Gran Turismo 4

My friend Nat and I were talking about Gran Turismo 4. He was saying that the vibe he got was that they had cut most of the cool features out of it when they realized that even without those features they would still sell a kerjillion copies of it:

Really, they could put a vaguely car-shaped turd in a box and people would not only buy it but write impassioned fifteen-page essays about how it was the best game ever and shriekingly deny any rumors of turdness.

This was after I had been playing the game for a few days. Upon reading this, I decided that my entire review of GT4 was going to be “It’s a vaguely car- shaped turd in a box.”

I’ve played a little more since then, and have a little more to say about it. But if you want the short version, it is this: Gran Turismo 4 is a stunning $50 argument for spending $12 on a used copy of Gran Turismo 3 and then using the $38 you have left over to buy pizza and beer. There are things to like about GT4. Most of them, however, were things that one could like equally well about GT3. But let’s not talk in generalities. Let’s get down to brass tacks.

There’s been much said about the graphics in GT4. All of it is a damnable lie. I’m one of those lucky people who has an HDTV, and the best you can say about GT4 is this: in 1080i mode, it is merely unimpressive, and not actually utterly hateful. It only shimmers a little bit. The textures are only somewhat fuzzy. The jaggies are not the worst I’ve ever seen.

When you step down to 480i mode – the mode 95% of all players will see, day in, day out – the full uglitude of GT4 is revealed. In 480i, the game is a dog, uglier than a Brittany Spaniel whose face has been half gnawed off by a badger. In all seriousness, the previous edition of the game looked better on a standard TV. If what you care about is good looks, this is not your game.

“But the screenshots look so good!” I hear you saying. Yes. They do. In a stroke of what can only be described as evil-scientist level genius, Polyphony provided a nifty feature in the game, “Photo Mode.” This lets you take photos of “your” cars in various scenic locales – most of which are not in the game, except for the photo shoots – and then lets you export the photo onto a flash drive in super-high resolution. Then you post the photos on the Internet to deceive your friends into thinking that GT4 doesn’t look like ass. It’s a brilliant idea. But it’s got nothing to do with how the game looks while you’re actually driving.

Graphics aren’t everything, though, and the game definitely plays somewhat better than the previous edition. Gone is the “driving through a vat of butter” feeling, replaced instead by ludicrous amounts of understeer on every vehicle (including front-engine, rear-wheel drive monsters) at speed. I was ready to declare that the handling in the game was psychotically wrong, when I decided to play around a bit with the settings. It turns out that the default settings for every car in the game have “active stability management” set to counteract oversteer at the highest level. This makes the cars handle like no car anyone has ever actually driven. If you turn off the ASM, the handling of the cars becomes much more accurate, and the game becomes much more fun.

I should say a little more about the ASM. It has independent settings for “protecting” you from oversteer and understeer, which doesn’t really make a lot of sense. The basic implementation of ASM in the game is this: Let’s say you’re coming in to a corner a little too fast, and you hit the throttle too early. The ASM system says “OH MY GOD. If I let you turn this much, you might OVERSTEER! Then the car will spin out! HAVE NO FEAR. I WILL SAVE YOU.” And it prevents you from oversteering by keeping you from turning so instead of spinning out you go in a straight line off the course, and hit a wall.

I’m not sure I have the words to accurately capture how completely brain-dead this is.

On the one hand, you could argue that “tuning the car” is an essential part of the game, and isn’t it great that the developers let me discover this for myself? I can hear you getting ready to argue that. The problem with this argument is that it’s silly for me to “tune” a car to make it act like it would when I drive it off of the dealer’s lot. If anything, tuning is about making a car act less like its stock model, not more. So this is just a stupid decision on Polyphony’s part. With ASM on the default settings, the game is completely unplayable (especially amusing are the license tests that encourage you to “drift” around turns on dirt courses, which you can’t actually do well if the ASM is deliberately defeating your oversteer).

Polyphony replaced the boring and confusing single-screen menu system of GT3 with a boring and confusing side-scrolling menu system in GT4. 2.5 engineers probably worked full time on that menu system for 11 months. Their next project will probably involve little animated menus for DVDs that keep me from watching the movie as quickly as I’d like.

The menus are a mishmash of choices superimposed on a fairly abstract map of the world. So if you want to buy a German car, you go to Germany and navigate through the car manufacturers and find the new car dealers. If you want to race a specific race, you have to hunt around in various “stadiums” until you find the one you want, except for the races that are sponsored by manufacturers, which are somewhere else. It’s not the worst menu system I’ve ever used. It does, I guess, get the job done.

GT4 has detailed information on every car in the game, but frustratingly presents that information via a side-scrolling marquee view that prevents you from actually reading the items in less than 10 minutes. So the game might have, for example, three paragraphs of text on the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VIII. And you really want to read them, because they’re interesting and well- written, but in order to read them you have to suffer through their scrolling into view like a stock ticker, 6 words at a time. The Japanese version of the game just gave you a screenfull of text that you could read like a normal human being, but apparently because the localization team hates me I have to suffer. It is to weep.

There are more cars – 700 in total – but as in previous games, a large percentage of them are Skylines. I happen to like Skylines, but if you care more about, say, American muscle cars than obscure Nissan models, you might find yourself a bit chagrined.

Like its previous version, GT4 makes you trudge through too many license tests and too many entry-level races to “earn money” to make progress. The license tests themselves are interesting, but I wish they were optional.

One feature that is new since GT3 is the addition of “B-spec” mode. Essentially, you are directing a computer driver, gently suggesting that he try to pass an opponent, or that he ease up a bit, or that he come in for a pit stop. If you’re one of the intrepid souls who was an early beta-tester of LawnMan 2: Watching Grass Grow, B-spec mode will be right up your alley.

One unquestionable plus about the game is its selection of courses. There are a good selection of city courses – Paris, New York, Seoul, and Hong Kong have been added, although I do miss Rome. And in addition to Laguna Seca, you can now race on Motegi, Suzuka, Tsukuba, Fuji Speedway, and the Nordschliefe at Nurburgring. This, more than anything, is the best reason to buy the game if, like me, you need your racing games to have a good sense of place. There are also about 10 “original circuits” that are utterly bland and forgettable, but given the faithful rendition of Suzuka, I’m willing to cut them some slack on this issue.

The AI is indistinguishable from that in GT3, which is to say it is disgustingly horrible, an abomination of Biblical proportions. If there was an option to win races by simply turning off the stupid, irritating, useless, and utterly unchallenging computer cars and just racing against the clock, I would turn it on in a heartbeat. I have nothing positive to say about the rubber- band AI in the game. It is a complete travesty from top to bottom.

The rear-view mirror in the game is still useless in that the perspective it gives is somehow pointless – cars look about 6 times further away in the mirror than they do when you look behind you. Can this possibly take more than 3 lines of code to fix? Gotham got it right. Gran Turismo doesn’t.

So should you buy it? Well, if you want to buy my copy for $45 and save yourself about $10 on what it would cost you at Best Buy after tax, drop me a line. Otherwise: it depends on your motivation. If you’re looking for car porn, and the USB photo feature sounds appealing to you, and you like the idea of having a semi-interactive catalog of cars from around the world, I think you can justify the purchase. If you’re looking for a good driving simulator, I think you will be disappointed, and perhaps you should wait a few months until prices start to drop. If you’re looking for a good racing game, no, you should not buy Gran Turismo 4.

That there are so many people who consider the Gran Turismo series to be the pinnacle of driving games just serves to reconfirm my prejudice that there are a lot of people out there who think they know how to drive, but don’t.