Being a fan of Metropolis Street Racer (MSR), it made sense to research and complete a playthrough of that game's much more successful offspring: Project Gotham Racing (PGR1). And I'm glad I did because I learned more about MSR itself and the transition period between the two games. I can also state the following with conviction: PGR1 IS NOT A REHASH OF MSR! Rather, it's a worthy successor that, unlike MSR, made good on Bizarre Creation's vision of a kudos-based racer.
Before you read this review, please take a look at my old Metropolis Street Racer review topic from way back when: https://www.dreamcast-talk.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=34&t=3880
First things first: the only thing MSR and PGR1 have in common is that they share some of the same London, San Francisco and Tokyo courses. That's it....that is where the similarity ends! PGR is a very different game from MSR in terms of kudos scoring and car handling. Not surprising as PGR1 was more or less reprogrammed from scratch.
Just weeks after MSR has been released in PAL territories, Bizarre Creations announced they were working on something new under the tentative title of "Project Swingers"! As that particular name brings to mind visions of "car keys in glass bowls", they decided to change it to something a little less controversial, "Project Gotham". Around the same time MSR was released in the USA (January 2001), rumours began circulating about a follow-up being in development, firstly on the PS2 and then Microsoft's forthcoming XBOX console. PGR1 was officially announced on 13 March 2001, at the XBOX "Gamestock 2001" event as an exclusive launch title for that console.
Also in March 2001, we received the sad news that Sega had officially discontinued the Dreamcast console and then later on, the Japanese release of MSR was cancelled. The latter, while sad, made business sense going by MSR's poor sales in Europe/US and the fact Bizarre Creations were devoting their efforts to PGR1.
PRESENTATION / MENUS
The presentation of PGR1 is done well (although who are those people on the front menu screen??). The intro video makes it clear you are expected to "be aggressive" when playing this game and the menu screen's "metallic jungle/drum& bass" music reinforces this. Menu options are better laid out and much more user-friendly compared to MSR's cumbersome screens. The only big criticism here is that you have to change the time attack options (weather/time of day) in the "game options" menu rather than within the time attack mode itself; no, I don't understand it either! We also seems to be lacking a "view records" option; you can only see your best results at the end of each event. I miss this feature from MSR and I see no reason it couldn't have been implemented here.
While the majority of the course assets have been brought over from MSR, there is a definite upgrade in graphical quality. Car models are much more detailed (due to higher polygon accounts), and show reflections as you race. There are sunlight, water, and wind effects (leaves blowing) on each course. The new stage, New York, even has water vapour rising from its manholes! The real time day/night cycle found in MSR has been banished from PGR1; while this sounded great in theory, if you only played MSR at a certain time each day, you would never see certain cities in the daylight or night time (that's why MSR players used to change their Dreamcast clock or use the in-built Cheat mode to bypass this). However the only downside is that some courses are either set at sunset/sunrise or night; it would have been nice if PGR had MSR's morning/afternoon/evening/nighttime skies too. Finally the frame rate has been doubled, now running at a smooth 60fps. All in all, an excellent showcase for the XBOX's capabilities, especially for a launch day title.
Incidentally this would be the only title in the MSR/PGR series to run at this frame rate; all the other games were 30fps.
However not everything is perfect. Night racing can still be too dark even though cars have more powerful headlights (compared to MSR). Some of the night lighting effects (from buildings/street lights) also seem a little plain and lack subtlety; MSR's night lighting is sometimes better when compared side by side!
The biggest sound upgrade in PGR1 is in the music and radio department. PGR1 has "real life" radio stations (Hot 97, Capital Radio, Live 105, InterFM) along with ficticious counterparts. There are some actual DJs presenting, such as Paul "Trouble" Anderson on London's XFM and Angie Martinez on New York's Hot 97, with well written scripts to match. We also have a licensed music soundtrack featuring hits and lesser known songs from the 2000-2001 time period. Well-known acts include Gorillaz ("19-2000"), Iggy Pop ("Beat Em Up"), Timbaland & Magoo ("Roll Out") and Chemical Brothers ("Galaxy Bounce"). It's also good to hear Japanese language tracks in Tokyo! As a result the overall presentation in this area is much more professional and realistic compared to MSR; you can really feel Microsoft's influence here.
