Upon its launch, the Xbox 360 boasted a few first person shooters, a platformer here and there and quite a few sport titles. Nowhere did we really see an RPG or a fighting game, but that's another story. The one genre best represented however, was clearly the racing world. Fans of over the top arcade racing had their Ridge Racer, tuners and speed freaks had their Need For Speed and fans of more conventional racing games had Project Gotham. It's needless to compare the three since they each have their own fan-base and "raison d'etre" which set them apart from each other, but it is worth noting that PGR3 has probably drawn more attention than the other two for the simple reason that it was a Microsoft published title and along with Kameo and Perfect Dark Zero, was touted as one of the main reasons to own a 360 at launch. So how does PGR3 fare when the dust has settled?
To get the obvious out of the way; PGR3 looks amazing. Yes, while you're cruising along the streets of Las Vegas you may not notice much graphical difference from PGR2 (which was no slouch either), but when you slow down and really take into account everything that PGR3 does graphically, it's hard not to be amazed. From the small No Parking signs in hotel fronts to the emblems and badges on cars, every detail has been painstakingly recreated. The streets are lined with fans and photographers (who react appropriately to the race and your car - if you feel like nudging the fences) and the cities not only feel complete, but alive. The cars, now boasting 40,000 polygons on the exteriors and 40,000 more on the interiors are reason alone to pick up this title. If having the cars look perfectly authentic on the outside wasn't enough, PGR3 adds accurate interiors to the mix and provides an in-car camera view unlike anything that's ever been done.
When racing from a 3rd person perspective, the right thumbstick in PGR2 was used to look at your surrounding and rotate around your car. This still carries over to PGR3 (better than before) but now, while using the in-car perspective, the right thumbstick is used to rotate around the dashboard so that you can clearly see your mirrors, your shifter, your gauges and your hands as you maneuver around with the controls. Each car has been uniquely rendered with utmost attention to detail and there really is no cooler sensation than sitting in an expensive Lamborghini and being able to look around at what a real one truly looks like. The in-car perspective also provides a unique way to race since the camera follows the movement of your car, for example, when you with bumps, your view shakes or when you hit a wall, there's a slight blur effect. The new camera view and in-car perspective are truly the highlight of PGR3 and must be seen to be believed.
In the audio department, PGR3 faithfully recreates the sounds of each automobile with pitch perfect accuracy. The positional audio is perfect and the ambient noises help brings things alive. The cars may not sound as warm or as deep as Need For Speed: Most Wanted, but only a true car-nut would complain. Unfortunately, the music this time around has taken a hit. PGR2 had radio-like stations unique to each city that played while you drove. While the music wasn't always perfect, at least it felt alive. This time around, PGR3 features bland techno and boring classical music for your driving pleasure. This makes the whole affair seem less than exciting from time to time. But this is easily fixed since you can, and will, race using your custom soundtracks.
In the gameplay department, where looks and sounds take a back-seat to the real core of the experience, PGR3 comes up slightly lacking. It's not that PGR3 isn't an amazing game or that it's not easily recommendable to anyone with a pulse, but PGR3 feels a lot (read: big time) like a prettier PGR2 with a lot of the magic missing. The leap between the first Project Gotham and the second was staggering. PGR2 felt so completely new and even playing the solo career mode felt like a constant challenge. There was a sense of discovery, of accomplishment and of satisfaction to go with every class challenge, with every car unlocked and with every trophy earned. PGR3 removes the slower cars and the trucks and the muscle cars in the hopes of making the game more exhilarating, but instead creates an uninspired career mode where every race feels the same because you can very easily race with the same two or three cars for its entire duration. As much as I wanted to unlock the faster cars in PGR2, there was a part of me that also appreciated the Mini and the Focus and the Cayenne. When I did get the Enzo, it's because I had worked hard for it and when I used it, I felt a certain pride in ownership. In PGR3, I started out with the Ultima GTR (a class B car no less, which served me quite well) and purchased the GTR-1 Coupe as my second car for 625,000 Credits (quite easy to earn). With the GTR-1, I had a car that easily took on almost anything PGR3 could throw at me and before I knew it (quite literally), I had enough money for the Ferrari F50 GT (PGR3's Speed 12 in terms of Xbox Live car of choice) which plays fine, but also had enough left over to purchase the Mercedes CLK-GTR SuperSport which served me quite well in the later part of the career mode.
Veterans of PGR2 will note that PGR3 feels a lot easier. The controls are more forgiving, the collision detection with walls (which normally ended your Kudos combo) is a lot more lenient and the challenges have been tweaked to make the experience easier all-around. Cone Challenges for example, at higher difficulty levels, used to force you to keep a combo going for an entire run of the course to earn a medal. This generally entailed drifting in and out of corners, sliding around between cones and fishtailing in straight-aways. PGR3's cone placement, however, removes all this strategy from the mix and simply going through cone gates at a fast clip will keep your combo going for the entire challenge. This may still pose a challenge to new Project Gotham racers, but veterans will find little challenge here. The five difficulty levels, however, will help challenge any racer when pure racing is involved. At the Gold and Platinum levels, the AI still seems to run its own race, but the computer generally races without making mistakes making the challenge level right up there. As with PGR2, getting all Platinums will be a definite chore.
