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Let’s start with the good. On initial impression, GT4 doesn’t look all that much different to GT3, less a turbo-charge of the graphics engine than a rigorous polishing of the ports. Then you take a second look and realise that it’s all in the detail. In terms of lighting, trackside scenery, car modelling and texture detail, this is the PS2 at the top of its game, and an easy match for anything seen in Project Gotham Racing 2. In normal play the effect is impressive, but in replay mode the visuals get frighteningly close to that most abused of terms, photorealistic. From the big apple to the Grand Canyon, from Paris to the Umbrian hills, the locations actually tempt you to slow down so you can take the sights in.
And while I’m by no means qualified to discuss the exact pitch or tone of sports car engine notes, the sounds are just as top notch. If the 97 strong song selection makes for an odd mix of cutting edge indie, dance, and metal, at least you can tune the driving playlist to suit your own tastes. If you prefer Erik Satie to the Eagles of Death Metal, there’s no reason why Gymnopodie no.3 can’t soundtrack your next race meeting.
But there are some questions, and they’re the same ones we were asking last time around. Take car damage. Polyphony claims that it won’t touch it until it can be modelled with perfect accuracy, but is it really that realistic to be able to take tricky corners by colliding with your opponents as they gently cruise around the track? And those chaps aren’t getting all that smarter. There are signs that the old AI – where your rival racers seemed to have made a gentleman’s agreement that a formal procession was the most elegant way to race – has been improved. But while the odd effort to squeeze past or block your overtaking takes the A.I. out of dunce’s corner, we’re still not talking top of the class. Burnout 2 and 3 made you feel those guys were out to get you. Here they just seem keen to get home without scratching the paintwork.
It’s also slightly sad that after Project Gotham 2, Burnout 3 and Need for Speed: Underground, we still have no online mode. We’re all aware that it’s a question of time, resources, and focus, but still – excuses, excuses….
Luckily, two factors make these criticisms seem practically irrelevant. First, there’s the fiendishly compulsive game structure. Any old GT hand will be familiar with the old vicious circle: race to win to upgrade to race to win, with a new car purchase thrown in every now and then to ensure you stay locked in. It still works horribly well today. Plenty of games are big enough to suck up whole months of evenings and weekends, but not many are addictive enough to make you want to. GT4 is.
But the real reason that GT4 still stands supreme is the handling. Let’s not be stupid – I haven’t got an inkling of how racing a suped-up Ford Mustang around Laguna Seca feels. All I know is that in GT4 it feels great: gritty and challenging enough to keep your interest, while fluid and forgiving enough to keep it fun. Somehow, the different makes and models feel exactly how you imagine they should, and where other driving games have you suspecting that your car is hovering two inches in the air, GT4 puts those wheels firmly on the track. Take that raw, physical sense of handling, the sublime graphics and the ferocious engine noise, and you get a visceral, thrilling driving experience that few other racing games can touch. In the end, isn’t that what counts?
The basic game has not moved on as much as it probably should, but when you combine GT4’s wealth of cars, tracks, challenges, and options with the superb graphics and handling, it’s still the champion of racing games.