Gran Turismo 4
So here we are. Gran Turismo 4 has finally arrived after multiple delays, but along the way the promised online mode (maybe we’ll see it later this year with GT4 Online) was thrown overboard. So basically what we’re left with is some kind of Gran Turismo 3 Redux. Can it be we’re seeing the first signs of decay on the long-reigning emperor of racing games?
Don’t be mistaken though, Gran Turismo 4 still does what it does best and that’s providing the ultimate racing feeling. There’s not even one game that comes close to GT4’s ultrarealistic driving mechanics and impressive presentation. The game is also by far the most elaborate racing game ever. It has an unseen array of cars, modes and other things to do. I suppose playing through everything GT4 has to offer will take you something between 100 to 200 hours, which is a straight A+ as far as value for money is concerned.
The game consists of two main parts, Arcade and Gran Turismo. The latter is by far the most interesting one, but I’ll discuss it further on in this review. So, Arcade it is. As in the previous installments, the Arcade mode in GT4 gives you a large choice of cars and tracks to race on (though not nearly as large as in GT-mode). All cars are pre-tuned to their full potential, so it’s really a matter of “pick up & play”. You just grab a car and choose a track, select automatic or manual transmission, pick an AI setting anywhere between -10 and +10 and off you go. Arcade also houses the obligatory multiplayer options. You can race in splitscreen or via iLink/LAN. While fun, the multiplayer head-on didn’t manage to fully satisfy me. The lack of online play clearly hurts GT4, especially when you take into account that DTM Race Driver 2 even has an online multiplayer for 8 players. Gran Turismo can’t afford to stand still anymore, because games like Enthusia Pro Racing and Forza Motorsport are slowly but surely gaining ground.
Ok, enough sobbing for one day. Time to comment what really counts: the Gran Turismo mode. Gamers familiar with the series will immediately remark the vastly improved interface. Across the screen (map), there are all sorts of very conveniently arranged icons. E.g. the American, European and Japanese car builders, their respective racing competitions and extra arena-like icons for Beginner, Professional, Extreme events and what have you. The latest and most interesting addition to the series is GT4’s Photo Mode, in which you can choose a set location to take pictures of your car. You can pick the angle, tilt the camera up or down, zoom in, choose different filters/lenses; well, pretty much everything can be set to your wishes. Hell, you can even choose the direction the wheels of your car are pointing to! If you want to, you can save your pictures to a memory card (or even a USB memory stick!) or print them using a compatible printer. I’m sure many car fanatics will cherish Photo Mode. I even enjoyed the hour or so I tackled it and I’m usually not very fond of taking pictures 🙂
The other innovation in GT4 is B-Spec, in which you’re put into a director’s seat during races. You won’t control the car itself, but you can give your pilot orders that influence his style. If you want him to overtake a car, it’s best you let him take more risks, but be warned as he might as well lose places instead of gaining some. You also choose his pitting strategy etc. B-Spec itself is a good idea and all, but I thought it was rather boring. Controlling camera angles and telling some other guy what to do isn’t exactly my idea of fun you know…
Luckily the racing itself is way more fun, but before you’ll do any racing at all, you’ll have to buy a car. However, the few measly credits you start out are hardly enough to buy you a lawnmower, let alone a competitive car. However, the lucky owners of a Gran Turismo 3 savegame are in for a treat. They receive 100.000 Cr., which is more than enough for a decent car. I used this “trick” (calling it a cheat would be a bit too harsh) and bought myself a sparkling, black Dodge Viper SRT.10, built in ’03. This high-powered beast allowed me to win the first races with ease, but after 10 cups or so I hit the first proverbial wall. I couldn’t find any races anymore that I could participate in without a license, and the ones I could enter were too difficult for my way too much understeering (thus slipping) vehicle.
Yup they’re here again: the licences. Loved by few, despised and hated by pretty much every GT-player. Once again these time-consuming and annoying tests of steering skills take you out of the game. The concept of these trials already got old in GT3, but in GT4 they simply are useless. It’s not hard to complete them all with bronze medals (even silver medals aren’t extremely hard to get, but getting all golds can be a real pain in the ass -no I’m not censoring this to neck!), but it just took away time I’d rather spent on actual races. I honestly hope Kazunori skips these horrid mishaps in GT5, or makes them optional (as in: the diehards can still try to get all golds for kicks, but the others get their licenses just like that).
