Review: Project Gotham Racing 2 (XB)

And it goes something like this:

BEBITO: I can’t believe I have to review Project Gotham Racing 2. It’s going to take time away from making sweet love to Sonic and playing Bella “¦ er “¦.
CORY: Maybe if you think about it as a new type of RPG, where you have to earn more cars in order to capture “¦ more “¦ tracks?
BEBITO: No “¦ that doesn’t work either!! Rrrrg!! All there are is cars “¦ and music “¦ and beautifully rendered environments “¦ and exquisite automotive lines on the Porsches “¦ curves that remind me of Bella “¦. AAUGH!!
CORY: Okay, I’ll take that review if you don’t want it.
BEBITO: Really?
CORY: Yes. I have Xbox Live, and I grew up around cars, and I know to stay away from those lithe Lotus automobiles that remind me of Veronica “¦ undeniable power with an equally sangfroid beauty “¦ er “¦ yes. I’ll take the review.

So here we are. A couple of weeks later than originally planned, but here nonetheless with the review of the most buzzworthy new racer on the market “¦ unless you count MarioKart — Double Dash “¦ which I do “¦ anyway, let’s move on.

Longtime readers will know the issues I have with most auto racers.

Scratch that.

Longtime readers will know the nagging problems I have with most auto racers.

Scratch.

Longtime readers will know the seething hate and bubbling cauldron of wrath that I attempt to control every time I take on the review of an auto racer. Now, it’s not that I despise auto racers. I’m actually quite fond of them; although, historically, I’m not very good at them. (See also: Pole Position, Out Run, and Race Drivin’) So why the ire? Because I have a long-standing problem with the controls of most console racers. They’re usually either too sluggish, so that initiating the first turn needs to happen somewhere around the track select screen; or, as is more often the case, they’re too damn sensitive to the point of taking paths on the straightaways that resemble some of Picasso’s more daring Cubist masterpieces. It’s probably the closest thing to a cliché that I’ve started here at 411, but racing games should be playable with the stock gamepad. If a steering wheel peripheral is required just to be halfway competent with the game, the game sucks. Period.

Despite this rather simple criterion of acceptance, year after year we are flooded with bad bad BAD racing games. Even long-established companies seem content to leave their games in an unplayable state. Not to mention any names “¦ *cough* *coughElectronicArtscough* *hack*. What is so friggin’ hard about a little control system tailoring? I have to do it all the time in my real job. Not to crow, but I was personally responsible for developing roll control schedules (with mad phat props to mah homey Jeremy over in Systems who made it work mechanically. Peace, bro.) for one of the best-selling airplanes we have. And I wasn’t just working on customer satisfaction; I had FAA regulations to meet for stability and controllability that weren’t trivial to the design process. Point is, if *I* can do this, by myself, for an FAA-certified airplane, why can’t a team of programmers do it for a blasted video game?

So it was with a strange combination of anticipation and foreboding that I took on the PGR2 writing assignment “¦ actually, no it wasn’t. I’d already played quite a bit of the game and had my opinions fully formed by the time I let Bebito off the hook, so let’s just cut the b.s. and get going.

STORY

You know, I’ve reviewed a few games since we went to this new ratings format, and I haven’t had one “¦ not a single solitary game “¦ that actually had a storyTM to it. This is what happens when you let a bunch of RPG freaks develop the reviewing criteria for the site.

I propose a change. Sports games and racing games, not to mention scores of puzzle games, shoot-em-ups and others simply DON’T HAVE A STORY; and usually there’s no reason for them to have a story. Stories for such games aren’t just extraneous; they’d be a bit distracting from the escapist fantasy of them. How can you fantasize about leading the Chiefs to the Super Bowl when you have to deal with some plot line about your buddy the running back breaking his leg from a ninja attack in the parking lot? How can you really get yourself into a racing game when your “sister” (and you don’t even HAVE a sister) needs money to pay for a liver transplant or breast reduction surgery or whatever? You just want to race a friggin’ Corvette! You don’t need this emotional baggage.

So here’s my suggestion. Sports and racing games don’t have stories. What they DO have are numerous play modes “¦ usually more so than most RPGs. So how about we change the “Story” section in such cases to “Modes”? Same weighting, same thing we’d be writing anyway, just a lot less confusion on everybody’s part. Let’s try it.

MODES

See? Much better. Now then “¦.

The modes break down to single player and multiplayer, the multiplayer being pretty much dominated by Xbox Live. Single player modes are the Kudos World Series, Time Challenges, and Arcade Mode. Kudos World Series is the bread-and-butter of PGR2. It’s where you unlock tracks and cars and it’s the first thing most players will do.

