Last time we saw PGR4, we had to sit across the room from it while two of the developers did endos and talked about puddles. What we actually wanted to do was drag them out by the hair, lock ourselves in and then try and get ALL PLATINUMS for as long as it took Kevin Spacey to convince us to open the door again. So this time we did just that. Close enough, anyway.
We went to Bizarre's studio in Liverpool, where we learned many things. For instance, a bottle of vodka they stole from Sony is more important to everyone than the PGR2 BAFTA, and therefore sits in a nicer cabinet. For even more instance, PGR4 is so big that the Arcade mode alone has more events in it than the whole of PGR3. "It's a monster!" bellows Gareth Wilson, design manager. "What have we done!" What they have done is split the game into a hardcore medal-hunt and a gentler, more varied procession of races.
Career mode is the latter - a calendar of events set out as a season, with multi-race championships sprinkled across each month along with "major events" (where the game wheels out its best AI) and invitationals, which give you the opportunity to win cars exclusive to those events. Events that consist of more than one stage are decided by overall Kudos points, with a certain amount handed down for a win and added to your (smaller) total of Kudos earned in-game - in some cases enough to sneak up a place, presumably, but no substitute for actually being good.
Progress in Career, however, isn't about winning a certain amount of medals, but climbing up a 72-slot leaderboard from a rank amateur to a master. This in turn unlocks new events at different ranks. And instead of picking your difficulty level pre-race, you now set one for the entire Career season. It's a structure that has more in common with something like TOCA Race Driver than PGR3.
Fortunately, Arcade mode is there for those of us who like sitting in front of the TV doing the same task 58 times in a row to get the best medal. With 128 medals in total, it dwarfs PGR3, and allows you to compete at Steel, Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum level on a per-event basis. Some events are locked to cars or to bikes, but most offer a car medal and a bike medal, allowing you to pick the one you want to do.
Naturally we're drawn to Arcade mode, and have a quick scan to see what's on offer. The opening events include street races, breakthroughs (clear a certain number of checkpoints before the time runs out), timed runs (finish within time limit), hot laps (better a prescribed lap-time), overtake challenges (overtake X amount of cars) and elimination (last-placed driver eliminated at the end of each lap).
New or altered are the speed challenge, which used to involve simply going through one speed-trap at the highest speed possible, but now strings several speed-traps together, making it harder to fluke; along with cone attack and cone sprint. The latter is the traditional cone challenge of older games, while cone attack is about running into triangles of cones, bowling-style, to try and topple as many as your target medal requires before the clock runs down.
The key question, of course, is whether it's properly balanced. The back half of PGR3 simply wasn't - the Nurburgring finishers were easier than some of the stuff you did in hour three - but Bizarre insists that the lack of a pressing console or service launch has given them more time to finish up. Picking a task at random (so, cone sprint) and hopping in a random BMW, we set about trying for platinum to see how they've done.
Our first attempt sees us topple a couple of cones accumulating penalty seconds that eventually bring us home 17 seconds over the time limit. Whoops. Of course, we were just getting our eye in, which is why on our third (perhaps fourth) attempt, we manage to sneak it home (alright, fifth) with two hundredths of a second to spare. We didn't manage the whole track as one Kudos chain, but we did avoid hitting any cones. Interestingly, the medal requirement is overall time rather than Kudos. Unless the nine hours I had to spend on a train in one day is making me remember it wrongly.
One of the reasons Bizarre split the game into Career and Arcade thus is the belief that PGR games were always a bit "dry". Sort of sterile. The crowds weren't particularly animated and the tracks were all a bit 28 Days Later. With this in mind, the team decided to "humanise" PGR and bring it to life. To achieve that, the first thing they did was give you more character - you pick whether you're a boy racer or a girl racer, you pick your nationality (and don't lie - there'll be tournaments specific to your country), as well as basic distinguishing characteristics like helmet and visor colour and what sort of clothes you wear.
For a bit more customisation, you can also edit your car's paint-job. Don't get too excited - it's not Forza's car editor for PGR. Instead, you create a pattern that - by selecting a little spray-can icon when you choose vehicle colour - outfits whatever you drive in a distinctive livery, like wrapping a football shirt around different bodies.
Not only that, of course, but they threw in the vaunted weather effects, which we've dealt with in some depth already. "Weather shouldn't be something you fear," Wilson tells us. "It should be something you look forward to". Graphically, it certainly will be. Tokyo in the rain is "mean, dark, Blade Runner-esque", and Nurburgring in the snow is, well, beyond adjectives [that's cheating - Ed]. And of course ice patches and puddles influence the racing line, but to make things more fun, not to hinder.
