Before we get started, Ive got a confession to make: Ive never been a fan of racing games. Sure, I can admire the artistry and attention to detail in a game like Gran Turismo 3, or the thrill of driving exotic cars that Id never get to experience in real life, but ultimately, all racing games are sort of the same. Pick a car, drive a circuit, try to beat your best time or win races to unlock more tracks and cars—lather, rinse, repeat.

So, it was with a bit of trepidation that I decided to tackle Bizarre Creations Project Gotham Racing for the Xbox. Id played their earlier Dreamcast title, Metropolis Street Racer, and found it an entertaining—but flawed—game. The fact that it attempted to tweak the standard racing game formula was what sold me on trying this new title and, despite my dislike of racing games in general, I can certainly assure you that Ive become a fan of Project Gotham Racing—a title that takes ideas of Metropolis Street Racer and improves upon them dramatically.

At its core, Project Gotham Racing is like every other racing game on the market. It features a bevy of exotic cars (Ferraris, Mazdas, Vipers, and so on), a plethora of street tracks from locations around the world, and a treasure trove of goodies that can only be obtained by completing certain gameplay tasks. However, what sets Project Gotham Racing apart is the way it integrates the kudos system into the traditional racing gameplay.

Kudos are essentially style points that are awarded to racers as they complete certain high risk maneuvers throughout the game. Gunning around a corner full-throttle and sliding cleanly into the next straightaway will earn you kudos. Catching air while driving through San Francisco will earn you kudos. Completing tracks without hitting cones or other obstacles will earn you kudos. Basically, any daring maneuver you can come up with will earn you kudos as a reward. Because of this, Project Gotham Racing is about more than simply crossing the finish line first. Winning is nice, but winning with style is the games true goal. In fact, as you progress through the game, winning alone isnt always enough to advance—youll have to earn a minimum number of kudos as well.

The addition of the kudos system is one of the games greatest strengths. While the average racing game rarely offers a reason to return to previously bested tracks, Project Gotham Racing will have hardcore drivers coming back to races numerous times just to try and get as many kudos as possible. This increases the titles replay value dramatically.

Of course, the fact that the game features a multitude of tracks and different objectives from the beginning makes this one of the deeper racing games around anyway. Project Gotham Racing offers up a wide variety of gameplay options—one can run street races, try to beat times, try to rack up kudos on a precision course, and more—rather than simply racing six cars around a circuit. Because of this, the game stays fresh.

While the game is easy to pick up and play, it takes quite a bit of skill to master. As mentioned earlier, winning isnt always the only goal—doing it with style and precision will often open up more of the games abundant goodies. The thing is, while mastering tracks will take a great deal of repetition (particularly as one gets farther in the game), it never becomes overwhelmingly hard. Every race is winnable; its simply a matter of trying them over and over again until you find the right strategy. Earning kudos while doing this keeps the game from becoming overly frustrating. The game can be brutally challenging, but the gameplay is so solid that youll keep coming back to it anyway.

Couple the gameplay with some truly beautiful graphics that show off the Xbox hardware, and things only get better. While the game isnt quite the graphical showcase that is Gran Turismo 3, Project Gotham Racing is certainly no slouch in the visual department.

The real stars of the game are the cars. While there arent as many different vehicles to choose from as Id hoped, each car is a highly detailed digital version of its real world counterpart. Simply put, the cars are beautiful. The way the light reflects off them seems incredibly realistic, and the damage they sustain from accidents in each lap is impressive in its detail (even thought it becomes apparent as the game progresses that there isnt a wide variety of different damage animations). Sadly, this is probably as close as Im ever going to come to driving a Porsche Boxster S. And while the games Boxster may or may not mirror the feel of the real car, the looks certainly match completely.

Unfortunately, though, the cars are by far the best-looking things in the game. Bizarre Creations has gone to great lengths to make the cars as pretty as possible, but this seems to have come at the expense of the environments they drive through. Project Gotham Racing features a variety of real world settings that have been recreated quite faithfully. The problem stems from the fact that the environments dont have the same detailed and organic look as the cars. It occasionally feels like youre driving through a bad painting—building architecture is bland, the textures are a little flat, and the whole city has the feel of a bad cartoon than an actual environment. Its disappointing that the game fails in this regard, especially when you consider that it does so many other things right.

Luckily, thats the only major flaw in the game. Everything else found in Project Gotham Racing is quality work done by a crew who clearly loves the racing game genre. Controls are tight and responsive (even when playing with the Xbox controller, which was a pleasant surprise), which is a must considering that the game places such an onus on style and execution. Anything less than perfect controls would make trying to earn the necessary kudos to advance through stages a complete nightmare. Fortunately, thats not an issue in Project Gotham Racing.

If the devil is in the details, then Project Gotham Racing is old Scratch himself. Not only does the game feature real world cars, locations, and an eye for the most minute of details (like the water splatter coming off the tires on a rainy track), but it also features real world radio stations and DJs spinning tunes for your driving pleasure. These arent your generic themes, either; the game features tracks by real bands such as Gorillaz and a variety of hip hop acts as well. Tired of the in-game soundtrack? Then take advantage of the Xbox hard drive and rip some tracks of your own. Project Gotham Racing allows for players to import their very own music for use while driving.

Project Gotham Racing is an impressive racing game. While its not quite on the same level as the Gran Turismo series, theyre definitely in the same parking lot. Project Gotham Racings innovative kudos system adds a great deal to the traditional driving game formula, making it so that skill and speed are both factors necessary to win. Consider that with the lush car graphics, the multitude of items to unlock, and the sheer breadth and depth of the game and one can see why Project Gotham Racing has made me reconsider my casual dismissal of the racing game genre. While it hasnt made me a hardcore racing game fan, Project Gotham Racing demonstrates that theres still room for innovation in even the most traditional gaming categories. Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Mike Bracken
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