Around the world in eighty laps.
Project Gotham Racing 3 initially stirred up a lot of hype when some screenshots of the streets of New York were released that looked so real, many claimed they had been faked. That turned out to be false, as Bizarre Creations simply went to great lengths to photograph and recreate portions of several cities. It provided a glimpse into the awesome power of the 360 and helped thrust this racer in the launch lineup spotlight.
At last, the streets of Bizarre's labors are finally on display and ready for driving, and fans of the series will be very comfortable on these familiar roads. PGR 3 makes very few changes to the series' successful formula, the biggest being the one we all knew was coming: fancy, high-res, next-gen graphics. Luckily, this racer has enough going on under the hood to make it more than just a shiny paint job ' it's also one of the best 360 games available at launch.
So what's the real deal with those graphics? They're good, that's what. Rebuilt in fairly authentic detail are sections of Las Vegas, London, New York, Tokyo, and Nurburgring. Nurburgring? I think I saw him in World of Warcraft. Well, it looks like a nice place, anyway. You won't really notice the backdrops while you're racing, but during the replays, you'll figure out why they went to all the trouble. The detailed environments look so good that PGR 3 even includes a photo mode so you can pause the action at any time and start taking pictures. And chances are, you will.
Unfortunately, the cars also look better during replays than they do when you're racing. The game's 80 or so real-life rides look pretty cool, with slick surfaces and plenty of details, but you'll certainly notice some small anti-aliasing issues around the edges during races. While NFS: Most Wanted may have the prettier rides, PGR 3's framerate never misses a beat, giving you the smoothest racing experience around. Of course, true purists are going to switch to the in-car view immediately, tough as it is (especially in London, where the steering wheel is on the wrong side.)
Assuming they've played previous PGR games, that is. Newbies will find themselves spinning out and hitting walls at every corner thanks to the simulation focus of the game. Real cars, it turns out, spin out very, very easily at 100 mph; as in a real race, you'll use the brakes as much as the gas. Of course, since they license real cars, you can't actually destroy anything, even in a 200 mph head-on collision, so the simulation has limits.
PGR's Kudos system returns; fans of the series who know all the little tricks and combos will quickly rack up point totals that mere mortals will never achieve. Kudos points are awarded for performing skillful moves during your race, like powersliding, drafting, or keeping a good race line. You'll need to earn plenty of Kudos if you want to unlock all the concept cars in the game.
You'll also have to win some races to score cash to fill up your garage with those cars. Maseratis don't grow on trees you know, and you'll need some very high-end machines indeed to qualify for many of the faster street races. Other than color, however, there's really no car customization. Want a better suspension? Too bad, because all cars come stock. There are, however, lots of ways to race your strictly off-the-lot ride, and besides, how much upgrading does a Ferrari really need, anyway?
Your PGR 3 racing career takes you through about a dozen different types of races and speed challenges focused on either speed or Kudos. They're all fairly similar - let's just say that none of them involve driving slowly or crashing into things. Winning all the trophies will take you through hundreds of races in all five cities, a satisfying and lengthy campaign of driving brilliance.
Of course, there's still a great wide world out there, and PGR 3 features the most complete Xbox Live integration of any launch title, hands-down. Pretty much everything you do in the game, both on and offline, is available for everyone else in the world to check out. This is not a game for shy people.
Sure, you can just drop in for some quick pickup races online, but there's a whole second online career mode as well. It has its own leagues, racing circuits, leaderboards, and by far the toughest challenges in the game. PGR 3's computer A.I. is good, but it's nothing like a crazed organic opponent who's been practicing for the last 72 hours straight with the sole purpose of embarrassing you.
But that's only the beginning of the Live integration. Want to see how some dedicated schmuck at the top of the lists got 15,000 Kudos in a single race? You can watch it. Have a friend with PGR 3? You can play peeping Tom and watch him race live, then place bets on how drunk he is. Likewise, there's a whole channel dedicated to watching the 'heroes' of PGR 3 racing live whenever you want. It's a terrific way to feel like an inadequate voyeur'if you don't already feel that way.
Extending this even further is the ability to create your own tracks by plotting points in the recreated city centers and then inviting others to come and race, while others watch. The amount of community potential here is simply tremendous. Just watched an impressive replay of a recent championship match? Press a button and you can race against their ghosts, just to see how you stack up or possibly to learn their techniques. Bizarre and Microsoft really went all out here, and it shows.
It's also a bit intimidating. It's one thing to know there's a 12 year-old out there who can kick your ass, but it's another thing to know his name and bio and be able to watch him live as he decimates opponents far more skilled than you. Fortunately, you can also find people closer to your own level via the Optimatch functionality. Stupid kids.
Project Gotham Racing 3 is definitely a good game, but isn't quite yet the tour de force you might be hoping for. The reliance on the Tony Hawkish Kudos system and the forgiving crash physics and damage modeling pulls you away from the realism while giving PGR veterans a huge advantage over newbies. Still, does a lot of things right by delivering respected gameplay in nice new wrapping and ties it up with amazing online integration, which hints at things to come. Keep in mind this is merely a 360 launch title, so if this is just the tip of the iceberg, I'm getting ready for the Titanic to go down.