It has been a long time coming but the Xbox 360 is finally on Australian shores and petrol heads have yet another console to get their racing fix on. Project Gotham Racing was a key launch title for the original Xbox console and since then we've seen a game set in our own backyard, PGR2. PGR2 was a game that blew expectations out of the water and we've not seen many better arcade racing games since its release in 2004. With the release of the 360 comes the third game in the series and if you thought the first two were ahead of their time, wait till you get behind the wheel of this monster game.
For those who haven't played PGR 1 and 2 the premise of the game is simple; take some of the world's most expensive and exotic cars, thrash them and gain points by using skillful driving maneuvers. However there have been some changes since the original two games. The game offers a number of modes, many heavily relying on Xbox Live membership and really, for single player, the only modes are time trial and Gotham career. The Xbox Live modes are the true innovation of the game and demonstrate how powerful this online system will be well into the future for Microsoft.
Gotham Career is pretty much the same as it was in the first two games. You begin by buying a cheap car, winning races, performing tricks to gain kudos and then spend the credits you win on more expensive cars. However PGR3 does not seem as prohibitive as the past two games in terms of advancing, within about two hours of gameplay we had bought some of the most exotic cars the world has seen. To stop the game being completed too quickly, the developers have included a number of concept cars which are only unlocked by reaching certain goals in the game.
The developers have also added a few new game types to the mix. The usual street race, cone challenge and beat the clock have been retained, but now you also have to reach checkpoints in certain amounts of time, perform kudos gaining tricks to stop a clock and others. These modes really mix up the gameplay, however we would liked to have seen more. Had this game remained on the original Xbox, it probably would not impress as much as it has, but PGR3 is all about the looks and style and it has that in spades.
In terms of cars, if you're a fan of racing you will be like a pig in mud. The developers have licensed some of the world's most famous cars such as the Ferrari Enzo, Maranello and F50 as well as cars such as the Mclaren SK and Nissan GTR. As mentioned before these cars are relatively easy to unlock, and once bought, they become available in your garage to select from. You can even try out cars that you can't afford yet with the test drive option which has carried across from PGR2. They have even included the Australian Built Joss Supercar, but disappointingly the Australian related content remains minimal in 2006's game.
Instead of the Aussie content, the developers have gone back to what they know best and used some of the world's most famous cities such as London and New York for settings. If this sounds familiar, it should, these cities were also used for the original PGR on Xbox. Overall there are five cities included, which seems quite small but once you see the level of detail, it's not surprising that the developers had to keep the number low as the detail is astonishing - you will see famous landmarks such as Big Ben and race in both day and night, something which PGR has done successfully for quite some time.
The Nurburgring once again is included but with a difference. You can drive it in sections - the new Formula 1 track, a smaller track and what the developers have called the "behemoth" which is the old track and the new Formula 1 track combined. It takes around ten minutes to complete the entire track and represents a new challenge to those who thought they had conquered the Nurburgring.
Thus we get to the visuals, which is what makes PGR3 such an impressive title. The sad fact is, without the power of the 360, PGR3 probably would have been seen as a developer pushing their luck in terms of lack of originality but the graphics make up for it. PGR3 is stunning. The detail level is incredible and the photo realistic textures add to the atmosphere ten fold. The game is also played at breakneck speed, and despite the fact a huge amount of cars have been included in the title, each has a custom dashboard view, representing exactly what you would see in the real world car. The detail level is such that with automatic, the graphical driver will not change gear, but does so when manual is selected.
Xbox Live is a huge aspect of PGR3 with Gotham TV being a primary component. You can of course play online with a Gold membership but those with Silver can view Gotham TV which allows you to watch races taking place, and you can even watch a special channel the developers have created to show case the best drivers in the world.
Project Gotham Racing 3 may be one of the first racing games on the Xbox 360 and it sure won't be the last, but it does manage to impress. It does have a sense of familiarity about it and the developers could have been a little more original and innovative but to deliver a game so complete, which such good graphics and so playable for launch was a feat in itself. The best racing game on the Xbox 360 so far, but then, it doesn't have that much competition