The other slight misstep that PGR3 provides is its menu system. While some may call and stylish, I like to call it unhelpful and uninspired. When booting up the game, after you have loaded your profile, you'll have five options to select from: Gotham Career (where you will play your solo career, your online career, check leaderboards and view your cars), Playtime (where you play multiplayer games, race against the clock and create routes), Gotham TV (where you can see the Heroes Channel, your Friends Channel, view saved replays and look at your photo album), Achievements (where you'll see which of the 22 trophies you have, what badges you've collected for your race-craft, online skills and career development, see your cars and garages, view your stats, check leaderboards and look into your 360 Achievements) and finally More (where you have options, the Xbox Live Marketplace and your various profiles). The problem with the menus really stems from the fact that you never seem to find what you're looking for. I wanted to play a multiplayer game against a friend and instead of just selecting two players, I had to create a whole new profile for him. An option tells me what my license plate is on every car, but there's no option anywhere to modify it (like in previous games). If I choose to play race against the clock and check all my friends' stats for each race, I also have to choose the car class and then back out of menus and back into them. The bottom line is that the menu system won't prevent anyone from enjoying PGR3, but in an age when Madden 06 on the Xbox 360 gets the menu system so right, it's heartbreaking to see one handled so wrong.
On the plus side, and my dislikes are far outweighed with my likes, there is a scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen that constantly tells you what's going on with you friends, the records you hold, the best players on Live and a slew of other things. I actually spent over 10 minutes one day just reading the ticker and realizing that it was such an incredible idea and one that truly makes you feel like you are part of a bigger community, even when playing solo. The other brilliant thing that PGR2 really pushed to the forefront of gaming, was insane amount of leaderboards for ever race, class, car and track. While PGR3 doesn't seem as user-friendly in this respect, all the info is still there somewhere and as always, it's a real joy to compete against friends for bragging rights. It would have been nice, however, if PGR3 kept track of all your records and gave you points according to placement on an overall basis. This was well done in RalliSport Challenge 2 and hasn't really been implemented anywhere else since.
The single player campaign in PGR3 doesn't stray too far from the established events of its predecessors either. In racing events, you will still have street races where you try to finish at a certain position, one on one races against a single opponent and eliminator races where you a car is eliminated each lap. In timed events a few new twists pop up, but you will still find hot lap where you try to finish a lap under a certain amount of time, timed run which is the same but with a countdown clock instead as well as breakthrough where you have to cross checkpoints (to add time to your overall clock) before the time expires and time vs. Kudos where you can add time to the countdown clock by earning Kudos points. With a few variations, these are mostly the same events we've come to know and love about the PGR series. But the PGR games have also been about Kudos Points and style. You'll note that leaderboards in career mode don't feature times, but Kudos instead. And again, style events return and they are generally the most fun. Cone challenge where you navigate a series of cones within a time limit, drift challenge where you have to earn a certain amount of Kudos within a short time period, overtake challenge (my favorite) where you have a certain target of cars to overtake within a given time frame and speed challenge where you must drive past a speed camera going a specific speed. These may not represent a lot of PGR3's content, but Kudos is truly what has set these series apart from so many others and the style events are a fun diversion when race events start to mesh together into one single race.
A feature that was talked about a lot during the pre-release phase of PGR3 but that seems buried in the menu scheme is its route creator. While not the blank sandbox that everyone was hoping for, where you could carve out the exact path of a race through any of PGR3's detailed cities, instead you can set the waypoints of the route on a map. While there are indeed millions of possibilities to this feature, its implementation is a little lacking, but as icing on the cake, it's hard to complain. Also of note is that PGR3 features no weather effects. You will be able to race in the daytime, at night or overcast. Seeing these cities and cars (and their handling) in the rain would have been amazing, but I suppose that's what PGR4 can hold in store for us.
As harsh as anyone can be about PGR3's existing solo modes and campaign, true fans of the series know that playing against friends and online is where Project Gotham truly shines and again, PGR3 proves that it will have a long Xbox Live Life. The fans of PGR2 were so loyal that many games (where everyone involved had to consent to play by the rules) where created that didn't involve racing at all. In PGR3, Bizarre Creations listened and included many of these modes in multiplayer options. You will be able to set a plethora of options and as with the single player mode, you will have access to all five cities depicted in the game (L.A., London, NYC, Tokyo and Germany's Nurbugring) and you'll be able to choose from the full five classes of cars (A-E). Play on Live is lag free and whether your playing through the online career mode where your TrueSkill raking will find racing matches for you or whether you are just playing regular multiplayer games, the PGR community is one of the best on Live and the place (along with DOA Ultimate) where I made the most of my friends. A small note; on a few occasions I was playing other gamers who where using the wireless controller (with the headset plug-in) and the voice was horribly laggy, but even then, the cars never lagged in the least. Once we all agreed to "wire up" things seemed better. It happens on occasions only.
In the end, what PGR3 really improves over PGR2 is simply its looks and its incredible in-car camera. There was nothing wrong with the core gameplay of PGR2 and thankfully, PGR3 doesn't tinker with it much. This iteration is also a much more accessible game than PGR2 and will please more casual fans with its varied difficulty levels, cars, tracks, looks and challenges. While the solo campaign isn't as long as PGR2's, the bulk of my time with either game has been spent playing online and among the launch titles, PGR3 is hands-down the best online multiplayer game for the masses. A stellar game that is easy to recommend without reservation, it just may not be the upgrade that PGR2 fans expect.