Before Forza Horizon there was Project Gotham Racing, one of the most important video game franchises in my life.
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Motorsport has been a significant part of my life from a young age and it quickly translated into gaming. Going way back, we have game changing titles like Virtua Racing, Sega Rally and Gran Turismo, all of which I adored, but one franchise really cemented my love of racing games — Project Gotham Racing.
Nowadays it is but a fond memory, yet it’s one of the most important franchises in gaming for me, shaping what was to come over the next two decades.
Early beginnings on the Sega Dreamcast
Project Gotham Racing (PGR) actually began life on the Sega Dreamcast as Metropolis Street Racer (MSR). Microsoft wasn’t involved here, with the title developed by Bizarre Creations and published by Sega, but it was the start of something special.
MSR blended real-world, licensed cars with street racing and the kudos ‘currency’ system. It looked brilliant, it was a heap of fun to play, the soundtrack was pretty awesome and all that is without considering you could drive an MGF.
MSR was essentially a blueprint for what would come to Xbox in PGR. Of course, now published by Microsoft and bearing a different name, but anyone who’d played MSR knew where they were. That wasn’t bad at all. MSR was, for its time, an absurdly good racer.
An antidote to Gran Turismo
Before Xbox and PGR came the Sony PlayStation and Gran Turismo, dubbed the “real driving simulator.” By modern standards it’s a long way off, but at the time, Gran Turismo was a revelation for motorsport fans.
MSR and then PGR were an antidote to this. Gran Turismo was quite serious, but Project Gotham was, well, just fun. It’s this lighter, more casual approach that hooked me in.
PGR was still a challenge, as were the next three games in the series. But a different kind of challenge. The focus wasn’t just on winning races and having the best car. The kudos system rewarded you for driving with style, which meant a lot of tapping the handbrake. And that’s a blast when you’re a kid.
The environments looked stunning, the cars were incredible, and all of this only improved through the subsequent three sequels. While technically each game that followed was ‘better’, the original is still that landmark moment.
Today, one of the closest experiences to that first time playing Project Gotham is the GRID reboot by Codemasters. It has a very similar feeling, with gorgeous cars, make believe street circuits, and plenty of scope for flamboyant driving.
Forza Horizon’s spiritual predecessor
Sadly, Project Gotham Racing pushed out its final console game in 2007 with PGR4 on the Xbox 360. It had been an absolute blast, but then it came to an end. It was a while before Microsoft would fill the void, but you can argue that Forza Horizon, coming in 2012, picked up the spirit of PGR and ran with it.
You can still see glimpses of influence in Forza Horizon today. Tell me the skill points system in the Forza Horizon games doesn’t remind you a whole lot of the kudos system in PGR?
Forza Horizon of course amped up the street racing experience by adding in an open world that has progressively became larger and more interactive, mixing gorgeous environments with stunningly recreated real-world cars.
Whatever happened to Bizarre Creations?
In September 2007, Activision acquired the developer of the Project Gotham Racing series, Bizarre Creations. Despite making the series for Microsoft Game Studios, it remained independent, and produced other titles alongside such as Geometry Wars and The Club.
Activision also then announced that Project Gotham Racing 4 would be the studio’s last game for Microsoft Game Studios, though the latter retained the rights to the franchise.
In an Activision-owned life Bizarre went on to make one more racing game, 2010 release Blur, and then in 2011 Activision closed the studio down. And Microsoft hasn’t done anything with the franchise since. The actual last PGR game to launch wasn’t even on console.
Project Gotham Racing on the Zune and Windows Mobile
A fun little tidbit: Did you know Microsoft actually released a PGR game for the Zune? Neither did I until recently. Had I known at the time it could have been the difference over buying Apple!
Check it out in the video above.
A lasting impression
While Project Gotham Racing has resigned to the history books, the franchise’s importance will never be replaced. Without its influence on the genre, who knows what we’d be playing today. Who knows what I’d be playing today.
The spirit of PGR lives on though. The Forza Horizon series is an obvious comparison, but elsewhere, Codemasters’ reboot of GRID is probably the closest modern title to capturing the magic of this great series. And we’re fortunate that we have these among a slew of amazing racing games to play on the current and future Xbox consoles.
There may not be a place for PGR in the landscape anymore, but in my heart it’s the one title I want to see reborn above all others. Alas, that’s a far fetched dream, but at least what we did get left a mark and can be played still today.
Which is exactly what I’m going to be doing having finished writing this post. If you’ve got your own PGR memories to share, be sure to drop them into the comments below.