But once you actually get on the circuit, GT4 shows its trump cards. The racing feeling cannot be described; this game is the only one (save for some exceptions here and there) that truly gives you the impression that you’re controlling a car. Even the slightest nod on the analog stick changes your vehicle’s direction, which allows for very responsive steering. Every car also feels different, be it a nice and responsive Mitsubishi Lancer MR Evo VIII or an HP power house, such as the all-new Ford GT (the ’05 remake of the classic GT40). You really feel like you’re cruising on asphalt. To take corners properly, you’ll have to shift the weight of the car around and use your brakes to their full potential. Unfortunately, this is also where GT4’s most glaring weaknesses lie. To corner you may just as well slam into a car in front of you, because you won’t take damage nor get penalised for it. There has been written a lot about GT4’s absent damage model, but I still like this should have been in there. After all, can it be called realistic if you could just play “bumper car” all the time sustaing fysical and visual damage? I think not…
Furthermore the A.I. opponents still suffer from chronic dementia as they don’t even care whether or not you’re driving on the track. They follow their ideal racing lines and hardly ever deviate from it. Well, in rare instances they make a slight slip-up, but those are exceptional cases. If you happen to drive on that ideal line they’ll gladly slam into the back of your car, without even trying to do an evasive maneuver. Indeed, the A.I. hasn’t improved in these four years, and it wasn’t brilliant back then neither.
Something that has improved are the graphics. And oh my god, do they look nice. I can honestly I have yet to see a racing game that is even in the same league as Gran Turismo 4 as far as visuals are concerned, and yes, that includes Forza Motorsport. The game constantly moves at a very smooth 60FPS, without even the slightest drop. I suppose the PS2’s upper boundaries have been reached, but nonetheless, what is shown here is stunning to say the least. Every car is 100% accurately modelled towards its real-life counterpart, without even the slightest trace of an aliased (jaggied) side. But what really takes the cake are the amazing lighting effects and real-time reflections. I challenge you, just race through Hong Kong harbour and be amazed by the setting sun and the wonderful neonlights, being reflected on your car’s trunk or roof. Breathtaking might just be the right word for all of this.
And where would I be without mentioning some numbers. The game contains over 700 cars, spanning the 60’s & 70’s until now. The world’s first conveyer-belt built car, the Ford Model T is even included, not that you’ll ever use it for races of course, but it certainly shows the abundance of steel wonders in GT4. But that’s not all, the game also features over 50 tracks so you’ll hardly ever experience a feeling of repetition like you maight have had in GT3. It spans existing ones like Laguna Seca (with the infamous corkscrew), Suzuka or even the Nürburgring (offering 10 minute lap times), but it adds some made-up ones to the mix. However, the city courses like Paris, Hong Kong and New York appealed to me the most. It gave me a special feeling when I recognized certain places I’ve been before (Times Square, the Arc de Triomphe,…).
Gran Turismo 4 also shines in the audio department. Ok the soundtrack is kind of a mixed bag, with several annoying songs and multiple good ones (Franz Ferdinand, Queens of the Stone Age), but when car sounds are concerned, the game reigns supreme. Every car has its destinct engine noise, such as the smooth humming of a Mazda MX-5 or the deafening growl of my previously mentioned Viper SRT.10, which makes the experience even more immersive especially when combined with the sound of tyres squeeking on the asphalt or plowing through dirt. Impressive.
At the end of the day, I’m left with mixed feelings. Yes, Gran Turismo 4 is once again the best driving simulator around, offering an incredible list of cars and features, the best graphics the genre has ever had and impressive sound, but I can’t shake the feeling it could have been a lot more. The game still suffers from weak enemy A.I. and the lack of a damage model. Hell, even taking shortcuts goes unpunished! Without the promised online play, GT4 doesn’t actually bring new things to the table and I’m kind of left with a “been there, done that”-feeling. Polyphony Digital has to realise they can’t just stand still and reap the benefits of the past. Gran Turismo 4 is a superb game in most ways, but GT5 will have to feature big innovations, or else the series will inevitably see its downfall. Kazunori Yamauchi, don’t let Gran Turismo turn into a second Tomb Raider…