Bumper to bumper.
Traffic plain sucks. Whether you are a driver, a pedestrian, or the proverbial chicken crossing the road, getting from point A to point B is always mucked up by other people trying to get from point A to point B on the exact same road.
[image1]Put that way, traffic is a good metaphor for the next generation of racing video games. You’ve got a handful of franchises — Need for Speed, Burnout, Forza Motorsport, Gran Turismo, Ridge Racer, and Project Gotham Racing — all in a logjam for best racing title.
So what’s to differentiate them? Burnout values reckless driving and big crashes, Forza and Gran Turismo are just a step away from the sweaty world of mech customization, and Ridge Racer is an arcade racer without a lot of pretensions to reality. Meanwhile, Project Gotham Racing 4 trots out a dour-looking Quebec. French and Canadian. Doubly cursed.
When Project Gotham Racing 3 hit the streets, its biggest draw was its cities. The near photo-realistic recreations of real world cities made a huge impression on our eyes, still unaccustomed to high-definition anything. Project Gotham Racing 4 doesn’t disappoint in this sense, and it still offers some of the best looking environments in the racing genre.
However, the new cities this time around aren’t quite icons of urbanity. Of course, there are the lookers from the previous installment: New York with its business meets fashion snobbery, Las Vegas with its trashy sparkle, prim London and sleek Tokyo. But the new additions—St. Petersburg, Quebec, Shanghai, Macau, and the “here’s a word from our sponsor” Michelin test track — have about as much personality as a pile of lugnuts. Quebec might as well be Milwaukee, Shanghai and Macau are vaguely “Asian,” and St. Petersburg seems to be a giant parking lot next to an unidentified building.
The driving in Project Gotham Racing has always been a balance between arcade accessibility and realistic physics. While the cars are not customizable, they are modeled upon real world cars, and it is apparent that the designers spent time making each vehicle perform uniquely. From the high-pitched whine of the European sedans to the knuckle-massaging rumble of the American muscle cars, the cars each perform very differently.
[image2]And which you choose depends on how you corner. Games in PGR4 are won and lost in the tight turns, and whereas some cars can take a hairpin turn at forty, others will have to use one of the five different kinds of drifting to avoid the race-killing walls.
But even when you’ve perfected the art of cornering with, say, the BMW sedan, all your expertise disappears with the new weather effects. The snow and rain effects look great, and they also change drastically the performance of different cars. Heavier cars go into brake-locked skids on snow, and lighter cars hydroplane over puddles. The weather effects are by the far the best addition to the PGR formula.
Less successful is the introduction of motorcycles. Generally more responsive and quicker, but slower at top speeds, the motorcycles are competitive with the cars on curvy courses but overmatched in longer racers. You can pop a wheelie to gain “Kudos” points (more later), and you can’t use a handbrake drift, but other than that the cycles feel like just smaller, slicker cars that you can fall off of.
Kudos are not just an unpopular snack choice. Here they represent style points gained by performing long drifts, driving at high speeds, or winning races. Kudos then can be used to unlock new cars, new tracks, gamer pictures, etc. It’s a generic formula that has little effect on the actual gameplay. Whereas gaining style points in a game like Burnout can be used to make your car go faster, here kudos are just the in-game currency, guaranteed to be racked up every time you race.
[image3]But racing is only one of a few events that you will ever get to do in either the long career mode or the shorter arcade mode. The standard races are fine, but they are in small proportion to the other single-car modes, like the cone-race in which you get penalized time for hitting any of a thousand cones on a track. While the other, time-trial, modes are perhaps a good variation, they get to be repetitive and dull after a few hours.
The problem is that, in a game where cornering is everything, the grade of up-coming turns is impossible to gauge except by constantly checking the small hud map in the corner of the screen. When following other cars, you can tell how steep the curve ahead is, but on your own, as it often is, you will fly into hairpin turns and brake into mild 10 degree ones. I can think of at least ten ways to correct this, maybe the best of which would be to post, just like in real life, the suggested speed of each curve on a sign. But PGR4 does nothing, and causes more cursing and unnecessary wreckage than is fun.
Online game modes are thin, restricted to single races and multi-race championships. You can also race either mode in teams, but that can mean a long time sitting in a matchmaking lobby only to have everyone quit in the middle of the race. Matchmaking takes a long time, and races are usually over after the first curve in the road.
Other functions, like saving replays, uploading “ghost” driving performances to Xbox live, and taking screenshots, will probably be rarely used due to the user-unfriendliness of the online component of the game.
I’ve said that the environments look good, but the same can’t really be said for the cars. They shine, and are appropriately modeled, but the damage modeling is pathetic (the most bone-shattering crash only pops out your rear windshield). To be fair, when you license real cars, the auto companies limit what you can do so that their cars do not appear to be dangerous.
[image4]But the worst look in the game is reserved for the ugly menu screens that use tire-tread backdrops for text and feature droplets of fluid constantly dripping down the inside of your TV screen. This last effect is inexcusable. Not only does it look ugly, but it smears the text that you’re trying to read.
Music in PGR4 is similarly ill-advised. At first it seems like there are only a handful of horrible hip-pop tracks, but as you gain ranks new artists begin to be introduced. Like Mozart. And some Bollywood-sounding Indian artists. Eclectic veers towards schizophrenic in the music choices, and while the best tunes are merely OK, the worst (my favorite is this unlistenable earsore from Lady Sovereign. Wait for the chorus. Now gouge ear to let it come out the other side.
PGR4 makes a lot of absurd decisions ranging from motorcycles to Lady Sovereign to unreadable menus to Quebec. While the core gameplay is the about the same as it has always been, the one good upgrade, the weather effects, isn’t enough to maintain PGR’s earlier decent showing. A rental, maybe, and only if Forza Motorsport and Test Drive: Unlimited are checked out.