If ever a game could put lie to the claim that graphics don’t make a difference to how something plays, it’s Project Gotham Racing 3. The series has always been renowned for its visuals: the first iteration, Metropolis Street Racer, pushed people’s expectations of the Dreamcast before its successor, Project Gotham, demonstrated the Xbox’s power. But this 360 version takes the importance and impact of good looks to a whole new level.

If you ignore the eye candy that’s on offer, PGR3 plays an awful lot like PGR2, PGR1 and MSR. Handling is still a balancing act between arcade-style immediacy and simulation-style realism ‘ you can throw cars around corners at ridiculous speeds, but not crashing into the track-side barriers requires quite a lot more thought than in most arcade racers. You can hammer your finger down onto the handbrake button, but it’s entirely possible to lock your wheels up if you don’t combine it with a careful feathering of the brake and accelerator. You can use your opponents’ vehicles as braking aids, but take a nudge to the rear of your own car and you’ll find it spinning out of control. It’s a balancing act that some players have never got to grips with and means that the old truism applies: if you didn’t appreciate it before, you’re unlikely to appreciate it now.

Other things also remain much as they always have been. You progress through championships by gaining kudos points, awarded for pulling off flashy moves during a race. The different challenges available are mostly familiar from earlier entries in the series ‘ cone challenges, speed challenges, overtake challenges ‘ with a couple of additions that add little new to the mix.

In some significant ways, PGR3 is actually a less successful videogame than its immediate predecessor. Front-end presentation is flawed, with menus that lack personality and are too keen to chase simplicity at the expense of clarity. Loading times are horrendous ‘ a real cause for annoyance when it takes the game longer to load a challenge than it takes to complete it ‘ especially as the game has to reload it from scratch if you choose to retry it. Online scoreboards are needlessly complicated and made somewhat meaningless by being broken down into numerous leagues ‘ particularly galling when you consider how easy they were to use and understand in PGR2.

However, making up for such disappointments, the in-race graphics steal the show. They manage to alter the way that the game plays, change how you approach it and how you come to interact with it.

The cities are the first thing you’ll notice. Textures are so detailed that in the run-up to release, a heated argument took place across the internet as to whether the images being promoted as screenshots were actually real-world photographs. Now there’s no doubt: incredibly, they were screenshots. The level of detail is truly stunning.

It’s not just about the detail, but also the sheer physical presence of the cities. Best demonstrated by the New York courses, the number of buildings visible is one of the most important factors in creating the illusion of reality. Everywhere you look, skyscrapers and advertising hoardings stretch off to the horizon.

Bizarre Creations’ pride in their work on this aspect of the game is made clear by the presence of a photograph mode, accessible at any point in a race. Allowing you to freeze the action and move the camera freely, it’s the sort of thing you normally see being used by developers keen to show off their latest graphics engine, and the sort of thing that you rarely get to play around with in a finished game.

But the environments don’t make the game. PGR3 has one more ace up its sleeve: the driver’s-eye point of view. It’s not an entirely original concept ‘ the Colin McRae and TOCA Touring Cars series are well known for it ‘ but it’s never been pulled off with this amount of success before. You are the driver. You are in the car.

Two effects, in particular, ensure that this spell is never broken. The first is the movement of your head. Break heavily and your view will jump forwards a little. Accelerate and you move back. Collisions and turns are also met with this sort of visual feedback. It works because it’s subtle, not showy or flash, and it combines with a similar level of subtlety in the movement of the car’s chassis. All at once, you gain a better and instinctive understanding of how your vehicle is reacting, what measures you need to put in place in order to take that next hairpin corner perfectly, whether you’re braking too hard. The ability to move your virtual head about by twisting the right analogue stick returns from the previous games, but this time serves a real purpose by allowing you to cast quick glances at your wing and rear-view mirrors (owners of widescreen TVs have things slightly easier as the extra display width fits these in).

You’d expect the game to be more difficult in first-person, but it isn’t. It’s not necessarily easier, either ‘ it’s simply natural.

The second most important effect in the driver’s-eye POV is the windscreen, which refracts light perfectly, attracts dirt and has a barely-noticeable reflective response to the surroundings. It makes all of those buildings, all of the first-person effects look that much more realistic through the addition of a real-world element that’s usually missing from the genre. It’s often been said that one of the things that makes computer-generated images look unreal is the inability of the hardware to render believable layers of dirt ‘ by adding the windscreen into the equation, PGR3 manages to solve this problem. If you were after a game to show off your new console to friends, this is the one ‘ select a night race in New York, jump into the driver’s POV and watch jaws drop.

This is where PGR3 stands out. It may have the structure of the older games, it may not have the variety in its tracks that you’d like or expect to see by this point in the series’ life (Bizarre’s decision to use London as its sole British location for the third time in four games takes the piss, quite frankly), but the feel of the race, when using that exceptionally convincing first-person view, is like nothing else around right now. And that’s entirely because of the new console’s ability to pump out such extraordinarily believable sights. As a demonstration of the potential the 360 has to bring something new to the table, it stands alone.

Project Gotham Racing 3 (2005)

Developer: Bizarre Creations
Publisher: Microsoft
Platform: Xbox 360

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