Project Gotham Racing 3 Review / Preview for Xbox 360 (X360)

Project Gotham Racing 3 Review / Preview for Xbox 360 (X360)

Feels more like PGR 2.5 but it’s still a wild ride brimming with almost neverending replay value. by Vaughn Smith

November 21, 2005 – Bizarre Creations is hoping to own the Xbox 360 launch much in the same way they did four years ago during the original Xbox launch. Their first entry on the Xbox 360 will be snapped up by fever-pitched racing fans who have spent the better part of 2 years honing their skills on PGR2. But is PGR3 deserving of a “buy it before you try it” game?

PGR3 purists know what to expect from the series, thanks to countless hours spent honing their skills both offline and onlne playing the unsurpassed genius of PGR2. The wheel hasn’t been reinvented with this current iteration, but rather refined and tweaked a little bit to provide the next step for hardcore racing fans. I wouldn’t go out of my way to say that PGR3 is miles ahead of the last game – in terms of difficulty it might be a step backwards – in fact the entire game feels like PGR 2.5 to me, which is a slight disappointment; although more PGR is never a bad thing.

Featuring 80 real world cars that most of us can only dream of driving, nevermind owning, PGR3’s career mode will keep you coming back for more as the tightly designed tracks beg for another powerslide, another combo and more kudos. The heart and soul of the series remains almost entirely intact rewarding only those with the skill and precision necessary to dominate the streets (on the harder difficulty levels). Like its predecessors, even going as far back as Metropolis Street Racer on the Dreamcast, PGR3 can be a cruel mistress, dismissing you almost instantly if you choke during an important turn or fishtail out of control and lose too much ground. It’s not that the game will force you to quit and restart if you blow it early, you’re welcome to give it the old college try, it’s just that vets know when they’re past the point of no return.

As I hinted at earlier, inexplicably PGR3 actually feels much easier than PGR2. Most of the races I played on Medium difficulty and was able to ace them on the first try (coming in 1st place no less) without prior knowledge of the course. That’s almost unheard of in terms of the series. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been prepping with PGR2 in anticipation of this new release, perhaps it’s because I’m just really awesome or more realistically, perhaps it’s because Bizarre Creations toned down the difficulty level. I find this kind of perplexing since the game already offers 5 difficulty levels per race there was no real reason to make the game any more accessible. I’m definitely not crazy – I was an ‘okay’ PGR2 racer but this game makes me feel like I could go online and kick everyone’s ass and I know that’s definitely not the case. So with that mind I’ll just say that PGR3’s Medium difficulty feels very much like PGR2’s Novice and/or Easy difficulty while the Hard diffiulty now feels like PGR2’s Medium. The Hardcore difficulty (Platinum) is hit and miss. Sometimes it’s fiendishly insane, especially on those gosh darn Cone Challenges which I fully admit that I suck at, and other times it’s just only a little harder than going for the Gold.

The vehicle physics can be intimidating especially if you’re accustomed to Ridge Racer 6 or Need For Speed: Most Wanted, but once you commit yourself to learning the nuances of the control you’ll begin to appreciate why people love this series so much. The sense of urgency to drive a perfect lap is immediately apparent because the AI isn’t going to coddle you on the harder difficulties. Once you take PGR3 online it gets even more white knuckled as the competition is not only better than you and better than the AI, but they’re talking trash to you while leaving your sorry ass in the dust. Gamers without spines need not apply; you’re going to take a whuppin’ and that’s that.

As in previous PGRs, you’ll start the game with a stock amount of credits which you’ll use towards purchasing your first vehicle. Unlike PGR and PGR2 however, you won’t be starting the game with a lame duck of a ride. Every car in PGR3 meets a minimum standard of 170 MPH, with most rides in the game averaging almost 200 MPH. What this means to the PGR novice is a higher level of challenge right out of the starting gate. Certainly this will play havoc with the egos and self esteems of scores of PGR neophytes but they can always strive for Steel or Bronze medals for the first play through while they cut their teeth.

Bizarre Creation has slimmed down the car shopping process from PGR2’s virtual showrooms to a scrolling menu which shows cars in the various price ranges. The showrooms were glitzy but really nothing more than useless busy work and I do prefer the quicker pace of PGR3’s vehicle selection. Once you purchase a car, you’ll select your color (make sure you really like the color because unlike PGR2, you’re stuck with it unless you sell the car and buy a new model in a different color, which is ridiculous x a million + bogus – fun = bull****). From there you can place the car in your starter garage. The garage features a disembodied first person perspective where you can roam about the area and check out your collection of rides. You can also play a couple of arcade versions of Geometry Wars 1 & 2. You can test out any of the cars on the Nurburgring F1 track but I found this a tad tedious due to the 10 second load time. However it’s completely necessary to locate the car that feels just right for your tastes. Your starter garage only holds 4 cars which means that you’ll need to find a new garage to hold more of your collection. There are a total of 9 garages in the game all designed with the games various locales in mind – Tokyo, Nurburgring, Las Vegas, New York & London. All garages except the starter garage holds up to 10 vehicles. Make sure you explore every nook and cranny of your garage as you never know what you’ll find.