If there are criticisms to be had here, then it would down to the music itself. While there is a nice variety of Punk/Rock, Hip-Hop, Pop and Big Beat Dance, the majority of them do not really suit the gameplay. Granted, you could also apply this to the majority of MSR's soundtrack but at least there we had some uptempo numbers (Club Paris, Passion & Heartlands) that made you want to race and do well. PGR1's soundtrack seems more suited to a skating game and while the new kudos system gives the game a "Tony Hawk's" vibe, the music doesn't always compliment the action. Perhaps the licensing bods at Microsoft were more interested in compiling a "cool and credible" soundtrack rather than suitable driving music. However if you don't like the soundtrack, you always have the ability to rip your own tracks to the XBOX hardrive and have the DJ's "present" them before they play, which is a very nice touch. Sadly the console seems to play ripped tracks at a VERY low volume, although this applies to most original XBOX games that allow custom soundtracks. Therefore I "amplify" my music before encoding it, and send it directly to the console's hard drive (yes, I have a modded original XBOX).
I am not an expert on car sounds (engine sounds, break, skid effects) but they do their job accordingly. They do sound more different compared to MSR though; somewhat more high pitched and "hoovery". One thing I must point out are the excellent sound effects that play when you gain kudos. There is a nice "clicky" sound when you accumulate kudos and a "swoosh" sound when they are added to your total score.
Car handling has also been drastically overhauled and while certainly not realistic, it's a lot more complex and nuanced than the physics found in MSR. The biggest change is that cars now leave the ground on sloped sections. In MSR, certain car manufacturers had insisted their vehicles remained "grounded" but in PGR1 they relented on this, probably thanks to Microsoft's muscle. The cars also now have significant weight transfer, resulting in a lot of skidding/drifting during a turn, and this works extremely well with PGR1's overhauled kudos system. However as cars now go airbourne and drift more easily, it means courses like San Francisco are a lot tougher than they used to be in MSR. Where in MSR, it was easy to take a sharp corner onto the downhill section, PGR1 is a lot tougher. It should be also noted that driving on the gravel surfaces in London St James Park (and the new Central Park location) now have a significant impact on your car's grip. Expect quite a few spin-outs and crashes on these sections before you get the hang of it!
Another very important change is the way you take corners in PGR1 when compared to MSR. In MSR, you could get away with holding the break while accelerating into the turning and using the kerb to bounce off from the sides when you understeer. If you try that in PGR1, you will lock the car wheels and spin out (similar to most other racing games). Now you need to brake/handbrake before the turn while applying the right amount of acceleration to get through the corner itself (although you can get away with braking while turning in some scenarios). Also, as the kerbs have either been flattened or replaced with crash barriers, you can no longer get away with understeer or too much speed during a turn. Add in the aforementioned weight transfer/airbourne physics and PGR1 becomes a much harder and less forgiving drive than MSR. As a result, a good PGR1 player will always be better than a good MSR player.
For me, car handling is the most important difference between MSR and PGR1. Overall though, the change in driving physics makes sense as it really compliments PGR1's rebooted kudos system. However, I personally miss MSR's unique handling. While PGR1 certainly has arcadey style driving, the way you take turns in this game could be replicated in most other racing titles. Incidentally, the handling in the "DreamOn Demo" version of MSR had more in common with PGR1 than it did with the released version of MSR itself!
Finally, the cars in PGR1 can take damage showing broken tail-lights and bent bodywork if you crash or collide with other vehicles. Although car damage is purely aesthetic and does not affect the driving physics, it was quite an achievement persuading car manufacturers to allow it in PGR1; most other racers at the time (including MSR) had to keep vehicles in pristine condition at all times.
A lot of reviewers at the time compared PGR1's kudos system to the scoring/combo system found in Tony Hawk titles and I can see why. Basically, PGR1 improves on MSR's kudos system in every conceivable way! The original system in MSR was flawed due to its reliance on hard powerslides to gain the best scores, plus the lack of time limits. As a result, any player (regardless of skill) could rack up massive kudos scores by simply driving up and down, performing endless 180 powerslides. You were also not aware of your kudos score until after an event had finished. In PGR1, everything has been improved. Now you can now see how many kudos you are awarded in realtime and what feats you are awarded kudos for (powersliding, overtaking, riding on two wheels etc). You can also perform kudos "combos" by pulling off feats in quick succession. Expert players can even keep combos going from the very start of an event to the very finish, racking up some crazy scores! Put simply. comparing the kudos system between MSR and PGR1 is likely comparing Street Fighter 1 to Street Fighter 2; it's that big an upgrade!
