Publisher: Microsoft Games Studio
Developer: Bizarre Creations
Release Date: September 2007
Project Gotham Racing 3 was an undisputed hit, both from a commercial and critical standpoint, but there was a distinctive air of exclusivity behind it — almost an arrogance, if you will. By limiting the vehicle selection to those that could reach speeds of 170mph or more (i.e., cars that most of us will never own), any semblance of a learning curve was swiftly axed, as even the most basic car was difficult to control. That didn't stop the Xbox 360 launch title from being hugely successful, but its firm positioning between the flash and simulation aspects of the racing genre made it a tricky proposition for some accustomed to one or the other.
For the fourth jaunt back to Gotham, the team at Bizarre Creations wanted to get back to what initially defined the franchise. According to Global Product Manager Adam Kovach, it's not about how fast you drive, but rather how you drive fast. Sure, finishing a race in first place is still a core concept, but what good is a win without showing off a bit? Kovach kept coming back to three words when describing the game: speed, style, and daring. Such tenets fuel every aspect of Project Gotham Racing 4, which, based on what we saw during a meeting with reps from Microsoft last month, is a game wholly concerned with two other terms: expansion and polish.
Expanding the appeal of the franchise starts with opening up the vehicle selection a bit, which means that the 170mph benchmark established in PGR3 has gone by the wayside. Roughly 100 cars are expected to make the cut, with brands ranging from mainstream offerings like Toyota, Pontiac, and Chevrolet to more exotic or exorbitant Lamborghini, Jaguar, and Ferrari models. Classic vehicles excised from the previous game due to speed restrictions will also be included, with the developers promising a wide variety of makes and models from the included manufacturers.
Doing away with the tight vehicle requirements of its predecessor may endear Project Gotham Racing 4 to a wider audience of racing fans, but the unexpected addition of motorcycles may have a greater impact on how the franchise is perceived on the Xbox 360. Some 30 bikes from a handful of manufacturers will be included (bringing the total vehicle count to 130), and Kovach claims that the game is not about "cars vs. motorcycles," but rather choice.
The motorcycles will feature their own unique physics system, as to not give players the sensation of just driving a car with fewer wheels. Still, Bizarre wants it to be an arcade-style, pick-up-and-play experience, albeit one that will take considerable time to master. We had a chance to cruise around on a bike along the winding, virtual streets of Quebec, and while the initial feeling was very squirrelly, it certainly felt like something that we could get acclimated to pretty quickly. Turns seemed especially forgiving, at least relative to simulations like Tourist Trophy and the MotoGP series.
Quebec is just one of the five new environments included in Project Gotham Racing 4, joining Macau, Shanghai, St. Petersburg, and the Michelin Test Track as the fresh settings added for player perusal. Still, PGR4 should prove to be a much larger game than its predecessor, as all five of PGR3's settings (New York, London, Las Vegas, Tokyo, and the Nürburgring) will also be included. As hinted previously, Quebec is an especially diverse location, with winding roads and several hills and corners, giving players ample opportunity to grab some air.
Doing so will earn the player Kudos, which are the points awarded for stylish movements and actions. Kudos have been a part of the series since its inception, but PGR4 will offer additional opportunities to earn said points, especially with the advent of the aforementioned two-wheeled wonders. The analog sticks can be used to perform wheelies and stoppies, with jukes and taunts mapped to the A button. Combining these moves with power slides and other maneuvers will net the player a massive amount of Kudos, but you won't have to shift your eyes away from the center of the screen to keep tabs on accumulated points. A small, circular icon will pop up above the racer when Kudos are being earned, while visual and audio flourishes will trigger if you reach the high triple-digits.
The single-player Circuit mode looks to be a much less linear experience than that seen in PGR3, as players will be sent optional invitations to various events, each of which will lead to a different path. It's meant to give players the feeling of being on a real-life professional racing circuit, and Kovach talked about having the PGR4 experience feel like a mixture of MTV and street racing.
Enhancing the single-player experience involves more than just piling on the content and offering options, though. The previously robotic AI drivers will no longer follow a set path in PGR4, instead opting to race for Kudos with power slides and attempts to get air. Each AI driver will have a different personality, with some more aggressive or technical than others, but the key component is that they will all drive in a more realistic fashion, and just like you, they will make mistakes from time to time.
Eight-player online racing via Xbox Live makes a return, but a greater emphasis is being put on team play. Players will be able to form teams and use the Team Jersey system to choose team colors and pattern types to differentiate team members. Bizarre is still determining the team breakdowns, but Kovach mentioned that such races may feature two teams of four racers or perhaps four teams of two each. Cars and bikes will coexist during online play, and teams can be comprised of any mixture of the two vehicle types. Cat and Mouse and Capture the Flag modes have been confirmed for the game, but Kovach believes players will be able to use the flexibility of the online experience to create their own original game types.
Just as cable television has shifted significant emphasis onto on-demand programming in recent years, Project Gotham Racing 4 will eschew PGR3's GothamTV spectator system for "PGR On Demand." Utilizing a comprehensive search engine, players will be able to seek out and view the content they're looking for, as well as locate friends and rivals. We were not able to see PGR On Demand in action, but we suspect that more details will be unveiled later this week at the E3 Media & Business Summit in Santa Monica.
A bevy of enhancements make PGR4 a more polished and complete experience than its predecessors, and while many of these are visual in nature, they also contribute heavily to the feel of the game. It starts with the addition of a comprehensive weather system, which is deeply integrated into the both the look and play of the game. It's more than just rain drops or snow flakes appearing onscreen, though the beading effect is very impressive, especially in the detailed Photo Mode, which lets players freeze the frame, change the angle freely, and add special effects to create an optimal snapshot to upload to PGR On Demand.
The weather is meant to add challenge and excitement to the experience, and the wet roads will allow players to perform even wilder power slides and earn more Kudos points. Water will collect in certain spots on the tracks, but it won't be dynamic — the puddles and ice spots will remain in the same spots on each lap, forcing the player to learn the track and avoid the obstacles. True volumetric fog will collect from time to time, but it's not just a texture blanketed over the environments. While the fog is heavier in the lowlands, it dissipates at higher altitudes, and players will be able to look back and see it settling below.
Of course, slippery environments create greater potential for spectacular crashes, so the team at Bizarre put extra work into the visual representation of a collision, especially from the first-person viewpoint. Ragdoll physics for a biker are par for the course, but the view from his perspective is rather amusing, with the screen quickly going black before shifting back to the standard view, albeit with a hazy white glaze seemingly meant to create the impression of a minor concussion. We saw a couple of different crashes, and each added a little something extra to the racing experience. Additionally, cars will be able to take damage and swap paint with each other over the course of a race.
Kovach also showed off the new "speed shake" camera, which kicks in when a vehicle reaches speeds in excess of 100mph. Despite the exclusive set of high-performance beasts in PGR3, the race experience was essentially the same if you were going 50mph or 150mph. Now, when a player hits triple-digits on the speedometer, it will show on the screen, as the camera will start to shake wildly, increasing in intensity as the numbers climb. Combined with potential snowstorms and aggressive AI opponents, PGR4 should prove to be a very thrilling and compelling racing experience.
Forza Motorsport 2 has been in stores for just a few scant weeks now, but Project Gotham Racing 4 appears to be just around the corner, with an intended release in September. Kovach said that a pre-release demo is possible, but it will depend on Bizarre's production schedule, as the team will be working feverishly to complete the game on time. Project Gotham Racing 4 appears on track to be an even more exciting and accessible experience than its well-received predecessor, with a heap of polished content that should keep players busy until the inevitable PGR5 comes along.
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