Right, does anyone remember where we got to with "the promise of the next generation"? I recall J Allard wearing a hoodie under a suit jacket to tell us about high definition graphics, largely because my Mum was round when I watched the video and said "what a trussed-up yobbo" (harsh). So there was definitely some promising of the next generation there. Then it was having 1000 units on-screen, because that's all anyone was talking about for most of 2005. And then, more recently, Ubisoft refined that to "crowd gameplay", which doesn't really mean anything, although we tried not to point that out in case Jade Raymond got offended and refused to marry us. And meanwhile, over in sunny Liverpool, Bizarre Creations have come up with a quintessentially British alternative. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the promise of the next generation: puddles.
You'll love the puddles in Project Gotham Racing 4. Not only do they look very pretty, but they have a dramatic impact on the way you approach the tracks you already know. In a game that offers ten locations (PGR3 had five), all carved up into a number of specific tracks, it's another splash of variety. Ho ho. And it's one of many, because PGR4's vaunted weather system also promises rain (in varying amounts), snow, fog, and all your other favourites. Conditions even change mid-race: one track in Macau begins in clinging fog, before ascending into the blinding glare of the sun-smacked hills around. Visually it's a wonderful effect (and we'll get to that in a bit), but in terms of driving it affects your braking distances, the range of stunts and slides you can attempt, and the general balance of the race. Fall behind in the wet and you might be able to make it up in the dry.
This being PGR, it's all in the name of fun. There's no aquaplaning, so you won't be dreading the puddles; they're just another thing to master. The same goes for the motorbikes. They don't signal a shift to greater degrees of realism. All the cars and bikes handle differently, and are built to impressively authentic standard, so you'll have no trouble telling a Ducati from a Suzuki, but this isn't MotoGP; it takes a pretty spectacular cock-up to send your rider over the handlebars into a puddle. Although it's funny to see it happen. Particularly in the over-the-handlebar view.
The gameplay ramifications are more general and easier to grasp: bikes are better on straights, and cars are better at cornering. Fans of Kudos, PGR's scoring system, which unlocks new cars and bikes, will discover that the bigger change is the bikes' "stunt" button, which lets you stand on the seat, perch on a foot-pedal and taunt your rivals. Endos and wheelies are in, too, and easy to hold, although the Kudos rewards in the demo we play are handed down relative to skill and execution rather than longevity. One of the things that speaks best to PGR4's sensible, gameplay-orientated introduction of bikes is their inability to crash and then accelerate to top-speed again in a jiffy; take a big hit and they'll wiggle awkwardly if you push too hard to regain speed immediately. Push off sensibly and all's well.
Speaking of balance, Bizarre's Brian Woodhouse admits that PGR3 wasn't quite what it could have been in that area when we bump into him at E3. "We just ran out of time," he told us, as you may have read elsewhere. "It looked great, but we struggled a little bit to commit time at the end to really balance the game properly. This one, we're not letting go 'til it's done." Attention to detail's already apparent. The bikes, though a lot of fun, are seemingly optional. You can do the whole of the Career or Arcade mode in your favourite vehicles, with a range of medals to gun for, and you simply don't have to mount the crotch-rockets if you're disinclined (or, for that matter, the cars). But, to get back to the water, surely "puddle density" is the best debug-mode variable ever?
The Kudos system makeover isn't particularly drastic, at first glance. You'll still start to collect points as you drift, whenever you ride on two wheels, whenever you draft in another racer's wake, whenever you complete sections cleanly, and so on. There's been talk of limiting abusive collection (e.g. snaking down straights) but not, it should be stated, at the expense of chaining - chaining's half the fun, and will remain. The main Kudos tweak, though, is pretty intelligent. As well as being shown a points-total for each chain of Kudos, you're given a star rating. It's part of a "milestone" system that Bizarre hopes will give players a simpler way of setting themselves personal goals. On the track, meanwhile, it will give you a simple, easily-remembered record of your best attempts at the most difficult corners, and a real sense of achievement when you perfect a line or trick sequence that drags you over the threshold of a three-star performance into four.
Visually, PGR3 was a bit squeezed into its suit. It didn't quite run at 720p, but found itself upscaled from something like 600 vertical lines. That's all sorted out for PGR4. The game's locked at 30 frames-per-second, and "won't ever drop below". It does a bit in the presentation we see, although that's typical of debug builds, but the show-floor hands-on demo (a race between bikes and cars in Macau, with us on a bike) is more consistent.
The benefits definitely look worthwhile for PGR fans. Superficially similar to 3 (although individual elements pack more polygons), the weather's the show-stealer. Snowflakes flutter on the breeze, rainwater trickles up the windscreen as the wind rushes up off the bonnet, and some of the best volumetric fog technology we've ever seen gives tracks like the fog/sun combination in Macau the sort of sheen that we've been waiting for since Allard and Moore first started banging on about the "HD era" all those tattoos ago. The fog hugs the trees, which roar past in noticeably believable detail, conspiring with the weather to look as convincing as anything we've seen in a driving game to date. Racing behind cars in the wet, brake lights pierce the kicked-up spray with a hazy glare. Reflections - always one of PGR's strong suits - take on an altogether greater significance as they float and distort across the newly dynamic rain-drenched asphalt. The dynamic lighting you get from lightning cracks is ace too. Blinking neon and weather add up to a lived-in aesthetic, distinct from the relative sterility of the cars-and-sun racers we're used to playing. Damage modelling is still limited, but we're assured of being able to "swap paint with the barriers", which is fine by us.
What's more, the only price to pay for all this fine detail that we've identified so far is the potential loss of the Route Creator, which Bizarre tells us still has a question mark next to it. In terms of game modes, the single-player Career has 200 races, character-creation, as well as new garages for storing your fleet, a "Superstar" bit (a new event type, like cone challenges, rather than a specific mode) that challenges you to do things like get 15 stars in two minutes, and invitational races that are offered to you as your skill level blasts through certain thresholds.
Arcade races return for those of you who have a clear idea of what you want (with Superstar bits there too), and 70 races total. Custom races are in, time trials, and the return of Online Career, for which there'll be an array of disciplines. Online gaming is limited to eight racers, but you'll also be able to team up, creating squads of four players (mini-clans!) to compete online in games like capture-the-flag, Cat & Mouse and Cops & Robbers. Plus, PGR's excellent integration with Xbox Live continues with leaderboards for every track.
Plus of course there's PGR On Demand - an extension of PGR3's Gotham TV concept - allowing for video and photo sharing. Videos can be shared to an unprecedented degree, with the potential for Microsoft's servers to host every race ever undertaken, providing someone agrees to upload it at the end. The search function sounds neat too. Bizarre's Craig Howard tells us in an email: "you can search for a Ferrari Enzo in the rain in Macau 7 with the keyword 'crash'," and get exactly what you want. Photo Mode, polished by Turn 10's Forza Motorsport 2, will return, and this time you'll be able to download other racers' pics and hang them, or your own, inside the garages you've bought. Like Forza, you'll be able to view photos on the net, too, and track the stats of each country to see who's best at the game.
There's a lot going on. And with approximately 120 vehicles ("licensing always goes up to the last day", mind) split around 95/25 between cars and bikes, there's a lot to unlock. Plus, Bizarre's a bit fond of the old downloadable content. So whether or not you agree with our convoluted claim that puddles are the promise of the future, you'll probably agree that PGR4 will be worth keeping an eye on as it rounds certification and floors it in the direction of shops sometime in September. Splishing.