The main mode is, of course, the Kudos Challenge, with over 100 events to complete (divided in 13 chapters). While the same event types make their way over from MSR (Street Racer, Hot Laps, Overtake Challenge), there is a new event in the form of Style Challenges. Basically these are "slalom" events that involve driving through certain cone gates while avoiding the normal red cones on the track. Cone events in racing games may not be new (I remember the Gymkhana section on Racing Jam, an old Konami coin-op from the late 90s) however they are probably the highlight of PGR1 and really compliment the new kudos system (see below). They are also the cause for much frustration particularly in the later levels, but we will come to that later! Similar to MSR, you can also adjust the difficulty before each race which affects the number of bonus kudos you are awarded. For example, if you select your finishing position in a Street Racer as 3rd place (the lowest position allowed) you will get a minimal bonus while conversely selecting 1st place awards the maximum bonus. There is also return of the Joker card that doubles your points if you win, however this can only used once in each chapter. We also have "quick race" mode that's basically a succession of street races (finish in the highest position while driving stylishly) and "arcade" mode which involve a series of Style Challenge cone events. There is also Medal Pursuit, a gloried time attack mode that awards new car colours for beating set lap times.
Each event in PGR has a kudos/lap time target for either a Bronze, Silver or Gold medal. While you must complete each event with at least a Bronze medal to succeed, more rewards can be gained if you go for a Silver or Gold medal. As you progress, you unlock new cars and courses either by gaining the appropriate medals or by clocking up a target play time. Unlike MSR though, you need to complete ALL the events in a chapter in order to progress to the next stage. Although I understand the reasoning behind this, it does make completing PGR1 very time consuming! Just like MSR, it's unlikely the majority of XBOX owners who bought PGR1 played it to the very end. PGR1 also seriously ramps up the difficulty in the later levels; getting a Gold (or even sometimes a Silver) medal on these sections is VERY TOUGH! Even MSR veterans such as myself struggled in this area; I even had to use a Joker during one event as I just couldn't work out how to get the necessary points. Thankfully PGR1 has a quick restart option and believe me, you will need it!! Also, a much welcome addition in PGR1 is the ability to watch and save replays of your completed events. You can view your best runs from a variety of different angles, along with the ability to fast-forward (but not rewind). It's a little basic but it serves its purpose well. Unfortunately this feature is not available in Time Attack mode.
Now let's talk about the cars themselves and it's clear that Microsoft/Bizarre Creations wanted to shift the emphasis away from conventional cars and into the shifting the of luxury sportcars. Gone are the everyday European models from Fiat, Peugeot and Renault that were found in MSR. In PGR1, we now have exotic vehicles from the likes of Ferrari, Porsche, Dodge Viper, Aston Martin and Lotus. PGR1's box art is even emblazoned with the game's top vehicle; the Ferrari F50! MSR's once mighty Nissan Skyline and that game's headline car, the Opel Speedster/VX220, make a return but are now relegated to a lower tier when compared to the supercars. Other cars from MSR are also present (sometimes updated with a later model) however they also play second fiddle to the big boys. In fact the only "normal" cars present in PGR1 are the Mini Cooper and Volkswagen Beetle. Overall though, more people want to drive Ferraris than they want to drive Opel Astra's so I understand Microsoft/Bizarre Creations' thinking on this. You also get to keep all cars you unlock unlike MSR's restrictive garage. My only big criticisms here are the lack of fast 4WD cars (more on this later) and that the Ferrari F50 resounding trounces all the other cars in PGR1, however at least that car's not available until the latter part of the game.
I should also point out that the CPU cars are very docile at the start but get become very aggressive in later stages. While you no longer docked any kudos points for colliding with them, they can force you into the wall with ease; something to think about when going for Gold on the final chapters!
Onto the courses now and it's safe to say that all of the London, Tokyo and San Francisco courses in PGR1 originated from MSR. Not all 262 tracks from MSR are present though; only around 150 made the journey across. It's amusing to see the same courses in MSR have different names in PGR1; for example, Tokyo's "Nishi Sumida-Gawa" course from MSR (made famous in the DreamOn demo version) is now called "Beer-Biru Mea" in PGR1. The biggest change however is the addition of a new city, New York. The Time Square courses are very narrow and filled with numerous sharp turns, Central Park has a long gravel surface section that makes using high speed RWD cars very challenging and Wall Street is a faster course with a mixture of chicanes, tunnels and tight corners. While some more straight sections would have been welcome, New York is a worthy city to stand alongside the MSR originals. It wouldn't surprise me if Microsoft had a hand in choosing another American city for PGR1! Another big change is that all the railings from MSR have been replaced with crash barriers, and some of the road furniture (such as traffic islands in London) has been removed entirely. MSR's turn signs are replaced in PGR1 by well-lit giant LED versions so there is less chance of "missing" a upcoming turn. While all this does make courses more suitable for racing, it does feel like you're driving on a race track rather than the city streets.
