or location, and as per usual, most of them are the stuff dream races are made of, exciting fantasies most gamers are never going to visit or drive. The Project Gotham series has a strong relationship with the Xbox brand, with the original PGR launching the Xbox and PGR3 launching the 360. In many ways, PGR4 is supposed to represent the perfection of the PGR racing style, as developer Bizarre Creations has since gotten snapped up by Activision. Any future PGR titles are going to be handled by different developers at Microsoft Game Studios' direction and are likely going to have a very different vibe. For fans of the earlier PGR games, there's no question that this is a must-buy. It is even more of an achingly beautiful racer to play than PGR3, and it may be the last time gamers get to enjoy gameplay in that style.
What sets PGR's approach apart from the sea of other achingly beautiful, near photo-realistic racers a 360 owner could be playing? Mostly, it's the gameplay, and specifically the way cars and tracks interact. PGR sits comfortably in the no man's land between arcade style racers, which are all about instant gratification and achieving insane top speeds, and more realistic sim-style racers. This gives the entire game's design, from the ground up, a pleasing combination of an arcade racer's accessible controls and immediate gratification with the sim's devotion to realistic driving and challenging courses.
Even the beginner courses in PGR4 are full of the sorts of challenging hairpin turns and 90-degree swerves through narrow back alleys that Ridge Racer wouldn't dream of letting players drive. Even the beginner cars require players to invest a lot of time in mastering each car's individual handling. Technique that might send you zooming through a tight corner when you're using a relatively high-grip car like the Delta Integrate Evo is going to send you skittering helplessly around curves and power sliding uncontrollably while using a drifting car like a Cobra Stingray. You can't even totally predict how various cars, especially high-class cars or the wacky assortment of novelty vehicles that show up in the G class, are going to perform just from their stated stats. You really need to get onto a course and drive them, and that adds tremendously enjoyable depth to the game.
You aren't limited to racing cars in PGR4, as fans of the franchise know. Motorcycles are a major portion of the gameplay, and trucks make triumphant (if limited) return from PGR2 after missing out on PGR3. Both of these alternate vehicle types bring new challenges and enjoyment to the gameplay. Motorcycles require a totally different driving philosophy than any car, and performing well with them involves more extensive use of PGR's unique Taunt system to drive up your score. Trucks are simply more challenging versions of the cars in the same class, as their heavy rear weight makes cornering with them even more of an exercise of skill. It's very easy for a novice player who doesn't know what he or she's doing in a truck to end up T-boning a wall, or blowing the race entirely by attempting to drift through a turn and ending up power sliding instead. It's also a bit harder to get some of the scores with trucks that you can get for cars (which are, after all, smaller and lighter), like bonuses for air-jumping or driving on two wheels.
The "score" in PGR4, as with the other titles in the series, comes in the form of Kudos. You can think of them as points racked up both for achieving certain goals while driving, or as a form of currency earned by driving particularly well or stylishly. Kudos fill both roles in the game, and you can earn them by the tons for simply doing anything very well. Drifting through corners perfectly, clearing a section of track without hitting walls, sliding ahead of opponents in competitive races, power sliding, jumping, driving a car on two wheels, hitting the optimal line on a track and all manner of other things offer Kudos. You can earn Kudos in both the single-player and multiplayer portions of the game, too, so the title doesn't force you to play any mode in which you might not be that interested. With that said, there are certain cars and tracks that can only be unlocked by excelling at a particular game mode, so PGR4 also encourages you to work toward getting good at everything it has to offer. It simply doesn't force it, which makes it a far more approachable title.
You spend Kudos in the PGR store, which lets you unlock the vast majority of the cars, bikes and tracks quite easily. The goals in Kudos you need to meet for every pack of cars and tracks is clearly listed, which makes purchasing all of the unlocks fun and exciting (instead of tedious, as having to unlock everything in a poorly designed racer can be). A skillful player is going to get the unlocks finished first, most likely, but even newbies are going to find that they're rewarded very well for practicing and honing skills at lower difficulty levels, or even repeating events until they can be beaten on higher difficulty levels. This is really ingenious game design in terms of difficulty, since it ensures that elite players get the elite rewards they deserve without outright alienating players of lower skill levels. Everyone can eventually get most of the best cars, so they can have more fun showing off for friends or having bouts online against other players. It's very difficult to design a game that's legitimately fun for players of all skill levels, but Bizarre has managed that perfectly with PGR4. In many ways, it's a racing-themed sandbox where players can meet the assigned goals and unlock the many Achievements however they see fit.