Speaking of load times, I was under the impression that this $500 system I just purchased which comes with 512 MB RAM, 12X Dual Layer DVD drive and 20 GB HD might take a bite out of loading screens, but it doesn’t. In fact, compared to PGR2, PGR3 is really sluggish when it comes to loading. I don’t mind waiting 20 seconds for a new track to load that I haven’t played yet, but if I stop the race and want to restart, I expect this next gen game to function equally as well as the previous game designed for technically inferior hardware, but it doesn’t. You will sometimes have to endure a load time varying in length depending on when you’ve stopped the race, to play the same race again, with the same vehicle. In PGR2 restarting is almost instant. I find this highly vexxing and perplexing at the same time.

Once you get past all of the pomp and circumstance you’ll be able to dive into the various game modes of which PGR3 has no shortage. Veterans might take immediately to the Online Career Mode offered in PGR3 for the first time. This new mode allows you to go through a series of Championships while playing against human opponents. Using the new TrueSkills matchmaking system, you’ll no longer have to compete against people who have no lives and play this game all day, 24/7. Your TrueSkills rating will als be there to remind everyone that you aren’t as good as you’ve been boasting. Ha Ha! (Insert Nelson Muntz voice). If you’re a tradionalist, set your sites on Gotham Career which is the single player career mode or head immediately to Playtime which replaces PGR 2’s arcade mode. Playtime allows you to race any track with any car and allows you set a number of racing attributes such as the number of laps, time of day etc. Playtime mode also houses the Route Creator which is exactly what it suggests: build your own courses from a variety of waypoints located along several different routes in any given city which is far less work than starting from scratch. Once you’ve built your course, you can race it against bots, take it online or play it on a LAN or systemlink.

The meat and potatoes offline mode as mentioned is Gotham Career. This offline Career mode has been altered for the better compared to the previous game. PGR2 forced you to complete an entire sequence of race challenges based on vehicle class (Compacts, Roadsters, Muscle etc.) set in one city before you could move on to the next city and class. PGR3 feels much less restrictive as the class system has been removed in favor of letting you race whichever model of car you can currently afford. Let me just say 85,000 credits buys you a helluva lot of car to start. I made it through almost the first half of PGR3 with only three vehicles.

The Career mode Consists of 23 Championship Series, with subsequent challenges unlocked by earning trophies. You’ll be up against 3 main categories of race, each with their own sub-categories and any particular Championship can consist of varying amounts of the following:

  • Timed Events: Hot Lap / Timed Run / Breakthrough / Time vs. Kudos
  • Racing Events: One on One / Eliminator / Street Race
  • Style Events: Speed Challenge / Cone Challenge / Drift Challenge / Overtake Challenge

You’ll be given your choice of difficulty for any of the challenges. If you’re a classic underachiever PGR3 allows you to settle for Steel Medals but if you plan on taking the game online, you won’t make it very far with that kind of lazy man’s work ethic.

Playing PGR3 online will most likely occupy the next few months if not years of your gaming life. It’s easy to locate friends and races and with so many copies of this game sold, it’s not hard finding playmates at any time of day. I didn’t have a lot of time playing online as my ISP has been up and down lately and when it was working I had some trouble connecting to the server. I was assured by an Xbox tech rep that there were complications and the problem was being rectified. I certainly won’t go on record to suggest that I’ve spent much time playing online, but the few races I did play were outstanding, completely lag free and enjoyable thanks to the TrueSkills system. If you don’t want to play you can feel free to tune into Gotham TV and watch the best of the best go head to head or locate your online friends to see who’s in need of a verbal shunning. It’s an interesting and very voyeuristic feature and I think it’s very well indicated, especially when you can see how great PGR players create awesome lines through those formidable tracks that are giving you a headache.

