The Project Gotham Racing series occupies a potentially awkward space between the gearhead realism of Gran Turismo and the exhilarating, arcade-ready mayhem of Burnout. PGR puts a premium on skillful driving, but the game's "Kudos" system rewards showoff moves like powergliding, catching air, or driving on two wheels, especially when they're strung together. Though it sounds like the game of choice for the chronically indecisive, PGR really does offer the best of both worlds.
Released exclusively on the Xbox 360, Project Gotham Racing 3 leans on the powerful new console to create the slickest-looking driving game on the market, which should be enough to separate it from the pack, at least for the time being. The 75 cars available, which include some quirkier concept models alongside the expected Ferraris and Lamborghinis, are designed from the inside out, with interior views and working dashboards. Better still, the four major cities that host the bulk of the events—Tokyo, London, Las Vegas, and Manhattan—have been rendered with startling attention to detail, so when you whisk along the Vegas Strip at 200 mph, you can almost map out your vacation plans. The single-player career mode sends you to these cities (and later, the formidable German playground Nürburgring) for a variety of challenges, including street races against the AI, breakthrough runs where you have to hit set times at various checkpoints, and "style events" that require you to maneuver around cones or amass Kudos points. Centered on the Gotham TV feature, the Xbox Live version allows you to watch highlights of the best PGR racers in action while you inch up the leader board against other online competitors.
Beyond the game: As one of the few launch titles designed for the Xbox 360 rather than adapted for it, PGR3 shows off the new console even when you aren't behind the wheel. In addition to the sumptuous city and car designs, there's a great deal of flexibility in viewing old races from numerous first- and third-person perspectives, and the soundtrack covers nine genres, everything from Mozart to Gorillaz.
Worth playing for: Rounding corners while "drifting," which involves slipping around curves at high speeds while pulling the handbrake, requires exquisite timing. But the game's real pleasures are purely aesthetic: Driving at top speed through an unclogged Brooklyn Bridge, as each individual steel beam flits by overhead, is an experience that can't be replicated in real life.
Frustration sets in when: Navigating around cones feels a little too much like a driver's-ed exercise to be any fun. More disappointing still is the route-creator option, which sounds like a cool opportunity to customize your own track, but turns out to be a crude mole on an otherwise pretty face.
Final judgment: It'll take some time for game developers to catch up to the 360 hardware, but for now, PGR3 is one of the few launch titles to give the machine a workout.