Monday, 28 July 2008

Midnight Club: Los Angeles - Preview
Rockstar San Diego returns with its long-awaited open-world racer, and we were invited to have a first play of the game.

It's a summer afternoon, and as we arrive at Rockstar's London offices, we can sense the post - Grand Theaft Auto IV relief in the air. Having already released what is likely to be 2008's biggest selling game, Rockstar is in understandably high spirits. But video gaming doesn't stand still, and all eyes are now on the publisher's next game. Midnight Club: Los Angeles is the company's second most successful franchise, and the development team in San Diego is currently putting on the final touches to the series' Los Angeles debut. With the game set for release later in the year, Rockstar invited us down to sample the City of Angels for an extensive two-hour hands-on session.

Midnight Club: Los Angeles
As you'd hope from a true next-gen racing game, Midnight Club: Los Angeles is set in a completely open-world environment. You can drive around the city as much as you want, and when you feel like racing, all you have to do is flash your lights at passing racers. LA itself has been re-created with some artistic license by the game's designers because the real-life grid structure of the city would have been detrimental to the actual racing. This means that some of your favourite landmarks might be missing, but we thankfully saw the 20th Century Fox building, which Die Hard fans will recognise as the Nakatomi plaza and was the scene of the denouement in Fight Club.

Midnight Club: Los Angeles screenshot 2
Running on Rockstar San Diego's own RAGE engine--the same one that powered GTAIV--Midnight Club looks superb. The environments are immaculately detailed, even down to the obnoxious level of advertising in the city. Such brands as American Apparel and Rustlers have made it onto billboards, while all the car parts are from real-world manufacturers. Product placement aside though, the game itself moves at a blistering pace. While Rockstar says the game is more likely to run at 30 rather than 60 frames per second, we encountered absolutely no slowdown as we cruised through the city. In fact, the game is looking very polished at this stage, and it looks like most of the major features are already in place.

Midnight Club: Los Angeles screenshot 3
When you get behind the wheel, you'll soon see that the new Midnight Club is very true to previous games in the series. Although handling changes subtly between vehicles, the cars feel light and responsive, meaning you can twitch your way through competitors, traffic, or roadside obstacles. We got to drive the Mercedes S600, as well as 1967 Mustang Boss cars, and we even got to take the latter to a garage for a series of upgrades. To say Midnight Club's customisation options are extensive is a massive understatement--we were able to customise every conceivable part of the vehicle, as well as design its appearance with paint jobs, logos, and lighting. You could conceivably spend hours in this mode alone, changing everything from the engine components to the stitching on the interiors.

Midnight Club: Los Angeles screenshot 4

We got to see three different racing styles during our time with the game. The most prominent was the standard race, where you compete against four other racers through a series of checkpoints. We also played through a couple of red light races--one-on-one point-to-point races where the idea is to find the quickest route to the finish line. The final racing style we saw was the dynamic freeway race, where you compete against one other racer at speed on the motorways surrounding LA. The traffic on the freeway means that you have to weave much more than in the city centre, but some stretches do allow you to open up the throttle and get up a decent amount of speed.

For the first time in the series, Rockstar is set to incorporate a storyline Midnight Club: Los Angeles. We didn't get to see any of it during our play, but short cutscenes will show you as a young driver who gets involved with street racing in order to win money and respect. The reward system is based on these two features, so you'll earn more money and respect for coming in first in races and driving better vehicles. There are also races where you can lay wagers, play missions to deliver packages, and take part in pink slip races where you can bet your car against someone else's car. Finally, tying in with the story are revenge missions, which will trigger cutscenes before and after each race as you take on special characters from around the city.

There are two other features to the Midnight Club package--the online mode and the bikes. We unfortunately didn't get to play either of them during our play time, but Rockstar did divulge some more information about how they'll work. There will of course be a multiplayer element to the game, and it's clear that you'll be able to go into an online version of the city to challenge other people to races, much as you can with Burnout Paradise. There's no word on player numbers or race types as of yet, but Rockstar has promised to fill us in with the details closer to the release of the game. Motorbikes will also be making a return, and while we didn't get to try them out ourselves, we did get to race against a couple of them for our final race in the city.

There's no doubt that this Midnight Club is going to be compared to Burnout Paradise--the open-world setting and racing structure are incredibly reminiscent of what you can find in Paradise City. But while Criterion's arcade racer had little time for realism, car lovers will certainly have more to sink their teeth into with Rockstar's effort. We're sure to see more of Midnight Club: Los Angeles in the run up to release, and we can't wait to see how the two games stack up once October arrives.

project gotham racing 4
motorstorm - pacific rift - preview

Monday, 21 July 2008

Project Gotham Racing 4
Project Gotham Racing 4 plays to the series' strengths and adds new twists along the way.