Here’s the deal. You start with the lowest car class (“Compact Sport”) and you progress through a series of set races, earning points called Kudos with each successful race. When you’ve earned a set number of Kudos, your Kudos Rank goes up and you receive Kudos Tokens. With those tokens you can unlock cars that aren’t currently available to you. When you complete a set number of events, then that car class is finished and you move on to the next one and do it all over again with a different menu of cars. The car classes are things like Compact Sport, Sport Coupe, Pacific Musclecar, American Musclecar, Supercar, Track Specials, and Ultimate. SUVs even have their own class, which makes for some funky racing.

The events you have to finish are actually quite varied for an auto racer. Of course there’s the given Street Race,’ where you have to finish in a certain place or higher against several (up to 7) other cars. There are also One on One’ races, which make the experience a little more personal. For those that don’t like to muck about with all those other cars on the track the remaining four events are for you. There are two subtly different varieties of time racing, Timed Run’, and Fast Lap’, the only real difference being that Timed Run’ is usually more than one lap and Fast Lap’, by definition is only one. Then there’s the Speed Camera’ mode, where you negotiate a length of track in the cleanest possible manner to try and maximize your speed at the end; and Cone Challenge,’ a maddening little concept where you go around a track through cone gates, trying to score a certain amount of Kudos within the given number of laps.

By the way, different Kudos-worthy events, like going through a cone gate, powersliding, drafting, overtaking, etc. are chainable if done within 2 seconds of each other. The more you accomplish in a row, the higher the multiplier, and the higher the Kudos when you finally cash in. If you run into a wall or a cone, however, you can kiss that multiplier goodbye.

Kudos can be earned in Arcade Mode too. Here you can do timed laps, cone challenges, or street races, but you can only do courses that have been unlocked in Kudos World Series mode. The difference between these events and the ones in KWS mode is that you get to choose your car in KWS events. In Arcade mode the car is assigned to you. The Time Challenges don’t earn you any tokens. They’re just for bragging rights at who can take a course the fastest.

The really cool feature about this game is that each race in KWS and Arcade mode has five different difficulty settings, called medals. To unlock a track and/or the next event, you only have to beat an event on its lowest difficulty rating (Steel’). Of course the higher difficulty settings (Bronze’, Silver’, Gold’, and Platinum’) have increasingly more difficult goals to attain and more skilled computer competition to race against, and as such reward increasing numbers of Kudos for completing successfully. But the nice thing is that you can go back after you’ve already unlocked something to try and improve your medal. Now, you can’t race a track over and over again to load up on Kudos. The only way you’ll get more Kudos for racing the same track is if you score more Kudos than your previous best at that event, then you only get the difference between the new best and the previous best. (If you successfully upgrade your medal, you’re pretty much assured of scoring a new best Kudos for that race.)

I like the progressive nature of KWS mode and the option to do other things. It does get a bit repetitive sometimes, and tying in KWS mode to the other two modes is both kinda neat and kinda annoying.

Story “¦ er “¦ Modes Rating: 7.5/10

GRAPHICS

Being a Microsoft Game Studios game for a Microsoft product, this section is predictable: Stunning. Absolutely stunning. In my Links review, I talk about Roni mentioning that she couldn’t tell whether I was playing a video game or watching golf on TV. Well, this game blows that one right out of the water in terms of realistic graphics.

Of course, Microsoft kind of cheated “¦ but they did so in a really clever way. There’s a TON of tracks in this game; but those tracks are all concentrated in a fairly limited number of cities “¦ in a fairly small area of those cities to be precise. What they did was model a certain section of each city and model it completely; all of the roads, all of the buildings, everything; and they used the available roads to make different paths. Thus they were able to take a small area and make a LOT of interesting courses out of them. To further add to the uncertainty, a lot of courses within a city share the same sections of track. Don’t even think about cheating and running down side roads in these cases; the courses themselves are blocked off with barriers so you can’t duck down an alley as a short-cut. Still, storing the city and just putting barriers up where you need them for each course is a sight more efficient than storing that number of courses separately, and as a result, each city is absolutely beautiful to look at. You don’t start to get jaggies with the environment unless you’ve t-boned yourself into a guardrail or a building, and at that point you’re more pissed off about the race itself than the graphics anyway. The rainy courses were the ones that really blew me away. They incorporated fog effects to simulate the haze of the falling rain and reduce the visibility at distance “¦ and they did it so smoothly that I had to mention it here.

