It's raining. You're racing through a capital city at 120 miles per hour. You're in a Maserati 250F, a car that made legends of Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio (who in a single race, broke the Nurburgring lap record 10 times with one). You're powersliding like a bastard, and it's brilliant. You can only be playing Project Gotham Racing 4, a game that sings with its adroit refinement and howls with its exhaust notes. PGR2 may have made the legend and 3 took it into a new generation, but PGR4 cemented its reputation forever.
In its time, PGR4 slipped by me at launch. I ended up getting it in the 2008 Christmas sales, and it made an amazing Christmas week game. But it felt so small. Almost meek, even though it had committed spectacular crimes against racing and added a pretty amazing weather simulation. It felt like a fabulous DLC collection, or PGR3 as it should have been if Bizarre Creations had two extra years to work on it, and it felt horribly confined within a single DVD. Compared to the swagger and heft of PGR2, and accounting for the rush-job of PGR3 (as touched on in Tom's lovely retrospective from last year), PGR4 is something weirder than a straight racing game sequel. It's a contraction and distillation of the PGR spirit on one hand, a ridiculous expansion and dilution on the other. PGR4 stands out for these kind of oppositions: cars vs bikes, sun vs snow, breadth vs focus, conservative vs radical, celebration vs funeral.
I can't think of many other games that are bursting with as many internal conflicts, just as I can't think of any other that had the sheer depth of taste to offer a Maserati 250F up for powerslides around Nelson's Column. And what a blast PGR4's take on car dynamics is. It's a shame that nothing has really come close to Bizarre Creations' fusion of rigorous simulation and arcade shamelessness, but it's proof of how awesome the studio was.
PGR4 is more than fun, it's beautiful fun. Beautifully balanced and beautifully rendered, especially in the noise department. Wastegate and turbo, gear whine and exhaust note - all sound wonderfully clear and authentic, years before the grunt of NFS Shift or Forza 4's raucous trumpeting. The balance in the raw experience of playing PGR4 is so finely pitched that it all combines wonderfully; it sounds as good as it looks, and it looks as good as it feels. It's a testament to studious refinement - PGR4's entertainment-slanted demonstration of the three disciplines form a chorus in glorious harmony. It's just a shame that Bizarre's skill in carving the finest blend of the real and the cartoon was infected with the kind of madness that thinks adding motorbikes was a good way to take the series forward.
I tried - I really did try - to like the bikes, as I do love them in real life, but I just couldn't reconcile the difference in technique and performance. In short, they were s**t. But then maybe PGR4's deliciously tight car list was too much to resist. Why should I be struggling around on a Norton 500 Manx when I could be drifting for Britain in a Jaguar D-Type, BMW M1 or a 288 GTO Evolutione? There are so many more - the Sierra Cosworth, the Vanwall GPR (the UK's competitor to the 250F), the Ferrari 250 GTO, the Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato, the Lotus Esprit Essex Turbo, the McLaren F1 LM and the game's ultimate Ferrari, the F50 GT.
Of course, lots of these are carry-overs from PGR3, but the list is boiled down to perhaps the most sparkling car roster in any racing game ever, and some of that is down to the cars PGR4 introduced. It's such a great compendium of mainstream and enthusiast legends that I honestly want it made mandatory in every racing game. Retroactively and without exceptions; these are the cars you simply must include. More so than Gran Turismo's gloriously sprawling and idiosyncratic encyclopedia, or Forza's rambling predictability.
Today, PGR4 remains an extraordinarily good time-trial game. Pick a route, pick a class of car, load some old ghosts and go racing. Revel in getting the end out, or nail your braking and apexes - PGR4's flexibility is just lovely, and never steps too far into Ridge Racer or Burnout territory. It's not aged too badly either. Compared to what's available today, PGR4 stands out as an achievement with a singular vibrancy and clarity. It's the end of a line pushing to be the best it can be - a rare thing in a series with dwindling returns, and the downsides don't diminish any sense of its peak performance.
While Blur (rightly) has its passionate fans and celebrants, the basic premise meant PGR was dead - when all you have left is to turn to Mario Kart, it's a sad day for a racing series that climbed such heights as be deservedly legendary. While this might be due to the crushing pressures of a changing marketplace, publisher negligence and unfavourable financial climates, the tragedy is no less significant. PGR4 was the death of something wonderful, and while its explosion scattered seeds of excellence across platform stablemates (most notably Forza Horizon), that unmistakable PGR quintessence seems lost in the wind, along with its uncanny balance of the sublime and the ridiculous.
The joyously rewarding Kudos system has left a colossal chasm too - another PGR legacy that should be mandatory. Forza might have nudged close at times, but it never captured the badass glee of PGR at full force. Long live PGR4 - your spirit and verve may have been clipped into too small a box, but an F50 GT around Trafalgar Tour is still splendidly exhilarating, and in a way that only PGR could pull off. In PGR4, it's perhaps the best that arcade-but-real racing will ever be.