Reviewed: January 9, 2004
Released: November 18, 2003
It’s hard to argue that racing games make up a major part of any console’s total library, and when you have so many to choose from only a few can truly rise to the top. Project Gotham Racing 2 arrives with plenty of hype, anticipation, and a proven track record that includes the original Project Gotham Racing on the Xbox and Metropolis Street Racer on the Dreamcast.
It’s hard to imagine a game like PGR2 being this good, but when you look at how MSR basically reinvented, or at least redefined the racing genre, and then how PGR took that concept to the next-gen level, it’s not surprising that PGR2 is going to do for console racing what Halo did for console FPS games.
The defining element of any racing game is control and PGR2 has some of the most fluid and accurate controls of any arcade racer you will lay your hands on. Normally, the first thing I do when I get a racing game like this is hook-up my steering wheel, and while PGR2 works (and works well) with my Mad Catz Universal Wheel, you can tell the designers totally tweaked this game to perfection for use with a standard gamepad. You’ll need the responsive stick to finesse your way around these winding tracks.
And control is paramount to PGR2 since this is not only a game about driving to win but driving “well” to win. Enter “Kudos”, the point system used to reward you for clean and precise driving and penalize you for recklessly smashing your car into other cars, or trackside objects. You’ll earn Kudos for driving sections of the track without hitting anything as well as drafting (tailgating), drifting (power sliding), maintaining a clean racing line, and popping up on two wheels. Kudos not only determines your ranking, but are also used to unlock the more powerful vehicles.
With tight controls and a game designed around precision driving you might think the designers were trying to create a racing simulation, and while the physics are consistent they are far from realistic. Many cars are overly sensitive and most can turn and power slide on a dime. Smacking a wall will bring your car to a jarring halt that is more of a time penalty than anything else. While cars will dent and look damaged there are no performance hits so your car will always be in top shape, even after a dozen wrecks. The best part of the physics engine is that each car has unique and very defined handling properties that change the gameplay with each new car.
Racing is done on authentic street environments recreated in stunning detail from cities like Chicago, Washington D.C., Moscow, Barcelona, Florence, Hong Kong, Sydney, and many others. There are more than 100 tracks and more than 100 cars to race on those tracks, so the game has the potential to be different with each and every race.
Track design is very creative and uses portions of real-world streets to create circuit and linear tracks. Many tracks reuse the same portions as others, so just when you think you know a sweeping left turn is coming up, this time it happens to be a 90-right turn into a narrow alley.
The opponent AI in the PGR series has always been “predictable” and nothing has changed in this sequel. Computer cars follow the ideal racing line until you get in their way at which point they will bump (ram) you out of their way. Unfortunately, when you try to bump other cars they get a speed boost and you loose half your momentum. Thankfully, only a few racing events have AI opponents so you won’t have to deal with their treachery for too much of the game.
There is a bit of repetition built into the gameplay but not in a way that becomes annoying. Each race offers five difficulty levels and a specific medal is awarded for winning each along with an increasing number of Kudos. You can run each race as many times as you want and only your best time is kept. This is a great way to earn Kudos and get faster cars, which are often required for winning the higher ranked medals.
The Kudos system has been enhanced and you can now chain together impressive driving feats for Kudos Combos. Basically, after you earn some Kudos you have a couple of seconds to earn some more and chain the points and earn valuable multipliers. Sometimes these combos are the only way to meet some of the medal-winning criteria, and PGR2 quickly becomes a sports car version of Tony Hawk Underground or Amped 2. The stress level builds as the points and multipliers increase and the risk of losing it all with one tiny fender bender weighs on you.
PGR2 tosses more than 100 cars into the driving mix including the Ferrari Enzo, Porsche GT2, BMW Z4, Pontiac GTO, and the Mini Cooper S. Many of the races require certain cars. You might need a fast Ferrari to win the speed races but the VW Beetle is great for weaving through those orange cones. It will take a bit of experimenting to find the car that is right for you, the track, and the event.
Races are grouped into 14 series, each limits the type of car you can drive and within each series there are various style events like simple street racing, cone challenge, hot lap, overtake, timed lap, speed camera, and one on one. Each of these events is a totally unique type of racing that requires new strategy and racing style. You will need to win at least one medal in each type of race to advance to the next series. This is a nice feature that allows you to unlock the entire game without getting hung up on a particular race, then you can slowly go back through and earn those harder medals with the better cars.
And all this is just the Kudos World Series. In addition to this core game mode you also have traditional arcade racing, time attack and of course online racing over Xbox Live. Since MSR, this racing series has always been about being the best racer in the world and now Xbox Live makes that concept more than a gameplay device, it’s a reality.
Even before you start racing other live people over the Internet the single player game modes will give you access to world rankings so you know where you stand on more than 400 individual scoreboards. Yes, 400 rankings just for one game, and there is nothing more satisfying (or demoralizing) that seeing your name on a global high score list. Even when I think I have driven my hottest lap ever, seeing my name in the 2816 position makes me painfully aware that there are 2815 other people out there who are better than me.
