If you're like any other gamer closely eyeing the latest developments on the Xbox 360, the photorealistic screenshots of Project Gotham Racing 3 surely caught your eye. And racing junkies will be glad to know it mostly delivers on those visually decadent promises--but it's by no means a timeless classic.
Leaving Gran Turismo in the Dust
Forza set the standards high for racing game graphics, and PGR 3 has just raised the bar. Car models are simply breathtaking, and the game flaunts its goods with a walk-around mode that freely lets you examine your exotic ride. But the cars shine the most when driven--and they're astounding when the tires hit the racing tarmac. Each car has the interior dash faithfully modeled, complete with the rear-view mirrors, working gauges, and driver's hand gripping the steering and shifting gears. You can even ignore the HUD altogether and just drive looking at the dash in most cars (unfortunately, the steering wheel obscures the tachometer in some rides).
Exterior environments seem life-like especially at high speeds, putting the visuals of Ridge Racer 6 to shame. Cross the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and you'll easily forget that those are polygonal girders passing you by. And it's a technical marvel as to how they model all those spectators, especially how they jump back as you inch toward the guard rails. However, it would have been nice to see some of that hardware muscle focused on decorating the cityscape; moving and parked cars, pedestrians and other clutter you'd expect in a bustling metropolis are surprisingly lacking.
While decidedly next-gen in its graphical execution, PGR 3 does stop short of aesthetic perfection. With only five levels offered (New York, London, Tokyo, Las Vegas, Nurburgring), the scenery gets old a bit sooner than you'd like--especially when all but one of the stages are set in a metropolitan environment. You feel as though there isn't ever a significant change in scenery, and eventually the neon luster of shop signs get a little dull. Still, that doesn't detract too much from the overall experience, especially when you're caught in the midst of a frantic race amongst other super cars.
Refreshing, Not Redefining
Everything that's next-gen seems to end at the graphics. The fundamentals remain the same for the third installment, but the game has been noticeably scaled to cater to both veteran and neophyte drivers. From the onset you can purchase a respectable super car, and the game is extremely forgiving and scalable based on your racing preferences. Hate straight-up racing as opposed to Kudos-centered (Kudos are PGR's way of saying combo points) races ? Then set the difficulty in Street Races to Easy or Novice. In fact, it seems almost too easy to burn through the single-player mode, which takes about 15 hours to complete. Maybe it isn't such a bad thing, though--the load times drag, making it an annoyance when you fail and need to restart the same race.
The physics in PGR 3 are more on the realistic end of the spectrum--don't expect to mash the accelerator like Burnout. Nor are there any tuner contrivances of nitrous and outlandish body kits. Damage modeling seems more cosmetic but is satisfying nonetheless, especially when you see your windshield crack and mirrors busted.
PGR 3 continues the franchise tradition of expansive online play, and will likely be the bulk of what most will play. While we weren't able to play online, from the extensive integration of Xbox Live in online career modes it's safe to say fans won't be disappointed. The game newly features a spectator mode called Gotham TV, which allows you to watch your friends and even top racers duke it out on the digital asphalt.
Singing to a Different Tune
Few racing games care for a respectable soundtrack, and one of the highlights of PGR 3 is that you're not subjected to grating generic rock (Forza), or unnerving elevator music (Gran Turismo 4). Radio stations range from classic, hip-hop and electronica to even Bhangra and Japanese. Top it off with the satisfying screams and hums from engine revs, and you have one of the best audio experiences in any racing game.
Is PGR 3 the best racing game ever? Not quite, but it sure stands out as the most visually captivating. Even if you aren't a racing fan, the game is worth a try, just to see the Xbox 360 flexing its muscle. If you are a car nut and own an Xbox 360, the game is well worth owning, even if it's just to immerse yourself in the cockpit of a Ferrari lavishly rendered in high definition.