It seems like a console now needs to ship with all its genre bases covered: shooter, racer, platformer, fighter, etc. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 was no exception, with all but the role-playing genre covered from the get-go. Although many gamers would’ve liked to see the “shooter” category grounded by Halo 3, much like Halo 1 filled the original Xbox’s shooter hole, Microsoft instead repeated history only in the racing category with Project Gotham Racing 3.
With the PGR series now a known commodity among Xbox owners, expectations were high for PGR3 on the Xbox 360. We’d played both Forza Motorsport, Microsoft’s driving simulator, and the arcade-inspired PGR2 on the original Xbox. But what sort of racing-game rabbit could Microsoft pull out of its Xbox 360 hat? Would the gameplay induce the same crack-like addiction of PGR2? How would the next-generation console handle the cars’ and environments’ graphics? Could the online functionality possibly improve upon the wonder of PGR2?
PGR3 answers all these questions, but some of its retorts aren’t exactly what this reviewer was hoping to hear. For one, the gameplay has changed a bit, with the cars handling as though they have much more weight. Braking, once relegated to being an emergency measure or a powerslide-inducing tactic, is now an absolute necessity. PGR3 is still an arcade racer, with the kudos (style points) system completely intact, but for gamers looking for more of a slide-happy experience, the new handling and more-realistic physics will be a bit of a disappointment.
So, too, will the single-player campaign be a bit of a competitive letdown. PGR3 includes two halves to its Career mode: Offline and Online. To Bizarre Creations’ credit, the amount of single-player (Offline) content is remarkable. Cone challenges, drift challenges, overtake challenges and speed challenges, all of which were in previous PGR games, are included in droves in PGR3. Bizarre Creations has also inserted some new modes, such as timed checkpoint races (a la the OutRun games) and a cool new “Time vs. Kudos” mode in which the countdown timer in the race stops for a few moments as you rack up kudos, which makes racing with style vital to completing the lap in time.
You’ll notice, though, that none of those modes includes opponents. And that’s one of the top problems in the game’s offline Career mode. The game does include elimination and street races, but not nearly enough of them to make you feel like you’re really in the thick of things. If you compete best against yourself, the single-player mode in PGR3 will suit you just fine, because playing alone is basically all there is to do. But if you do your best racing against other players, you really have to take your PGR3 career online.
All of the same competitive modes from the offline mode are available on Xbox Live, but unlike the ELO system in Rainbow Six 3 or the ranking system in Halo 2, PGR3 doesn’t always pair you with gamers of the same skill. “No problem,” you say, “I’ll just form a party with my friends and build my online career statistics that way, right?” Wrong. The Playtime mode, in which you can race online with friends (even on your own custom-created routes), doesn’t count toward your overall Online rank. You can still earn online kudos, but if you want to build your credibility and rank, you’ll pretty much have to do it as a lone wolf. Talk about sapping a game’s soul; racing online with friends was what made PGR2 so addictive.
Personally, I chalk-up the omission of the gameplay crack to Bizarre Creations knowing that a next-gen racer, no matter how well it played, would still be expected to look like a next-gen racer. And PGR3 definitely looks next-gen. At first blush, the car models don’t look all that improved from PGR2, and the lack of any substantial damage modeling actually is a significant step backward. Watch a replay, though, or pause the game in mid-race and enter the new Photo Mode, and you’ll see exactly what the game engine is capable of pulling off. The cars reflect absolutely everything in the environment. Their exhaust pipes belch vision-distorting heat. Their exteriors curve perfectly into the undercarriage, indicating that the cars are actually modeled in 3D, not simply textured to give that appearance.
The environments are also remarkable, especially considering the entire Las Vegas Strip and large segments of Tokyo, New York and London are modeled in full 3D (the original Project Gotham Racing had buildings made of textures, not 3D wireframes). In the middle of the Career mode you might not notice just how good these levels look, but when you create a custom race in the Route Creator and drive through it at your leisure, you start to realize and appreciate just how much work Bizarre Creations put into creating the levels in PGR3. Maybe that’s why they take so dang long to load.
Still, the lack of damage modeling (it’s there, but just barely) and the ongoing omission of any sort of weather effect (other than the glare of the sun) stand out as two details that would’ve put PGR3 over the top. Also, while the track-side crowds are much more prevalent in this third iteration, they still don’t feel like actual spectators. Great decorations, yes, but not quite as dynamic as billed just a few months before the game’s release.
With the Route Creator, online play and sheer amount of “stuff” in its offline mode, PGR3 carries a lot of content under its hood. But as well-executed as that content may be, it doesn’t have the same magic as PGR2. Although I can’t put my finger on it, there’s just something missing from PGR3 that keeps it from inducing the crack-like fever of its predecessor. Still, the game has enough style, substance and sass to keep you playing far later into the night than you might expect.
- Gameplay: 8.5
- A diverse mix of racing modes, so long as you’re not looking for much competition from AI racers.
- Graphics: 9
- This game looks decidedly next-gen, but the lack of significant damage modeling is a serious step back.
- Sound: 9.5
- Sound effects that change depending on whether you’re behind or inside the car? Amazing. A great soundtrack, too.
- Replay: 8.2
- Just enough to keep you playing more, but not so much that you can’t bring yourself to stop.
- Overall: 8.8
- It’s still a lot of fun, but it doesn’t quite have the same magic as its immediate predecessor.