NEWS - Tuesday, November 15, 2005

First Project Gotham Racing 3 Review

Project Gotham Racing 3 Over the past summer, I became a pedestrian for the first time since I turned sixteen years old. My San Francisco-based job at the 1UP offices afforded me the opportunity to forego the costs of owning an automobile and allowed me, for the first time in my life, to rely solely on public transportation; I've appreciated the change -- especially the large chunk now left in my wallet -- and yet every few weeks I really get the urge to cue up my current iPod playlist and get back behind the wheel my former car. During the months leading up to the release of the Xbox 360, it was becoming more and more obvious that the latest addition to Bizarre Creations' increasingly exceptional racing series would be one of the most polished and playable titles available at launch. Early hands-on impressions seemed to indicate that the game was playing well enough. More importantly though, each video that hit the internet during this period confirmed that Project Gotham Racing 3 would be the most graphically intricate racer ever on consoles. And yet, the hype did not entirely prepare me for the shock of playing PGR3 for the first time; within minutes, I was strapped into the cockpits of some of the world's most exotic racers and singing along to my favorite songs courtesy of the 360's iPod compatibility. My urge to drive was being satiated, and I hadn't even left the couch. Being one of the premiere releases of the next generation, the most obvious and notable features of PGR3 are aesthetic. The clarity and detail with which the title's five environments -- Tokyo, Las Vegas, New York, London, and Germany's Nurburgring -- are rendered is unparalleled in its realism. The developer's use of an immeasurable number of digital photographs for reference has yielded meticulous textures that wrap the convincing models of each locale. And unlike previous titles in the series, the cityscapes in PGR3 are absolutely littered with spectators watching the proceedings. Their appearance alone helps add much needed realism to the world; each crowd's appearance is dynamically generated to reflect not only the player's status (more experience means more spectators) but also the current track's city of origin. (Tokyo crowds are, unsurprisingly, comprised primarily of Japanese people, for example.) Although what really sets PGR3's graphics apart are the visual effects that actually complete the stunning illusion of reality that Bizarre has crafted. High-dynamic-range lighting is employed to emphasize transitions between indoor and outdoor locales so that shooting out of a tunnel or driving through an overpass, for instance, will result in a momentarily blinding blast of light, mimicking the effects of sunlight on the human iris. PGR3's use of motion blur is similarly effective. Every object in the environment blurs realistically as speeding vehicles tear through the tracks, lending the proceedings an incredible sense of speed and ever-closer associations with visual reality. But Bizarre's attention to detail didn't stop with the environments. Thankfully, the vehicles are rendered with just as much care. With games like Forza and Rallisport Challenge 2, it was hard to imagine how much this particular aspect of the genre could be improved over the last generation, and yet, PGR3's dazzling line-up of exotics autos trump just about anything we've seen on consoles thus far. And just as much of the inherent sexiness of cars in real-life is in how they -- quite literally -- reflect the world around them, the rides in PGR3 are pure sex thanks to the game engine's real-time environment mapping. As you race, streetlights, sunlight, buildings, other vehicles bend, flow, and stream off your car's curved exteriors. Even the headlights of trailing competitors can be seen reflecting off the windshield of your car. That is, if you happen to be driving using the behind-the-dashboard view, which -- trust me -- you should be. While it is quite difficult to innovate within the racing genre, Bizarre Creations did so in Project Gotham Racing 2 by integrating Xbox Live functionality seamlessly into both the single- and multiplayer experience. With PGR3, innovation continues with aforementioned in-cockpit camera. The developer has rendered the interiors of each vehicle in the game with nearly the same level of detail as their exteriors. Every gauge and dial inside each car not only looks as it would from the perspective of the driver's seat, but also function as the actual tachometers you'll be watching as you keep an eye on your speed and RPMs. Additionally, the player can also control the driver's view independently of the vehicle's vector; as such, rear-view and side mirrors can be viewed with a quick nudge of the right analog stick. Before long, I was able to drive any vehicle using it's dashboard indicators and its mirrors without acknowledging the HUD at all. Playing from this perspective makes for a far more immersive experience and, for perhaps the first time, we have true 180 degree situational awareness behind a virtual dashboard. After playing PGR3 exclusively from this perspective, it will be downright difficult to play another driving game from any other camera angle again. In fact, PGR3 is a single-handed challenge to developers to really push immersion in future racing games. If you've ever hoped for a true in-car experience, the time is now with