Few games can contend to be the best of a flagship, million-selling behemoth. They are a company's bread and butter; they are as the spear was to Hector, or the living shield to Achilles - or perhaps, in a mock-tender way - as Iraq is to Bush. They are the selling points, and they will stand the test of time as always memorable, sometimes brilliant, if not entirely justified. Sony's Gran Turismo series is one such selling point, but it is more than just a selling point. It is a phenomenon; it is a tidal wave; it is Zeus' lightning, if you can allow me one more allusion to Greek myth. But Gran Turismo 4 is not a myth, it is real, and it has finally arrived as the 2005 killer app for the Playstation 2. And, so far this year, it is the best racing game I have ever played.
As a racing game aficionado I can say Gran Turismo 4 is, simply put, a joy to play; it is a game that gets the art of racing correct. While Gran Turismo 3 had it right, there is no doubt in my mind - after looking over both games - that the fourth iteration is an overall improvement to the series and to the genre in general. As analysis of games has developed, critics have become progressively keener at discerning technical error and, sadly, I feel that Gran Turismo 4 has been a victim of this burgeoning awareness. Yes, there are some hiccups here and there - some annoyances that should have been ironed out - and so, as close to perfection as it boasts to be, Gran Turismo 4 is not, in any sense of the word, perfect, but it is the best racing simulation I've ever played, and a fine show of what a labor of love can be. Simply put, this game kicks some serious ass.
Don't get a clue, get a¦ license!
Returning to the fray are the mandatory license qualifications that will test your skills and your patience. Take it from me, you'll hate them. I did. There's nothing satisfying about trying to park your car in a square in the allotted time or following a pace car around an entire track only to find out, after all is said and done, that you were .09 from getting the bronze. That said they still serve the player well by coaching him or her into the Turismo flow of things. Did you take that turn just a little too early? Did you hit the brakes too hard, or too long? These things will be sorted out in the quest for a license. Impatient people need not apply, seriously: this game is hard and trying.
Take it from me: get the bronze medals and go back later for the gold later - they will take a long time to achieve. Even so, the bronze medals might be just as tricky if you're not versed in the Gran Turismo ethos. Gran Turismo 3 racers will be able to skip this whole event and, even better, import up to 100,000 credits from an old save and jump right into the meat of the game - racing. Luckily the license tests are not quite as difficult as they were in GT3. So whether you're a GT3 player or you just want to get through the licenses, the licenses are merely a minor stalling point. Stick with it, you'll be racing with the pack in no time.
The Race of Your Life - Part 4
Once you're out and on your own, you'll have to buy a car. And¦ well, take your pick - there are in total 700 or so cars to choose from (well-over half need to be unlocked in the career simulation mode - that means about 350 + are ready to drive from the get-go). I can't even say any game I've ever played has had a number so high to boast on a console. Of course, there are some better cars than others and you'll likely stick to the tried and true ones you had from GT 1, 2, & 3. Some only serve as trophies and kicks and giggles¯ type races. There's just no reason to buy every car in the game unless you're a collecting nut. If you are, you'll be in heaven. Still, I had a blast using my excess credits to buy the most obscure manufacturer's car and then deck it out with performance parts. The fact of the matter is, there are just some cars you won't want to race - but the option is there if you have the itch¦
Hang on a second. Where are the freaking Ferraris? Where are the Porsches? Where are the Lamborghinis? Sadly, these three car manufacturers didn't make it into Gran Turismo. We do get some others like SEAT and Land Rover¦ I'm not complaining, it's just that, well, I love the Ferrari 350, the Enzo, the Porsche GT 911. These cars have been dreams to drive for me. Even if you're in the same boat I am - a little jaded that, of all the car manufacturers, Sony didn't get the rights to these particular ones - don't fret! 700 cars is plenty to keep anyone busy. Some of the cars cost little, some an ungodly amount of credits. Think hundreds of millions of credits, and you'll be in the ballpark. Though you'll quickly acquire faster, more capable cars, you have to start somewhere.
Once you have a car, you'll be propelled into the world of Turismo. There are quite a few differing class races like rear wheel only¯ or insert required amount of horsepower here.¯ In GT3, you could find the best rear wheel car and deck it out with turbo and all the best equipment, and then ditch the competition, quite literally. The computer racers would either be left in the dust or do the dusting. There was no middle ground. In GT4, Polyphony seems to have heard your cries, and made it so the competition matches you in a more competitive way. There were few times when I felt myself pulling away from the pack in a dramatic way. GT4 is just more competitive than its predecessors.
While it's true that the pack has been matched depending on your car's power, the AI opponents are a serious flaw in game development. The AI will drive its line like a stone, knocking you into the gravel as if you weren't even there. I've seen AI drivers blow out now and again, so they're not perfect, but consider this: you're on the last lap, about to make the L-turn in Laguna Seca, pass the last car and take the trophy. Unfortunate for you, the car behind you hits the line too fast, nudges you hard and sends you off into the dust to a merciless last place. Things like this make frustrating out of fun. And if Polyphony is listening I hope they take this to heart because there are only so many times I want to see the same cars drive the same line in the same race. Gran Turismo 4 overall needs less artificial and more intelligence.