At first, the variety of game modes may seem restrictive, but playing around reveals enormous depth that can easily turn the desire to just try and clear a few races into an hours-long, sleep-destroying marathon game session. The single-player modes are the aptly named Arcade, Gotham Career, Time Attack and Custom Match. Time Attack is entirely self-explanatory, while Custom Match allows the player and the computer to get in a quick racing fix by designing a particular challenge, using the same options available for customization in any multiplayer matches. What's interesting about Custom Match is that it lets players focusing on the single-player mode us the elite A-class vehicles they've unlocked much earlier than they would be able to otherwise, and it's also the best mode for playing around with the G-class oddities like the DMC-12 (the DeLorean of "Back to the Future" fame) and the Mini Cooper G (from the original "Italian Job").
The main single-player modes for amassing Kudos are Arcade and Gotham Career. The latter is a pretty typical racing game campaign mode, where you develop a particular racer's library of cars by trying to win varying series of races, elevate their status and unlock more challenging competitions over a very long period of time. It's noteworthy both for the ability to unlock progressively luxurious garages to house your vehicles, swap photos and movies with other players via Xbox Live and the ability to play a challenging new version of the popular Geometry Wars shooter by visiting an arcade game stored in your garage. Gotham Career is also interesting in that you can only race on particular days and frequently have to choose between several concurrent events. Of course, it's always in your interest to pick whichever event lets you use the highest-class cars.
Arcade Mode is something of a stripped-down Gotham Career mode, where you earn medals by meeting a variety of challenges that are separated into various courses. There are roughly six challenges per course and 10 courses in all, and all but the first three have to be unlocked by earning so many medals. Most courses are built around a particular theme, such as cars of a certain class or a certain type of challenge. One might be all about classic races or elimination matches that remove whoever's at the back of pack after each lap, while others might be about trying to amass a certain number of Kudos before the race is over. Overall, Arcade Mode is the best place to learn the game's mechanics and begin practicing for the demands of online multiplayer. Arcade Mode lets you clear challenges on difficulty ranging from Steel (super-easy) to Platinum (super-tough), with plenty of gradients in between to help you gradually hone skills.
Even with so much single-player content, eventually a player is going to clear it all. This is how the online multiplayer via Xbox Live does wonders to give the title even more depth and replay value beyond the expansive single-player mode. Any human opponent is likely to be more interesting than the AI, and the PGR4 interface offers numerous ways to make it easy for players to either compete or just play lots of matches for fun with friends. All the while you earn Kudos, so you never have to feel like you're giving up on progress in the single-player game while participating in multiplayer races. While not quite as deep as the purely online Test Drive Unlimited, PGR4's selection of multiplayer events comes incredibly close, and it has the benefit of more sophisticated car handling than TDU. Players can choose to race as part of teams or as a single player against an entire pack, with up to eight players able to participate per race. Players can opt for the same sorts of game modes available in single-player mode, or play exclusive multiplayer games like Bulldog and Cat and Mouse. Competition for the top spots in ranked matches is fierce, making sure elite players have another outlet for showing off their skills.
Earlier this year, I reviewed Forza 2 for another outlet and effectively said that I felt sorry for anyone else releasing a racing game in 2007. At the time, I did not think it was possible for another racing title on that level to hit this year. PGR4, amazingly, has managed to hold its own and stands out as a stellar racing experience while retaining a distinct identity. It doesn't rely on cloning features from any other game, instead just building from the fundamentals of what obviously make for a good racing title. The selection of cars and motorcycles is incredibly fun, the graphics are self-evidently gorgeous and the array of gameplay options are both staggering and compelling. It is very rare that a game this polished and well-designed is made in any genre, and Project Gotham Racing 4 demands your attention regardless of your skill level or taste in gaming. There is literally something in this game for everyone.
More articles about Project Gotham Racing 4