Project Gotham Racing 4
With 2005's Project Gotham Racing 3, Bizarre Creations ushered in a new era of racing on the Xbox 360 with a game that continued the long-standing quality of its Project Gotham series with amazing graphics and extensive online options. Here we are, two years later, and Bizarre has turned in the fourth game in the PGR series, one that opens up the vehicles list a bit and adds to the online fun, yet still follows the tried-and-true PGR formula. In short, Project Gotham Racing 4 continues the series' tradition of brilliant visuals and fun gameplay, and adds to the list with new rides and weather effects that must be driven to be believed.

Weather abounds in Project Gotham Racing 4. In fact, along with motorcycles (more on them in a bit), weather is one of the biggest additions to PGR 4's gameplay. Dense fog, ice and snow, and, of course, lots and lots of rain are examples of the variety of weather conditions you find yourself driving through, and each affects your vehicle in a different way. The most successful weather implementation in the game is the rain effects.

Project Gotham Racing 4 screenshot 2
Visually, it's stunning; rain droplets bounce off the hood of your car, or your windshield when driving in first person view, and they'll collect into pools of standing water that become a hydroplaning nightmare for your car or motorbike. In fact, pools of water strategically placed in the optimum braking zones are part and parcel of the tracks the Bizarre crew has carved from real-life locales such as Tokyo, Shanghai, and New York City. Find a way to brake early, or deal with the consequences of slamming your car into a wall after surfing across the water. The water effects in PGR 4 are entirely convincing, while the snow and ice effects are slightly less so--only in a video game would you attempt a lap of the ice-laden Nürburgring in an Enzo Ferrari and make it across the finish line in one piece--and typically pose a serious challenge for your throttle control skills.

Project Gotham Racing 4 screenshot 4
While the game's weather effects are often simlike, PGR 4's car handling still treads the fine line between arcade approachability and simulation depth. You can hop into a car right away in the game and begin turning laps without fear of spinning out or locking your brakes in a tight turn. It also helps that the car list is more varied than the "all exotics, all the time" roster of PGR 3. This time around, the list has opened up a bit more to include everything from the pokey Mini Cooper S to F1 replicas, and even a pickup truck. Certainly at the highest classification, PGR 4's car list is as exotic as it comes; it's nice, however, that the roster includes a more representative sample of low-end models this time around. As in the past, the game doesn't feature vehicular damage beyond the merely cosmetic.

Project Gotham Racing 4 screenshot 5
Then there are the motorcycles, which make their series debut here. As with the car list, the two-wheeled choices include everything from the relatively modest Buell RR 1200 to the frighteningly powerful MV Augusta F4 Senna. When it comes to handling, the motorcycles in PGR 4 have their ups and downs. Bikes are extremely easy to drive--there's no split between front and rear brakes to worry about--and it's tougher than you might think to get yourself thrown from the saddle. Toss in the fact that bikes are extremely quick off the starting line (due to their power/weight ratio) and that kudos--the in-game currency you earn as a result of stylish driving in the PGR series--are typically easier to rack up on a bike than in a car (thanks to endos, wheelies, and a responsive drift model), and motorcycles seem almost overpowered.

Project Gotham Racing 4 screenshot 6
True, the fastest cars in the game will typically be quicker than the bikes but, in our experience, if you can grab an early lead in PGR 4 on two wheels and can maintain some consistency in your laps, you'll be awfully tough to beat. Bikes have their control quirks; for instance, when coming out of a turn, you'll want to let go of the analog stick in order to bring yourself back up smoothly, as manually bringing your rider upright can result in serious overcorrection errors. But for the most part bikes aren't much of a challenge and, as a result, aren't really as fun as we were hoping.

Regardless of your vehicular predilection, you will have plenty of road to drive on in this game. In addition to earning medals for beating challenges in the arcade mode or turning laps in the time attack mode, you'll have plenty to do in Gotham career, the anchor of the single-player mode. The goal here is to become the number one driver in the world by progressing through championships and invitational events strewn throughout the PGR world. The events are based around a calendar, so you'll have access to only a handful of races at any given time.

These races comprise of a variety of the challenges--including hot lap, cone challenges, eliminator, gate challenges, kudos vs. time, and standard street races. Kudos determine your overall position within a particular challenge; in addition to earning a bonus for finishing well within a race, any additional kudos you earn are added to your overall score. At the end of a championship series, you're awarded championship points based on your result and move up the ladder accordingly. In addition, you can buy items such as new tracks and cars, and even a custom Xbox Live gamer picture, with the kudos you've earned in races.

On the default difficulty level, we were able to win the Gotham career mode in just over three calendar years (or between 10 and 15 hours in real time); at the hardcore level--where the competition is significantly tougher--it will likely take a good deal longer. In addition to standard championship events, you can also try out the occasional invitational, optional race challenges based around a single vehicle; win the challenge, and you'll add that vehicle to your ever-growing garages. Interestingly, the cars available to you for certain events can vary in total performance--and there's really no reason other than personal preference for you not to choose the most powerful vehicle available to for an event.

