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Xbox 360 Racing Games: Three Mini-Reviews

It's been interesting to see how the Xbox 360 has made inroads with my family. There are the games I play by myself, such as Quake 4 and Condemned, and those that I play with my seven-year-old son, Mark, including Kameo and GUN. Then there are the games Mark plays alone, such as the sports and racing titles. (There are also, amazingly, games my wife--no video game aficionado--enjoys, including Zuma).

Unlike with my previous reviews, I can't claim to have spent huge amounts of time with the sports and racing games, so I'll be providing only collective mini-reviews of these products that compare and contrast them against each other. If my son were a little older, I'd ask him to write the reviews himself. Since that's not possible, I simply asked for his input and then spent several days playing them myself. As with all things Xbox 360, I've found the sports and racing titles to be a mixed bag.

As for the racing titles, specifically, there are three among the 18 game titles that launched with the Xbox 360: Need for Speed Most Wanted (NFSMW, EA), Ridge Racer 6 (RR6, Namco), and Project Gotham Racing 3 (PGR3, Bizarre). As you can probably tell from the names, all are sequels to games that have been around for quite a while, especially Need for Speed.

Back in the late 1980's and early 1990's, I used to enjoy racing games such as the Test Drive series, Road Rash, and the original Need for Speed, which, as I recall, was actually called The Need for Speed. And let's not forget my favorite racing games of all time: the Burnout series, on the original Xbox. What all of these games had in common was a fun 3D effect that made you believe you were really progressing through a real environment, the palpable feel of speed, and, of course, chasing police officers with blazing sirens.

Today's racing titles are far more realistic, some to the point of being ridiculous. Some of them even offer chasing police cars to outrace. But this is the 21st century, and there's a new mentality with racing games--also found in many sports games, incidentally--which apparently tries to combine street credibility with street sensibilities. In other words, the presentation is loud and obnoxious, and the music is simply horrible. Thankfully, you can turn off most of that junk.

OK, let's meet today's contestants.

Need for Speed Most Wanted

As the entry with the most venerable history, Need for Speed Most Wanted (NSFMW) doesn't disappoint from a game play standpoint. From the opening credits, this game's stance is made clear: You're going to perform in street races, and the cops are going to get involved. In career mode, you follow a plot of sorts, that unfolds in the form of bizarre and unwelcome movie-like cut scenes where you learn about your bad to the bone persona and... geez, who cares? At first, you can simply skip over these things, but then they become integral to the game, and you're stuck in a horrible drama intermixed with actual racing.

In any event, the play style of NSFMW is firmly in the middle between the hyper-realism of PGR3 and the almost silly arcade quality of RR6. When actually racing, I find it to be the most enjoyable of the three, because it's fairly realistic and yet you don't have to worry about the real-world qualities of the actual cars, as you do in PGR3. The graphics are top notch, gritty and realistic, and while the stark city streets through which you race aren't meant to resemble a real place per se, they're nicely rendered and feature random cars driving around and objects you can knock down, such as trees and street lights. There's even weather, and rain realistically spatters on your car's windshield.

And then there are the police. When racing against computer-controlled opponents, the arrival of the police is nicely presented with a sudden slow motion effect during which your in-game protagonist suddenly realizes there's another opponent to overcome. Then, just as suddenly, it's back to full speed and the race is renewed. These sequences are very nicely handled. And the police get more intelligent as the game progresses, setting up roadblocks and trying to force you off the road.

Each of these games offers a discrete style of its own. In NSFMW, you almost always jump out to an early lead, which you can maintain unless you screw up. That is, if you're racing along and strike an unmovable object like an overpass support, and your car stops or spins around, the race is pretty much over. You're just never going to catch up with the first place car. Thus, it's better to simply start over when such an event occurs.

What really does get in the way, sadly, is the silly plot and the cut-scenes in which your character's story develops, such as it is. There are even bizarre Free Roam segments, in which you must simply drive through fictional towns and cities to reach certain locations. So it's like racing, but there are other random cars that you're not racing against. That is, it's not like racing at all. Sigh. Anyway, you eventually lose a fixed race to this dude Razor, and then you have to drag race 15 other drivers to get a rematch, and get your car back. It all happens amid a series of plot-driven cut scenes, of course.

Parents should be alerted about the overt sexual nature of certain cut scenes, which often feature strutting, scantily clad women and an unwanted glimpse into the silly culture of street racing; this is not a game for kids. That said, these scenes are unintentionally funny for the most part, assuming you're an adult. I find them ridiculous and annoying.

