Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Project Gotham Racing 2

I don't know that I'd call myself much of a racing enthusiast, even in the broadest definition of the phrase. I grew up about an hour from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the world-renowned Indianapolis 500, but never once bothered to attend a race. Maybe it's the ADD in me, but I've always had trouble sitting still for lengthy periods of time without something unique and / or interesting happening directly in front of me. The idea of sitting on a rock-hard bleacher, watching improbably loud vehicles from another world scoot past every couple of minutes, no matter how incredible the description may sound, just didn't appeal to me. It still doesn't. I don't get a rise out of the idea of watching NASCAR at home, (even a "nastiest wrecks" compilation wouldn't really interest me) I miss the allure of rally cars and I'll only watch a few minutes of a live GT race if I happen to recognize the track from my lengthy sessions with the Gran Turismo series. Sorry to dispel the myth that all Hoosiers are born, bred race fans, but I rest secure in the knowledge that I'm not alone. Unless, that is, I lived in a one-in-a-million patch of anti-racing households, right in the middle of the sport's supposed heartland. Another thing you'd be hard-pressed to call me is a gear head. I don't know enough about an automobile to change my own oil, and while I respect the incredible rush it must be to seat yourself behind the wheel of a monstrous Italian muscle machine, it's not near the top of my list of things to accomplish before I die. Truth be told, it doesn't even make the list. Some of my buddies almost froth at the mouth in anticipation when the subject of sports cars comes up, but I can't say I've ever felt any sort of unique sensation in my nether regions when in the proximity of a shiny, pricey new vehicle, so I guess that's one bit of my masculinity that arrived DOA.

Despite all that deep-rooted disdain for almost all things automotive, however, I somehow nurtured and developed a good-sized appreciation for driving and racing video games. Actually controlling these exotic, expensive street machines on the pavement is, naturally, quite a bit more interesting than watching them blur past once every minute or two, and the opportunity to race them on challenging courses at breakneck speeds against professional opposition doesn't usually present itself if and when you're given the opportunity to physically sit behind their controls in the real world. So, enter the race-drivin' video game; all the thrills that the chosen few get to experience during their competition on the race track, sans that whole "risking life, limb and finance every time you strap in" thing. Taking a rough turn just a hair too quickly doesn't result in the loss of months of preparations and thousands of dollars, it's usually nothing more than a press of the restart button and a new beginning.

Most games within this genre are generally very easy to divide into sub-genres; there's the straight simulation, the action-leaning cartoon / kart racer, and the arcade racer, which lands somewhere in between. Project Gotham Racing 2 isn't exactly the textbook definition of an arcade racer. It's stuffed full of the physics, modeling, real world location selection and intense competition you'd expect to find in a simulation racer, which results in something of a sim-flavored credibility, but streamlines most of the meticulous, detail-oriented specifics that usually turn off casual gamers and anyone, really, without permanent oil stains on their fingers or a rice burner in the garage. It's a nice blend of action and practicality, without going to an extreme in either direction. This is a game that excels at delivering the sensation that you're really behind the wheel, with the force of several hundred horses behind your right foot, (or thumb, as it were) but also at keeping away from the monotony and mindless repetition that's usually associated with a race of more than one or two laps.

Separating it from straight sims, such as Sony's Gran Turismo and Sega's Sega GT titles, is PGR's heavy focus on the acquisition of "Kudo Points." The driving force behind each of the two previous chapters in the Project Gotham / Metropolis series, Kudos are gathered through a variety of methods, some common and everyday, others more difficult and unpredictable, and always pivot around the theme of "driving stylishly." In short, you're expected to drive an exciting race every single time you hit the track. While almost every other racer in the history of the industry concentrates exclusively on the clock and the ongoing pursuit of faster laps and more efficient driving, Gotham 2 places a much higher emphasis on showmanship and flashy tricks. You'll gain a flat sum of Kudos for passing an opponent's car or taking a turn properly, but more elaborate maneuvers, such as drifting wildly around a curve or catching some air, reward with higher sums depending on the duration of the trick and your willingness to go on longer and longer stretches without complete control of your vehicle. If you aren't leaving behind a patch of burnt rubber and a cloud of foul-smelling smoke, PGR wants you to think you've done something wrong.