Visually Bizarre Creations wasn’t able to get this bad boy running at 60 FPS and you’ll either notice or not as the debate rages on as to whether human beings can actually recognize 60 FPS. I know that I like when games run at 60 FPS because they look smoother – call me a mutant but I can tell the difference. In any event, PGR3 looks great even at 30FPS. Little visual flourishes such as sun glare as you exit a tunnel as your eyes adjust to the light, dust on the windows, crowds who jump back when you smash into a wall near them, headlights reflecting in your windshield – it’s a visual feast. In terms of the overall picture, PGR3 is pushing polygons like a crack pusher pushes ummm…crack? The vehicle models feature 8 times the polygons used to to create the cars in PGR2 and legend has it that the Brooklyn Bridge in the New York level features more polygons than an entire level in PGR2. The vehicles and environments are gorgeously rendered and I doubt anyone will argue that once they see the game in action.

New for PGR3 is the added dashboard perspective which allows players to see inside an authentically recreated cockpit of their favorite vehicles. All of the gauges work which adds to the overall realism in this visual mode and you’ll also be able to use the R analog stick to see to either side of you. I usually prefer to play racing games with a behind the car perspective, but I must admit that I found myself switching between the “superman” view and the first person headlight view depending on the track. I didn’t care for the dashboard view as it placed too many distractions in front of me as well as blocked my open view of the track. My only complaint in terms of visuals is the music HUD which materializes onscreen when switching tracks at the most inopportune times. I’ve checked and I can’t seem to turn it off. It’s a minor annoyance but it’s still bothersome.

Much has been written about the physics engine used in the PGR games – it’s not quite arcade and it’s not quite realistic, but if you compare it to Forza Motorsport, Gran Turismo or Yu Suzuki’s insane Ferrari 355, PGR3 definitely falls within the arcade template. The control and handling of each vehicle is based on four factors – Speed, Acceleration, Grip and Drifting – and needless to say you’ll have to choose wisely depending on the track. If you don’t have the right car for the job it’s time to do some test driving. Astute observers of the obvious will notice that smashing into other cars or walls never creates realistic percussions such as devastating realtime vehicle damage. I did notice however that some cars feature damage while other cars do not. Unlike the obvious cosmetic damage in PGR2, you may notice your trunk or hood lifting, fenders and bumpers crunched but you won’t see huge dents in the side of your car. Unfortunately this time out you can’t create your own personalized license plate. Boo Hiss!

Any racing series worth its weight has awesome track design and I have to say that I find PGR3’s tracks to be some of the best I’ve raced. Where I felt the first two games in the series featured far too many tight areas, Bizarre Creations has allowed their track design team to open things up a lot more on the curves which makes for some excellent drifting action as well as allows for more variety in the techniques used to getting around them. Equally as welcome are the straight-aways which finally allow players to experience the speed of the vehicles – to hell with the price of gas!

Since I cannot profess to have even come near some of the real vehicles in the game aside from the Nissan Skyline, I couldn’t tell you how accurately they sound to their realworld counterparts. I understand that there is something like 30 different sound samples comprised for each engine to recreate it as faithfully as possible.

For those always on the cutting edge of the music scene, you’ll love the variety of tracks and musical genres featured. Everything from Alternive rockers The Presidents of the United States of America (haven’t heard of these guys in years! Peaches anyone?) to Classical, Industrial, Hip Hop, J-Pop, Electronica and even Bhangra. I wasn’t familiar with Bhangra music before this game and I must say that I don’t particularly care for it. I bet you thought I was going to say that I loved it. Ha, you don’t know me very well. If you’d rather race to the serene musical stylings of Barry Manilow or the cuddly pillow talk violence of Korn, then simply choose the Custom Soundtrack option from the dashboard and play your ripped tunes or stream them from your iPod.

On the one hand PGR3 is a slight disappointment due to the reduced challenge of the difficulties, load times and 30 FPS, but there are so many other improvements that these are fairly easy to overlook. As I said PGR3 feels like more of an expansion of 2003’s PGR2, than an entirely revolutionary product, but it’s still brimming with quality. I can’t imagine any PGR2 players snubbing this new one because of some minor imperfections simply because the game has so much to offer in terms of play value with its online play, PlayTime mode, Route Creator and of course the Gotham Career mode. Since there are three above average racers at the Xbox 360 launch, it may be hard pressed to find the racer you want to invest your hard-earned dough into.

Personally while I enjoyed Most Wanted and I’ve always dug the Ridge Racer vibe (not counting R Racing Revolution), PGR3 will keep you challenged for quite awhile on both sides of the internet. If you’re a stickler for 100% completion those Platinum awards will keep you coming back for months, while less enthusiastic racing fans who don’t want to race online will only get 50% of what PGR3 is offering. PGR3 isn’t perfect and it doesn’t feel quite as on top of it’s game when compared to PGR2 but we’ll chalk that up to rushing to meet the launch deadline. Project Gotham Racing 3 is still a gorgeous looking engrossing racer which will have you coming back for ‘just one more try’ and that’s what’s important.

By Vaughn Smith
CCC Site Director

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