Finally I should point out that PGR1 has NO online functionality. Being a launch title, it was a little too early to be part of the XBOX LIVE collection (although this would be rectified later on with the subsequent sequels) Besides, very few people used MSR's online functions so PGR1 being completely "offline" is no big surprise.
Unfortunately PGR1's Time Attack mode is very underwhelming compared to MSR's Time Attack/Time Trials options. For example, PGR1 saves the best ghosts cars for all weather conditions and time of day on each track (so 8 different ghost cars are possible). However they is only ONE record board for each course and nothing to differentiate what ghost/record raced under what condition. There is also only one car in PGR1 you can use for the best times: the Ferrari F50. This car is just too dominant and once you unlock it in PGR1, there's point using any other vehicle. While MSR's Nissan Skyline was the best overall car, there were ocassions where the Toyota Supra, Toyota Celcia GT-4 or Lancer Evo VI ended up being the fastest choice. There is also distinct lack of fast 4WD cars in PGR1: the game really needed something like a Lamborghini Diablo VT or Murcielag to go alongside the wild RWD handling of the F50 (although licensing issues at the time would have made this impossible). At it stands, the best 4WD cars are the Nissan Skyline or the prototype Delphino Feroce. If the developers had included best time boards for each car, this would have gone some way to alleviate the problem.
One positive addition in PGR's Time Attack mode occurs on the Free Roam courses. You now have the option to drive around, knocking down a set number of cones in the quickest time possible. This gives an extra purpose to these courses rather than just driving around and taking in the sights.
Fundamentally though, PGR's handling and car selection are here to compliment the game's kudos system and high speed/time attack racing is really an afterthought! While time attacking in PGR1 can still be fun, it doesn't have the "close to the code" feel that makes time attacking in MSR so special in this area.
So what are my final thoughts? Well, Project Gotham 1 basically succeeded where it should have succeeded: providing a great kudos driving experience, atoning for MSR's poor sales and becoming a smash hit launch title on the XBOX's selling well over 1m copies. However for me, MSR succeeded in an area that ironically both it and PGR1 were trying to get away from: time attack racing. MSR's handling and time attack options give the game an infinite replay value; PGR1, while a great game, just doesn't have this hook.
It's very difficult to discuss PGR1 without comparing the game to MSR, even though in reality they are two very different titles. It's a shame that in PGR1's credits there is no mention of MSR, Dreamcast or even Sega (although MSR's producer Kats Sato does get a mention) but as MSR was a commercial failure on Dreamcast and Sega refused to port the game, perhaps I can understand why. People have stated rather crudely that "PGR1 was the game MSR should have been in the first place", but this is wrong: MSR was a necessary step on the road to the Project Gotham games. In an IGN Xbox interview, Bizarre Creations Martyn & Sarah Chudley confirmed why PGR1 could not have existed with MSR:
IGN Xbox: What was the number one thing you wanted to accomplish with Project Gotham that you feel didn't come through in MSR?
Martin and Sarah Chudley: I think it's probably the whole idea of the Kudos system. In our previous game (MSR), we had the idea for Kudos, but to get something like that 100% right, it needs a lot of tuning and usability testing, which just wasn't available to us then. We hoped we'd come up with something that was going to be playable, but until it got on the shelves, we'd got no idea to what extent and that's when the flaws were found. Luckily, Microsoft have an excellent and extensive playtest and usability group, which we're making the most of in order to get the Kudos system and game balance just right in Gotham [PGR1].
Project Gotham is the name that will be remembered by most gamers. It was after all a huge success for Microsoft and Bizarre Creations (although never reaching the dizzy heights of the Gran Turismo series), spawned 3 more sequels and its legacy can be found in Microsoft's own Forza brand and various other modern racers. What was Microsoft's and Bizarre Creations' gain however was Sega Europe's loss as they were left with nothing more than a loss-making project and the rights to the Metropolis Street Racer name.
To the masses, MSR is probably considered nothing more than a glorified PGR tech demo. And in some ways it is. However MSR will always be special to both Dreamcast & Bizarre Creations fans (the latter closing down for good in 2011). They take pride in the game's legacy and revel in the knowledge that the MSR/PGR story started here, on Sega's magical white box!
FINAL SCORE FOR PROJECT GOTHAM RACING: 8 OUT OF 10.