The idea is to shake up the usual formula of "drive three identical laps and force the other cars into the wall if they try to get around you," and on the large, it works. Instead of enjoying a track the first few times you drive it, then giving in to brainless replication, you'll find yourself constantly challenged and interested in a course. Actually racing is a lot more fun when you can make the most of your big lead by firing off a few donuts at the finish line or allowing the back end of your car to slide well beyond the point of good reason while taking an easy turn. Since there are no true cash prizes for winning a race and your only means of unlocking newer and better models of cars are the accumulation of Kudo Points, you'll soon find yourself looking out for potential goldmines throughout the track, in addition to fighting a constant battle to capture and maintain a lead over the other drivers. The key is finding a good middle ground between a dull, straightforward race and an excessively daring, mistake-filled hunt for bigger and better tricks, since most of your opponents' cars are merely looking to win the race and couldn't care less about looking good in doing so.

Actually racing in Gotham is largely very enjoyable, despite a few snags, and though it can make you almost blindingly filled with rage, there's a certain something that keeps you coming back for more, looking to improve and show the game who's boss in the end. There's a vibe you'll get from controlling one of these cars that's difficult to put into words, something that's perhaps not immediately obvious when it's there but absolutely glaring when it's missing. It's something of a sense of reality, that feeling that you're actually moving as fast as the speedometer says you are, that your car really is as powerful as it claims. It's... well, it's really cool, for lack of a better phrase. When you accelerate in one of Gotham's more thrust-heavy high end machines, you'll feel something pressing down right in the center of your chest... that, and just a tiny bit of adrenaline.

As I'd hinted, however, the gameplay isn't all wine and roses. There are a few aspects that leave me scratching my head, for instance the decision for the player-controlled car to always, ALWAYS begin the race in last place, without any sort of a qualifying lap or anything. This means you're always fighting an uphill battle, working your way around the painfully slow cars that start just in front of your position while the speedy pole-sitter gets a chance to create as much distance between himself and your car as possible. Building this minor annoyance into a near-plague is the other drivers' almost ruthless dedication to team driving and headhunting. It's not something you'll notice at first, but as the races become more heated and the stakes grow higher, there's no doubting the pack mentality of the other cars on the track; they'll push you nose-first into walls, they'll speed around a turn to get in front of you and then slam on the brakes to slow you down, and they'll almost NEVER do the same thing to one another. All the while, that mysterious front car's lead grows larger and larger. It's a really tough thing to swallow, especially near the end of the race, when one kamikaze driver is all that stands between you and a glorious triumph, but it isn't something that just shows up out of nowhere. It slowly, gradually builds over time, starting with something harmless that you'll barely even notice in one of the earlier races and climaxing with something downright sinister as you reach the finale, so your game plan slowly begins to adapt around it. Sure, I'd rather it weren't an issue at all, but it's all part of the package and, like it or not, it's part of why Gotham stands out from Turismo.

Another area in which Gotham 2 really makes its case as a front-running title is the amazing variety of its maps and race tracks. You'll find yourself globe trotting from Moscow to Barcelona to Sydney and back, driving on tracks that vary in length from excessively minute to inexplicably long. Seriously, one course allows the driver to finish four laps in under three minutes, while another demands fifteen minutes of dedication per lap! The environments are incredibly lush and detail heavy, and each course is allowed several different racing layouts, providing endless hours of replay value on courses that look similar at a glance, but are laid out completely differently. What's more, the selection of locales lends the game an exotic, yet dignified air that furthers the illusion that this is the real deal. Driving around a dirty track in Laguna Seca just doesn't feel the same as driving against the backdrop of Moscow's onion domes or cruising under Chicago's "el" tracks.

As with almost any other current-generation racer, Gotham 2 provides a slim variety of gameplay modes, although the actual racing within said modes is more varied and interesting than the opening selection screen lets on. There's the single player "Kudos World Series Mode," the equivalent of other games' Career Mode, an "Arcade Mode," a simple "Time Attack" and a variety of in-person and online multiplayer modes. Speaking of which, PGR2 really does a jaw-droppingly good job of tying the online aspect of the Xbox in to every little bit of the experience, signing you in at startup and constantly providing an analysis of your performance in comparison to the times and scores posted by the online community. It can get a little depressing to finish what you consider to be the finest race of your life, only to see your efforts ranked somewhere in the mid-900s all-time, but if anything it just goes to show you improvement is always possible. Rather than begging for an angry outburst and a near-immediate hurling of the disc across the room, Gotham all but invites you to download the "ghost runs" of one of the top scores for that track so you can see where on the course you need improvement, what car(s) the top racers are using, and any little secrets that might not be so obvious at first glance. It's one of the first games I've seen to make the online component such a valuable, deep contributor to the overall package, and it's an amazing glimpse at what could be just around the corner, if Microsoft sticks to its guns as far as Xbox Live and the Xbox 360 is concerned.

