Summing up Project Gotham's feel behind the wheel is best served with one term: forgiving. We've never driven a TVR Cerbera Speed Twelve, but we suspect it's a lot more difficult to nimbly drift the rear end of that 8000-brake horsepower monstrosity around tight corners of London's Trafalgar Tour than it is in the game. And that's a good thing. Project Gotham driving ethos has always straddled the line between realistic driving physics and friendly controls; to the game's credit, this approach is in full effect here. This isn't to say that the cars don't feel authentic in terms of acceleration and raw speed--the rollicking kinetic roller coaster of navigating the NÂ£rburgring in a Ferrari F50 GT is as thrilling an experience as you can have on the Xbox 360. At the same time, though, PGR 3's physics seemed designed to give you as much an opportunity to succeed as possible.
Gotham TV lets you watch your stored replays, or check out the hottest online races happening at any given moment on Xbox Live.
Just as in previous games, there's no real penalty for crashing into walls and obstacles, other than losing momentum. Damage is once again only cosmetic, and not even that is impressively modeled. A high-speed collision will usually only result in a cracked windshield or a busted side-view mirror, and running into an opponent ahead of you will usually do little more than bend their spoiler. Therefore, you don't feel that guilty for driving aggressively and aren't really surprised when the game's AI-controlled cars do the same. They aren't exactly blind to your presence on the road--they just don't care that much.
The game makes no concessions in authenticity, however, in the car models and race environments that populate the game; these are among the most impressive sights we've seen on the 360. Actually, let's qualify that statement. PGR 3's car models, when viewed from the exterior camera angles, are certainly impressive. Bright colors, sleek contours, and striking lighting effects all make for attractive models that will make your right foot twitch in anticipation. That said, the car models, whether from a lack of complex reflections or just relatively simple lighting techniques, also have a vaguely plastic appearance to them, which doesn't always mesh with the striking visuals that comprise the backgrounds. Those environments, modeled on real-life locales such as Tokyo, Las Vegas, and New York City, are impressive both in scope and quality. Hit the Big Apple and you'll rocket down both spans of the Brooklyn Bridge; attack the Shinjuku district of Tokyo at night and you'll run smack-dab into the fireworks display of neon signage lining the streets.
These are merely visual appetizers for the game's graphical main course, though. The in-car camera view is PGR 3's single most impressive aspect. Each of the game's 80 cars features a stunningly authentic interior that places you directly in the driver's seat. Driving in a McLaren F1 LM, for example, will place you in the car's unique center-seat setup, with rearview mirrors at both corners of the cockpit. The F1 style paddle gearshifts you'd find in a real Ferrari 355 GTS are also in the game. Look down at your feet in the McLaren F1 and you'll see your virtual driver's feet working the gas and brake as you drive along. It's great stuff.
The in-car camera view is PGR 3's best, and most impressive, feature.
It's no exaggeration to call the sense of speed and kinetic energy generated by this viewpoint a visceral thrill unlike practically anything we've ever played. Off the line, your car shudders under the forces of its massive acceleration; in high-speed turns, you'll watch as your car struggles under the forces acting upon it, while your "driver" viewpoint jostles independently because your virtual head is struck by those same energies. The windshields alone are a wonder--multifaceted reflection effects combine with the grime that gathers on the windows to really put you "in" the car. This stunning marriage of obsessive modeling, gorgeous lighting, and attention to detail conveys a sense of immersion that is still rare in gaming today, and it is PGR 3's visual hallmark.
Of course, these gorgeous graphics require an HD setup to get the most out of them, though we were pleasantly surprised to see that even on a normal television, the game still retained a good deal of its visual splendor. If you've got a newer TV set capable of playing in widescreen ratio, be sure to enable it, as this setup greatly enhances the game's visuals.
And as good as it looks, PGR 3's audio package is even better. The soundtrack alone is nearly worth the price of admission--it's an eclectic mixture that mixes bubbly J-Pop with sultry bhangra and elegant classical (along with the requisite electronica, hip-hop, and rock tracks). The soundtrack is a welcome addition to the vanilla playlists of most racing games, and it just might be the cure for what ails on you on the track. Pop Verdi's awesome and ominous "Requiem, Dies Irae" in your car's virtual CD changer, for example, and watch your lap times fall. The music isn't the only aural treat, however--the intricately modeled car engines have a sweet melody all their own. The hollow roar of the Ferraris, the whining protest of the Aston Martins, the sheer menace of the McLaren F1 LM--without exception, each entry in PGR 3's car lineup sounds as good as they look, especially when enjoyed through a Dolby 5.1 setup with a nice, beefy subwoofer.
You can't tell from this screen, but PGR 3 sounds even better than it looks.
Project Gotham Racing 3 gets so many other, smaller things right: The Gotham TV feature that lets you access your saved-race replays and pictures of your cars taken in the game's new photo mode, as well as watch the world's best racers run live on the Internet; the seven garages you can earn in the game (complete with two playable versions of Geometry Wars, the arcade shooter that appropriately has you fighting geometry); the custom-route feature that lets you build unique courses on any of PGR 3's racing locales; the NÂ£rburgring, this time featuring a behemoth version of the legendary German course, which combines the full 13-mile Nordschliefe with the modern-day F1 circuit; the insane level of stat tracking in the game, in which total kudos earned by pulling off moves such as braking power overs, power feints, and braking feints are all saved to your profile, as are the total number of times you've pulled off a particular stunt.
Project Gotham Racing 3 isn't the longest game in the world; indeed, the majority of its long-term value will be via Xbox Live play. Still, for pure style, speed, and immersion, grabbing a seat in any of PGR 3's intricately modeled high-speed rigs and tearing through the streets is what the next generation of gaming is all about. All that's missing is the smell of burnt rubber and the feel of the wind whipping through your hair.