Nick's Gaming Blog

Not Revolutionary, but Still Remarkable: A Review of Project Gotham Racing 4

This is just one of those situations where a compressed screenshot will not do the full size image justice…it’s sad, but that’s just the way it is. Just know this: when it rains in Gotham, it pours.
While the perpetual debate over whether motorsports deserve to be grouped into the more-or-less overarching category of sports, will rage on for eons…until rednecks have damaged the gene pool beyond irreparable repair that we’re all itchin’ for NASCAR, “sports” and “racing” games have always shared a disturbingly similar amount of similarities. Both tend to be released on an annual basis, (Madden, Tiger Woods, Need for Speed) with minor variations (new car models, updated team rosters, a new track or two) as well as “supposed” graphical improvements that require a 56′ TV in high-def and a magnifying lens to recognize.
At this point, death, taxes, and a new Need For Speed installment come Christmas are the few constants in life.
However, despite both genres having a less-than-favorable reputation as of late, it doesn’t mean that every once in a while a quality title will emerge from the abysmal void of “cash cow urban/underground/secret/racing league” games. Up until a couple years ago, one had to choose between the latest installment of Grand Tourismo or outright mediocrity. That is, until Microsoft threw its diamond-encrusted, gold-plated hat into the ring. In only a little under five years, the technology behemoth not only released an “arcade-style” IP in the form of Project Gotham Racing (2001) but also a “racing-sim” IP titled Forza Motorsport (2005). The latter series has a sequel on the Xbox 360, and, obviously, it goes without saying that Project Gotham is now on its fourth installment.

So, backstory aside, and without further ado, let us go down the checklist: improved graphics, new tracks, streamlined interface, and improved online play. Check, check, check, check. Ordinarily, this would be where a Gran Tourismo or Need For Speed review would end. After all, what else would there be to say, except to note whatever model EA hired to wear skimpy clothing…I mean…”act” in their godawful plot. However, Bizarre Creations, the developer of PGR brings a lot more to the table than the usual street racing fare, which is expected, considering that Microsoft gave them a two-year development cycle on the game, instead of EA’s nine month “grind-it-out” motto.

In general, PGR4 brings two fairly significant new features to the series: weather and bikes. That’s right, if you ever wanted to race with fog, rain, snow, ice, or any other manifestation matter that H20 has taken on, look no further. And if the thought of hydroplaning or helplessely sliding across a sheet of glare ice doesn’t have you looking up looking up your local State Farm insurance agent, perhaps the thought of attempting such on a motorcycle will.

That’s right, you can actually watch raindrops slide down the hood of your car. I’m not kidding…it’s like a wet T-shirt contest, with cars.

From a gameplay standpoint, bikes and weather aside, the tried-and-true “arcadey, but with realistic driving physics” style that the PGR series is well known for, returns. And so does the Kudos system that has made the series stand out amongst its competitors. If you aren’t familiar with the Kudos system, or the racing genre in general, the Kudos system not only emphasizes winning, but winning in style. Placing first in a race will surely net you a hefty sum of Kudos, but that might not be enough to edge out a competitor in a multi-race championship. Say you both place first in two races out of four, and take second in the other two. Points-wise, you’re tied.

And this is where Kudos come in. They reward such things as powerslides, driving at high speeds, burnouts, jumps, clean sections (going certain amounts of the track without hitting the wall) as well as perfectly entering and exiting corners. These in-race Kudos are added to the ones you’re given for whatever position you place in the event. Whether you win the event, or place dead-last, you’ll still come away with some Kudos (and…if you don’t…that’s a sign that you are unbelievably awful at racing games) which can then be spent in the “PGR Shop” on such things as new cars, tracks, or greater customization for your driver’s look, such as new helmet designs.

Driving by Big Ben on a (as par usual) rainy day in a Lamborghini is always a blast…provided you don’t actually stop or stay in England. (kidding…kinda…)

As for these cars that you’ll be purchasing, Bizarre Creation’s franchise has opted to move away from the “supercar only” stance of the third entry, and once again offer everything from souped up Volkswagen Golfs to probably more Ferraris than you actually knew existed (or actually wanted to drive in the first place). Each car is ranked on several criteria: acceleration, top speed, braking, and grip amongst others, and suffice it to say, you can CERTAINLY feel the difference between one car in the next. (Which is still something, considering that in this day and age, some developers cannot pull this off)

Now some have said that the introduction of motorcycles to the series reduces the realism of the game. And, to some degree, I understand. I can certainly assure you that I would not want to be the sole motorcycle competing against a field of automobiles, running at close to 200 MPH. I’m not even sure if they’d have anything left to bring to the emergency room. Adding to the lack of realism is the fact that nudging a biker at about 50 MPH with a Viper is no guarantee that you will knock him from his perch. Hit him again in quick succession, or at a higher speed, and it will likely do the trick…but Bizarre Creations had to implement some measure to keep the car drivers from making quick “road pizza” of the bikers, while providing some incentive to actually try the bikes in the first place.