In "Kudos World Series" mode, rather than giving players a course, a rundown of opposing cars and a quick "good luck," Gotham shakes up the status quo by not only introducing a few new (and almost entirely successful) game types, but by making them an integral part of the single player experience, to boot. As you'll progress through "World Series" mode, you'll work your way through a healthy mix of seven different spins on the traditional gameplay model. Each variation seems to emphasize one aspect of becoming a successful driver in the straightforward street races, which remain the bread and butter of individual play, and surprisingly enough, none come across as forced, unnecessary or aggravating. In addition to the aforementioned "street race," (where you'll take on a fleet of anywhere between three and seven opposing cars in races of varying length and difficulty) and the occasional "one on one" race, there's the "cone challenge," a "speed camera" challenge, the "overtake" mode, a self-explanatory "timed run" and a "hot lap" test. In a way, this variety compensates for the lack of any true training module by setting the bar fairly low in the beginning, allowing players to gain their bearings while learning the basics, and then tossing them into the fire as the difficulty ramps up near the halfway point.

Of the different gameplay options, my absolute favorite was the Cone Challenge, which aims to teach the art of the Kudos combo. Simply enough, by fluidly moving from one Kudo-worthy trick to the next within the span of a few very short seconds, you'll not only earn the combined value of the two tricks together, but also an additional sum that climbs higher and higher as the number of chained tricks grows longer and longer. Naturally, this isn't something that can be performed with much success in the middle of a close race, but in the world of the Cone Challenge, where you're granted a small sum of Kudos for simply passing through the middle of a pair of cones (which almost fill the streets, staggered at intervals of maybe twenty or thirty feet), the possibilities are almost limitless. Naturally, there's a catch or two... wait too long between stunts and the combo is closed, forcing you to begin anew, just as the size of your Kudo stack is beginning to reach epic proportions. Chaining your tricks together is far from an exact science, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that there were a handful of times where my controller was sent airborne as a result of what I deemed to be an unnecessarily short period of time before my combo was reset. Since there's no on-screen indicator of how long you've taken between tricks and the official time restraints are never explained, it can get quite frustrating when you've built up an enormous combo and it all falls down because the Xbox determined that you passed through those cones less than a hundredth of a second too late. The other catch involves human error: touch a wall (or cone), even fleetingly so, and not only is the combo halted, but your entire bonus stash is forfeit. This can also get to be a bit hairy, since the collision detection on cones and your rear tires can be questionable at times, but you'll either learn to take this in stride or die a frustrated, furious death many years later, having never forgiven the computer for its indiscretions. The main goal of the cone challenge is, obviously, to teach drivers how to build toward bigger and bigger Kudo stacks during the real races, but with the luxury of three or four dozen "cone gates" to breach on your side, the Cone Challenges themselves quickly become the biggest moneymaking races of the entire "World Series Mode." They're extremely challenging, make no mistake about it, but they're also highly rewarding should lady luck smile upon you one afternoon and allow for a flawless run.

While the occasional "Cone Challenge" spotlights the glamour of driving with style and precision, the "Speed Camera" challenges place a lot of emphasis on great cornering and knowing when to punch the gas to the floor. Each speed camera track is extremely short, usually nothing more than a turn or two and a pair of straightaways, but the goal isn't to finish in record time, it's to cross the finish line at or above a specific speed. The lesson is that while taking a turn one way may get you through to the open road a fraction of a second faster, approaching it with consistent speed in mind will always win out in the end, as your car reaches faster speeds down the straightaway and makes up for lost time and then some. Each "Speed Camera" race is extremely difficult, with the required speed almost always just one or two MPH away from the speed you're most likely to achieve, and while your rewards don't show up in the form of immediate Kudo points, the end result is a constantly improved performance while cornering in the Street Races a little further on.

