- Review Price: £30.00
Here’s the Gran Turismo 4 dilemma: on the one hand, we have a sequel that – to the casual observer – looks and feels very much the same as its predecessor. A sequel that does something to fix key criticisms of the series, but not enough to halt them. In fact, we have a sequel that feels less like the next game in a series than a new, improved, feature-enhanced iteration: Gran Turismo 4.0, if you will.
On the other hand, it’s one of the best – some will say the best – driving games ever. Where do we even begin?
We could just start with the specs, because those big numbers just keep on getting bigger. For example, GT3 had around 160 cars to choose from, but Gran Turismo 4 makes that look puny with around 700 different models from just about every major manufacturer, the only big exceptions being Ferrari and Porsche. That figure includes a host of new and current models, some superb 1980’s and 1990’s models (available second-hand for the budget-conscious novice), a wide range of classics and some great concept cars. This alone should make GT4 irresistible to the leather-jacketed goons who line up for a place in the Top Gear audience, but it’s worryingly good news for the less car-crazy gamer too. You find yourself wondering how a classic Alpine sports car would fair against the modern Mazda equivalent, and who can resist taking a Plymouth Cuda for a drag race along the Vegas strip, or the Land Rover Stormer on a quick jaunt through Yosemite. This is nearer than most of us will ever get.
Tracks? We’re up to 52 now, with many of the old favourites – Autumn Ring, Deep Forest, etc – still hanging on in there. But GT4 benefits hugely from a strengthened line-up of real world tracks. We already had a chance to sample the Grand Canyon, New York and Cita di’Aria tracks in GT4: Prologue, but Paris, the Swiss Alps, Seoul and Le Mans are now included, along with the terrifying Nurburgring: an epic raceway of sudden twists and dives, deservedly legendary amongst the educated motoring enthusiast.
Yet even these numbers can’t really prepare you for exactly how big GT4 really is. The arcade mode is just about manageable, but enter the Gran Turismo mode proper, and the map of options is simply bewildering. Leave the safety of the garage, the license tests, and the initial beginner competitions, and there are championships and tests in Europe, Japan, and America, manufacturers with their own challenge cups, extreme races, endurance tests, speed trials, drag races, dirt and snow races, custom parts shops and probably a whole lot more I haven’t managed to take note of. You don’t even have to drive if you don’t want to. The new B-Spec mode means that most races can be played from the pits, with you advising the driver on how fast and how rough to play it.
Basically, If GT3 was an automotive sandbox, then this is the whole gas-guzzling, pedal-pushing playground. But then, like a playground, it’s full of swings and roundabouts.
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.