Until last week PGR2 was sat, barely challenged, at the top of my all-time favourite racers. The Xbox classic simply nailed the mix of arcade and simulation driving, and to this day still features one of the most impressive online offerings in a racer. But that was all before I played PGR4. Creators and racing supremos Bizarre Creations did a sterling job on Xbox 360 launch title PGR3, but in retrospect the hurried development window, and pre-release development tools and hardware meant the game wasn't the true next-gen racer Bizarre had hoped it would be. Fret no more racing fans, as PGR4 sets a new bar that other racing studios are going to struggle to reach.
PGR4 isn't a huge departure from the previous titles in the series, but it does offer a core game mode that is quite different to what we've seen in the past. The PGR Career takes the form of an on-going calendar-based season, with race events and invitationals appearing on the calendar. The goal here is to work your way up the rankings, through the Amateur section, into the Professional, past the Hot Shot group and finally into the Master rankings. Whereas all previous PGR titles have used a medal system, in PGR4 this is reserved for the Arcade mode, with the career using kudos and ranking points.
Although the structure of the mode is very different, the events will be familiar to anyone who's dabbled with the series in the past. You'll be racing either directly against other drivers in street races and elimination events or trying to out do them in a number of challenges - be it hot laps, aggregate speed challenges or overtaking runs. Given the semi-realistic nature of the game mode it's a little odd to have the more traditional PGR event types thrown into the mix, but it adds variety to proceedings.
The game's Arcade mode is more or less your typical PGR set of challenges, with the option to tackle them on the expected range of difficulties, each coming with a medal to reflect the challenge. As ever, going for Platinum medals isn't easy and is something that only the most skilled drivers will be able to achieve. Gold and Silver provide a good mix between tricky and achievable, while the lower medals are really for complete novices or if you get completely stuck on a particular event - which does happen now and again.
'As ever, the driving model is sublime, mixing the arcade immediacy and style of Outrun with the realism of Forza.'
As ever, the driving model is sublime, mixing the arcade immediacy and style of Outrun with the realism of Forza. Given this mix the PGR series has never been a game everyone will enjoy, but if you like the sound of a sim that lets you powerslide around corners then PGR4 shouldn't disappoint. The reintroduction of slower cars - something missing from PGR3 - means new players can ease into things, without being thrown straight in at the deep end, making PGR4 far more accessible than its predecessor.
Many racing games are primarily about the cars, but PGR has always been equally about the cities you race in. PGR4 features sections from familiar locations including London, Tokyo, Las Vegas, New York and Nurburgring, plus newcomers Shanghai, Quebec, St. Petersburg and Macau (and a test track that's opened early on in the career mode). Many PGR fans found the track selection in PGR3 to be lacking in the tighter city streets found in the likes of Edinburgh and Florence from PGR2. Thankfully the newcomers to PGR4 have addressed this issue, giving the game a great balance between twisty-turny technical but low speed tracks and more open, high-speed runs.
It should come as no surprise to hear that the cities themselves look amazing, and have benefited from a new lighting model that gives the game a far more realistic look than we've seen in the past. Gone is the slightly dodgy HDR from PGR3, so no longer do you struggle to see while racing in broad daylight around London's streets - and you won't be cursing a cone that seemingly appears out of nowhere. Throw in every kind of weather effect imaginable (snow, rain, storm, fog, ice, you name it) and you have a game that looks consistently brilliant - it's hard not to be wowed when racing in the rain, especially from in-car cam. The weather effects aren't just for show either, with the various conditions having a real impact on your car's handling and your visibility.
Of course, the vehicles look great too - although they suffer from a bit of aliasing - and this year reflections on your shiny motors even include other vehicles. If I'm being picky I think it's fair to say that they don't look quite as good as those seen in Sony's Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, but the full version of that isn't out for some time, whereas PGR4 is out now. Damage is again purely cosmetic, but does its job, with hard crashes causing your windows to smash and bodywork to crumple - one of the achievements even asks you to take the wing mirrors off of rival racers.
Frame rate junkies can rest easy, although the most anal gamers might find fault in the game running at only 30 frames per second and not the much loved 60. Of course, the average gamer is unlikely to notice and the very impressive motion blur gives the game a silky smooth feel - bar for the odd sluggish moment during packed corners in the rain. Load times are a little longer than I'd have liked, but thankfully restarting a race or challenge only takes a few seconds, avoiding what would have been some painful waiting around.