Monday, December 1, 2003
Microsoft's forgettably blah racing franchise makes a solid statement in the racing genre this year, poising itself to be competitive even with the more simulation-like Gran Turismo 4.
There are many set pieces a racing game must nail to provide the necessary promise for a fun experience. First, you must have a logical physics system that makes sense for the aim of the game. F-Zero GX is totally unreal, for instance, but exists well within its bounds. Second, you must have an acceptable selection of awe-inspiring vehicles. Third, track designs must vary and be immersive. Fourth, enemy AI must have personality. Finally, there must be incentive to keep playing the same tracks over and over like customizable vehicles or a plethora of challenges to complete.
Project Gotham 2 delivers wonderfully on all but customization. The game runs so tight and smooth that you feel like you are racing in a simulation, but there is nothing for you to tinker with or upgrade in each vehicle, reminding you that it's just one heck-of-a polished arcade racer.
The main mode takes you through a group of races with a certain type of vehicle, be it coupes, SUV, sports cars, etc. There are main challenges to complete in each car class that must all be completed before unlocking the next class. Don't worry, even on the lowest of the five difficulty settings you can complete a challenge. In fact that's where a ton of the single player replay value comes in. Sure you can unlock the next vehicle class by skating through on the easiest setting, but the enemy AI in the race modes are designed so competitively that you will want to complete the highest difficulty you can, as winning really gives you an awesome sense of accomplishment. In comparison, Need for Speed Underground usually requires you to win first place in order to do anything. And with a normal difficulty on NFSU, if you make one mistake, you will most likely lose. The design for PG2 is more streamlined and forgiving without being a total pushover since there are so many challenges and classes to unlock.
During races and challenges, you earn "kudos" for doing cool things like drifting, drafting, catching air, overtakes, etc. And if you do these within a short time of each other, you get bonus combos points. The catch is you must hold the combo for a solid couple of seconds before actually reaping the reward without hitting the side of a track. All of this makes you want to be a better driver, mastering the nuances of each and every car. Kudos won't get you the new cars, but help you level up in which you are rewarded with tokens to buy new cars.
Speaking of physics, the driving physics knocked me to the floor. Drifting isn't overly easy or impossible and does take a different method to master it on a different type of vehicle. There was no drifting template secretly applied to all vehicles in a lazy programming move *cough* NFSU. Weight shifts correctly respond according to the car you're driving and what speed you are moving. The physics engine (pun intended) is one to be experienced.
The AI is unexpectedly fierce. Not in a difficult way, but most of these guys are foaming at the mouth to get you out of the race. Countless times your back end will be slammed into, trying to make your car spin out. This is all very juxtaposed to the nature of the driver-types that would buy Porche's and Ferrari's, but hey, it makes the game so much more fun. Add to that the hard-angled corners aren't magically taken at 159mph perfectly by the AI on any difficulty, and you have a challenging AI engine that is learnable and overtakeable only with practice.
Playing online is friggin' cool. The game was bugged out so that the experience is virtually lag-free. It is a true Live-Aware game that automatically records your times to an international scoreboard to see how you rank. Add in downloadable ghosts and other content for the future and you've got another solid block of replay value.
Can you say car damage? Microsoft shelled out the cash to allow real-time damage to the vehicles. Unfortunately the feature is not coupled with any sort of particle effects, and the damage does seem to be applied not how you would expect it to, but regardless it is a welcome addition.
From D.C. to Sydney, and eight other locales in between, the track variations are many. The locales look wonderful, if a little conservative on the palette as to add to the dusty realism of real life. The car models offer the same look of reality, with some major polygon pushing going down.
Let me tell you how much I enjoy the sound in this game. Not only are the effects perfectly piercing, but depending on where in the world you are, there will be a native radio DJ between song selections. If you are in Moscow, some dude will be speaking Russian to announce the next band, which may, in fact, be a Russian artist. It's this type of seamless polish that really puts you in the driver's seat more than anything else, ironically.
This game shines from inside and out and should exist in every Xbox owner's collection. And although I am looking forward to Gran Turismo 4's deep customization, I think Project Gotham 2 has given Sony a lot to think about.
First Play: A-
Last Play: A
Overall: 94% A