Now, the new structure helps, but the real surprise is how much the core gameplay has improved. On the one hand, the style challenges seem a little more forgiving of mistakes. You still won’t get anywhere if you don’t learn how to trigger and maintain control of all those powerslides and handbrake turns, and Gotham regulars will still find joy in chaining together rubber-burning moves until they come within a hair’s breadth of losing any grip. However, you no longer get penalised just because a rear tyre has nudged the barrier.
Better still, the actual racing itself is far more exciting. I suspect Bizarre has spent a considerable amount of time finessing the handling model and tweaking every straight, climb, dip and corner of every track to make sure that every race provides a distinctive but thrilling experience. The handling might not be as ultra-realistic as in, say, Gran Turismo 4 or Forza Motorsport 2 – let alone GTR Racing 2 – but it conveys the right sense of mass, speed and grip without getting in the way of the joy of reckless driving. Most racing games have a couple of tracks you grow to love, a fair selection of tracks that you like and a couple where you groan each time they appear. In PGR4 the hit-rate is stupendous, with nary a duffer to be found and track after track of gut-wrenchingly tight corners, wide, high-speed boulevards or fearsome climbs and spectacular downhill sections. What a treat!
It helps, too, that the city line-up is the strongest since PGR2, with London, New York, Tokyo, Vegas and the Nurburgring from PGR3 joined by Shanghai, Macau, Quebec, St Petersburg and a Michelin test track. The choices seem unorthodox at first, but each one actually makes perfect sense. Shanghai brings us futuristic architecture, thin, twisty streets and neon overload, while Macau delivers wider spaces and a surprisingly attractive coastal setting. St Petersburg feels a little like London on an even grander scale, with wide avenues, riverside straights, magnificent 18th Century architecture and some enjoyable, airtime-friendly bumps. However, it’s Quebec that steals the show, with its narrow, medieval-looking streets and some wonderful fast turns and ludicrous downhill Z-bends that never fail to raise the pulse. As usual, each city has been segmented into a selection of long and short tracks, each offering a subtly different experience, but each still fitting within the city’s overall style.
Needless to say, the existing strengths of the Project Gotham engine are readily apparent. We’ve come to expect gorgeously rendered Beamers, Lambos, Supras, Mustangs, Astons and assorted exotics from the series, and tweaks to the lighting and rendering engines have made them – impossibly – even more glamourous than they were last time around. Meanwhile, the street scenery hits a fine balance between realistic representation and the recognition that some detail is superfluous when you’re driving past at over 90mph. The trees look more realistic than they did in PGR3, and the speed blur effect seems to have been dialled back a little. The in-car view beats anything with the possible exception of Colin McRae: DiRT. Basically, if there’s a better looking road racer on any platform, then I’ve yet to see it.