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. 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.
Over and above anything else that's new in PGR4, the biggest addition is motorbikes. I'll admit that I was sceptical, as I'm sure most PGR fans were, but Bizarre has managed to create a handling dynamic that once again treads the fine line between sim and arcade racer, giving bike fans a real alternative to cars. It's worth pointing out that for the majority of the game you can stick with cars if you wish, but you'd be missing out if you weren't to give them a try.
Bike novices will initially be put off, as a bike is nowhere near as forgiving as a car, even when racing using PGR's fabled semi-realistic physics engine. Cornering is tougher, with position on the track and timing into a corner being essential, but acceleration and top speed for the top bikes is excellent, making them a real contender in the right hands - although even those hands will probably struggle when playing online with collisions turned on. Bizarre has handled the rider excellently, with small bumps and scrapes not being enough to send you flying, but a full-on crash will see your virtual avatar eating some tarmac. Kudos is also handled a little differently, with tricks such as wheelies and endos being joined by poses and taunts triggered by pressing the B button.
The most important aspect to PGR4 though is how much fun it is to play. Critics of the series have labelled it as dull and lifeless, but PGR4 has more spark than most other racers put together. The key to this is how you don't have to be a brilliant driver to feel like one, with the cars handling like you'd imagine, rather than how they really ought to. With just a little practice you can be screaming through a series of tight corners and looking the part, then upload it all for gamers around the world to see.
Online functionality in racing games hit a new high when PGR2 launched on the Xbox, and PGR4 continues the series' fine tradition. While I'm sure certain players will find reasons to moan about Bizarre's online offerings, it seems they've delivered just about everything a PGR fan would want. There's far too much to discuss in detail but a few things are worth highlighting.
The Time Trial mode allows you to pick and choose from numerous leaderboard and friend ghosts to race against (so you could race against the 1st and 10th position ghosts if you wanted a top ten time), with race conditions entirely customisable for every single circuit in the game. The lobby system from Halo allows friends to stay together as you move from game to game, and every option imaginable can be tweaked to tailor your online games to your liking.
PGR die-hards will already know about the multiplayer game Cat and Mouse, but for those that don't, this single multiplayer game mode is worth the asking price alone. A team game for up to eight players, one player takes control of a slow car (we tend to opt for a mini) and the other team members pick fast sports cars. The goal is to get your team's mini over the finish line first, blocking the other team's car and preventing their fast cars from hampering the journey of your mini. With voice chat it's a laugh a second, with the leader changing all the time and games generally going right down to the finishing straight.
PGR on Demand is Bizarre's latest attempt to get players sharing videos and pictures with the community. PGR3's Gotham TV didn't quite turn out as planned, but PGR on Demand already looks to be of far more interest to PGR players. To start with, you're able to upload any saved replays or pictures, and then other players can view them and vote with a simple yes or no over whether they like them. The highest rated can be viewed at any time, while all others can be found via searches or simply by looking for your friends' upped files.
Wandering around your garage in PGR3 provided a surprising amount of enjoyment and thankfully the garage system is back, along with the superb lighting that makes each location perfect for a few snaps. Your garage walls can be decorated with your pictures, or the pictures you've downloaded from Gotham on Demand, but the biggest attraction here is undoubtedly Geometry Wars: Waves. This new take on PGR3's Retro Evolved sees enemies coming at you in waves across the screen, with their speed and frequency increasing as you progress. It's intense stuff, and for many will see as much play time as the core game modes in PGR4.
The amount of content in PGR4 is deserving of thousands and thousands of words, but hopefully you get the picture: PGR4 is a brilliant racing game. It's got some issues still, with the lengthy load times and a fair amount of re-used content from PGR3 likely to turn away a few gamers, but it remains the Xbox 360's premier racing title. Whether you want to play alone or with friends over Xbox LIVE, PGR4 won't disappoint. Whoever steps into Bizarre's shoes for PGR5 has an almost impossible task as PGR4 could well be the best racer you'll play this gen.