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Project Gotham Racing 4

Project Gotham Racing 3 was everything a launch title should be. It was technically astounding and a visual powerhouse, it demonstrated everything the 360 was capable of. Its visuals still stand up alongside many current releases, and its online is still ripe with community. Considering developers Bizarre Creations were working toward the deadline of the 360’s launch, its quality was impressive to say the least.

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This time, however, Bizzare were let loose on the world of PGR with no pressures to be released at a certain time – a blessing, then, and one that works to Project Gotham Racing 4’s favour. Its efforts are bound to go unappreciated, but its confidence in delivering an exceptional racing model is unparalleled.

On the surface, you may think that little has changed with the fourth game, and with the actual racing/driving mechanic, you’d be mostly correct (it’s still as flawless as ever), but it’s the subtle introductions of new features and tweaks to the system that makes PGR4 brilliant. Changes are not just cosmetic, either – they add depth and character to the game, and do well in giving you a greater selection of options. If you were to compile a list of the new features in PGR4, you’d be there a fair while – the content on offer is nothing less than generous. Bikes, a dynamic weather system and a completely new career mode are just a few of the new features offered with PGR4, and they all work effortlessly well.

Cars and ridiculously high speeds are the defining features of the PGR experience, and 4 doesn’t disappoint – it kicks into overdrive with fuel capped boots. There is a range of classes to choose from, with the lowest including such classic motors as the ‘Austin Mini Cooper S’ and the ‘Lotus Cortina’, and the highest introducing horsepower behemoths like the ‘Ferrari FXX’ and the ‘Caparo T1’, life really does begin at 170mph with these beasts. There’s no shortage on choice here, the roster is tantalisingly full. Each class represents a refreshingly different change of pace, you’re always having to apply different tactics to your favourite courses, of which all of PGR3’s make a return, along with a fresh batch of new courses in the form of four cities (Macau, St. Petersburg, Quebec and Shanghai), and a fictional test track.

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The four new cities are almost as instantly memorable and immediately arresting as those in PGR3, not that the old courses are exactly the same – they’ve all been tweaked with the placement of rumble strips and barriers making for smoother racing lines and less chance of pile ups in intense race situations, it’s a subtle touch that works well, without detracting from the original (and excellent) track design.

The cities all scream variety, with the many courses that run through them all requiring a different approach. Macau, China, holds two different types of courses, with some favouring bikes with open roads and room aplenty, and others taking you up mountain circuits, with fast, narrow roads and twisting turns. Shanghai, also in China, is a beautiful metropolis with vibrant neon lights and towering skyscrapers. The roads here are really wide, so top speeds are essential. Finally you have St. Petersburg in Russia and Quebec in Canada – the former is mainly flat, with open roads for the speed-freaks, and the latter a twisting ride through narrow roads and some awkward bends. These four are all bursting with charm, and match the third game’s, even if they aren’t half as well known as those in PGR3.

Adding something of a simulation aspect to the racing of PGR4 is the new dynamic weather system. You can now race in snow, ice, rain, fog and even a storm, as well as varieties of these such as heavy rain, light fog and so on. The weather works as you’d think, with icy conditions dramatically reducing your grip, heavy fog reducing your vision by a dangerous amount etc. The way you approach each race is then altered by the weather, as in real life, so it adds realism to the game, and the effects are visually a treat.

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Perhaps the most important, or greatest addition to PGR4 is the inclusion of bikes. No longer satisfied with just four wheels, Bizzare Creations gives you a great range of scarily fast motorbikes to play around with. At first they generally seem a little awkward, and you’ll be quick to go back to the comfort of cars, but give it time and the bikes come in to their own. While never fully reaching the elegance and brilliance of the driving offered within the supercars, the bikes offer an enjoyable and frighteningly speedy ride. The ‘Ducati 999R Xerox’ is primed to be the biker’s choice on the field, as its speed is unrivalled. That’s not to say speed is everything, with the lower class bikes such as the ‘BSA Gold Star DBD34’ offering a relaxed ride that eases you into the faster classes expertly well. Bikes are generally quicker off the line than the cars, so if you know what you’re doing and you make a big enough lead then you should be able to keep it. This could be seen as unfair (in multiplayer especially), with the best bikers able to win with ease. The balance between bikes and cars is still commendable, however, with the cars home to greater top speeds.

