As a genre that is inherently limited in scope, finding meaningful distinctions among racing games is getting harder and harder. There are so many racing games, and so many of them are well done, that it seems as though repetition is an insurmountable obstacle for ambitious developers. But somehow, Bizarre Creations have found their own voice with Project Gotham Racing 2. It takes the formula established by the first game and its origins on the Dreamcast as Metropolis Street Racer and melds them into a game that not only plays distinctively, but, most refreshingly, has a richly varied set of challenges that take the game beyond the rudimentary "race to win" approach of other racers. Start your engines, because this is one of the best racers on any console.
Like the previous game, Project Gotham Racing 2 uses a "Kudos" system to reward players for their chops on the track. The only noticeable change is that now, once a Kudos chain starts, it isn't broken if players hit another car. Progression in the game isn't so much dependent on winning races as it is amassing Kudos points to unlock new tracks, racings series and cars. The loose physics of the game, while well done, are definitely geared toward the reckless nature of the gameplay. All of the cars handle with a similarly responsiveness to a light touch. Nonetheless, each one of the innumerable cars in the game is adequately nuanced so as to feel distinct from one another.
Other than the Kudos system, Project Gotham Racing 2's mechanics have little to distinguish themselves from the myriad of other racers on the market—it's how the game is structured that makes it truly a joy to play. Players progress through a multi-tiered racing series that begins (predictably) with sluggish street cars and progresses through a variety of categories until players reach the supercars at the top of the tier. Each racing series contains multiple challenges, which are structured in such a way as to make the game sufficiently challenging while avoiding the pitfalls of frustration and repetition that plague similar games. The challenges range from standard competitive racing against computer controlled opponents to coned driving courses where the player attempts to accrue as many Kudos as possible to courses wherein the player must reach a certain speed at a given point on the track. Most appealingly, players have five levels of difficulty from which to choose, and are rarely required to win a race. The game's difficulty is flexible enough to be challenging for players who want to test their limits while remaining accessible enough for inexperienced players to enjoy the game. I would simply start at the novice difficulty in an event and progress as far as I could. If I lost, I could simply move on to other events in the series. The incentive to keeping chopping away at the higher difficulties lies in the game's immense library of unlockable cars that can be purchased with Kudos points. Harder difficulties have a higher Kudos bonus for completion, so taking a stab at them is a must to experience the full breadth of the game. It's a simple but elegant design that is unlike any other racer on the market.
But as well done as the single player mode is, the real draw for many players will be the online multiplayer. The game's uninspired artificial intelligence simply runs the cars along a predetermined path with little in the way of reactive or aggressive driving, but taking the game online changes everything. Players can choose between an exhibition or Kudos race, and can track their stats via a real time ranking scoreboard. It is also possible to download other players' "ghosts" to try to beat their best time. The racing can sometimes be a little overwhelming as there are clearly some people who have way too much free time on their hands to reach staggering lap times, but it's nonetheless a fine addition to the game that for many may even negate the need to complete the single player circuit save for unlocking new cars.
As a visceral experience, Project Gotham Racing 2 is top-notch. It's fast and intense, especially online, and the presentation is fantastic. The faux-real-world locales are rendered with meticulous detail and the tracks are challenging and nicely varied. There is a nice variety of soundtrack options to choose from and every car is modeled with exceptional detail and can be damaged in real time, although unfortunately the damage does not affect the performance of the vehicle.
Despite how well done the game is, there are still a few quips that hold the gameplay back a bit. The driving by and large handles beautifully. The physics may not be very realistic, but they feel responsive and consistent. However, losing control of the car is just a bit too easy. The developers want players to drive in an edgy, reckless manner and the cars are definitely tuned to that effect, but sometimes even the most gentle tap to the left or right at the wrong time can send a car careening out of control in such a manner that recovery becomes virtually impossible without coming nearly to a stop. Similarly, I would have liked to see the developers allow players to use Kudos points to add a little customization to the cars; as it is, players can unlock the cars but, should they dislike the way it handles, are stuck with what they have.
Project Gotham Racing 2 is decidedly geared toward visceral gameplay and exaggerated physics, although it possesses a sim-like refinement. It's packed full of so many modes and challenges that experiencing everything the game has to offer is an almost overwhelming endeavor. It may seem preposterous that I would suggest they include more options (such as customizable cars), but when a game offers so many things, I naturally ask, well, why doesn't it have that, too? Nevertheless, this is one of the most refined and most unique racers of the last few years. It's getting harder and harder for racing games to stand out, but Bizarre Creations succeeded in making Project Gotham Racing 2 a racing game unlike any other.