Another great solo-online feature is the ability to upload a “ghost” of your race. This basically gives you the ability to watch a replay of any race currently on the leader boards and learn new tactics and racing lines. PGR2 has to be one of the best Xbox Live aware games currently available.
But Xbox Live is put to so much better use than just global rankings and sharing ghosts. PGR2 offers unparalleled online racing whether you are playing 4-player split-screen, 8-player system link or 8-player online. You may have seen the TV commercials showing people playing this game – it’s really as fun as it looks. You have full control over all options including the type of race, the city, the track, laps, weather, time of day, and plenty of other options. Even with a full field of eight racers from all over the world this game was lag-free and the ultimate online racing experience. You can even use your headset to taunt your opponents during the race.
The final frosting on the online cake is the downloadable content that will include new cars and possibly new tracks. There are several reserved sections in the car library waiting for new cars to become available and you’ll definitely want to collect them all. As of this review nothing is available for download yet, but rumors of the McLaren F1 are too numerous to ignore.
The overall visual appearance of PGR2 reminds me of Midtown Madness 3. Everything has a washed out look, but not in a bad way; more of a photo-realistic way that is quite refreshing from the other super-saturated games we see so often. Whether you are racing from a third or first person view or watching the replays from any of several exciting camera angles, PGR2 looks like televised racing coverage.
Speaking of camera views, while the replays give you virtually unlimited freedom in reviewing the race from any car and any angle, while driving you are only given two chase views and a bumper cam. Sim purists will likely scoff at the lack of a cockpit with dashboard but given the nature of the game, PGR2 almost demands to be played from behind the car.
Technically, the game uses every nVidia trick in the chip and then some. The lighting is fantastic and casts realistic shadows depicting various day and night conditions and there are nice weather effects even if they are limited to overcast and rainy conditions. The bump-mapped road is so 3D it almost seems unnatural. The progressive scan support adds that extra level of detail that will make this game shine on high-end home theaters.
Naturally the cars are the stars of this show and the level of sophisticated modeling and detailed texture work has never been greater. These cars look like real metal with shiny surfaces that reflect their real-world surroundings in real-time and get banged up with realistic dents. Small details like working lights and turn signals, and even an animated driver that can be seen steering and shifting gears all add to the realism of this game.
Most racing games that use licensed vehicles are not allowed to show damage, but PGR2 does a great job of demolishing these cars. This is visual damage only and does not affect your handling or speed, but just seeing your car all banged up with parts falling off is a nice treat. Of course, if you race from the first-person view you won’t see any of this, at least until the replay.
If I had to complain about anything it would be the lack of a real-time night and day cycle. Even the Dreamcast used the internal clock to adjust the time in the game so you were racing the various cities at the proper time and light conditions. PGR2 gives you night and day only and only very limited weather. Also, the cities are rather lifeless. Perhaps I am just spoiled with the hustle and bustle of Midtown Madness 3, and I can understand blocking off civilian traffic for official races, but there are no people to be seen and nothing is moving in the backgrounds.
Amped 2 set new standards of music with more than 300 tracks and PGR2 comes very close with more than 200 licensed songs played by real DJ’s from real radio stations in the cities you are racing. If you don’t like the music or get tired of it you can use your car’s “CD player” to play your own ripped music from the Xbox hard drive and create your own custom song lists. One particularly nice feature is that the current song keeps playing even if you are frequently restarting the same race over and over.
Sound effects are minimal and include only those sounds you would hear in auto racing. That includes a lot of unique engine noises, tires squealing, and the occasional crunching of metal during wrecks. The Dolby Digital mix does a great job of surrounding you in these sounds and putting you in the middle of the racing action.
Expect at least 40-60 hours to get Platinum medals in all the events in all 14 series. Of course that is only a fraction of the time you will spend playing this game online. I expect some racers will be playing this until the day and time when PGR3 hits stores, and then there are those out there who are competitive enough that you will sacrifice friends, family, and job to get your name at the top of the online rankings.
There are some nice features added to the main game including the Car Museum. This part of the game allows you to walk around, much like an FPS game, and view every car in the game whether you have unlocked it or not. But why just look when you can drive? That’s right, hop in and take any of these cars for a spin around a special course. This is purely a free ride mode with no competition or rewards, but it’s a great way to learn the cars and just plain relax.
While the museum gives you access to all the cars, the garage gives you access to the cars you have unlocked. But this is merely a diversion for a very addictive mini-game hidden away in the back of the garage disguised as an old arcade machine. The game is called Geometry Wars and is almost as addictive and fun as the racing game you paid for. To make this mini-game more challenging and competitive the high scores for Geometry Wars are also shared on their own scoreboard on Xbox Live.
Project Gotham Racing 2 is easily the best racing game you can currently play on the Xbox. There is enough original single-player content to keep you behind the wheel for over a month and the comprehensive Xbox Live support not only complements the solo gameplay but also adds immeasurable value to the multiplayer racing modes.
If you like to race and if you are looking for one of the best arcade racers to play alone or online then you’ve found it with PGR2. It doesn’t get much better than this and I can’t recommend this game highly enough. A must-have addition to any Xbox gamer’s permanent library.