The cars themselves are similarly beautiful and realistic; provided that you haven’t run into anything yet. The “damage” that cars sustain (and, for the record, the damage is not “realistic.” There’s no way to total your car in PGR2. Run into a wall at 200 mph, and you’ll break the windshield and dent the front fender. That’s it. Back up, turn around, and do it again, Mr. Spader.) isn’t terribly realistic-looking. It’s not necessarily ugly, but you will find the suspension of disbelief disrupted when you see “damaged” cars.

Graphics Rating: 8.5/10

SOUND

There’s only so much you can do with sound in a “¦ okay, I’m kidding. If you’re doing a racing game like NASCAR or F1, there is only so much you can do, since all of the cars are basically the same anyway — compared to the street cars in this game, at least. Here, with all of the cars being represented, there’s a little bit more that has to be done. I’ve heard the contented little vroom of a revving Mini. I’ve heard the finely tuned almost jet-like hum of a Honda or Subaru. I’ve heard the cavernous carburetor of a vintage Mustang and the smug-yet-All-American purr of a Corvette. I’ve even heard the meld of dignity and power that is a Porsche 911 and the bombastically “¦ Italian (there’s no other adjective that I can call up to describe this) note of a gunning Testarossa, like that jerk was going to try and drag race on Rock Road on a Friday night. Idiot.

The point is that, if you’re going to put a load of different cars in a game, you can only make things better by distinguishing them from each other. Microsoft did that with this game.

I would have preferred a few different squeal notes on the turns. A powersliding Honda with it’s stock-width tires sounds a bit different than a powersliding Corvette, with those huge Armadillo mashers those things ride on, and I’m not even going into the Extreme or Ultimate categories. Crash noises were pretty stock regardless of car, which I guess is acceptable because people don’t want remember crashes anyway.

There is one thing that’s going to cause me to take away a point. Every time you crash while carrying a Kudos combo, there’s this low-tone buzzer noise to let you know that you lost your Kudos. While I can pragmatically see this as a necessary evil, that tone got so annoying “¦ especially as I labored away at attempts to pass some of the later Cone Challenges “¦ that I have to complain.

Music was plentiful and varied enough that anyone could assemble a good playlist from what was available, but it seemed to get stuck between certain default playlists. After playing the game for a little while, I began to notice that, while not touching ANY of the music options, I was hearing the same ten or twelve songs every time. Also, getting the game to play custom soundtracks was a bit difficult, which was disappointing considering that I spent an evening compiling a CD of driving songs just for the occasion.

Sound Rating: 7.5/10

CONTROL

To reiterate what I said in the introduction; what little hate mail I’ve gotten in my tenure here at 411 I’ve gotten because of my criticism of the control of certain beholden racing games. Look, when I can’t hold a straight line on a course using the stock gamepad, the thing is too damn sensitive, okay? That’s all I ask; that you can control the car with a moderate to good degree of success using the stock controls. I don’t think it’s that unreasonable of a request. I don’t want to have to shell out another 30-40 bucks or more for a steering wheel on top of the 50 the game costs just because some programmers were lazy.

I submit as evidence for the prosecution, Project Gotham Racing 2. This is the perfect example of an auto racer where the controls were done RIGHT. You hear that Codemasters? You hear that Electronic Arts? This game blows both Colin McCrae 3 and “¦ *shudder* “¦ F1 Career Challenge away in terms of the controllability of the cars. From the Mini on up to the Enzo Ferrari, I had no trouble competing with the default Xbox gamepad.

Now, that’s not to say that it was easy. It wasn’t easy, but it was very very doable. Thanks to the inclusion of DIFFICULTY RATINGS (another long-standing beef I have with the aforementioned games) anybody can – out of the box – achieve a steel medal on any event. Easily. In fact, with a minimum of effort you can achieve a silver on the vast majority of events. Even platinums are very achievable with the gamepad, although I’m sure that a steering wheel would be a significant help at this level, but it’s not NECESSARY. Big difference.

That’s also not to say that all of the cars handle the same. If they did I’d be unbelievably peeved that a Chevy Camaro, a car that has problems on any track that’s not straight, flat, and a quarter-mile long, would handle the same as a Porsche 911, a car that’s TESTED at Nurburgring for Pete’s sake. No, the cars are different. VERY different, which is part of the reason the World Series is set up the way it is. You’ll be amazed the first time you race Ultimates on the same track you used to tear up with Pacific Musclecars. It’s not just a difference in speed and acceleration or some amorphous “handling” or “powerslide” rating. Each car is represented by a single number in these four categories, but it really feels like the creators went to the trouble to make the models even more finely tuned than that. I don’t care that the Enzo Ferrari has a “handling” rating of 10; I still have more trouble holding Ferrari products to good lines than Porsche products. Is it because of some difference in my own perception? Maybe, but it also could be that Ferraris are different than Porsches, and the programmers went to some lengths to distinguish them from each other. (The first time I had to race a Ferrari in the rain, I was legitimately terrified, and I was sitting at home on my couch. This is the kind of rep Ferraris have. Dry — Good. Not Dry — Very Very BAD.)