Following the previous challenges, which focus almost exclusively on improving your performance as an individual, the refreshing "Overtake" mode aims to teach the art of passing a much slower opponent without needlessly killing your own momentum and, as a result, missing a chance to pass the lead car before the end of the race. You're given a time limit and a set number of cars to catch and pass before the clock reaches zero, placed at the start / finish line, and given the task of catching up to your opponents who are staggered throughout the course, some with as much as a full minute's head start. Naturally, the lessons you've learned in the previous challenges are put to the test here, as great cornering is essential and the overall goal is still the accumulation of as many Kudo points as possible, but you're also learning how to use other cars to aid your own driving and beginning to understand how to pass an aggressive prick who just won't quit blocking your path. And, as I mentioned earlier on, that's a situation that's not entirely uncommon in the street races.

Finally, the aptly named "Timed Run" and "Hot Lap" challenges are similar to the "Overtake" mode, as you're using all of what you've learned in past challenges together in the hunt for more Kudos and more efficient driving, but in these rare instances, the almighty Kudo isn't nearly as important as the tireless countdown of the clock. The only real difference between these two challenges is the number of laps involved, as a "Timed Run" involves completing two or more laps within the provided time limit, where a "Hot Lap" is a one-shot deal. Either you beat the posted one-lap time or you try again. I found the "Timed Runs" to be somewhat easy, as there's a small margin of error built in that can be easily taken advantage of, especially on tracks featuring more than two laps, but the "Hot Lap" is constantly difficult since it lacks that extra bit of padding and demands immediate perfection.

The multiplayer aspect of the game is a nice addition, if occasionally underdeveloped, but should never be mistaken for the star of the show. For starts, there's no support for more than two players in the in-person multiplayer mode. Now, admittedly, four player split-screen could get to be a bit much considering the number of independently moving objects in the field and the number of gauges each player would need to see within their tiny piece of visual real estate, but a two player challenge just feels lacking in its absence. The online multiplayer, fortunately, allows for more than straightforward head-to-head matches, but could have done with a little more thought when all is said and done. You're afforded a completely separate stack of Kudos for online play, which can't be redeemed for rewards in the single player mode and as such have no real purpose aside from online bragging rights. I guess that in and of itself is reward enough for much of the game's hardcore audience, but as a casual racing fan it didn't seem all that substantial to me. Additionally, the actual system of joining a race online is a tedious, boring affair. You'll find a room with slots available for more racers, find that a race is more than likely already in progress, and then find yourself relegated to observing the remainder of the race from a stale, overhead map with tiny colored squares to indicate the location of each car. There's no fly-by observation mode, or really any kind of visual flair in the slightest. If you have the misfortune of attempting to join an excessively lengthy race just after it's started, your options are either to stare vacantly at the screen for upwards of ten minutes or drop out of the room and look for another race. The latter option isn't even a good solution, as the game's age is starting to affect its online popularity, and available opponents are becoming more and more difficult to track down. Once you gain entry to a race and start driving, the rules favor the quick and all but spit upon the slow. Once the lead car finishes the race, the other drivers get thirty seconds to wrap up their final laps before the whole party is dumped back into the lobby. It's almost not even worth the hassle if you haven't gone through the entire single player game and unlocked every single car, since that's exactly what you'll be racing against every time you test the waters of online competition. And, as if that weren't enough, nine times out of ten you'll find yourself disconnected from the server after finally participating in and finishing a single race. Or maybe I just kept getting booted in an act of spontaneous hostly spite at precisely the moment the next race was set to begin, however (un)likely that may be. In short, the multiplayer mode is quite weak and borderline unfinished, which stands in sharp contrast to the polished, beautiful nature of the single player game it accompanies. Very disappointing, and something that brought my opinion of the game down a notch or two.

