The Bargain Bin : Project Gotham Racing 4

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Video gaming can be an expensive hobby.  As an adult, that's been mitigated by a full-time job and far fewer hours to play games.  When I was a college student though I fondly remember the bargain bin being a way to maximize the amount of gameplay I could get out of my meager part time student employee bucks. The Bargain Bin fishes through the the cheapies and lets you know if they're worth the scratch.

Released in November 2007, Project Gotham Racing 4 is an arcade-style racer developed by the now-defunct Bizarre Creations.  It was published by Microsoft Game Studios and is, naturally, and X-Box 360 exclusive.  The Project Gotham Racing series is the X-Box extension of the Dreamcast-based Metropolis Street Racer series - which (you can probably decipher from the titles) involve street racing in dense city tracks.

The dense city tracks make for good drama, but not always for good racing.

The dense city tracks make for good drama, but not always for good racing.

The games use a system that awards you "kudos" for doing cool stuff during a race - if you catch air, get up on two wheels, draft another car, or powerslide through a corner you get awarded "kudos" which are used as the game's currency for buying new cars.  In order to progress rapidly through the ranks and to unlock new cars you're encouraged to place first in races while also performing exciting stunts.

There are three main gameplay modes - career, arcade, and custom match.  Career assigns you a rank and allows you to enter scheduled races, each of which awards you a certain amount of career points to increase your rank.  The goal is eventually to be the top ranked racer in the world.

Arcade mode presents you with a large set of challenges - 60 for cars, 60 for bikes - which you can attack in any order.  The goal of this mode is to get gold medals in each challenge.

Custom Match is what you'd traditionally call "arcade mode" in any other racing game. It allows you to select any car and set up a single race on any track.

There are also the requisite online matches and time trial modes but Time Trial is really only useful for practice, and the online community is almost certainly a ghost town now that we're 5 years on (and if you pick up this game now, anybody playing online has a 5 year head-start on you).

Opponent labels often get in the way, making it hard to see upcoming corners when you're stuck in traffic.

Opponent labels often get in the way, making it hard to see upcoming corners when you're stuck in traffic.

PGR4 trades a bit on its good looks - the urban environments are well detailed and solid-looking and the cars are nearly up to the standards set forth by Gran Turismo and Forza.  There's also a day/night cycle and weather system to add some variety.  However, the graphical strides made in the game that sound great on paper are a sort of hindrance for beginner players.

Bizarre didn't sit down and create tracks and then decorate the tracks with buildings.  Instead they built cities and then constructed routes within the cities.  Because of the multitude of roads that exist on a city grid, the developers had a lot of options to combine routes and create variety.  However, that means that throughout career mode (which has you switching cities between series) you're constantly racing on tracks you've never driven that look vaguely like previous circuits.  Immediately after learning to brake hard for a hairpin left after a street full of neon lights in Hong Kong in one race, you find out the hard way that your next race features the same long straight followed by a series of gentle right/left curves.

Due to the urban nature of the game, most corners are totally blind.

Due to the urban nature of the game, most corners are totally blind.

There's essentially no way to memorize the tracks, and the urban environments ensure that almost every corner is a blind one. You have to keep a constant eye on the map if you want to have any hope of following a reasonable racing line.

An interesting side effect - since you're constantly learning new tracks, the weather system becomes meaningless for gameplay.  After all, there's no way for a track to feel more or less slippery if you have no point of reference from which to judge.

In order to counter these frustrations, Bizarre have given you the ability to restart any race without penalty, but that completely eliminates any and all difficulty.  The only way to make the game difficult is to take it upon yourself never to use that feature.

Another gameplay aspect that goes sadly awry is the Kudos system.  PGR4 has a relatively realistic physics system, and that means that if you want to win a race your best bet is to follow a conservative racing line and avoid car-to-car contact.  Minimize wheel spin, and minimize any opportunities for opponents to get you turned around.  Most things that earn you Kudos (two-wheel driving, drafting, passing, catching air) are beyond your control, and the ones that are (power slides and drifting) slow you down a great deal, and you lose all your Kudos if you happen to slide into a wall.  With a lot of effort you could earn as much as 1000 Kudos doing stunts in an early race, but you earn 6,000 Kudos for finishing first.  All things being equal, risking your first place finish with a ridiculous, hard to control drift will lose you more Kudos than it will ever gain.

Even with a lot of drifting, the benefits of finishing first far outweigh the benefits of showing off.

Even with a lot of drifting, the benefits of finishing first far outweigh the benefits of showing off.

My final verdict on the game is that it's a pretty solid racer - it just isn't the over-the-top stunt-heavy arcade action that Bizarre intended. The game is a lot of fun despite its core gameplay mechanic falling flat on its face.

Is it worth it?

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The game costs $4 used from GameStop.  That would buy enough gas to drive a real car about 30 miles on much much more boring interstate highways. So, unless you're putting that gas into a Ferrarri, it's probably much more fun to pick up a copy of PGR4.