As for the dirt on the controls themselves; just like any auto racer, you’ll find yourself making small, finite corrections on the gamepad which don’t necessarily translate to real-life driving, but those corrections are several orders of magnitude easier to make than in other racing games. The turn rate versus analog stick deflection curve is, of course nonlinear, which you want it to be if you want to make small corrections. However, it’s not uniform. It appears to be also regulated by speed, and well regulated at that. I’m sure that most, if not all, racers are similarly regulated by speed, but PGR2 does it so smoothly and well that it’s worth the special mention I’m giving it. Don’t try making sharp turns at high speed, but you can whip kitties in the middle of the road “¦ forwards AND backwards “¦ if the road is wide enough. Point is, you’ll have just as much turning authority as you would reasonably have at any speed you’re at. The only downside that I can think of is that you can’t cause a slide just by yanking over the wheel, but that’s what the handbrake is for.

And watch the hell out of that handbrake. It works, there’s no question about that. It actually works really well; the whole purpose of it being to lock up the back tires so they skid. If you’re in a turn, that is if your velocity vector is anything other than perfectly straight forward, the car will begin to spin in the direction of the turn. This is a good thing if you want to get around turn with a minimum speed loss, but only if you know when to get off of the handbrake and back on the steering wheel and throttle. Hold that handbrake too long, and your car will spin out faster than Lee driving home from the bar. All you have to do is tap it (“it” being the A button), which is more realistic and is more desirable from a racing standpoint since it minimizes the amount you actually have to brake.

Running with a manual transmission is a bit trickier, but it always is anyway. With your gas as one trigger and the normal brake as the other, shifting gears by X and B is, at least, unobtrusive. Controls don’t have to be complicated for racing games, and it’s nice to see that the Microsoft Game Studio people remembered that.

So I’m giving this part a 10. You heard me. Sublime. Perfection. Elysium. The controls are simple and just as responsive as they need to be at any given moment. I can’t think of anything possible to make these controls better out of the box.

Control Rating: 10.0/10

REPLAYABILITY

As with a lot of the Xbox games we’ve been reviewing recently, the main reason for replayability is spelled x-b-o-x-l-i-v-e. Hey, it’s a great racing game. We’ve already established that. And this holds true for the people who like to race solo or head-to-head at home as much as any other auto racer I’ve seen. But the ability to hold 8-car pileups with people across the globe is more of a draw than I ever thought it would be.

Replayability Rating: 7.5/10

BALANCE

The medal/Kudos system isn’t just good. It’s almost genius. I really REALLY hate to say that about a Microsoft product (I think I’m developing hives just from that first sentence) but I can’t tell a lie; I loved it. First, having FIVE medal (read: difficulty) settings is a big step up from the standard 3 or 4. Since you only need to earn a steel medal to unlock a course, even novices can feel like they’re accomplishing something. Moreover, when you get better, you can go back and re-run the old courses to try and improve your medal. And the Kudos system, which only awards Kudos when you beat your previous best on a given event, keeps people from playing a handful of tracks over and over again to pump up their Kudos (not that it would help you other than give you more token to purchase cars with).

More importantly is that there is a real difference between the difficulty settings. You could probably get a steel medal on any event while legally intoxicated (I plan on trying that this weekend, actually) but you have to know your stuff about racing to even think about getting a platinum (but you can still do it with the gamepad if you do). This game has something for people of EVERY skill level, which is something that is sorely missing from a lot of big-name auto race games.

The only reason that this is not getting a 10 is that there’s a noticeable skill drift as you move up in car class. Out of the box, I was able to pretty much run the table with silver medals “¦ until I got to the last few car classes. All of the sudden, I had to drop down to bronze to make it through some events. This isn’t so much a change in car controllability as it is an apparent change in course/opponent A.I. difficulty. While I realize that increasing the necessary skill is part of the game, with the skill/reward system they already had in place, they didn’t need to do it so much between car classes.

