With Gran Turismo 5 nearing its eventual and long awaited release it seems like an appropriate time to look at the last full iteration of the series and discuss the elements that make this a great title while analyzing its core failings in this quickly developing market. Indeed that review was written on the Japanese release of GT4 but the impressions are still relevant today.
Gran Turismo 4 is a title that needs no introduction in terms of content, but what is this game setting out to achieve? Does it accomplish its lofty goals? Goals that are, arguably, set so high that hardware has never been able to do justice to the experiences Polyphony has set within its sights? Is Gran Turismo 4 merely a game? No, it’s a long term project with a vision: to improve the driving experience offered in a videogame while making it accessible to all. The ultimate goal of the GT series is to create a complete package that will grow with every iteration; a driving compendium.
Gran Turismo 3 (originally titled Gran Turismo 2000) was little more than a Ver. 2.5 than a proper sequel, rushed out to satisfy the masses - and with good cause, as sales figures demonstrate. Gran Turismo 4 has featured a lengthy and publicly drawn out development period, revealed too soon its release has come almost as a surprise and, to many players, it feels like an older product that perhaps should have been released several years ago.
Initially, you’ll be presented with an atmospheric intro displaying an emulation of a PS3-generated Ford GT40. This is designed to give the player a sumptuous taste of experiences that could be offered in the future before cutting to the PS2 version in all of its glory, the classic Gran Turismo theme tune banging through, letting fans of the original cast their thoughts back to the joy offered by past iterations. For the most part, the menu structure is identical to previous versions, players presented with the standard Gran Turismo 4 and Arcade modes. Except, on closer inspection, there’s more - a lot more of everything making the whole package a far more balanced affair, structurally.
So how does it play? Key to Polyphony’s dream has been the complete revision of the handling, the alterations (though subtle) have meant giving the player far more feedback on the way the car is performing and relevant grip being brought up by the track surface. Further feedback can be gained from the new gravity gauge, which reacts to the external forces inflicted on the car. For the most part, though, drivers will opt to ignore this. Some players may find this feature relevant when attempting to refine their consistency during Time Trials, turning or braking at certain points when the g-forces reach particular levels.
This feedback system, in effect, means that Gran Turismo 4 has one of the most technically accomplished handling models ever created, the software playing host to sophistication never before witnessed on a console. The software is tailored towards such a fine degree of sensitivity that the DualShock2 isn’t the best frame of reference by which this and future racing titles should be judged. The only way to replicate the real life driving experience (the goal of this game) is by getting hold of a steering wheel and ergonomic racing seat. Polyphony has made a game too sophisticated and technically adept to be appreciated by using a mere joypad.
Despite the obvious care and attention, it is still difficult getting the maximum performance level from your car. The limit of grip has been demonstrated better in other titles, despite the physics model displayed here being more complex in construction than any other racing game available. Making a good driving game is not just about real life physics, but is all about striking a balance between the fun factor and the purported ‘realism’. It does feel like a natural progression has been made in GT4, leaning towards a more realistic approach of braking long before reaching a corner, especially in the faster cars and the older, more unstable variants. Although approachable, however, it still remains far from perfection and does not advance the genre - particularly in terms of its ‘fun quotient’.
In spite of the updated and more balanced structure, such improvements cannot be applied to the new (and supposedly ‘improved&rsquo rally mode. Handling leans towards a real life model but is curious in its execution; a very steep learning curve means that these races are performed on a knife edge. Expert gamers will come to learn that early braking and controlled acceleration is the key, but cars never feel a hundred percent comfortable for any given situation. Handling is so twitchy that a bump from another car can leave the player helplessly gliding towards a wall with no means of saving the car or regaining control. Polyphony have still failed to create a fun and accessible rally game for all, which again leads to some disappointment and leaves this mode completely out of touch with the rest of the package.
”Jack of all trades but master of none” is a new criticism leveled at Gran Turismo following its third incarnation, and this - sadly – can’t be denied. GT3 was limited in several departments, firstly in its selection of tracks that suited each car type, relegating it the level of a casual racing game with serious but unrealised intentions. This has been reacted upon by the developers, resulting in a much better selection of over fifty courses both unique to GT4 and real life tracks, with some of GT’s older classic circuits such as High Speed Ring returning to the mix. These now feature some stunning scenery.
Secondly, and more importantly, Gran Turismo 4 is a game with no identity and, as a consequence, neither covers nor replicates any motor sport effectively. There are no licenses for any official motor sport races and, due to the limited six cars within a race, it is something that severely reduces the racing experience. But is this simply the objective of the designers and, if so, should it be rated down for this reason? Effectively GT4 is a driving game; it’s about simulating driving and forms of motor sport rather that actual motor racing. THIS is the key crunch point that will turn many players on or off to the experience on offer.
So with so few cars on the track it’s important that they remain a constant challenge, and this too still needs further refinement. Areas in need of refinement appear in two distinct sections: the AI of rival cars and the penalty for hitting another car. No matter how good the AI of a car, if there is no penalty for hitting one it means any development is pointless and the same applies for any future online experiences. This extends to bashing walls, which still does not rub off enough speed to deter cheats. No GT game has used AI effectively, and Gran Turismo 4 has not expanded on this. Disappointing, but given the huge financial and logistical resources Polyphony have had at their disposal, this is a severe blow to the package, and pretty much inexcusable.
Despite these issues it’s a fun racing game but not offering the in-depth or strategic racing hoped and is exacerbated by the lack of visual car damage. When will Polyphony learn that this is a vital part of racing and needs to be improved? Moaning about license agreements will earn Polyphony only so much leeway, as other driving games improve and seek to swipe its crown.
Another new feature this time round is B-Spec mode, best described as Scalextric from useless and unplayable viewpoints. Yes, GT replays are impressive but no they don’t integrate themselves well into the game, and are totally superfluous and intrusive. Graphically Gran Turismo 4 pushes the PS2 further than ever before, with the developers putting a huge amount of detail into every conceivable department while keeping up an impressive 60fps. Players can also indulge in the new photo mode, which has found a lot of popularity in the gaming world, particularly amongst Max Power types. Sound is a mixed bag: engines sound great but the music selection leaves a lot to be desired and at times is shockingly bad. So bad in fact that many players opt to turn it off at the first opportunity.
Another key missing feature has been the online mode. XB Live dominates online and GT4 was seen as the PS2’s greatest hope at cracking this Microsoft-dominated sector of the market. This failure has affected the longevity of the game, and is a great loss - despite the excellent offline game it would have been a worthy addition.
So there you have it: Gran Turismo 4 is a driving simulator. The overall package has been designed by a team with a deep love and fascination for cars and for getting the best out of them. In many respects they have reached that and with seven hundred cars to collect, it’s a mighty challenge. While moving forward, though, the series has lost sight of some of its original goals, and is now a far more narrow minded experience. It is a more polished product and improves on many holes lacking in previous iterations but, in doing so, creates all new ones. The poorly executed B-Spec mode, terrible music, lack of online play and limited cars in a race mean that development has leant more towards a technical presentation than a gameplay oriented one. The game lacks soul and atmosphere, and this is something Sony need to work on, urgently. Its possible Gran Turismo 5 won’t rectify these issues if rushed out, and will only remain standing tall as the genre leader if it fails to receive a competent competitor.
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