They took a bit getting used to, but on the more technical courses, the motorcycles can certainly hold their own. Get them on extended straightaways, and be prepared to take last. Frequently.

The single player experience is predominantly divided into two sections: arcade and career. While both are fairly “pick up and play” friendly experiences (as is the game itself) the arcade mode is even moreso. In “Arcade” there are a series of themed sets of races. Some surround weather, others around types of cars or bikes, amongst other things. In each set there are six races/events, and each must be completed in a car AND on a bike. Unlike “career” mode it’s “place first or go home” with arcade.

Career is your “season mode” of racing games. You’re a low-ranked rookie driver in the Gotham circuit, and want to make your way to the top. Your typical “rags to riches” story played out on the racing circuit. What keeps it from being a monotonous series of races, mixed up only by the location, is the variety of demands. In some races, you have to overtake the most cars, in others its a fastest lap competition. Some are a combination of in-race Kudos and lap time (with Kudos taking time off the clock) others are ones that require you to maneuver between pairs of cones, with deductions if you miss one. Occasionally, you’ll have to qualify for a tournament if you’re not ranked high enough, and every once in a while you’ll be invited to a special challenge, which will reward you with a special car model if you succeed. The best part is that, early on, you likely won’t have the money or the horsepower to compete in many of the events, but if you miss out on something, there’s always the next season to attempt it.

The one bit of advice that should have been encouraged by the developers is that one should at least play a bit of arcade before dabbling with career mode. While one might be inclined to believe that because the first couple tournaments are limited to “Class F” cars (which is what all of your starting cars are, more or less) things should start out easy, but let me assure you, the difference in power that spans the cars in “Class F” almost makes you wonder why it isn’t two classes in its own right. Old Cameros and Lambourghinis should not have any right to race one another. To put it simply, play arcade, work up some money, and then buy some car packages that involve models in the upper-range of “Class F.” Otherwise…well, your ascention to #1 might be near impossible.

What will also make things impossible is the simple fact that difficulty settings in PGR 4 are somewhat skewed. In general, most gamers will find “normal” mode to be bearable…for a while. Once it becomes somewhat impossible, gamers will be forced to shift to “easy.” The problem is that “easy” is simply too easy. Gamers looking for a slightly less hair-pulling venture will instead be treated to something reminiscent of Mario Kart on the 50cc setting. All of the sudden, you’ll be looking for new ways to actually lose.

Rain drops keep fallin’ on my…okay, I’ll stop.

Graphically, PG4 is not the best-looking racing game to grace the stage of the Xbox 360. Such a title, in my opinion, is shared by Dirt and Grid. And while PGR 4 isn’t likely to dethrone Codemasters in the graphical dept anytime soon, it is certainly is a flashy title. The tracks look much better than Forza 2 and there is a marked improvement in the car models between the third and fourth entry in the PGR series. Certainly some of this can be contributed to the fact that the PGR series still does not have real-time damage inflicted on its models. The cockpit view is still one of the most aesthetically-pleasing aspects of the game, and the character models on the bikes animate well.

As one might expect, there’s not a lot of dialogue in a racing game, but the engine sounds, as well as the bevy of other sounds that screeching rubber and trading paint encompass. Ferraris don’t sound like go-karts. A Lotus doesn’t come across as a Yugo, and Corvettes will not be mistook as a Camry. All you really have to listen to in racing games are car noises, and those are done well. Like the other entries in the series, you have the option of including your own music, or utilizing the incorporated soundtrack. Interestingly enough, this is not the corporate monstrosity that is EA Trax, there is a wide variety of musical genres; from world to classical, to alt rock, and each offers a few bearable tunes. I enjoyed the Bloc Party and My Chemical Romance, and the rest was forgivable, none being unbearably skippable except for the Lily Allen number.

The replayability factor is more than prevalent in Bizarre Creations title. Once you’re done with all 108 races in arcade mode, on the three (or four, if you suck and race on Bronze) medal settings, as well as rising to the top in career mode, there’s still a robust online community that awaits. Suffice it to say, that aside from Bulldog mode, the “it’s not broke, so we’re not fixing it” mantra reigns surpreme.

Bottom Line: PGR 4 adds a few additional settings and modes on the last entry in the series, cuts back on the super-cars, and aims for a more realistic progression of stock to racing vehicles, all while adding some wonderful new tracks and adding a strong layer of graphical polish. Ordinarily I’d not be a fan of “more of the same” but with PGR, I’m more than happy with the expanded material, as a quantum shift in racing is not needed, and such would probably move PGR out of PGR territory. Few games can bridge the gap between unforgiving realism and stylistic flourish, and PGR had treaded this line well. To demand more would be blasphemy. I give PGR 4 an 8.8 out of 10.

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