I like driving games. Love 'em! Can't get enough of them. But as I've played more and more over the years, I've grown to develop a keen sense of what it is, exactly, I like about them. I like fun. I dig the sensation that I'm driving really really fast in a really really expensive car, and having to drive like a maniac to beat a bunch of other maniacs driving fast, expensive cars.
Lucky for me, you, Bizarre and Microsoft, then, that's exactly what PGR4 delivers. It's fun. Buckets full of bucketloads of fun. The core driving mechanics seem to be the same as PGR3, but just about everything else has been tweaked, improved or added to improve on the predecessor. Tracks are better, opponents more interesting, progression has been overhauled, the graphics are slicker, bikes add a whole new dimension to the game... see? Everything's been changed, and it's been changed for the better.My biggest gripe with PGR3 was that it felt soulless. There was no sense of progression through the ranks, no sense of having earned the right to be driving an Enzo, no sense that what you were accomplishing on the track meant anything other than a few extra dollars in your bank account.
This time around not only is old-fashioned progression back in style (you have to unlock your way up from stuff like a rubbish Cosworth), but winning means something. You're no longer just racing for money, you're also racing for points, with players now assuming the role of a driver taking part in a global race championship. Winning (or just placing) earns you points. The more points you earn, the higher on the ladder you go, unlocking new events and race types along the way.
Another improvement in the way races are progressed is that you're no longer just sequentially unlocking them on a menu. Instead you now have a calendar, and every week or so events will turn up, some involving only a couple of races/challenges, sometimes upwards of four. So if you win an event, great, collect the points. You don't? Doesn't matter, move on to the next week, forget about it, you can try again next year. This means you'll no longer be "stuck" on some particular race you can't get a handle on.
What else is new/improved? The graphics are gorgeous. I couldn't give a toss about day/night cycles, the weather and lighting effects in this game are fantastic. And while the rain and snow look good, it's the level of detail that strikes you. For example, rain forms puddles. Drive through a puddle, and you aquaplane, with the controller rumbling while you lose control of the car. Can't say I've ever aquaplaned in a racing game before. It's a nice touch.
The other big improvement over PGR3 is in the tracks. For starters, they're far more detailed, with the spectators, flags and extra buildings giving each city the sense that it's actually a city, and not some race-track with a few polygonal buildings straddling either side. They're also a lot more exciting, with big jumps and better corners for drifting.
Only other thing I guess I'd better mention is the bikes. They're a neat introduction, but to be honest, I didn't use them that often. Because I don't really like bikes. Also felt they controlled a bit...funny. But it is great racing against them in a car, because while they can weave through traffic easier you can mow them down and smack the rider off their bike, knocking them out of the running.
It's just a shame it had to come out now, because anywhere between Feb-Jun this would have rocked the 360's world. Now, though, in the wake of Halo 3 and with Mass Effect coming up? Might get overlooked. Which would be a damn shame! Because, and this is no shit, this is the best driving game I've played in a long, long time.
PS - Geometry Wars: Waves is brilliant.