While PGR 3 fell short of the expectations set for it by some of its developers and fans, the fourth installment in the PGR series (not counting the Dreamcast’s Metropolis Street Racer or PGR Mobile) delivers the goods and finally feels like the game PGR 3 should’ve been. It combines the incredibly high amount of mode variety featured in PGR 2 with the next-gen sheen of PGR 3 and ends up being a worthy successor to PGR 2, one of my favorite racing games ever. New gameplay features have been included, and PGR 3’s photo-taking and online replay-viewing feature have been expanded; providing a robust photo and replay-sharing experience over Xbox Live. While PGR 3 seemed like a rush job at times, PGR 4 feels like something that has been meticulously crafted, with a finely-tuned feel throughout its many modes.
Existing ones, like the cone challenges that tested your dexterity on the road, have been included in both a classic form and a newly-expanded one. In this case, there‘s now an option that litters the entire track with cones, instead of just certain sections, adding a great deal of difficulty to it. Other modes, like the classic street race mode, or the time vs. kudos mode from PGR 3, have remained mostly untouched. Completely new modes include bulldog, a multi-player only game of cat and mouse that takes place in a completely open city area that isn‘t confined to a track, and the new superstar mode where the goal is to gain Kudos ‘stars’ by increasing your kudos score in 100 point intervals.
I found the revamped cone challenge mode to be a welcome change of pace, while the bulldog mode has resulted in some of the most fun I’ve had online with the series yet, as everyone just scatters before eventually being caught. It’s great fun, and a perfect showcase for how social the game can be. The superstar mode is an absolute blast - most of its challenge comes from chaining your kudos together, and not so much the actual achievement of the goal (which is really quite easy once you master kudos chaining). My biggest thrill with it was definitely getting a 1,200 kudos chain, which is by the far the highest amount of kudos I’ve ever racked up at once in this series.
The biggest mode changes mode in this installment has definitely been to the career mode. Before this, it was basically just a series of races and tests grouped together by a particular venue. Now, it’s played out kind of like an actual career - you’ve got a calendar of events to follow, and unlike past games, you can’t retry an event after failing. You just have to chalk up the loss and hope to negate its damage in your next event. I found this change to be fairly jarring at first, but I grew to love it. Not being able to rely on retrying the events forced me to become a better player, and I think Bizarre did a tremendous job with this mode.
Beyond an improvement in existing modes and the creation of new modes, PGR 4 also adds motorcycles to the mix for the first time ever in the series, and features a dynamic weather system. The addition of motorcycles adds some new things to the gameplay. While the bikes have sharper handling and allow you to squeeze through a tight pack fairly easily, they can also be tipped over during a race, leading to an added risk when racing bikes vs. cars. Fortunately, it does take quite a bit of force to actually tip a bike over, so it isn’t usually a big problem during races against CPU opponents.
The new weather system adds more layers to the gameplay than I expected it to. Given that this is an arcade-style racer, I was surprised to see just how much of an effect heavy rain had on your in-game driving. I’ve become fairly used to “heavy rain” in a game meaning that you just get a bunch of rainfall that ends up just amounting to a pretty effect to show off the dashboard camera.
That isn’t the case here - all of the rainfall actually means something, and as the race wears on, you’ll see more puddles form on the track. Some will be small, while others can span the entire width of the track. All can send you sliding despite your best efforts to avoid such a fate, as aquaplaning is featured in the game, and is just one addition that adds a lot to the strategy of a rain-soaked race. There’s definitely a thrill that comes from forcing a foe into a deep puddle and seeing them spin out of control (or better yet, doing this, and then taking a picture to cement this moment in history)
Vistually, this is a stunning game. While the graphical leap from 3 to 4 isn’t enormous, it is still a noticeable upgrade. Cars and buildings look much more detailed, and the cities as a whole seem busier, with subways running and people moving, helping to make the game world seem alive and not as static as in past games. Lighting effects are also all over the game, with the neon-lit Vegas and Shanghai areas providing a feast for the eyes when the lights are shown beaming off the cars. The effects are impressive to look at, and add a lot to the atmosphere of night-time driving.
Unfortunately, it isn’t all good news - the in-game HUD is a bit more cluttered than before, and takes up more key screen space at times. While this isn’t a huge problem most of the time, the right-side stats that compare your progress to that of your opponents can sometimes overlap opposing cars, preventing you from being able to accurately pass them. During cone challenges, it can actually cover entire sections of cones, causing you to smash into them without warning.
Musically, I found this to be the most enjoyable entry in the series. I’ve rarely had a desire to switch over to custom soundtracks, and the game’s basic lineup of jazz, techno, and rock has kept me entertained. Thanks to PGR 4, I was exposed to the music of Karl Denson, whose work I’m currently enjoying a great deal, and that wouldn’t have happened without this game. I have used some custom soundtracks at times though, just to see how well my HD’s music lineup meshes with the game, and I’ve found that Hendrix stuff like “Stone Free” and “Voodoo Child” works wonderfully, as does just about every song on Tom Waits’ “Heart of Saturday Night” album. Of course, as a Miami Vice fan, I always get a huge kick out of having “In the Air Tonight” blare when I’m in a black Daytona, especially in the dark, neon-lit venues like Shanghai or Vegas.
As good as the music selection is, I’m more impressed on a technical level by PGR 4’s sound effects. While they’ve always been good, I’ve never enjoyed them more than I have now. Thanks to the addition of rain-soaked streets and stormy weather, there are more effects than before, and I find that they add quite a bit to the races. When you’re in a tightly-packed street race with seven opponents, nothing beats hearing the clap of lightning during the bumper-to-bumper racing, and then emerging from the pack slightly beaten up, but victorious (for a moment at least) while rain pours down.
The sound effects’ intensity changing depending on the camera view also adds to this, as the action really comes alive when you’re using the dashboard camera and see the vehicles close to you, see sparks fly off them, and hear the metal rubbing together. The sound of this is all dulled a bit using the behind-the-car camera, but the sounds are intensified using the dashboard camera, and are even louder when you’re using the camera angle that basically puts you in front of the grill of the car, which would add to the immersion of that kind of scenario, but would also make it far more difficult to figure out exactly where you are on the track.
Of course, Geometry Wars is back, with Geometry Wars: Waves, basically just pitting you against long strings of enemies. PGR fans who loved 2’s bountiful online options (like myself) will probably find 4’s many online racing options enjoyable. Players are usually pretty fair, although I wouldn’t recommend racing bikes against cars online unless you can trust the people you’re playing, as they’re easy targets online. Lag is mostly a non-issue, although I did see it crop up a couple of times when racing bikes, which proceeded to skip all over the screen and make it impossible to tell where they actually were in relation to me. Fortunately, that was only one bad experience out of many great ones.
As a fan of Bizarre’s racing exploits since MSR, I’d say that this this their finest effort since PGR 2. I don’t think I can say if it’s better than that game just yet, as my love for that game grew over a long period of time, but I can safely say that is a better, more fully-realized game than PGR 3 was. Anyone who grew tired of the series due to that installment should give PGR 4 a shot, as it’s a return to form for the series. PGR 4 sends the Bizarre-developed PGR series out with a bang. Hopefully whoever develops the later games does the name justice. I look forward to Bizarre next stab at arcade-style racing action as well. They did a great job with MSR and the PGRs, and no matter what it’s called, their follow up to this series should be top-notch.