Project Gotham Racing 2

It turned up on Friday. We haven't done much else since.

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Project Gotham Racing was, as I'm sure we're all well aware, the third best game of 2002. What made it so good was not purely the racing model, which was arcadey with a touch of sim, but its alliance with a points-scoring system (known as Kudos) that made you fight for every last scrap of powerslide, risking as many time-consuming swerves and going as close to the kerb as you dared in order to maximise your Kudos.

It also forced you to gamble on your own abilities. Faced with a field of skilled opponents, you had to tell the game how high up you could place. Faced with a Timed Run, you had to guess how few seconds you would need. Living up to an optimistic choice meant a massive points bonus, but picking a safer option meant sacrificing it - even if you managed to outdo your pre-race prediction.

It made more of driving than just three final podium positions, and with that relegated so many of our favourite racers to the dusty shelf behind the television - the final resting place of many a fine but abandoned game. Even a year and a half on we still cherish it, throwing it in the disc tray to lift our mood, slipping into the harsh turns and manhandling the fearsome F50 around uncompleted style challenges with tears rolling down our cheeks...

Obviously then we've been fighting over who gets to write about the sequel. I'd like to say I won, but realistically the only reason these words are mine is that Kristan's already written about it twice. It's going to be a long, bitter war that brings you our review sometime around November 28th [or we'll just both do it eh? - Ed].

Wheels On Fire

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[Are you going to talk about the game at all? -Ed] YES I BLOODY AM. Cheeky sod. Right. PGR2 turned up on Friday morning. We weren't expecting it. As soon as we'd finished penning news and trying to satisfy PR people that yes we do care about their feelings and don't mean to draw undue attention to their undignified abuse of the word "unique", we saddled up our debug units and planted Project Gotham Racing 2 in the drive. God it felt good.

With expectations higher than arthritic pensioners with dope-minded GPs, we cooed as the names of the various cities appeared, sliding over the shiny red exterior of an exotic sportscar, before the logo and indeed title screen popped up.

On the surface of it, the most impressive thing about PGR2 is the sheer wealth of options. Hardcore fans of the original (and MSR on the Dreamcast) will slide comfortably into the Kudos World Series mode, which is split by vehicle classes and comprised of mostly familiar challenges - and notably more of them.

Suitably Rewarding

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Veterans will immediately recognise the Street Races, Overtake Challenges, One on Ones, Timed Runs (complete X amount of laps in a certain time limit) and Cone (née Style) Challenges, and find that the new Speed Camera options are a natural replacement for the old Speed Challenge - asking you to get caught doing a certain speed, but throwing a tough corner into the mix just prior to upset your efforts.

In terms of the World Series overall, there is only one major structural change, namely that players will have to complete challenges in sets of two or three to get to the next set in the class, instead of being able to go at all of them in any order. We're not sure why Bizarre Creations have gone for this approach, but it doesn't make too much difference unless you really get stuck (and if you get stuck, you must really suck, thanks to the expansion of the difficulty levels to include very easy and very hard).

Another fairly superficial change is the increase in Kudos awards. While the previous Gotham was actually quite stingy at times, and it took until the final few race-packed classes for the game to really pile on the rewards - as much as 10,000 bonus Kudos points for finishing first - Gotham 2 picks up where the original left off, throwing up to 8,000 points your way per challenge by way of a bonus. After just two and a half classes' worth of races, both Kristan and myself had nearly 200,000 Kudos points in the bank - a total enough to take you through every challenge in the whole of the first game.

As with the first game, players can also compete for Kudos in an expanded Arcade mode comprising Street Races, Timed Runs and Cone Challenges, each offering five groups of five. Each gives you a certain car to race with, whether you've unlocked it in the main Kudos mode or not, but the difficulty ramps up a lot faster than it does in the World Series, so you may find yourself revisiting Arcade mode when you run into a brick wall in the main game.

Metropolis, Gotham - where next?

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The way you obtain new vehicles has also changed. Here, instead of just inheriting them often literally at milestones, you'll have to obtain Kudos Tokens by moving up Kudos Levels. Reach certain pre-determined Kudos levels and you'll be rewarded with tokens each time, and cars are priced based on their performance statistics, which you're allowed to see in advance. As you'll find out, some cars are worth buying more than others, and you can even test drive them in advance of purchase to see if you get on with them.

This new approach actually affects your style of play, encouraging you to replay earlier challenges to get your hands on a better medal (as we touched on earlier, there are now five; Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze and Steel) and, thus, more Kudos. By doing so you earn more Tokens and with enough Tokens you can often buy the best car in a class before you've even taken to the first race. Although the field around you changes slightly to reflect the power of your car, you'll certainly appreciate the improved acceleration and top speed of a BMW M3 over a shy and retiring Volkswagen.

But of course the M3 is by no means the pinnacle. Classes start off in Dad's car territory but move north at quite a pace, going through Coupes, hairdresser sports cars and American muscle machines right the way up to dreamy track cars and the ultimate road vehicles. Stuff you'll never, ever drive in real life.

Gotham 2 certainly has even more stuff you'll never, ever do in real life than Gotham. Having recycled the MSR cities for the first Xbox game, PGR2 bins all the old cities and introduces Hong Kong, Barcelona, Moscow, Edinburgh, Washington DC, Chicago, Florence, Sydney, Yokohama, Stockholm and Nurburgring takes you on the most extraordinary routes through them, dashing past the steps of the White House (without being shot at) and screeching between the legs of some gloriously detailed archways in the brilliantly named KGB Corner in Moscow. It's a good thing the game still bashes you round the head with the same "don't drive like this in real life" warning when it boots up...[As if... as if... - Ed].

