What is it about racing games and launch consoles? Just as we anointed a racing title -- Ridge Racer - as one of the must-have games to show off the then newly released PSP last year, we're naming another racer as a top purchase for the new Xbox 360. If you want some sweet next-generation eye-candy to help allay those feelings of guilt for spending hundreds of dollars on a games machine, then look no further than Project Gotham Racing 3 (PGR 3).
And when we mean sweet eye-candy we mean it - along with Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, PGR 3 is the game which most shows off the graphical punch of the new Xbox 360. Even through normal televisions, there's no doubting that this is a next-generation game running on a powerful next-generation console.
Of course, if you have a high-definition display, then the PGR 3 experience is made all the better. The vehicles in the game are all extremely well detailed, falling just shy of being completely photo-realistic. They're a joy to behold when moving - reflections dance, sparks fly in impacts and plenty of other minute details work together to present a compelling image. The backgrounds fare even better - buildings are wholly realistic, and even crowds are rendered in 3D. Flying down the streets of New York or London has never looked better in a racer. And the game is rock solid when it comes to frame rate - in our extensive test sessions, we did not once see any slow down.
PGR 3 also features a racing view that has to be seen to be believed. The in-car view accurately replicates the driving experience from inside the vehicle, with your in-game driver changing gears, steering and pressing the accelerator and brake when you do. This view is impressive to race in - not only are all of the vehicle's cockpits realistically rendered (right down to the dust and grime that accumulates on the windshield during a race), but it gives you a real racing thrill that other racers will find hard to replicate.
Of course, looks aren't the only thing going for PGR 3. As has become standard with the series, racing controls in the game are tight and ultra-responsive, veering more towards arcade than simulation. It's not to the level of a Ridge Racer (you won't be powersliding around corners at 150km/h, for example), but you'll still need some dextrous control to manoeuvre around some of the courses. That said, the racing mechanics are fairly forgiving in PGR 3 - in fact, the game rewards you just as much for style as it does for speed. The Kudos system is back in this latest PGR, which awards you points for doing impressive moves such as taking corners without hitting barriers, drifting behind opponents before overtaking, sliding around curves and more.
Offline racing in PGR 3 is broken up into a series of events, with each event featuring several races which must be completed in order to "win" the overall event trophy. To help break things up, PGR 3 offers up a healthy list of different race types. There's of course the typical first to the finish line, but there are also checkpoint events (pass through a series of flags in a set time), timed events (where Kudos earned momentarily stops a racing clock you're trying to beat), last-placed elimination (where last after every lap is eliminated) and more. There's a decent amount of racing to be had here, but with only 20 or so events to conquer, it's all over too soon.
Thankfully, PGR 3 has an extensive online component which can extend its natural play life. Using the new Xbox Live's matching capabilities, players will be automatically matched with racers of similar skill levels when they go online. When creating matches from scratch, you have three modes to choose from: Street Race, Eliminator and Capture the Track (along with team versions of Street Race and Eliminator). Online Street Races and Eliminator modes play exactly as they do in PGR 3's single-player game. In capture the track, your goal is to "own" as much of a particular course as you can by posting the fastest sector teams in specific sections of a track. The quicker you are over the course, the more of the track you'll own. Online performance was silky smooth in our test sessions with the game -- we didn't notice any sort of lag or warping of vehicles. And, because it's been a while since we've played the last PGR game online, it's nice to see that beating loudmouths on Xbox Live is still as satisfying a simple pleasure as online gaming can provide.
Perhaps the game's other biggest drawback (apart from its offline length) is the limited number of cars available, as you'll only get your choice of about 80 or so models. The flipside, however, is that each model is racing stunner - you won't find any '80s Truenos or Minis to clog up your garage here. And while some of the cars may initially seem out of reach, you'll quickly rack up the credits by completing races. But for those of you used to tricking out your vehicles, you'll be sadly disappointed. Unlike other recent racers, PGR 3 doesn't allow you to customise your vehicles (apart from its colour).
Music is also handled well, with PGR 3's soundtrack featuring an eclectic mix of songs ranging from classical music to hip hop and Indian to heavy metal. And as with most new 360 games, PGR 3 allows you to race with a customised soundtrack using songs either stored on the console's hard drive or through any connected MP3 player.
PGR 3 for the Xbox 360 is the complete package for a launch title - it's an engrossing game in its own right, as well as being a great example of the new 360's capabilities.
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