Like the Xbox itself, the title Project Gotham comes from Bizarre Creations' original codename for the project. In short, it's nothing to do with Batman. Both titles stuck though, and so here I am reviewing Project Gotham Racing on the Xbox. Silly names aside, this is a remarkably good driving game built on the foundations of the Dreamcast's lovable Metropolis Street Racer, and so apart from being one of the console's most promising titles, it's also the quasi-sequel to a game we all bought and cherished. It has a lot to live up to. Fortunately for Bizarre and Microsoft, punters won't be disappointed with the work that has gone into Project Gotham Racing. The game offers several driving modes, several garages worth of licensed vehicles and a series of circuits based on London, Tokyo, San Francisco and New York. It does so in style too, with a glitzy interface, painstakingly detailed graphics and a richly diverse soundtrack of popular tunes from all over the world. After creating your own driver, with customisable name, license plate text and helmet details, you can dive into the Quick Race mode to get a grounding in what makes Project Gotham tick. At first you can only race the four easiest tracks, fighting to beat off the competition in a series of fairly simple races, before moving up to the medium, hard and very hard difficulty levels, which do exactly what they say on the tin. Although this and the Arcade Race mode with its Kudos-based scoring system touch on the underlying reward structure of the game though, it's not until players sample the Kudos Challenge mode that it all becomes clear.
Kudos, a system invented for MSR, awards points during the course of a race for slides, overtaking, catching air and pulling off other feats. Points and multipliers clock up depending on how many tricks you can pull off in quick succession, and Kudos Challenge consists of increasingly difficult driving events (from timed runs and overtaking exercises to fastest laps and full-blown street racing) demanding not only quick driving and prowess behind the wheel, but the ability to string things together and beat the target point scores to proceed. Medals are awarded based on score, and increasing the difficulty of any given event will gain you a larger bonus when you cross the finish line. If you're particularly bad at any given task, you can always use your joker card to double the final score… Each challenge level picks up one more event than the last, and the difficulty level ramps up sharply regardless of your fiddling with Kudos targets. For each event you can pick any car you have so far unlocked, and a minimum of bronze is required on all events to unlock the next challenge level. There are some thirteen levels, including a hidden one to uncover, and by the time I got to the end of my Kudos Challenge I had somewhere in the region of 80,000 points, tallied up by the game and kept track of in the bottom corner of the menu screen. A message of intent directed at any budding challengers straying into my lounge. The reward structure is based on more than just Kudos though, dishing out extras for the amount of time spent with the game, the distance driven and other stats, along with challenge, quick race and arcade race level victories and ultra high scores. There are more than 25 high performance licensed vehicles to unlock, from the humble Mini to the roaring F50 and everything notable in-between. The Porsche models were my favourite, and as the game progresses and you accrue more time and accolades, nicer paintjobs, helmets and other gimmicks open up. It's an engaging structure, with something new to strive for seemingly around every corner.
Getting Down To Business
GT3 and Ridge Racer fans may find the game proper a bit of a shock to the system at first, with tight handling and a heavy emphasis on burning rubber and keeping speed up through turns whilst pulling off comical manoeuvres in tight confines to score big. Bleeding off the speed before a corner often isn't enough, and even if you do get round intact, the temptation to latch onto that handbrake and slide harder to score bigger is almost irresistible. Often each corner is a matter of no Kudos, no win - Project Gotham is harsh. Graphically Project Gotham is one of the Xbox's flagship titles, and you can see why. Each of the cities has been put together beautifully with the help of thousands upon thousands of photographs and day trips to the places in question. London really does feel like London, and as you race through Marble Arch, down back streets and even along Horseguards Parade, the game feels extremely realistic and slick. The cars, equally authentic, reflect every detail of the sun-drenched environments through which they pelt, and although these reflections were a tad juddery for my liking, it's a picturesque effect. It's not all sunny days and picnics though, with rainstorms and foggy tracks causing particular problems for me during my first week with the game. The textures throughout are superbly detailed and the effects mesmerizing. The water-laden streets of Tokyo glisten as my blue Focus Cosworth hurtles along, splashing and kicking up water at the base of the tyres and sliding dramatically at the slightest inclination. And although it lacks the startling heat haze effects witnessed in Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec on the PlayStation 2, the sun gleaming on the hot tarmac creates just the effect you would expect to see, and driving in uptown Manhattan with the sun shining through the buildings at one point is a sublime touch. Then it's the little details that tie the whole thing together, like the driver visibly reaching for the gear stick, and the dust clouds in St. James' Park. Even the heads-up display looks good, although the lack of easily accessible target information in the Kudos Challenge races is a bit annoying. You can, of course, recap everything in a delightfully simple replay mode, and the hard disk provides practically infinite storage space if you like replays...
Unlike the rest of the game, Project Gotham's so-called Time Attack mode is a bit of an eye-sore, featuring only 17 hand-picked tracks unlocked through the other game modes, with little to attract players already familiar with the twisting city streets. Meanwhile the game's multiplayer mode is absolutely diabolical thanks to the close camera angles obscuring the view and unusually resistant front bumper playing position. Furthermore, these days a big name racing game needs a soundtrack to die for, and although Project Gotham delivers to a certain extent, with plenty of recent chart tracks and a handful of older tunes including songs from Gorillaz and the Stereo MCs, for every song that sounds good there are three more that don't really fit. Thankfully you can give the game whatever soundtrack you want to, thanks to the Xbox's music-storing hard disk, and the in-game DJs (borrowed from a major local radio station for each city) will even introduce licensed music found on your hard disk. Fairly academic unless you lower the default volume on the sound effects, mind. There are many hours of play to be extracted from Project Gotham, but they may come at the expense of some tedium, repeating the same tasks over and over and seeing the same pieces of each city in different places making up slightly different tracks. Visual effects quickly run dry and the game seems to lose its momentum, not helped by the fact that it turns to stone almost a third of the way through, stunting progression. Perseverance uncovers a plethora of new vehicles and bits and pieces, and keeping a running Kudos total lets you show all your friends how good you are with one easy-to-remember detail, but it feels like there's something missing…
It would be nice to say Project Gotham is the best driving game I've seen, but it isn't. With Rallisport Challenge available at launch, it probably isn't even the best driving game on the Xbox, but it is a damned fine one irrespective. Devotees of Metropolis Street Racer will lap the game up interminably, and even a hardened GT and Ridge Racer nut like myself found it hard not to be impaled by this Dark Knight's sceptre of entertainment. Admittedly it's not one hundred percent of everything we hoped for; visually, aurally and in terms of gameplay. It's a bit too tough in places, but there is plenty of variation, authenticity and charm to the game, and anything that I can play for four hours straight without a break deserves a glowing accolade. UK release Date - available now