Project Gotham Racing 3

Of the three titles discussed in this review, Project Gotham Racing 3 (PGR 3) is inarguably the best looking, and a poster child for the graphical capabilities of the Xbox 360, assuming you're playing on an HDTV set. The cars are gorgeous and realistic, and the city streets through which you race are framed by buildings and other sites that photographic in quality and, as it turns out, near exact representatives of their real-world counterparts. If you choose the in-car view, you'll see reflections and even smudges on your car's windshield. I can't stress this enough: If you're looking for a show-off title for the Xbox 360, PGR 3 is a great choice.

That said, the game play in PGR 3 is a little touchy, largely because the game is so darned realistic. For example, the Dodge Viper oversteers in corners, threatening at all times to spin around and end your race right then and there. It is here, of course, that PGR 3's realism comes back to haunt the gamer. Because the cars are so realistic, they're much harder to drive than their counterparts in Need for Speed Most Wanted and Ridge Racer 6. Arguably, they're too hard, though a mastery of the hand brake can save all in a tight turn. As with NFSMW, once you've spun out of control, the race is effectively over. You're never going to recover. On the other hand, on the easier levels, you don't have to win each race, you just need to place in the top three.

Unlike NFSMW, you progress through PGR 3 sans plot, which is just fine with me. This is a racing game, after all, and racing should be front and center. You earn credits (and award-like kudos) for winning races, and you can buy new cars and even concept cars as you progress up the winner's ladder.

Also unlike NFSMW, each of the levels is a straight-away race in which the rest of the city is cordoned off from the drivers, so you'll never run into random cars, physical blockades, or the police. You're just racing against computer-controlled opponents (or humans, via Xbox Live), or against time, or through and cone-based obstacle course. There's no hint of street racer culture in this shiny game, thank you very much.

And speaking of realism, your car will suffer real and perceptible damage if you do strike the wall, other cars, or other objects during a race, though all damage is magically healed between races (remember, there's no ongoing plot). There's nothing sadder than seeing a wobbly trunk lid dangling off the back of an otherwise new Porsche.

Overall, PGR 3 is decent, not stellar, and largely like its Xbox-based predecessor, though obviously better looking. It's the most realistic of the three racing titles--stunningly so--but also the least enjoyable to play in many ways, especially when you're just starting out and haven't gotten used to the touchy controls yet. It's not a dud, but it's not my top choice.

Ridge Racer 6

Of the three games described here, Ridger Racer 6 (RR6) is the only one I've not had experience with in previous incarnations. It's the most arcade-like of the three, a point driven home by the fact that it was created by Namco and has bizarre allusions to Pac-Man throughout the game, including a fully playable version of Pac-Man that appears when the game first loads. I have no idea what the point of the Pac-Man buffoonery is, but there you go.

The RR6 user interface is simply awful. You navigate through a UI that looks like it was designed for the movie "Minority Report," or at least try to navigate through it, because it's never clear what you're doing or why. Once you do pick a race, you'll discover that the action is immediate and visceral, and there's almost no chance at all that you're going to go flying off the track or spin out of control and end up facing the wrong direction. Each slide through a treacherous corner is a controlled slide, and is actually part of the fun, and even the entire point of this game from what I can see. You'll catch air occasionally, leave sparks when you land, and even ignite the nitrous for a power boost in straightaways. It's a lot like those arcade-based race games, albeit with much better graphics.

That said, the graphics in RR6 pale in comparison to either PGR 3 or NFSMW. The cars are all pretend models and don't reflect real-world vehicles. The settings are as pretend as they are generic, and don't even pretend to emulate real places. And not to belabor the point, but in the standard view style, in which the camera is behind and above the car you're driving, the wheels resemble black bricks, giving the impression that your car is simply gliding over the road surface, and not driving on it. The cars don't even get damaged. Again, RR6 is not horrible, but compared to the competition, the graphics are sub-par. I find the droning sound of the car engines somewhat grating in this game as well.

But seriously, someone needs to explain the constant Pac-Man references in this game to me. I just don't get it.

Picking a winner

Despite the street racer plot elements and debatable merits of the actors who make it all come together, I actually prefer Need for Speed Most Wanted to the other Xbox 360 launch racing titles. Its realistic looking while still being very playable, and the racing segments are top notch. I find Project Gotham Racing 3 to be too sterile and realistic for its own good, and it's unforgiving of even the smallest mistakes. Ridge Racer 6, meanwhile, is the ultimate twitch race game, and sure to be a favorite for those who prefer more arcade-like racing titles. I find it a bit lacking, however, and I can't stand the interface.

Whichever game you choose, be assured that each shows off the graphical prowess of the Xbox 360 to some degree. From the rain spattered windshields of NSFMW to the sky-reflecting sheen of the supercars in PGR 3, each of these titles is superb looking and of high quality, though the presentation in RR6 is not as advanced. The trick, of course, is finding the game that matches your play style and expectations. My advice is to try each before you buy, as you may have different needs than I. But my money is on Need for Speed Most Wanted, even with those annoying cut scenes.

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