While zipping your way through career mode won't take that long, the game's online play is just as compelling as in the past. You can race in single and team events through a variety of race types such as elimination, street race, cat and mouse, and the new bulldog mode. In our experience, online performance was slick and mostly lag-free, with the game's frame rate dipping only in the sharpest of corners with multiple vehicles piling up. While you're online you can even check out the new PGR On Demand service, which lets you upload photos and race replays for others to watch and rate. With some simple paint tools, you can even customize your cars a bit. It's not nearly as extensive as the customization options in a game like Forza 2, but at least it gives you the chance to give your online ride a unique flair.

Beyond being a fun racing series, the PGR series has come to be known as a standard-bearer for visual style, and that continues in spades in Project Gotham Racing 4. New locales such as Shanghai, Macau, and Quebec are all lovingly reproduced in the game. Blast your way down a neon-soaked night track in Shanghai with the Oriental Pearl Tower looming in the background, and you'll be hard-pressed to think of a game that has done as much with urban landscapes as Project Gotham Racing 4. That level of visual quality doesn't come at the expense of performance, either; again, for the most part, the game runs at a rock-steady frame rate. Certainly, it's one of the most impressive-looking games of the year on the Xbox 360. The soundtrack for this game is just as varied as PGR 3, featuring a healthy heaping of world, rock, hip hop, jazz, and classical tunes, though the quality of the individual tracks doesn't seem to be as strong as in the previous game. However, the only music gearheads will care about is the roar of the engines, and thankfully Project Gotham Racing 4 delivers here as well, with a huge variety of authentic-sounding engine sounds that change in tone and quality depending on the driving viewpoint you prefer.

With such an intense level of focus trained on the weather effects in PGR 4, it makes you wonder what the team at Bizarre Creations could do if they threw their hat into the simulation ring and took on the Forzas and Gran Turismos of the world at their own game. Still, that doesn't take away from what Project Gotham Racing 4 is: a worthy successor to the previous games in the series and a game that will create entirely new calluses on the hands of racing fans.

Gorgeous environments
Fun driving model and spot-on control
Rain effects are the best of the new weather effects
Buying items with kudos is a nice incentive for driving with style.

Motorcycles seem overpowered
No reason to use underpowered cars in most events.

See also on Car Games To Play:
Burnout Paradise - One of the Best Car Games to Play
The MotorStorm - all in Heat, Mud, Dust and Sweat!
sega full auto - burnout with guns
Stuntman Ignition

Monday, 14 July 2008

MotorStorm: Pacific Rift - Preview
MotorStorm may have been a brand-new franchise for Sony's PlayStation 3, but developer Evolution managed to make a flat-out success of its simple formula for destruction. In another bold move, the developer has decided to ditch the dusty environment that made the first game so iconic, in favour of a brand-new tropical island setting. This time, Evolution has taken inspiration from the islands of Hawaii, where volcanoes, waterfalls, and crumbling cliffs will act as all-new hazards for the vehicles, which now include monster trucks. We grabbed the development team at the London PlayStation Day to talk more about the game and to take our first hands-on with MotorStorm: Pacific Rift in solo and multiplayer modes.

MotorStorm: Pacific Rift
Still early in development, the version of MotorStorm: Pacific Rift that we played was purportedly around 40 percent complete. That means it was a little rough around the edges. But the basic elements of the game were in place, and the proposed third-quarter 2008 release date allows plenty of time for polish. The two tracks we got to play were Beachcomber, which is a single-player level, and Ringod Spires, which is a multiplayer level loosely based on a track from the first game. Both circuits showed off the new environmental additions to the game, such as vines and branches that can take out players on bikes and buggies. Another new addition is water, which can both slow you down and help you cool down your engine. Just like in the first MotorStorm, you can use a boost button to speed up, but if overuse it, your engine will explode. If you take a little dip in the water, though, you can cool your engine down quickly.

MotorStorm: Pacific Rift screenshot 2
Although the first game offered online play, many owners complained about the lack of a split-screen mode. This has been addressed in MotorStorm Pacific Rift, and the developers have been almost overzealous by allowing up to four players to share a screen. Of course, there will still be online multiplayer for those who are connected to the Internet, and all of the 16 tracks in the finished product will be playable in multiplayer. Since new tracks were released for the first MotorStorm, there's a good chance the sequel will also be expanded upon, but with 16 in total, that's double the number that shipped with the debut MotorStorm.

