Review by grasu
"Kudos are refined but some of the basics are lost in the process."
Racing games have been around since the inception of video gaming. Common knowledge tells us people want to do things in video games that they wouldn't in real life and driving exotic cars at breakneck speeds is one of those things. Bizarre Creations first started its run of excellent racing games with Metropolis Street Racer for the Dreamcast. To say the least it was a very hard game where, in addition to placing first, gamers needed to do so in style usually by pulling outrageous drifts. As the years went by and the Dreamcast with them, Bizarre Creations reinvented their series for the Xbox and later for the Xbox360. As their swan song Project Gotham Racing 4 (PGR 4) stands as the most complete and accessible of any game in the series.
PGR 4 is the sort of racing game most people grow to either love or hate. The object of the game is not only to drive fast and place 1st but to do so in style. From MSR to PGR Bizarre has added more ways to obtain kudos but the basic idea is the same: pull insane drifts, drive cleanly and maintain the lead while doing it. Driving fast and in-style certainly doesn't make PGR 4 an easy game. In fact PGR 4'sdifficulty is one of the most glaring problems of the series. The three available difficulties are completely unbalanced. The easy difficulty is a complete joke, it's entirely conceivable that one could drive backwards and still place first on easy. On the other hand the normal difficulty can range from acceptable to downright insane. Balancing is a major oversight on the part of Bizarre, especially when taking under consideration the fact that the Arcade mode offers no less than 5 separate difficulties! None of the aforementioned career mode difficulties can be adjusted in any way so most players will fall on one side of the fence or the other: either that the game is too hard or a joke.
In terms of basic structure PGR 4 is much like every racer released during the 6th generation of consoles. An Arcade mode composed of 10 events in each category of driving (of which there are 5), an assortment of custom races, time trials and multiplayer options along with the Gotham Career mode. Clearly the meat of the game is found in Gotham Career. One of the most intriguing things about Gotham Career is it's structure: instead of having players race a bunch of different races in a linear order with no perusable goal PGR 4's career mode places you in the shoes of a rookie racer looking to make it big. During the racing season, lasting from September to January, players race in standard championships, invitationals or majors with the goal of becoming the number one racer on the planet.
Variety is not exactly lacking in the career mode. Bizarre has come up with just about every imaginable way to race around a track in modern gaming. Outside of rally races or endurances there's absolutely nothing that has been omitted. You'll do hot laps, elimination races, cone races, races for kudos or regular street races. Sprinkled amongst these are a few signature outings such as TIme vs. Kudos where players have to carefully balance driving with style and driving fast as kudos stop the race watch. In addition to all of these race types career mode is divided in 3 distinct events: invitationals, quick one-race-events that usually grant a car, regular championships and majors which grant no kudos rewards upon completion but double the amount of ranking points granted for victories.
One of the most intriguing aspects of all of this content is probably one of the most bizarre - in PGR 4 you don't actually need to win a race in order to go up the rankings. The PGR series hasn't been focused on placing first in order to succeed and this is the case with PGR 4 as well. Incentives for winning every race, especially later on in the career mode are plenty as kudos are the game's currency but you can do pretty well by placing second or third. Considering the game's difficulty however it would've been impossible to actually go up the ranks if it wouldn't be for this little leeway.
However the career mode in PGR 4 is far from perfect. By far the most annoying thing about the career mode is the retry-system. In PGR 4 it is crucial that you retry races. Hardly any race can actually be won form the get-go and winning requires knowing the track by heart. Under these circumstances it's a major pain in the ass not being able to retry a race in career mode once it's finished. You can retry races that are in progress but once you've crossed the finish line the game moves on. If you want to retry the race you'll have to wait until next year! This is passible when street racing and winning is clearly not a possibility anymore but in such events as speed cams, where the las cam is usually 10-20 feet away from the finish line it's downright frustrating. Another major issues stems from the interface. To say the least PGR 4's interface is flawed. Some events such as Time vs. Kudos are not explained at all, there isn't a list of moves that grant kudos and the Main Menu is splattered with little droplets of water that can make it difficult to read some text.