Competitive or difficult? Well, GT4 is difficult just like its predecessors. If you take a turn too wide and end up in the dirt you'll have to crawl at 8 miles per hour back to the road - ick. Add in the fact that some races ask of you 20 or more laps and there's lots of room for a curse word or a thrown controller as you go straight into a barrier. Before you get angry, just remember: the controller costs $19.99 or more¦
Luckily there's B-Spec mode, which allows you to more-or-less coach your driver through the turns. You can tell him (or her) to be more aggressive or less aggressive, to pass or not. It's pretty fun, even though there's no direct control over your character. If you push your driver too hard he might spin out or collide. It works, but it's not quite a substitution for racing - it's more like a ten-minute-babysitter so you can go grab a pizza.
Also new to the series is the Photo Mode allowing you to take pictures of your car, place it in differing backgrounds (a la Photoshop). At anytime during play, the game can be paused and the car can be snapped from a variety of angles. You can make your car look damn fine in this mode using different shutter speeds to create a blurring effect. Cool. Though this mode is mostly there for a diversion, it's a nice diversion that will suck up the hours. It's damn sweet.
Tune or Be Tuned
There is something almost sick (in a good way) about a game that lets you go through a ridiculous amount of tuning in order to perfect your ride. Imagine hours of your life disappearing trying to get the gear ratio right. Imagine building a car for drift (try at your own risk). If you're not terribly into the whole tuning thing then just ignore it. You can easily get through GT4 without even touching the gear ratio or the damper. Just buy a better turbo and race it! If, however, you're more like me and need to make each individual car a flat-out superstar, do it. Tuning is one of the most enjoyable parts of Gran Turismo and purists will most certainly agree. If you're going to make a drag-racer, work on getting the acceleration up to par, or if you want a car that tops out in fifth gear at a high top speed, well¦it's all there for you to do.
One issue I have with the game is the lack of logical¯ parts for a car. Ideally, given the resources, you can make a Toyota Corolla into a Turbocharged monstrosity. But there are some illogical parts for some cars - meaning, they don't exist in real life. That's fine, but doesn't that seem like additions for the sake of additions? I'd rather have the chance to find autos that work best with a crazy 4-stage turbo, supercharger, or just as N/A (naturally asphyxiated). I dislike the idea that nearly every car can be turbocharged or supercharged regardless. In fact, certain cars should work better kept N/A. Sometimes the combinations just seem irregular. Microsoft's up-and-coming challenger Forza Motorsport is boasting some real-life tuner parts, so I was a little annoyed when GT4's a great number of parts are just the generic racing muffler.¯ Still, there are tons of things to fix up and a great number of parts available that allow for a deep level of tweaking.
Sounds, Sights, and Seriously Dude, Where's my Car?
As sound effects go, GT4 is like candy for the ears. Each car's engine is unique sounding, showing off the extreme attention to detail Polyphony is capable of. The music, on the other hand, is worth muting. Personally, I cannot drive in videogames with music on anyway; I enjoy hearing the revs of the engine and the screeches of the tires. That, for me, is what being close to the track is all about - not misplaced buttrock. On the other hand, the music in the introduction does get you pumped up for what's to come.
I thought I'd praise the graphics near the end of this review, since many start with the glitz and glamour. This game is stunning in motion. There, I said it. Watching GT4 is akin to the feeling you get looking out an airplane window for the first time at 15,000 feet. The graphics will floor you, and if you have 1080i (that is, a HDTV and hookups) it gets even better. There is no doubt in my mind that GT4 is one of the best looking games on the PS2 (equaled only by God of War), and maybe equaled by a very few games like Halo 2, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory on Xbox, or Resident Evil 4 on Gamecube (Pikmin2, I still love you).
It's too bad that there are some annoying graphical hiccups here and there. Using the 1080i mode, there are times when the resolution jumps into looks real bad¯ mode (not actual name of mode) where the game becomes terribly jagged and partially distorted. This happened at the beginning of races, but would suddenly snap back to looks real good¯ mode - which it should always be in - after I got going. I also noticed that in split-screen mode, when you hit a wall the game will create this neato blur effect on your side of the screen. Unfortunately, it often caused the blur effect to the whole screen, mine and my opponents. This has caused accidents and cursing, and is a big oversight on the part of Polyphony. Full-screen blur needs to be fixed for the next iteration. On the HD note, there are some serious bugs with 1080i, one makes the game shudder slightly, causing some concern that the TV might be dying. Don't worry, it's just the game.
The dreaded Only 3¯ viewpoints return in GT4 for some reason. There's the bumper view, hood view, and chase view. The chase view is useless since it's difficult to see the road at times, and the hood view is just ugly and disorienting. I've only been able to race bumper side, at the risk of losing some periphery (where are the sides of my car?). What GT4 needs is at least two more views, one further behind, one inside the car. Hey, Rallisport Challenge 2 did it; even Project Gotham 2 had a better hood view. Sheesh.
Multiplayer Sans Online
Everyone and their dog know by now that GT4 isn't playable online. The closest you'll come is linking PS2s and finding many, many TVs. The split screen is workable, but in 1080i mode it splits vertically, causing you to lose periphery. This seems to be the tradeoff if you have a nice, high definition TV. I'm not sure what the problem with this game online would have been, or if development just ran too long, but this game needs online like Chun Li needs to spin upside down. Oh well.
A Damn Fine Ride
Seriously, even with all my complaints, there's nothing quite like it. It's harsh love. I love the game, but because I do I can see it's imperfections all the more clear. Comparatively, the other racing games that I have a heart for don't - Burnout 3, PGR 2, and Rallisport Challenge 2 - don't match up to the intense driving sim that Gran Turismo 4 is. Nothing does. Buy it, drive it, love it. And get the 900 degree driving wheel if you can, there's just no better way to play, period.