Project Gotham Racing
You've seen the commercials; now play the game. Project Gotham Racing is the hot new Xbox launch title from Microsoft. Showcasing an innovative new gameplay style, Project Gotham Racing is a thinking man's racing game, requiring you to use skill to maneuver your car in increasingly insane and challenging races. With many high-speed, high-performance vehicles, you'll race through four different cities, trying to prove your worth as a driver and earn the gold while you're at it.
Like most race titles there isn't anything by way of a storyline, but then there doesn't really need to be. You're racing quick little cars on small tracks, perfecting your sliding, bumping and shifting skills, all while trying not to hit too many guard rails. Tracks feature backgrounds from Tokyo, San Francisco, New York and London. While they aren't always perfectly detailed, they're mighty impressive -- the streets of New York possess a claustrophobic quality that I wasn't prepared for, and San Francisco certainly does seem to have a lot of nasty hills.
Who can doubt the coolness of this game when they give you points for going up on two wheels? While you can't pull off that old movie stunt where you drive two-wheeled, you can raise them up quite a bit by hitting a curb at sufficient speed. There's points for taking a corner at a slide, going quickly, catching air, spinning 360 degrees, even points for earning points. All in all, there's quite a game in this little Xbox DVD as this title has enough gameplay for the most distracted racing fan.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
Remember, speed is not enough to win this race. To begin with, you'll need to pay attention to your style. While it's important to complete the courses before the timer hits zero, you'll really want to do it stylishly to unlock the best cars in the game. When you race stylishly you earn Kudos Points, which are banked as you play, and used to earn a medal at the end of your race or unlock certain cars in Kudos Challenge mode. The harder you race, the more kudos you win and the more things you unlock. Your Kudos Points build up in a score in the upper right hand corner of the screen, and stay there for three seconds. If you manage to go through that time without making any significant contact with anything, they get banked and figure into your final score. If you trick some more you'll build up even more points, and if you can manage to avoid crashing you'll get a combo bonus, which earns you even more Kudos.
Racing itself is pretty simple. You can take a manual or an automatic vehicle, and each car has a handbrake that's damn useful for taking tight turns. Brakes are always an option, but hey, this is a racing game, who wants to use those? The car you choose can and will be one of the major deciding points in a race. Don't worry, though, as the game compensates for the kind of car you're racing by changing the vehicles that your opponents use. There are vehicles from GM, Ford, Delfino, Lotus, BMW and more. Each one has a rating for acceleration, handling and top speed, as well as many different colors. Collecting vehicles is one of my favorite activities, and unlocking the different models through gameplay is very enjoyable.
Once you finally get into the game, you'll have plenty of choices for gameplay. Arcade mode pits you against a series of the different race styles in an effort to gain as many Kudos as possible. If you manage to place at least Bronze in every race (four for each of the four cities -- Tokyo, San Francisco, London and New York) you'll get to go onto the next set of Arcade challenges. Place Gold in all of them, and you'll unlock a new car. The Quick Race mode lets you enter a race against computer-controlled opponents to see who can place in the top three. Third place merits a Bronze medal, you get Silver for second place, and Gold for first place.
Arcade and Quick Race are entertaining, but you'll be spending most of your time in the Kudos Challenge. Each of these games lets you earn Kudos and Medals that let you unlock new items at each level. By far the most interesting mode, the Kudos Challenge has one-on-one, style challenge, and even speed races. The style challenge is one of my favorites, as you've got to make it through a series of cones, racing around the track while pulling off as many tricks as possible. The higher you push the Kudos score, the bigger the prize you get. You can also alter the difficulty on any of these games by increasing the Kudos needed to win, placement you'll need for a street race, or the amount of head start you've got in a one-on-one challenge. This is the part of the game I really enjoyed, as there are many different styles of race, each requiring different tactics.
I can't really explain how well the cars handle, as each one is both subtly and overtly different. The most surprising thing I found is how the computer handles each car and demonstrates its overall quality. There will be times when you have to push your skills to the limit to beat an opponent, only to unlock the car he was using and find that it really does perform that well. After a while, I realized what this meant. The computer players weren't getting incredibly smart, even though they were skilled in their own right - rather, they were able to take advantage of the better car -- much the same way you can.
Project Gotham Racing lets you race split-screen, with up to four friends. You can choose to win by speed or by Kudos, and the wide selection of tracks to choose from gives you a good variety of racing locales.
Project Gotham Racing is quite the looker. Although each map is relatively small, you'll get to see a lot of backgrounds, from Tokyo and San Francisco, to Big Ben in London. These backgrounds are realistic and show the attention to detail that we've been seeing a lot more in next generation titles. The cars are equally impressive, showcasing multiple different colors of both matte and gloss finish, and mimic their real-life counterparts down to the last detail. Without a lot of obtrusive advertising logos, you can really appreciate the small make and model logos visible on some of the cars. One of my favorite effects is your car's paint job. If you've chosen a fairly reflective color or one of the gloss colors, you can see a reflection of the passing city in your roof and sides. Also the damage effects, while not really affecting your control, beat and pound the car with paint scrapes and body dents, all of which add to the realism. Finally, inside the car you can see your driver as he grips and moves the wheel, and even takes the time to shift through each gear.
I think Project Gotham struck a good note on sound. First, its sound effects aren't annoying; even the squealing of the tires is more helpful than anything, and it never gets so high-pitched and annoying that you're driven to press the mute button. Second, it has a really good soundtrack, featuring songs like "19-2000" by Gorillaz, "Aisle 10 (Hello Alison)" by Scapegoat Wax, "Beat 'Em Up" by Iggy Pop, and "Catch the Sun" by the Doves. These songs are excellent backgrounds for the game and make for perfect listening when you're out trying to catch Kudos.
I've got to say, there's something neat about a game that focuses on style over speed. Even though the individual courses are fairly small, the focus on earning Kudos tends to put that at the back of your mind, as you're too busy trying to make good corners and avoiding significant contact with the edge of the track.
Project Gotham Racing is a race game with style. Its strength lies in the way you drive your car, not the ability to get it from point A to point B as quickly as possible. With easy-to-learn gameplay and a learning curve that lets you build up your skills as you progress without overwhelming you, Gotham is an incredibly fun title. I'm a strong fan of race titles, from the days of WipeOut to Gran Turismo and even Formula One 2001, and I was still impressed with the originality of Project Gotham Racing. After you've played it for a while, you'll understand why it has such a good replay value.