Controls are, by default, mapped to a layout that all fans of the genre should be familiar with; the right trigger presses the gas, the left trigger handles the brakes. While I had traditionally preferred the D-Pad for racing, the sensitivities of the Xbox's analog controller, (not to mention the game's specific programming with that analog stick in mind) along with the horrible impracticality of the system's sculpted D-Pad, made the transition an easy one for me here. I can't imagine controlling this game with anything other than that analog stick, it just feels right. The controller's face buttons are used somewhat frequently, with the A button controlling both the handbrake and your hopes of landing a huge stash of Kudos in a single, glorious moment of carelessness. The X and B buttons handle the transmission, if you're a fan of going the manual route (personally, I had enough to worry about without taking regular up and down shifting into consideration) and the Y button switches to a rear view when held. The black and white buttons are employed solely for camera control (Gothamfeatures half a dozen different angles, but I had trouble with anything but the standard behind-the-vehicle angle) while the right analog enables a quick, free-roaming camera that returns to its default position when released. If you're feeling froggy, the back button blows the horn... which led to hours of amusement while I waited for the race to begin. There's no denying it; this configuration was as tightly monitored, tuned and perfected as the high-performance cars it's meant to control. It does what it needs to do with precision, and doesn't try to needlessly reinvent the wheel. I can't say anything bad about it.

And if you thought that was a particularly glowing review of the control setup, don't even get me started on the graphics. Even today, three years after its release, it's the cream of the crop on the original Xbox. The amount of work that went into every visual aspect of this game is obvious from the very first moment you boot up. Everything from the menus to the surroundings to, obviously, the vehicles themselves is unspeakably gorgeous. It's a shame the HD output is limited to 480p, because I can't even imagine the kind of impact this would've had at 720p or 1080i. The little touches are what grabbed me the most: they didn't have to include that flock of birds, flying ignorantly over the roads, or that enormous, spindly ferris wheel off in the distance, but they did, and they take unprecedented steps toward furthering the illusion that you're actually there, in person, participating in these races. Not only will you feel the difference in the texture of the roads in Europe vs. North America thanks to the excellent implementation of the controller's built-in vibration, you'll see it in exquisite detail. Jumping from a cobblestone road to a smooth stretch of asphalt doesn't seem awkward, seamed or forced... it just is. In fact, nothing about this game's visuals seem to underachieve, even areas that have provided nightmares in other games. The glares and reflections off your car's exterior, which could've very easily been tacky and overdone, seem just right. My sole complaint is that the dynamic lighting is sometimes too realistic, as it occasionally grows difficult to see where you're going when racing among the long, dark shadows of a dusk-time race. PGR2 is just a gorgeous bit of digitized visual realization, something that set the bar way too high for any competition to even hope to match.

Where the video is almost unmatched by anything else in its respective generation, the audio is somewhat lacking. Sure, the squeals of tires on highway are spot-on, the angry growl of an opponent's engine still shouts loudly enough to realize when the opposition is gaining on you, but the accompanying musical tracks are fairly generic and unmotivated. Fortunately, this flaw is somewhat corrected through the simple step of allowing custom soundtracks to be introduced in the middle of the race. The in-game radio stations had made an effort to further the feeling of immersion, as each city has its own unique voice and musical accompaniment, so switching over to your custom tracks serves to immediately take out that feeling of relocation. As I said, though, even if the intentions were interesting in doing so, the end product was sub par. Not a great showing in the audio department, but not a totally poor one, either. As long as I've got that custom soundtrack option, an absolute necessity in racing titles, where long races have traditionally meant long loops of the same tracks over and over and over again, I can't complain too loudly.

In summary... well, I'll say this in no uncertain terms; this game is a hell of a lot of fun. The controls are simple, easy to comprehend and staggeringly effortless to pick up on. The courses, set in landmark cities throughout North America, Europe and Asia, are challenging and varied without completely throwing the player for a loop every time they load a new track. The incline of opposition is steep, progressing upwards from relatively simple-minded Sunday drivers to blood-hungry maniacs who know exactly what they want and precisely how to get it. Even the gameplay, which is largely relegated to simple "race against the computer or race against your friends" in other titles, gets a breath of life here, in the form of half a dozen different modes of play. It lacks the fine, fine details of tuning a racing auto to perfection, but seeing as how I'm not all that intrigued by that aspect of the business as it is, I didn't miss those options one bit. If the multiplayer mode had been just a little more well-developed, I'd be giving this one a rating well into the nines, but as it is right now it's still far above average. It's definitely worth adding to your collection if you have even the slightest interest in driving a car around a track at insane speeds, and remains one of the most visually stimulating experiences I've enjoyed in gaming.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 8.5

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