Arguably the main component of PGR3’s single-player was the arcade mode, it involved a generous selection of race types and tasks, and you had to obtain medals in order to progress to more events. It was a simple but rewarding system, and thankfully it returns in PGR4, with bike events included alongside cars. A new career mode, however, is now the main bulk of the single-player experience, with a wealth of races and things to do.

The career mode gives you a faint idea of what it’d be like to be a racer, with whole calendar years full of exciting events to participate in. You start at the very beginning, with your rank at the bottom of the leaderboard and your car selection bare, with a small selection of low class motors. You can customise your character’s race attire, who takes a startlingly similar appearance to that of the BBC Top Gear’s ‘The Stig’. The customisation may not be super deep, but there’s enough options to separate you from the competition on the racetrack – especially when you race on bikes.

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Because the career mode operates around a calendar dynamic you’ll have to play through at least three years to try and complete all the events, whether you get gold is another matter. The main anchor to keep you playing career is the desire to be the number one rank, and as you complete events you’ll be getting closer and closer to that elusive spot. The events on your calendar vary greatly, with some favouring more kudos-orientated challenges (those that require you to drift, get air and so on) while others supporting good old fashioned racing. You will also come across invitationals – a specific challenge for a specific car that can be unlocked and put into your garage upon successful competition, as well as majors – events that involve qualification and intense knockout rounds to crown a worthy winner. The career works extremely well, the urge to rank number one is always at the top of your list and you get to race some truly fantastic events. The variety on offer with the various classed cars and bikes is refreshing and the difficulty is challenging yet winning is never out of reach. As well as the career mode is a range of time trials for you to attempt to beat and make good times on, as well as a custom race mode for any offline multiplayer or if you just feel like a specific race.

Away from the career mode, online is a world of distraction. As well as having an excellent replay/broadcast system by the name of ‘PGR on Demand’, there’s also the new ability to race as part of a team in ‘team races’ and ‘team championships’. Ranked matches are available alongside custom, player matches, and a wealth of race types are at your disposal. The ranking system of ranked matches is slightly confusing, however, with no real indication of where you are in terms of skill other than a name. It seems to have got less competitive than PGR3, with less emphasis on leaderboards and balanced matchmaking. The new team races work well as if they were there all along, and really makes you work as a team, supporting one another and the like; it’s hard not to participate in friendly banter most of the time. Your national flag is presented alongside your name, and introduces patriotism into the racing, which, depending on your rank, can increase with the amount of supporters for you out on the track.

The graphics are nothing short of exceptional, with flawless car and bike design, and some genuinely stunning racetracks. The weather effects are entirely convincing – and their effect on your vehicle even more so, and the monolithic structures that are dotted around the many tracks are breathtaking, in both vision and execution. Viewing replays and photos is the best way of appreciating the impressive detail that goes in to all elements on screen. One failing of PGR4 however, is in the readability of the text used in the game. It is painfully small and even the most accomplished reader would have a hard time deciphering many of the sentences on-screen. It is no doubt optimised for HD Gaming; however this shouldn’t be to the detriment of those with an SD Television. Compared to PGR3, the jump in quality isn’t huge, which is only testament to the third game’s visual effectiveness and pure technical grunt.

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Sound is also at best, with a range of authentic sounds including roaring engines, tyre skids, burnouts and the shunts off rival opponents. The music is maybe not so effective, and when the delicious engine noises can be heard at full power it’s hard not to just mute the music on offer. The soundtrack, though, is as eclectic as ever, with music styles ranging from Bollywood to rap to rock. One song in particular is needed for a particular achievement, which makes the connection between music and game greater so. The achievements are broad and unique, and ask that the player does a whole range of wacky things, alongside some more normal tasks. One that stands out in particular is the need to have eight vehicles in the air at the same time, or getting two bikes fifteen metres apart doing an endo. Many encourage the use of multiplayer, and in doing so are successful in supporting the communal aspect of Live, and gaming in general.

The Xbox 360 is easily becoming the racing fan’s console of choice, with a steady stream of exceptional and equally competent racers. It seems to have all angles covered, and PGR4 is yet another addition to this elusive catalogue. As a sequel to one of the greatest racing games out, Project Gotham Racing 4 is a complete success. Understated and utterly likeable – unmistakably, brilliant.

9 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @_Frey.

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