MotorStorm: Pacific Rift screenshot 4
Also new to the game is the action button, which has been mapped to the square button on the Sixaxis and the DualShock 3. By pressing square and pushing left or right on the analogue stick, you can jerk suddenly to one side and knock an opponent into whatever object lies at the side of the track. This is beneficial if you're in a big vehicle, such as the monster truck we were playing in, and you're attacking a smaller opponent on a bike. However, this move uses up boost, and its sudden jerky movement can cause you to overcompensate when righting yourself on the track. The bikes, ATVs, rear-wheel-drive buggies, rally cars, racing trucks, and mudpluggers will all make a return, and those who want to go on a bike will have a whole new selection of insults to choose from on the triangle button.

MotorStorm: Pacific Rift screenshot 5
Developer Evolution has stuck to the proven sound from the original MotorStorm and has included a Pendulum track in the sequel, this time in the form of a track called "Tarantula." However, you can also now create custom soundtracks and import them into the game, allowing for the first time the possibility of smashing opponents off the road while accompanied by a soothing jazz mix. Evolution also promises to emphasise hero and villain characteristics in some of your opponents. Some will be more aggressive and forgo such necessities as helmets and padding. The developers have also incorporated new animations into racing, so you'll see opponents abandoning their vehicles and scrambling across the track or getting visibly frustrated if you knock them off their bikes.

MotorStorm: Pacific Rift screenshot 6
It looks as though Evolution has really listened to the fans of the first game when building MotorStorm: Pacific Rift, and it has done well to incorporate split-screen, custom soundtracks, and double the number of tracks for the sequel.

See also on Car Games To Play:
motorstorm - all in heat mud dust and sweat!
perfect wheel for fans of grand turismo
car games to play - gran turismo 5

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Codemasters - Race Driver: GRID

The latest game in the evolution of the Race Driver (formerly known as TOCA) series makes some interesting tweaks to the standard racer formula. Perhaps the most novel concept is the addition of flashbacks. One minute you're roaring down the tarmac towards a hairpin, and the next you're crouched in a bush in Vietnam, sweat trickling down your eyebrows in the stifled and humid silence. And then you T-bone into an advertising hoarding.

Race Driver: GRID

Of course, this isn't how a Grid flashback works. What actually happens is you can access a replay menu at any time during a race, rewind the action and time travel back to a point before you tried to take that left-hander a touch too fast and ploughed into a crash barrier. It might sound a bit cheesy, but it's actually a really handy feature, particularly when you don't know a track well. You can only use flashbacks a few times per race, so it doesn't trivialise the difficulty level too much.

And those who refrain from using them completely get cash bonuses for skilful driving on top of race winnings. In the career mode this money is used to purchase new cars, and the reputation points also accrued through victory grant the player access to more prestigious, big purse events.

There are many types of different race events, from muscle car street races to Formula 1000 on proper circuits. You might be asked to test drive a car for a race team, partake in a drift race (where sliding around corners scores points), perhaps a carnage-filled destruction derby, a touge (head-to-head racing on narrow mountain roads), or indeed a shortened version of Le Mans itself.

You'll need to build up a large garage of different cars to tackle all these racing styles, not to mention handle some basic management duties such as choosing sponsorships and employing a team-mate driver. The career mode is very well thought out, with the variety of races always keeping you on your toes.

When it comes to the actual driving itself, Grid surprised us with handling that was more arcade-like than we were expecting. On the normal difficulty level, it's possible to crash into barriers and other vehicles without worrying too much about damage.

But don't think that Grid is a completely no-brain driving experience, as wheel-spin and counter-steering must be dealt with: it sits comfortably somewhere between simulation and arcade. The game is quite adjustable, too, so if you turn the default driving aids off, it becomes a lot more difficult to take those corners swiftly.

The handling of the various cars differs considerably, and you feel the weight of the bulky muscle cars, not to mention hear the roar of their engines. Our only complaints are that drift racing is quite tricky to get the hang of, and the Formula 1000 cars seem a touch too light and twitchy (but once you've acclimatised to this, they become drivable enough).

Mention should be given to the excellent sound and graphics, particularly the latter. Grid boasts superbly detailed vehicles and backgrounds, fantastic crash and damage modelling, plus a slight blurring effect that generates a real sense of speed when your foot's to the floor. The game is stylishly presented throughout, with commendable details such as some genuinely useful pit crew chatter (telling you the time difference to the car ahead, for example) and a clear mini-map of the track which shows the exact angles of approaching corners.

Chuck in some impressively lag-free multiplayer action, with ranked races and leaderboards for the pros, and casual instant games you can jump into for everyone else, and you've got yourself a bubbling cauldron of racing goodness.

Cool:Grid is graphically impressive, stylishly presented and a compelling mix of simulation and high-speed arcade action. The career mode is also engaging and the net code is smooth. A worthy race game indeed.

See also on Car Games To Play:
grand theft auto iv - the whole city will be ours!
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