When you set about creating a realistic car game, you usually have to do something to help you stand out amongst the crowd, and for what would be the second best-selling game on the Xbox console, the way it went about doing that was implementing something called the Kudos system. Admittedly, Project Gotham Racing earned its high sales partially from being bundled with the Xbox and the first best-selling game and system seller Halo, but the Kudos system might still draw people in on its own merits, although its implementation could have been done better.
In Project Gotham Racing, as you drive around the street courses set up for you, you can earn Kudos points by performing certain maneuvers. However, since the game tries to stay rather grounded with its driving physics, your options are usually less determined by player input and more by the layout of the area you’re racing through. Maneuvers like getting air time require having the right areas to get airborne, and two-wheeling with your car often requires some sort of curb to bump up against to give you the boost. The most common source of Kudos points in the game is through sliding during your turns, something you can deliberately pull off on every course, but it does sort of pigeon-hole the Kudos system into being more about drifting than the promise the system has. One of the game’s modes is Kudos Challenge where Kudos are the main focus, and it is essentially what is meant to set the game apart from other racers. The design of Kudos Challenge sort of shows that the developers knew that the player didn’t have too much they can whip out to earn the Kudos goals set up by the challenges though, so many of these challenges feature things like cone gates you need to drive through to get Kudos or speed checkpoints that you need to drive through quickly. Rather than being about flashy driving though, cone gates pretty much just mean the track you’re driving on has different walls than usual, since you usually have to drive through most or all the cone gates properly to get the required Kudos. The player can also earn Kudos for not hitting the race barrier and for overtaking other racers if the challenge has other drivers, but when you need to earn Kudos in these challenges, you mostly do so through comboing together cone gates and clean driving as well as tossing in some drifting. This works well enough, but the Kudos system feels a bit underwhelming and feels like it would find its footing in a wackier game where the cars can pull off more insane tricks.
While Kudos Challenges are focused on earning Kudos, some of them have different designs where performing well at the main goal will heap some Kudos on you at the end to make up for how little you would earn through regular driving. Some are speed challenges about completing unopposed runs of courses in a set time, others are special twists on races with computer controlled players, and the style challenges are the ones where earning Kudos is the sole focus. The game has plenty of challenges to take on here with varying forms so that you will take some time to complete them all, and usually they have different tiers of completion where you earn more Kudos for shooting for the harder targets. For example, in a Street Race, you might only need to get third or higher to earn the Bronze Medal that does aid towards unlocking more challenges, but if you adjust the difficulty to require better placement, you earn Silver and Gold medals instead, which give more Kudos and both can contribute to car unlocks. Project Gotham Racing is very much a game where new cars are progressively better and better than the starting cars, so your rewards for improving your skill are cars that can help you continue to get better.
While the Kudos are the focus, the title of the game is Project Gotham RACING, and while racing does feature in many Kudos challenges, it is also found as the focus of basically every mode save Kudos Challenge. Quick Race and Multiplayer allow you to experience individual tracks against computer racers or with a friend, Time Attack lets you try and set best times on a course unopposed, and Medal Pursuit will let your earn new colors for your cars by beating time challenges with them. Arcade Race is the main area where the game challenges you to race well though and it is where you can unlock the courses for other modes, but despite one third of the game’s name being Racing, it doesn’t feel particularly exceptional. The driving controls well, turning is tight and sliding can be implemented into it easily for the Kudos Challenge mode, but it’s perhaps more the track’s fault things feel off than the cars or their handling.
The tracks of Project Gotham Racing are all built off of four cities, those being London, New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo. Each of these cities exist in-game as full environments, ones you can even explore as a whole once you unlock Free Roam, although they of course aren’t full size copies of their real world counterparts. However, to make the game’s incredibly high count of race tracks for an almost overwhelming amount of ways to play it across the different modes, segments of it are chopped up, barriers placed over streets to compress it down into traditional three lap race courses. There is plenty of recognizable scenery, interesting turns, and off-roading to still let places have some identity despite being constrained to fit into reasonable course lengths and sizes, but this method has lead to an unusual case where some race courses feel almost claustrophobic. In Kudos Challenge this won’t be too much of an issue most of the time, the game can tailor the challenge to match the course arrangement, but in regular races it can be easily felt. Streets sometimes can’t even accommodate more than one car width-wise, meaning that if you reach this point in a populated races, the cars have to slow down and stop trying to overtake each other to move through it single file… although the computer racers kind of just like to slam into each other at these points. Some areas like Central Park have narrow paths with plenty of turns on them as well, meaning that not only can you not overtake anyone there, but you have to slow down to wind through the snaking course. There are tracks with wide open areas and even thinner ones may have wide stretches of road after to compensate, but some of these conversely can feel too wide, meaning that you are just driving straight too often waiting for the course to get interesting again.
The abundance of courses means that the game hits more towards the decent part of the dartboard than the annoying tight spots and bland wide areas, but it does mean the racing controls aren’t given the best areas to shine in. Just like the Kudos system, things work fine but the potential feels hampered. The game still plays well and has interesting moments, but the heights you’d expect from some of its interesting ideas just aren’t met due to limited implementation.
THE VERDICT: Project Gotham Racing offers an absurd amount of stuff to do across various modes packed with different challenges and plenty of race tracks, but this breadth of content covers up the shallowness of the main mechanics. As a racing game it controls well and the Kudos system is an interesting concept to reward the player for flashy driving, but the race courses are chopped up versions of large cities that can lead to tight quarters and empty stretches of road and the Kudos system is more dependent on the levels than the player’s input save the ubiquity of drifting during turns. It still fills the expected functions of a car game, allowing for speedy and skilled races, and it has its own identity through its Kudos challenges, but its unique draws are a bit too limited to put it into more interesting territory.
And so, I give Project Gotham Racing for the Xbox…
An OKAY rating. Project Gotham Racing’s few issues are in track design, but with so much going on in the game, these moments hardly stick out compared to the whole of the package. Claustrophobic corridors hurt the races they’re in, but most of your time is spent in Kudos Challenge or other tracks. Unfortunately, these other modes still don’t have quite the punch needed to push this beyond being simply a competent driving game. I like the idea of the Kudos system but it doesn’t have much room for exploration, and the challenges that test it most have to toss in cone gates to accommodate it which, while testing driving skill, don’t exactly look impressive or demand much of the player. Heaping on a lot to do does mean you won’t get stuck doing something too familiar, but more content doesn’t always mean higher quality.
It’s hard to say how well Project Gotham Racing would have sold outside the console bundle, but it likely did earn a lot of attention for doing its racing simulation parts well enough and implementing an intriguing angle. I wish I could say the Kudos mechanic enhances it to the point it deserves to be the second best-selling game on its home system, but it is at least a serviceable racing game with the Kudos system to help set it apart some.