I've learned through experience that to correctly predict game trends you must consult my older relatives or my non-gaming friends. I know this makes no sense, but they are the surest barometer of all things gaming-related. Go figure! A few years ago, none of them had ever heard of Project Gotham Racing or Need for Speed: Underground or Midnight Club or Burnout. And while hardcore gamers were playing these titles for the first time, the "gaming barometer" of the world was happily and blissfully asking me about that "chicken punting" game or that other "violent" one that all the kids were playing. But as sure as time ticks away when you're least expecting it; the great "gaming barometer" eventually caught on and starting asking me about Project Gotham Racing 2 and Underground 2 and Burnout 3 and Midnight Club 3. I suppose the barometer loves numbers or simply playing catch-up, but one thing is certain; where the barometer goes, trends follow. And since the first glimpse of the Xbox 360 I've heard nothing but talk about this "Gotham Game Racing Project 3" that looks so good. Well, now I know what the barometer's keeping close tabs on, and after playing PGR3 at X'05 in Toronto, there's good reason.

I played the original PGR sporadically; I liked the game, but if never ceased to frustrate me. I'd pick it up, play it until I hit a certain level of frustration and put it aside for a bit. The day that PGR2 hit the shelves, I took a day off work and played it until I had all the cool cars I wanted unlocked for online play. And play online I did. I talked all my friends into buying it and everyone loved it. I added dozens and dozens of people to my Friends List after meeting them online. I gave PGR2 to people as a birthday and Christmas gift. The game could do no wrong. PGR2 was a work of perfection and the expansion packs only kept me playing it more and more. To this day, I still think of PGR2 as one of the greatest games of all time. And so, in my mind, PGR3 was destined to fail. How could it come remotely close to being as good as 2 was? Sure, it looked all nice and shiny with polygon counts through the roof, but c'mon! Would it keep me hooked? I headed to Toronto expecting very little and ready to be disappointed. Yeah, PGR3 made me a believer again...

The first thing you'll notice when you take this iteration out for a spin is the insane amount of options that PGR3 give you. When you customize a race, you really customize it. From time of day, mode, A.I., cars on the track, weather, courses, music, whatever, PGR3 lets you race the way you want to. PGR2 had a lot of "invented" online games, in PGR3 you can just create them. If game modes and setting weren't enough, the game also lets you build the track the way you want. You're racing southbound on Las Vegas Boulevard and just passed Circus Circus on your right, the Stardust looms in the distance but you want to avoid it and head towards the Sands instead. Done. You want to keep on Paradise Road until you hit the Hard Rock? Done. You want to cut between the Paris and the Aladdin? Done-aroonie! Yes, Las Vegas is not only that detailed in the game, but the track creator is that good at re-routing a course. And if that weren't enough, PGR3's engine renders the entire city whether you are racing that track or not, so when you hit a wall and come to a stop, you can actually move the camera over to peer down perfectly rendered alley-ways and side streets. All the landmarks of every city are there, from the roller-coasters of Circus Circus (can you tell that Vegas was my city of choice?) to the high towers and billboards of Tokyo and New York.

Remember PGR2 when you had to start out racing Florence with those Compact Sport Series? Nothing against the Mini or the Focus, but I was already looking forward to the Vanquish and the Koenigsegg and the Enzo. Well, PGR3 bypasses all that and only features cars you actually want to race at high speeds; Lamborghinis, RUFs (Porsche), Ferraris, Vipers, Aston Martins and the likes. Eighty-some cars total and each one a keeper, all rendered pristinely with 80000 polygons per (40000 exterior and 40000 interior).

Project Gotham Racing 3 looks amazing. Strike that. Project Gotham Racing 3 looks awesome. But we all expected it to. The cars are perfectly rendered, the reflections are as gorgeous as always (the only thing cooler than all the accurate glitz of Vegas is the reflection of all the Vegas glitz on the cars), the massive amounts of spectators lining the tracks (brilliantly rendered crowds that stare and move according to your car; hitting guardrails has never been so much fun), the amount of detail (and licensing) that has gone into each track to make them quasi-photorealistic, etc, etc. But what I never expected from PGR3 was the amount of work and detail that has gone into making the interiors of each car.

Each of the 80-some cars has been accurately portrayed inside and out. From the location of the driver's seat (left, right, center) to the types of shifter used in the cars, not to mention the dashboard (and its lights), the mirror placement, the upholstery, the details of the doors, everything. This is what wowed us. But add to that the fact that the best camera view is now within the cockpits of these cars and that the mirrors are actually useful (and look freakin' awesome) and that the car moves and sways and shifts and shakes like it's suppose too and add the fact that the right thumbstick allows you to move your driver's head around to glance at a mirror or at your hands as you accurately shift and now you have what completely blew us away. Project Gotham Racing was that marvelous to behold. I've waited years for this level of accuracy in a racing game and PGR3 delivers it all and then some.

PGR3 also adds little touches here and there to make you really appreciate what a complete package it is; but at the same time, overwhelms you with the quality and functionality of even the simplest additions. There is now a Photo Mode in the game. But where other games would simply let you pick backdrops and a few angles, PGR3 gives you a real camera to play with. You can set everything from the camera position (think Madden replay mode here), to the lens tools you want, right down to zoom, f-stops, shutter speeds, aperture, focus and focus points, etc. This also makes showing off your creations online a lot easier.

Whereas PGR2 had one of the greatest multiplayer modes of any game to date (and amazing leaderboards that always showed you, in single player mode even, how you stacked up against the world), PGR3 not only adds tons of new twists and modes but also the much touted Spectator Mode. In this mode, 30000 people can spectate a race between 2-8 players. Yes, this will come in handy when bragging rights are at stack and a "showdown" must happen, but it will also be neat to see celebrities play each other online when we can all sit back and watch.

The build that was present at Toronto's X'05 was nowhere near done and certain levels were a lot more stable than others graphically (rain caused fairly serious graphical glitches to occur). We were also told that more textures would me added to the inside of cars (door paneling, etc) and that certain background attractions would be animated. But even with these few, easily fixed, problem areas, PGR3 still proved to be one of the premier titles at the event. I'm a hard person to please and a harder person still to impress, but PGR3 did both and that's saying a lot. I've added it to my list of must-have titles (with DOA4 and Madden 06) for the 360 launch day, I've talked about it incessantly with friends and coworkers and if all goes to plan, I expect to take another day off work to get to know Vegas and all the other tracks a little better. PGR3 is without question the best looking racing game I've ever seen and if the gameplay holds true to form, it may finally retire PGR2 from my frequently played shelf.