With their introduction of Project Gotham Racing 3 for the Xbox 360 console, Bizarre Creations and Microsoft had the chance to bring their racing formula into new light. Sticking to the familiar gameplay seen in the earlier titles, PGR3 boasted over 80 different vehicles and stellar online play. Now, the team brings their newest title to the table: Project Gotham Racing 4.
Fans of the series will start up PGR4 and immediately notice a few differences from the previous title. First of all, despite its similarly vast allotment of vehicles ranging from Ferraris to Hondas, the game strays from the same old by introducing the use of motorcycles. Although not as numerous as their four-wheeled counterparts, these bikes are intended to add a different (and fresh) aspect to the Kudos system. In past games, the Kudos system awarded virtual cash (Kudos) to the player for tricks such as power-slides and for simply avoiding headlong collisions with the course's walls. Now, you can hop onto one of these puppies and pull tricks like Wheelies to rack up Kudos, all the while outmaneuvering those comparatively bulky foes around you. However, despite looking wonderful on paper, controlling the bikes in the actual game is another matter entirely - more often than not, pulling mass amounts of one-wheeled tricks is much easier than drifting around a tight bend. Those familiar with the series may not need as much time learning to control these rockets, but anyone new to the franchise should spend some time practicing with the cars before attempting to play with the motorcycles.
Another difference for this title is how the career mode is set up. Instead of choosing races directly, players will now have a racing event schedule that they will follow from year to year. These events include invitationals and general races, both of which aid the player's rank as they advance through the game. Starting at Amateur, players can progress through the ranks of Pro, Hot Shot, and Master - unlocking new rank statuses will provide tougher foes and higher-stake events further on. Although an interesting addition, this can provide for some initial confusion, and getting a hang for the entire schedule will take some time.
Once you have designed your personal profile and begun your first race, the learning curve will become instantly apparent. Project Gotham Racing has always been about drifting through tight corners, and, hopefully, avoiding direct contact with the track's walls. As the old adage goes: easy to learn, difficult to master. Despite this, anyone that spends enough time with the game will soon find that, with enough practice, maneuvering at top speeds around even the toughest corners becomes second nature. This is essential for those first-place victories and a faster rise through the ranks.
Where PGR4 really shines is its beautiful graphics and physics engine. For starters, the new weather system looks and acts like it should; rain and snow fall in a realistic manner, and both will reduce the amount of traction your vehicle would have on an otherwise clear-skied track. Extreme weather makes for a tough race, as sheets of ice will cause your vehicle to spin-out, and puddles of rain will slow you down. Anyone who wants to witness the true power of the weather physics should choose the interior view - after a few moments of watching snowflakes dash against the windshield, it is hard to avoid the sensation that one is actually racing through a snowstorm.
If you are a player that prefers to watch from a third-person view as you pull off amazing drifts and pass other foes, the crisp detail on each of the vehicles will not let you down. To put it simply, each and every model reflects the environment about it with extraordinary precision. Also, if you are the destructive type, you will soon find that all that bumping around has shattered the windshield and left eye-scarring scratches along the bodywork. Another key factor here are the environments - ranging from Tokyo to New York, each city and landscape is gorgeously rendered, and the active fans that surround the track move in a realistic manner. Although a lot of the time in the game is spent at blurring speeds, it is still apparent just how much work Bizarre Creations went through to up the ante on the graphics.
The sound effects throughout PGR4 really add to the sense of reality, and the roar of engines and squeal of tires will make the most hardcore gamer sweat. In addition, the scream of metal on metal that results from a collision is a jarring reminder that other cars and walls will put an end to your speedy race in a heartbeat. For those that choose to not play their own music while racing, the radio in PGR4 provides a multitude of choices. From classical to techno, each "station" provides a consistent sound, and will even continue to play throughout a restart of that same race. Personally, I enjoyed nothing more than darting through other racers at top-notch speeds to the strident scores of "Ride of the Valkyries." There is truly something here for everyone.
The online play included with PGR4 has very few problems compared to some of the other titles released for the Xbox 360 console. Joining other players through Xbox Live is as simple as choosing the option from the game's main menu and sorting through a few preferences. There is also a custom matchmaking system, which includes options such as standard race or cat-and-mouse (a game where each team must get their "mouse" to the finish line before their rivals do the same). While there is very little lag whilst controlling your own vehicle, other online racers can occasionally clip by (or through) you, sometimes causing a bit of slowdown or loss of control. However, this is a fairly rare occurrence. Another fun feature of PGR4 online is choosing user videos to watch; simply searching the database using key words related to what you intend to view will provide a list of user-made videos. While sometimes a blast to watch, it should be noted that these videos are created by other gamers and may not be interesting at all. Select wisely.
Although PGR4 does not stray far from its roots, it does add a touch of flare to the series. With the inclusion of a new weather system and a vast array of motorcycles, there is a lot to be had in this racing title, and anyone and everyone should at least take a peek at this newcomer. It would be hard to call Project Gotham Racing 4 the best of its genre, but the solid gameplay and beautiful graphics make for an engaging foray into the world of racing. Don't let this one pass you by.