The Gran Turismo series has earned a place in the videogame hall of fame. When it was released back in 1998 in America for the original Sony Playstation, it marked a turning point in console driving games. The game was heralded for its depth, the extensive number of cars and tracks, and some good racing. Fast forward to the new millennium and the franchise made its way to the PS2 in the form of GT3. The PS2 version demonstrated the graphical prowess of the PS2 but the innards of GT were still there, warts and all. Now with GT4 arriving sometime in the coming year, itís not too soon to be thinking of the next installment in the series.
An advanced peek at what the next Gran Turismo will be like can be found in Gran Turismo 4 Prologue Edition. This Japanese release fits somewhere between a demo and full-blown release. The question is, is GT4 going to improve on the venerable series or rest on its laurels?
Sadly, I think itís more the latter. My complaints with GT3 center around the atrocious opponent AI. The 5 AI opponents drive like Ichabod Crane. AI cars follow pre-determined lines and bully their way through the race. Even if you have position on the track, theyíll force you out of your well-deserved position. If an AI car is behind, you always need to be cognizant of their distance as they wonít brake when you do. Iíve been corn-holed on more than one occasion by a brainless AI car braking late.
So does it look like GT4 will improve? If the Prologue Edition is any indication, save your money race fans. This is the same old schlock that Sony has been pushing down our throats for three releases now. Gran Turismo sells on past reputation only. From a pure head-to-head racing viewpoint, GT4 Prologue Edition is bottom of the barrel. Same lousy AI and still only 5 AI cars. We could rattle off dozens of other race titles with better AI and a deeper field. Games like Heat, Dirt to Daytona, NASCAR Thunder, Moto GP (Xbox), TOCA, Project Gotham, Indy, and more all come to mind. If the smaller companies that develop those titles can program a decent racing game, surely Polyphony with the support of Sony could.
A feature in Prologue that hopefully wonít make its way to the final GT4 release is the penalty feature. If you cut corners excessively (like driving across a hairpin) or use the guardrails or other cars like bumpers, youíre assessed a 10-second penalty where your car automatically shifts to first gear. I guess this feature is a lazy way to implement better racing in the game. Many of the games listed above donít have to resort to such ludicrous tactics. Making driving across grass a penalty in itself by implementing appropriate physics. Cars should lose a majority of their control when in the dirt or grass. This natural speed scrub works well in other games and in real racing. To limit bouncing off walls, implement a damage model. Even if you donít want to offend the manufactures with showing damage, you could at least deteriorate the handling and skip the visible damage.
Graphically, the game is a mixed bag compared to GT3. There were areas where the game looks better, but this comes at a sacrifice. Racing in New York, for example, the rear view mirror only shows your opponents. The cityscape is not reflected in the mirror. Also, in the distance it looks like the game has some jitter. It looks like the background is rendered at half-resolution. As the background becomes foreground, the graphics snap into focus. Pop-up is more apparent in GT4 Prologue compared to GT3. Finally, car detail seems to be about
Where GT has always been strong, however, is with the track design. While there are only 5 tracks available in the Prologue version, they are fantastic. Two traditional circuit type tracks are coupled with a New York street course and two rally style loops. If anything, GT has become stronger as a rally game. The course design and not having AI cars mess up the racing lend themselves to making this a pretty good rally racer. Of the two rally courses, the Cita díAria circuit is mind blowing. Imagine a picturesque Mediterranean village with narrow cobblestone streets, high walls, and loads of elevation changes. Thatís Cita díAria. The closest track you could compare it to would be Monaco on the F1 circuit, but even Monaco doesnít get my racing blood pumping like this track does.
Functionally, GT4 Prologue plays similarly to GT3. Youíve got driving tests to complete and then there are the actual races. Since this is a stripped down version, things like buying parts and modifying vehicle settings donít exist. The driving tests ranged from the usual brake, sector time, or lap time tests to driving a gas/electric hybrid and maintaining a certain average speed while not burning too much fuel. The tests are all pretty easy and can be passed with a bronze on the first try. The only exceptions were a few of the lap time tests. The ridiculous penalty system in the game meant that every time I lost focused and went off track a bit or nudged a car, the test would fail.
If Sony can fix the wretched AI this series can turn from an average racing title to a must-buy. Casual gamers might be able to look past the obvious AI issues that linger release after release, but fans of the racing genre may be as disappointed as I with the game. As it is, only the rally racing entices me to run out and pre-order a copy. And thatís simply not enough with some of the quality rally games available on the PS2 and Xbox.