PGR3. That said, it helps that the PGR3's audio is comparably capable. Each of the vehicle's engines sound as authentic as you'd imagine; better is the fact that the sound is delivered appropriately depending upon whether or not the player is racing from inside the car or from third-person. And for those who can't imagine driving without a soundtrack, Bizarre has included a robust score that samples from a wide variety of genres; classical, industrial, and even bhangra tunes sit alongside more traditional genres like rock, alternative, and hip-hop. Users can customize the soundtrack to hear what they want, when they want while avoiding potentially aversive music altogether. Users with more refined music tastes can of course use the 360's custom soundtrack feature to replace the game's soundtrack, so keep your MP3 player handy if you're inclined to further personalize the racing experience. Bizarre has streamlined the genre's standard progression to give gamers access to nearly all the game's content from the outset in some form. Rather than force the player to suffer through slow early game tedium while driving a used junker, all of the game's vehicles are exotic speedsters. And nearly the entire lot is available from the get-go. In a solo career, the game's primary mode of play, cash flows to the player quickly. So instead of playing for hours to save up enough to buy that single hot Koenigsegg you've been dreaming of, you can have it within the first hour or two of play. Before long, you'll be buying cars left and right to fill out the unbelievably beautiful garages in the game rather than wishing you had a few more credits to spare. In fact, unlocking the garages and filling them with vehicles feels more reminiscent of Pokemon's mechanics than Gran Turismo's in some respect. You know, gotta catch 'em all... The solo career can be completed in about fifteen hours on Normal difficulty, but gamers with gusto can also complete each race again on Hard and Hardcore for additional credits. Apart from the career mode, gamers can choose to race on any of the game's tracks, with nearly any vehicle, alone or with friends via splitscreen or online from the first moment the disc is dropped into the tray. And if the game's numerous circuits get tiresome, the included route creator allows the player to cut their own course through any of the four city environments. The simple interface means that custom circuits can be created in minutes. Of course, a polished presentation can be soured by weak game mechanics. Fortunately, PGR3 excels at being both a brilliant showpiece of the power of Microsoft's new console as well as a thoroughly enjoyable racer. Each car handles distinctively, as you'd imagine, and yet, the game remains utterly playable from start to finish. While the handling may not adhere as strictly to reality as in the more simulation-heavy racing series', I find that controlling PGR3 is often much more enjoyable. Some cars hug the track while others force the player to initiate hand-brake-assisted power-slides; the latter group tends to yield more Kudos, the series' denominator of driving skill. The learning curve of PGR3 is decidedly slight, meaning that even novice gamers should have little trouble hopping in and quickly learning to control the vast array of vehicles. My girlfriend, a non-gamer, took first after only her third attempt after placing last in her initial race. And yet, the difficulty and AI scales wonderfully to accommodate veteran racers as well. Like its predecessor, PGR3 is host to a slew of online features. There's an online career mode, which contains another full suite of events to tackle. Additionally, Gotham TV should give gamers an even more fulfilling way to view their friend's races and check out the techniques of the best of the best. Unfortunately, because the game is not yet available to the masses, I was unable to test the online functionality, save for watching a couple of developer races live over Gotham TV. While what I saw was impressive, and PGR2's online components seem to indicate that Bizarre will deliver in this regard as well, we've decided to deliver this review sans multiplayer impressions. Though, even without the online component, PGR3 offers an unparalleled racing experience. The additional functionality should only enhance the experience. We'll deliver a complete review of the online experience following the game's release. Is PGR3 without fault? Pretty much. Sure, I'd love the ability to completely remove the HUD for a more immersive experience. I wish I could drive through the streets of the game's cities freely, without track markers dictating my path. This would give the player a better chance to appreciate the work that's gone into recreating the environments; though the included photo mode (which can be accessed at any time from the pause menu) does allow gamers to stop, stare and wander the tracks to their heart's content. And God, what I wouldn't give to be able to plug my Driving Force Pro steering wheel into my Xbox 360; it's USB, Microsoft... Hook us up with some drivers! But aside from this sort of general nitpicking, there's very little to complain about in PGR3. It's more immersive than any other racer out there. It's more fun, too. And finally, those urges I have about wanting to reclaim my former vehicle can be put to rest. Who needs a lemon when you can drive a Ferrari at home?


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