Of all the driving games out there it's pretty obvious that the Gran Turismo series has set the standard for what's possible for a simulation. The physics have been solid and the graphics have consistenetly outdone whatever else is out there for the PSone or PS2. Hundreds of cars, real-life tracks, and the overall feeling that this is as good as it gets. With the sure to be earth-shattering release of Gran Tuismo 4 this legend will be even more etched in stone than before. There is the nagging feeling that developer Polyphony Digital is refusing to expand its own world and is instead perfecting where it has gone before, but what's here is something that's truly amazing.
When Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec came out it was hard to believe that anything better could come from the little black box underneath our TV, but GT4 has gone and proved that that was just the beginning for this system. The graphics have been redone absolutely everywhere. The cars are more detailed, the levels have been given a flurry of new details and taking in the whole experience is like being cleaning off a dirty pair of glasses to see the world as it truly is.
If you've seen any of the pictures from the game already (of which we have several hundred) you can already see the difference that's been done in the quality of the cars and the graphics. To rehash the stunning visuals with words becomes useless and redundant when a quick glance at the visual output that's already flooded the Internet is more than enough. The game looks stunning and with the 480p and 1080i modes for the lucky HDTV owners out there it gets even better. If anything, GT4 is a strong argument for you to seriously consider upgrading your gaming setup. And it gets worse for your bank account as we dig even deeper into what's possible later on.
Continuing with the level of detail, not only has the look of the tracks been honed, but so have the tracks themselves. In the quest for precision in simulating the real-life courses in GT4 Polyphony Digital went back to the tracks that had been in GT3 and rescanned them to a finer degree. By looking at one track, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, CA, it's possible to see what has been a result of this attention to detail. What's most immediately striking is that the surrounding environment is much more accurate. A wall that was missing from GT3 had been included here in GT4 and many of the textures are now true to what actually exists. It's pretty life-like, but this is a driving game and it gets even better when focusing on the pavement.
The real refinement in the course itself has made the feel much more like the real thing. The corkscrew in the middle of the track is now at a more realistic angle and other turns have been retooled as well. The most notable differences are those that have been done to turns 3, 6, and 11. Where these were inaccurate in GT3 and required a driving strategy that was different from real life, GT4 has corrected this and now the required approach is spot on. It's reasonable to believe that the same correct feel is present in other tracks as well as several sources have said that the newly included Nürburgring course is picture-perfect as well.
With this level of quality applied to over 50 tracks and over 700 cars the result is an enthusiast's dream. Plug in a physics engine that has fine-tuned the classic feel from the previous games and the result is a racing wonderland. Forget the "playground" aspect of other games that give a set amount of choices in a large world, this is a place for drivers to lose track of time and space and the cycles of the sun as they devote everything to the pursuit of driving excellence.
And can we drool over the qualities of what's before us any more? Of course we can. If you've already invested in a huge, or even just large, HDTV you might as well get a home theater audio system for the Dolby Pro Logic II audio as well as the Logitech Driving Force Pro. These combined help to provide a sense of speed with the sounds of air rushing over the car as well as the bumps of the road as the cars approach ridiculous speeds. It's something to know that your geared up beast is going along at over 200 miles per hour, but with these extra senses involved the fear of losing life and limb all over a German meadow becomes quite realistic indeed.
So is it worth the cash for the Driving Force Pro? Mostly. It's possible to get the game bundled with the wheel for under $130 so ignore the retail values that jack the total to $200. What the wheel delivers is an incredibly satisfying feeling of all the bumps, railroad tracks, curbs, and slips of the tires on the asphalt that you're going to be craving once you start playing the game. As for the 900 degree rotation, that's excessive and we would've been happy with a mere 360 degrees at most. The huge range of movement leads to plenty of understeering and since the wheel lacks a pull towards the center that real cars experience this leads to a vigorous workout of cranking the wheel one way and then back to the middle.
Whether or not you get the wheel, the gameplay delivers a very similar experience to what's been done before. There are the license tests that culminate in a nerve-wracking test on Nürburgring as well as the series of races which require a specific car to be bought before they can be entered. This is the meat of the game and the big change is that there have been some missions added in which it's necessary to complete a few challenges. The most interesting of which are the historical missions in which it's necessary to duel with a specific set of cars on specific tracks. And, once again, this comes to a head when the mission is set in Nürburgring for a battle royale.
With the refined graphics, sound, force feedback, new cars, and improved tracks there's a whole lot of Gran Turismo to go around. You might even say that this is as good as it gets. And that's largely true because by holding up GT4 to GT3 there's practically no comparison, this blows it out of the water. If this is what you're looking for there's no reason to keep on reading. In fact, I'm surprised you made it this far before you already decided to spend your cash. The $50 is a pittance for how many hours this game will consume of your leisure life. But then that nagging feeling begins that there could have been more beyond a refined version of what we've played before.
