The idea of yet another racing game on the Xbox 360 will garner collective sighs across the industry, and let’s be honest Forza 2 just dropped a couple months ago so is it really necessary to return to the track? This is further enforced by the fact that PGR 4 looks and feels more like a solid expansion pack than a true sequel to its predecessor for the first couple of hours. However, after investing a fair amount of time with the title you begin to realize that PGR 4 is more than a beefed up version of part three and more like the sweet swan song to go out on for Bizarre Creations.
If you are a fan of the series you can probably skip to the number score, realize the game improves enough to warrant a purchase, and move on. For everyone else let’s run down the basics of what separates Bizarre’s racer from the rest of the herd. First and foremost this game is gorgeous, and with the fourth iteration the team has added a sprinkling of effects that up the ante of HD visuals. The car models have always looked great and the environments are easily more pleasing to the eye than Forza’s bland backdrops, but the biggest addition to this year’s game is the weather system. Watching rain drops bead off of your windshield is so realistic I have actually found myself running into walls while in the cockpit view just because I couldn’t stop staring.
The snow effects are a little less impressive, but they still get the job done with nice accumulation, but the fog effects add a whole new dynamic to racing. Not being able to see turns in front of you makes for some crazy outings on certain tracks, but never does it truly frustrate. The snow and rain do add a challenge to keep your car from spinning out, and it does seem to rain an awful lot regardless of which city you are in, but it’s the little things like this that have always made Gotham one of the best looking racers on the block.
There are two separate single player portions of the game both of which are designed at different players. Arcade mode is a simple series of events that are quick to get into and usually never last very long. There is enough here to keep you occupied for a while, especially with the ranking system and trying to best your personal times and of course kudos scores. The second half of this combo is Gotham Career, and like conventional sports games this mode uses a customary calendar to keep track of your progress as you earn points and move up in the ranks of the Gotham elite. The cool thing about career is that you can actually decide what races you want to participate in and which ones to skip. Occasionally you will be invited to an invitational that will net you access to a special car and a unique set of circumstances that really liven up the single player.
While Gotham is at heart a racing game playing throughout the career isn’t a simple series of checkpoint races against AI opponents. To divide up the action you will also have to pass things such as speed traps, where you race around the track passing through speed markers and trying to obtain the highest overall mph. There are also cone races, eliminator rounds, and the quintessential one-on-one races that even include pitting you against specific car classes in interesting scenarios. Just when you think you are getting bored of one thing the game throws out something entirely fresh and it breaks up the monotony nicely. The only downside is that if you intend to reach number one status on the list it will likely take you three full calendar years to obtain, and by then some of the events could easily begin to wear on your nerves.
In addition to the solo experience Gotham continues its trend of unparalleled online functionality. Not only can you race online with up to seven other people, the game is also tied to an online website where you can track stats, upload photos and videos, and even share them with other gamers on the web. While the service still has some issues as of this writing, we expect it to be one of the more promising features of the game as it matures. There are also online leaderboards and the ability to upload your ghost car data for friends (and rivals) to download.
From our experience online the game runs without much lag and of course consists of the classic single and team modes the game has been famous for over the years. These modes consist of elimination, cat and mouse, street racing, and even a new mode dubbed bulldog. All of these modes are entertaining and deliver a nice compliment to the solid single player experience. You can also use the PGR On Demand feature here and upload replays and ghost data for others to download and vote on. Sometimes your images could end up in garages all over the world and users can vote on them by simply clicking if they like it or not. Customization is available, but not anywhere near the levels that Forza delivers so expect to see a lot of similar rides while online.
The biggest differentiator for the series has always been its distinctive balance between arcade and sim racing. Novice players can still hop right into the game, throw the difficulty on easy, and clear out the races one by one without worrying too much about spinning out of control. However, Bizarre is famous for creating their kudos system that rewards players for style without fault. Performing moves such as drifts, drafting, and powerslides will net you kudos points granted you don’t slam into a wall before they tally up. Practice hard enough and you can string these together for massive points. It really is addictive to try and string moves together without messing up and getting careless.
This is further enforced with the addition of bikes in this year’s game. Adding these two wheeled monsters had always seemed like the perfect fit, and while the whole marketing idea of bikes vs. cars doesn’t quite pan out the way they wanted, it still adds a nice layer to the game. The handling of the bikes is pretty spot on and very novice friendly, which has garnered some criticism on the realism, but then again Gotham was never meant to be a sim so fans of the series will likely not be too upset by it. It is also nice to see the roster of vehicles expanded outside of the bikes. While players have always praised Gotham for having a solid collection of exotics it rarely brought forth lower end cars. With the fourth iteration Bizarre has decided to expand the list adding oddities such as pickup trucks and even F1 replicas. Damage modeling also makes a return although it is still limited to being purely cosmetic.
What makes PGR 4 so good is the fact that the developers have played to the series strengths while adding in just enough to keep things interesting. It is disheartening that this will, in fact be the final chapter of the series from developer Bizarre, but with Microsoft at the helm I am sure the franchise will carry on; hopefully not by combining it with the Forza series. It is also worth mentioning to all arcade junkies that the latest Geometry Wars makes an appearance in the garage arcade again this time aptly titled “Waves”. The overall package is solid, the visuals are breathtaking, and the online is nearly unparalleled. If you are a fan of the series there really isn’t much more you could ask for, but if it has never been for you than PGR 4 is not likely to change your stance.