The Benefit of Hindsight

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At the time of reviewing the original Gotham, we commented that, with circuits that changed for virtually every race, it might lose out on the "favourite track" front compared to other racers. But, 18 months later, that doesn't seem to be true. If anything, the repeated use of particular sections on multiple tracks made tough corners and unorthodox design flourishes all the more memorable, and we're sure in the long run the same will be true of the sequel.

Early contenders include the aforementioned arches in Russia, a split tunnel in Hong Kong and some frighteningly narrow tree-lined uphill surges in Washington. Oh, and the Nurburgring in general. From what we've seen so far (and it's by no means everything), the track design is more varied than the original, and because of changes to the Kudos system - like being rewarded for taking the best racing line through a corner - a lot of them are even more satisfying than before.

Obviously though, for the game to be more than a mere expansion there needed to be some fundamental changes to the feel of the game, and the way you play it - and there are. Being rewarded for your racing line is just one of a number of changes that contribute to the game's racier feel. This time it's a lot harder to ride kerbs and capitalise on gratuitous sliding and drafting, too, and the previously mentioned Cone Challenges place a greater emphasis on keeping speed up between gates than cornering outrageously and mashing the handbrake as with the first game's sidelined Style Challenges.

And yet despite seemingly softening the game's obsession with sliding, which no longer yields the infamous tick, tick, tick-tick-tick for every single drift, gamers can actually expect a greater emphasis on combos, and, so as not to discourage and frustrate, Bizarre has made it easier to 'bank' points, wiping only the most recently received Kudos points when you screw up during a promising combo.

Is this a good move? Maybe. Coupled with a new lower difficulty "Steel" challenge, this makes things a lot easier than before, and while some will view this as a good thing, diehards may find the bar for entry to some of the toughest challenges is now a bit too low. However at the other end of the scale, the top tier Platinum challenges start off by just about pushing Gotham veterans, but gradually become intensely difficult, so perhaps it's a reasonable trade-off. Broadening the demographic or something. Weirdos.

Bring Me To Live

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Sadly for us though, we're unable to properly gauge Gotham 2's ongoing challenge, because the preview versions sent out by Microsoft last week are incapable of loading the third challenge of the Coupe Series in Kudos World Series. As such, we were limited to cheating our way through to the rest of the game and sampling ferocious TVRs and Porsches, straining to keep them on the track. But one of the best things about Gotham was the way it weaned you onto faster and more dangerous cars gradually, so jumping into the latter stages with no invitation is understandably joyless for us.

Another upsetting thing about our preview code is that we can't play Gotham 2 on Xbox Live yet, so were unable to put Bizarre Creations' claims about the integration to the test. The game acts a lot like MotoGP 2 at the moment, with Live Sign-in options on every page a constant reminder that your scores are not being uploaded, that your ghost car opposition is just you, that your opponents are on one of five AI difficulty settings, and that their relative performance won't influence the game's assessment of your final position. All things promised in the final game - have a look at our previous feature for more first-hand info.

Also frustrating, there are several potential niggles in our advance copies, not least of which is the borderline distracting (and alarming) pop-up present on levels from Washington DC and Barelona to Stockholm and Moscow. Nurburgring offers the worst example, with an entire hill and forest appearing out of the blue sky in a procession of square chunks as you floor it round one of the course's sharp left turns. Maybe some last minute optimisation will cure this, but experience of early code has taught us not to be overly optimistic.

We also had trouble with the game crashing repeatedly, usually while trying to load something - we even had cars tumbling outside the level after one malformed loading effort. Of course we expect all this to be fixed in the final version, but it's a tacit reminder that Gotham 2 is by no means complete yet, and that what we're seeing in terms of gameplay changes could be just as unfinished.

You've Been Framed

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One thing which attracted a bit of attention when we last saw Gotham 2 was the 30 frames per second cap that Bizarre has opted for. Having somehow made the game look even better, the developer decided that maintaining a smooth, albeit halved frame rate and retaining the visual quality was the best match. On the whole, we can see their point. It looks absolutely bloody astounding at times, as Kristan has already noted at some length - our only concern being that some tracks still do drop below a consistent 30 frames per second, most notably Washington, and occasionally Florence.

But, assuming this gets sorted, few will be able to complain about the 30/60 FPS discretion. Gotham 2 is certainly as immersive as ever, with deafening engine noise outblasting the huge, but thus far fairly anonymous soundtrack {unless you more or less turn the sound effects right down), and Bizarre's claims of startling 3D sound effects are well and truly substantiated. You can expect to hear all sorts of things this time, right down to the sound of individual trees thumping your eardrums as you roar past them.

Indeed, Gotham 2 is the best looking and best sounding racing game we've seen all year. Now, yes, Gran Turismo 4 is very pretty, but the real-time reflections sweeping across the borderline arousing curves of a convertible Dodge Viper and the gorgeous lighting effects are simply way beyond the PS2's ageing architecture - and work wonders coupled with the developer's exhaustive research into the featured cities. Without a doubt, this is a game that lives up to its "Only on Xbox" moniker, and with just over two months to go until it's release, we're already sizing up its potential chart position for this year's Top 50. From what we've seen, Gotham 2 is streets ahead of the competition.

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