And the bikes. You'll be able to read more about how bikes arrived in PGR in our full interview with Gareth Wilson very soon, but a chat with lead designer Ged Talbot ought to reassure PGR fans. So we had one. "We wanted to do them better than anyone had before," he says. But, of course, Gotham is not a simulation, and so MotoGP was hardly an appropriate model. Instead the inspiration was actually Grand Theft Auto. Apparently "it's the only bike game we played that everyone in the office loved...so credit to them".
You can of course fall off bikes, but the degree to which you topple changes when you're offline versus when you're on. Offline, the AI "remains neutral", so you won't be barged off too much, but if you overdo an endo or smash into a wall at 180mph you will take a tumble. Online, you're less prone to falling off simply because people online tend to try and ram one another anyway. "It's just what people do," says Talbot, without sounding too upset about it.
Talbot also points out that, despite the presence of a stunt button for people who want to dangle off their bike on straights for a few extra Kudos, Bizarre's deliberately avoided a complicated stunt system in order to preserve playability. They have also worked hard to balance bike Kudos and car Kudos. "We had to make a lap in a car and a lap in a bike achieve the same amount of Kudos," Talbot says, which is exactly what we needed to hear.
Bikes have also helped influence other areas of the design, like the choice of cities. Macau is in despite its relative proximity to Shanghai, and that's because of its real-world popularity with bikers - enthusiasm that Bizarre shares. Each city in PGR4 was photographed extensively (Macau was built off 24,000 snaps, accumulated during two art-team visits), and the maturation of Bizarre's art approach means they get a lot more detail from the 360 than before, which is why the old tracks (Nurburgring, for example) have also been rebuilt. And so, apart from a few very insignificant details (exact heights may be off here and there, for example, because they did all that by eye), what you're racing around are even more excellent facsimiles of the real world locations than ever.
Well, that and some of the road layouts, because one of the other ideas Bizarre has seized upon for PGR is this concept of "racification", which we alluded to last time.
Some testers responded that the handling was somehow simpler or more forgiving than PGR3, but Bizarre insists that that's not true. The difference is that things like turn-marker positioning, and the placement of rumble strips, give you a clearer idea of the optimal line without having to ram it down your throat [surely "eyes" - Ed].
Similarly, there are now three distinct bands of tyre noise for each car, giving you subtle audio cues when you're about to spin off. "A lot of it is designed to give the player feedback; to make them better at the game," audio manager Nick Wiswell tells us. If you have 5.1 sound, you can even hear which tyre is losing traction. Attention to detail, see. On that note, your no-nonsense bumper-cam view now boasts speed-o-meter and rev gauges modelled on the real thing. For every car and bike. "We probably shouldn't have done that," says Wilson, ruing the time it took. Oh well, at least they finished on time.
And yes, that does include all the online stuff. You can play split-screen or System Link offline, and online you have Xbox Live support (including guest support), using a "party" system similar to Halo's lobbies. You send invites, build up a group, and then move between different races and tasks as a group. You can even do Ranked events as a party.
Ranked is the TrueSkill side of the game, while Custom is "pretty much identical to PGR3". There are single-player events (basic online races), single-player championships (several online racers in championship format), and a range of team-based tasks - red vs. blue team races, hot laps and speed tests (cumulative mph for each team wins). There's also a "Simulation" set of events, where the in-car view and manual transmission are obligatory and the weather conditions are the most demanding. "We think people got frustrated [with PGR3] when they couldn't find people as good as they are."
On the flip side, things will also be less elitist. Daily tournaments will split players into groups of their own skill level to compete against one another, rather than trying to pick the best in the world all the time, and a "Hall of Fame" leaderboard will keep track of daily winners - as well as those who tot up the most day-to-day wins.
Equally personal is PGR On Demand, the evolution of PGR3's Gotham TV. It's a system that allows you to upload and download photographs and videos. Photos can be displayed in your garage (also home to Geometry Wars Waves, a wicked new version of the classic two-stick shooter where waves of enemies attack you from each side). Photos can also be viewed on the Internet through PGRNations.com, although videos cannot.
On the whole, then, PGR4 sounds a lot more rounded than PGR3, and there are lots of good ideas. The PGR Shop, to name one more, now clumps unlockables together in themed packs (Chevy Pack, Best of British etc). "We're hoping people will get the car they want, but also some other things they might not otherwise try," says Wilson. And everything is bought with Kudos, which is less confusing. You can even spend 1,000,000 Kudos - a ridiculous amount, relative to the rest of the stuff on offer - on a special gamer picture. That's a bit cheeky.
And now, with all that out of the way, what next for the PGR team? Downloadable content? "We're working on it right now, I don't mind telling you," says Wilson. "It'll be cars and bikes probably." And then, do they expect to make a PGR5? "Christ!" says Wilson. "I've not even finished PGR4 yet, Tom!"
Yes you have. And it's very good.
Project Gotham Racing 4 is due out exclusively on Xbox 360 on 12th October.