Balance Rating: 9.0/10

ORIGINALITY

For all of my praises and hyperbole, it’s just an auto racer. However, it saves itself from the Mendoza Line by the Kudos system, which gives you a goal that almost makes your finish position secondary. The Speed Camera and Cone Challenge modes are a breath of fresh air too, but other than that it’s gas-n-go. Something needs to be said here about the fact that one of the most popular game modes of PGR2 online is “Cat and Mouse”: A game where half of the players select Mini Coopers, and the other half select Enzo Ferraris (or Saleens. Whatever’s available in Ultimate class). Each “team” consists of a Mini and an Enzo, both of the same color. The winning team is the team whose Mini crosses the finish line first. The purpose of the Enzos are to protect their Mini and/or mess with the opposing Minis. The punchline: This mode is not in the game. It was created entirely by Xbox Live players.

So if you wander into a PGR2 online race and somebody says they’re playing “Cat and Mouse,” now you know what’s up.

Originality Rating: 6.5/10

ADDICTIVENESS

With both Xbox Live and the difficulty/Kudos system, PGR2 really went out of its way to give itself some replay value. Ah, there’s nothing like obsessive-compulsive gamers (like myself) spending hours upon hours trying to get through that last cone gate to get the 140x combo needed for a Platinum medal. Nor is there anything quite like getting in with a good bunch of blokes and racing all night. True story: The first night I played PGR2 on Xbox Live, I got into a racing group with a guy from Britain. It was between 11 and midnight Central Standard Time, so it was between 5 and 6 A.M. in Britain. The guy stayed up all night playing PGR2! (He said he was going to call in sick that day.)

Once you get rolling, and you start feeling the mojo of whatever car you’re racing, it’s awfully hard to put that controller down; especially if you’re almost to a Kudos goal, or about to finish up a car class. I’ve spent hours playing the “just one more track” game; you know, the one where you tell yourself/your spouse/your mom/whoever that you just want to unlock “one more track” before you put the game up for the night. The controls are so smooth that racers will have no problems snorting this game up like crack for hours at a time.

But it’s a streaky sort of addictive. It’s really addictive for a while, then you have to put it down and play something else for a week, then you’re ready to spend another night tearing up asphalt, and so on. And the addictiveness online is directly proportional to the people you run into. The first few times I played online, I got into some really good, tight groups. Groups that were loose and fun and talkative and didn’t take things too seriously. Good times. But after that I hit a spell where I hit a few not-so-good groups. Quiet groups, people dropping out constantly, people who took offense to a little friendly trash talk, all of these become really quick turn-offs to playing online. There’s not a really good way to tell one group from another “¦ except this: Look in the available games list (from the specialized search). Any game with 5 or more people, get in if you can. Those games usually have somebody and their buddy or buddies so things are already comfortable and lively and you’re more likely to have fun than waiting around in a lobby waiting for more people to join you.

Addictiveness Rating: 7.5/10

APPEAL FACTOR

I don’t see this game turning anybody on to auto racers. The game isn’t that easy. I love the controls, but I know a little something about racing lines so I can control the cars reasonably well. Newbies will invariably find themselves smashing into every sharp corner guardrail and chicane that they come across, and that’s not good for the mass appeal. And as fun and innovative as the Kudos system is, its still designed for people that know what the hell they’re doing with their car. Other than sloppy skidding corners, newbies are not going to rack up Kudos points.

However, auto racer fans will eat this game up with a spoon and come back for seconds. (And the delay of Gran Turismo 4 until probably next Christmas will help this game to cement its place.) The controls and the options are varied enough to give racer fans of all skill levels (I submit as evidence: me) a fun experience. The gear heads will love the sheer number of cars represented, but will scoff at some of the stats comparisons and/or the inability to modify the cars.

Appeal Rating: 6.0/10

MISCELLANEOUS

I don’t think I’ve found a better auto racer for a console. Period. This is fun, easy to control WITH THE STOCK GAMEPAD, has good replay value, great graphics, good tunes, and an inspired difficulty system. This game even did a better job of showing me proper lines for racing than “¦ gasp “¦ Gran Turismo 3 did. I’m not kidding. I’m looking forward to GT4 just like everybody else, don’t get me wrong, but that’s probably a year off still. If you’ve got an Xbox and you love racers, please do yourself a favor and pick this up. Even without Xbox Live it’s addicting. With it (and if you can find a good group to race with) it’s damn near criminal.

Miscellaneous Rating: 9.0/10

Sto”¦Modes: 7.5
Graphics: 8.5
Sound: 7.5
Control: 10.0
Replayability: 7.5
Balance: 9.0
Originality: 6.5
Addictiveness: 7.5
Appeal Factor: 6.0
Miscellaneous: 9.0
Average Rating: 8.0

With reviewer’s spin: 8.5