PGR 4's brand of octane-fueled racing is best enjoyed in an urban setting and the latest entry in the series doesn't disappoint. Nine cities are available from the start including Quebec, London and New York. Tracks are set around set pieces such as Time's Square but some of the cities fall a bit flat due to their relative anonymity. That being said the tracks in PGR 4 are draconic enough to challenge even the most authentic racing nut. Bizarre have taken their time in creating some of the most exhilarating tracks available, throwing more twists, turns, 90 degree angles and straight aways than you can shake a stick at. New to the PGR series is the dynamic weather system. This is easily the best feature of the game as it greatly increases the difficulty of each track and also lends some familiar tracks a freshened up look under different luminosity or weather conditions. Weather has a significant effect on the game's vehicles as well, as racing through pools of water slows cars down and breaking under snowy conditions lends itself perfectly to some involuntary 360s.
The AI is clearly geared more towards the city streets when racing because it falters laughably while racing closed circuits. Generally speaking though the AI can be quite brutal. On the normal and above difficulty settings it's an aggressive beast that will actively look to block players from passing, will play defensively when cornering and generally drive like madmen. However challenging beating the AI might be it's also a bit of a let down, especially since the AI has no intention of overtaking one another and their sole purpose seems to be stopping players in their tracks. If the AI bores you PGR 4 offers a full suite of multiplayer features, including split screen and Xbox Live connectivity. The latter was not tested but all of the options available offline are also available when on Xbox Live. In addition the game uses a skill matching service to pair similarly skilled players, full lounge and chat options along with the Gotham TV service.
Whereas PGR 3 focused on top of the line models, many of which were unknown to the population at large, PGR 4 sticks more closely to the well tread track set by racers before it. PGR 4's car selection is more than satisfactory featuring all makes and models from top manufactures as well as a series of less performance oriented cars. The car list, boasting some 150 cars and motorcycles is all the more impressive when taking into consideration that no car is an artificial variation on another model on the list. Classics such as Formula 1 cars from the 50s or modern day prototypes give a much needed breath of fresh air to the standardized list of exotics, tuners or muscle cars already available. None of the cars can be upgraded though so what you see is what you get. A test driving option would've been nice however as some models are fairly identical performance-wise and stats alone are not useful in separating them.
New to the PGR series are motorcycles. Their inclusion allows for some heated car v. motorcycle races but their impact is slightly less interesting than it sounds. Motorcycles all handle great, have just about as many features and benefits as cars but are slightly less fast on straightaways due to their limited top speed. All of this doesn't make bikes any more fun to ride than cars because something is just simply missing. Drifting is harder on bikes and the bike tricks are only for those who've perfected their riding style. Bikes feel less natural than cars and generally just don't seem to be anything more than cars on two wheels. Physics are in no small part responsible for these issues as PGR 4 treats bikes just like cars - knocking down riders ranges from preposterous (sideswiping a bike) to impossible (directly hitting the bike from behind with no effect whatsoever).
Despite all of these additions the racing model in PGR 4 remains pretty much the same. If players aren't in the lead, or at least in the top 3 by the third corner the race is virtually over. A system such as this leads to a great deal of repetition but the rewards for perseverance are equally as satisfying. The sense of speed and the sweet taste of victory are still top notch, pretty much unchanged since MSR. The series still emphasizes repetition and a perfect driving style over a reckless and disorganized one but it pays in spades - nailing a corner or cleanly overtaking a opponent is as fun an experience as no other. Handling is still arcade based. While each car has a distinct feeling and switching cars means learning the ropes all over again PGR 4 allows players to slide around corners with reckless abandon without much regard for physics or mechanics.
Technically PGR 4 is an above average game. Graphics won't exactly floor anyone but this is definitely one of the prettiest racers on the market even to this day. Cars are draw with painstaking detail, backdrops are well detailed and feel alive, spectators are fully animated in three dimensions and the game expectedly runs without a cinch at 60 frames per second. Needless to say there aren't any graphical bugs to speak of. The only issue which might be problematic is the in-car view, which ranges from virtually impracticable to very good. It seems that sometimes the camera's positioning is way too low and the upper part of the dashboard takes up half the screen. The sound is also well above average. The soundtrack could've used some work but the engine sounds, crowds and the shattering of glass and windshield sound about right.
PGR 4 brings some new features to the table, such as weather effects and the dynamic career mode, but during the process of innovation Bizarre has forgot to address some key elements of gaming. Would the fourth entry in the series have benefitted from a better interface, some fine tuning in the difficulty department and more refined documentation it could've been a star of its genre. As it stands PGR 4 is oriented towards gamers who are into their racing games and can take a good amount of repetition before nailing a victory as sweet as can be.
Multiplayer: Not rated
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 08/11/10
Game Release: Project Gotham Racing 4 (US, 10/02/07)
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