Project Gotham Racing 4 Interview
Kikizo talks exclusively to Bizarre Creations & Microsoft about what's new - and what's next - in this brand new, in-depth look at the next big racing game for Xbox 360.
By Adam Doree
We've been big fans of the Project Gotham Racing series ever since its debut release under the name of Metropolis Street Racer back on the Dreamcast. Back then, Liverpool, UK based developer Bizarre Creations had teamed up with Sega as a '1.5-party developer' to deliver something which at the time was quite unprecedented: full-scale, real-world cities that we can drive around, with 'Kudos' points earned for stylish driving, and a progressive game structure that made for a fantastic overall package.
After the Dreamcast was dropped, Bizarre turned its focus to the Xbox console and put out the first in the new revitalised series, Project Gotham Racing. The Xbox 1 title added a fantastic rendition of real-world New York City to the original game's London, Tokyo and San Francisco cities, and a heavy dose of extra gloss - including the envied sixty frames per second visual fluidity.
Things took an interesting turn with PGR2 (video interview, review), offering a whole host of new cities including Barcelona, Edinburgh, Moscow, Sydney and Chicago - and later adding Long Beach and Paris to the mix as downloadable content. It also added a whole lot more visual detail at the sacrifice of smoothness frame rate, which was reduced to 30 frames per second. A few years on, the Xbox 360 was ready for release and the impressive PGR3 (video interview, review) came alongside it as a launch game. It went back to some of the series' most celebrated cities, with Tokyo, Las Vegas, New York and London, and the ultra-hardcore Nürburgring circuit.
Now, Project Gotham Racing 4 is nearing completion for a scheduled release next month. Although the game looks fantastic so far, there are some things in the series we want to see return, some improvements we want to see made, and some suitably next-gen touches that perhaps should have been in PGR3. So, when we spoke with Microsoft and Bizarre Creations recently, we wanted to ask the hard questions.
As fans know, joining PGR3's city list of Tokyo, London, New York, Las Vegas and Nürburgring are five all-new tracks for PGR4. "We've got ten locations in the game, so that's twice as many as in PGR3," says Adam Kovach, Global Product Manager for PGR4 at Microsoft. "The new cities are Macau and Shanghai [both in China], St Petersburg, Quebec City, and the Michelin Test Track, which is like a fantasy test track."
But what about the cities that are returning? After all, barely a month goes by without some shop front or iconic new building springing up in the likes of London or New York. "Every single city and track in the game has been changed," reveals Kovach. "We've added a lot of elements on the side of tracks, so you'll see helicopters in the background, different race paraphernalia - so even the old cities have been touched up and made better. Another thing we looked at was the actual track design in terms of bikes and cars, but the other thing was, where were people's frustration points with the game, and how do we fix it? So we had a team looking at where people were crashing into corners or getting confused; the signage in the game is now more dynamic so that people can see where corners are."
Alan Mealor, an artist from Bizarre Creations working on the game, told us: "Our goal is to try to recreate photorealistic versions of the cities; including billboards, signs and shops. We try to get the rights to recreate everything in the city into the game, but sometimes we have to make changes due to age-appropriate content or licensing."
But one of the things we missed in PGR3 were parts of New York and London that were fun to drive around in PGR1 - like Times Square and London's Leicester Square. Microsoft already has a glorious high-def Times Square in Forza Motorsport 2 - can't they just let Bizarre whack it into PGR4? "It's a different engine!", answers Kovach. "It would be like trying to merge Gran Turismo's engine with Forza. It's the same polygons but a completely different engine." Come on, we said - it's got to be possible. You know, just export the geometry out, and import it into PGR? He answered with a chuckle: "When you're talking two different code languages, it just doesn't work like that." So basically, the actual locations in PGR3's cities are going to remain the same in PGR4.
Mealor explains the thinking behind this: "The idea was always to have new locations that compliment the existing cities. I'm sure in some cases it would be possible, if not entirely feasible, to build on the existing cities, but already having them lets you go on and include new cities that compliment the original four better than simply extending them. If you always preferred PGR2's cities to PGR3's, then I think you'll enjoy Shanghai, Macau, Quebec and St. Petersburg."
The emphasis is now on the climate of each city, too: "All of these cities will have their own unique and dynamic weather systems, so you can go in a city where the weather is hazy and it could start to rain, it could turn into sunlight - we wanted to add that extra dimension", said Kovach. The weather isn't just a superficial addition, though: "We've got this awesome volumetric fog in the game - it actually dissipates as you go up the hill versus down the hill. It's not the standard grey 'background'; you really feel like it's a dense, real fog. We're not making a fantasy where you'd go from a bright sunny game to heavy fog; it's realistic and could actually happen in a typical five-minute race." And more importantly, it adds challenge: "Despite that you may have mastered a track, the unpredictable weather makes it more challenging as you progress. Puddles will slow you down, ice patches will form where those puddles were, so in cities like St Petersburg, you can get rain and snow where those puddles form ice patches, areas that you want to avoid!"