Sure, there's the B-Spec Mode and the Photo Mode. The B-Spec Mode is at first more interesting than it originally sounds since it allows you to stop worrying about the details of driving and look at the entire race more holistically. In the end, however, it becomes much more of a tool for farming the races for money. B-Spec Mode allows the races to be done in one-third of the time they normally would take and can require as much interaction as changing the channel once with your remote control. Whenever I needed to earn some cash for upgrades or a new car I put the game on auto and grabbed a soda.
The Photo Mode is completely different. It seems simple at first, but as time goes on it can become absurdly engrossing. One feature allows players to place their car in a variety of settings and shoot a photo of it. The number of options is suprisingly large and almost on par with a regular SLR camera. The other feature is that of taking a photo of a car in the replay mode. At any time the action can be paused and the car shot from 64 different angles with different f-stops and, amazingly enough, different shutter speeds for a blur effect. The results are surprisingly good and with a 1280 by 960 output onto a USB flash drive these can be printed out or used as wallpaper for your PC when you want to remember a good race. The only problem with these additions, though, is that they're not in the game itself and that's what needed more work.
One area that we would've liked to have seen more refinement in was the AI of the other drivers. These virtual racers will follow their line with little concern for where the human driver is at any one time. After cutting through a corner tighter than the competition you can expect to get a friendly bump on the side as another driver follows his directions blindly. You can also expect the AI-controlled cars to be conservative when it comes to taking the turns, braking early and cautiously. This gives the player the advantage in courses with lots of turns or even just a few tight angles. One of the new rally courses, Tahiti Maze, provides so many turns that it's possible to get a huge gap ahead of the competition.
To be extra sure that the AI was following its line with no reaction from the player I did a simple test. I fired up an arcade game on a track and after starting the race I did a 180 and parked the car square on the racing line. Sure enough, when the cars came around again they didn't react at all at slammed head-on into my car. Even when I parked my car a little to the side or even just barely in the way it would still get hit. There's no reaction at all.
One positive change in the arcade mode is that there are now many more levels of difficulty to choose from. Where GT3 had three levels of difficulty, GT4 now has 21 levels of speed differences that help to determine the rest of the cars that will be in the race. Just be careful because there can still be monkey wrenches thrown into the works here as well.
selected the Laguna Seca track and the Mini Cooper-S '02 along with a -10 in difficulty. The Cooper has 160 hp and four of the other cars had a range of 34 to 55 hp, which is what I would've expected. The sixth car was the problem since it was a Dodge Ram 1500 with 345 hp. Even before I had a chance to start racing in the rolling start, the Ram had already pulled out of the line and sped ahead. After a couple turns of trying to keep up, I never saw it again. Where most of the races are balanced there are still some head-scratchers out there.
To throw in another couple of concerns there's still no ability to use a car from your garage in the arcade mode. If you've unlocked a car, then it's available from the car list for the arcade mode, but all of the tweaks and upgrades will be missing from it. There is also no damage to the cars. GT2 had suspension damage that affected the steering, but that was gone in GT3 and again in GT4.
LAN Parties, Baby
There's also the lack of the online mode which was originally announced for GT4 and then removed at the Tokyo Game Show. This omission is both understandable and completely depressing at the same time. Polyphony Digital and especially its producer, Kazunori Yamauchi, are renowned for being perfectionists and if there was no way for the online mode to be stellar, then it wasn't going to be included, plain and simple. With the spotty record of online games currently on the PS2 it would take a concentrated effort to make it sing. Yamauchi knows this and in order to get the game out it had to be cut.
There has been an online version of GT4 announced for later this year, but that does little to soothe the pain right now. For one thing, Polyphony Digital has not been known for keeping its dates. Their attention to detail means that greatness takes time and that's one reason why GT4 slipped past Christmas into February. There's also the fact that the B-Spec mode was originally slated to come out soon after Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec and become Gran Turismo 3: B-Spec. While not a huge loss to the racing community, the fact that this mode got pushed into the next version of the game could predict what will happen for online and GT4. It's a possibility that online could be a feature for Gran Turismo 5 on the PS3. All we have now are promises for an online future and until that version is available in stores it's absence will be painfully apparent.
With the AI presenting a rather predictable set of difficulty that's not too far away from the pace cars of the license tests the real challenge of GT4 is that of beating one's own personal record for each track or rounding up friends (and TVs, and Ethernet cable, and a hub) for a LAN race. It would have been so much more gratifying to at least have some online mode even if it wasn't a real-time race. There could have been leaderboards for racers to post their best times as well as the option to download the ghost of the current best time for any combination of car and track.
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