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Gran Turismo

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Gran Turismo

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Review by Michael Motoda

"No other man-made device since the shields and lances of the ancient knights fulfills a man's ego like an automobile."

- Sir William Rootes, British automobile manufacturer, 1958.

And if there is any truth lurking within that statement, then I am 100% guilty of falling under that stereotype. Polys Entertainment, a very talented 2nd-party developer for Sony, was brought into the limelight a few years ago with the introduction of their refreshing PlayStation racer, Motor Toon Grand Prix (MTGP). It was a showcase piece of software showing off the graphic flair of the PlayStation's strong 3D power. A bit short on gameplay and overall depth, MTGP nevertheless turned lots of heads. With character designs by Matsushita Susumu (of Famicom Tsushin fame, Japan's leading weekly video game publication) and a colorful, cartoon-like atmosphere, MTGP proved that a racing game in 3D didn't have to be a serious affair. They followed that game up with the sequel, appropriately titled Motor Toon Grand Prix 2 (MTGP2), which featured everything that wasn't included in the original, such as more tracks, more vehicles, a unique power-up system, lots of cool bonuses, a more realistic driving model, excellent CG FMV movies, and tons of replay value. Since then, Polys Entertainment's presence in the market has been, for lack of a better term, brushed under the carpet. With the large and steady stream of quality games coming from prestigious companies such as Squaresoft, Namco, Konami, Capcom and Sony themselves, it's no wonder why. However, during this time of apparent dormancy, Polys has put together what can only be described as the best and most complete racing game of all time, and that is no exaggeration.

Upon powering up this game, you're treated to a lengthy and incredible CG FMV sequence that will leave you breathless. As you watch it, keep in mind that everything you see is CG rendered. There are very few companies out there that can create CG as good as this, and in terms of automotive CG rendering and animation, this is among the best that I've ever experienced, and nothing that I can think of comes close, including the CG in Rage Racer. It features most of the cars that appear in the game, including the elusive Castrol Toyota Supra, and definitely gets you in the mood to play this game. What may shock you even more is that the racing you see in this FMV sequence is simply a polished up, higher polygon, and motion-blurred version of the actual game.

A quick sidenote on Japanese and US naming conventions: In Japan, there is no such thing as Acura, Infiniti, or Lexus. These names were coined in the US for marketing/sales purposes, which is why they do not appear in this game. Acura automobiles use Honda powerplants, Infiniti uses Nissan, and Lexus uses Toyota. Likewise, the names of cars in Japan and the US differ greatly, depending on the manufacturer (i.e., a Mitsubishi 3000GT is called a Mitsubishi GTO in Japan, etc.).

The game is broken down into two main sections, the first being Quick Arcade. It is here where you can compete in a Single Race, and select from a fairly wide variety of pre-selected cars, which range from the average (Honda Civic, Mitsubishi Mirage), to the sporty (Honda Integra Type R, Toyota MR2), to the exotic (Honda NSX, Nissan Skyline GT-R). Each car falls under a specific class, ranging from C to B to A, A being the best. A Honda Civic SiRII 1.6-liter VTEC, for example, would fall under the C class, whereas the very powerful Nissan Skyline GT-R Turbo sits comfortably within the A class. Critical stats, which include acceleration, top speed and handling, are given for each car, although other more specific technical data, such as horsepower, torque, weight, dimensions, and so on, are not available here (most likely a result of the arcade nature of this mode). You can choose from a wide selection of body colors, which are all based on the actual paints used by the real-world manufacturers. There are 3 difficulty settings to choose from (Easy, Normal, Hard), and each will provide a very different level of challenge. Ideally, it's best to work your way through each of the difficulty levels, which will allow you to get a good handle on each of the tracks, which are all planned out perfectly and enjoyable to race through. However, your ultimate goal in this mode is to come in 1st-place for every track on the Hard difficulty setting in all classes, which yields a minimum of 24 full races, although realistically, you're looking at approximately 72-100+ races (which doesn't include restarts due to driver error, 2nd/3rd-place finishes, and so on). Doing so will unlock various goodies that are well worth the effort. The final bonus in particular will blow you away.

In addition to the above, you can also compete in Time Trial mode, which will allow you to take any of the cars in this section for a test spin around any of the available tracks to race in a battle against the clock. This portion of the game is just as fun, if not more so, than the Single Race mode, as it is just you against yourself and your best times. It also gives you a chance to test out the capabilities of each car without having to worry about other competitors on the road.

The second section of the game is titled Gran Turismo, and this is where the heart of the game lies. It is in this section where you are given free reign to collect, upgrade, and race an exhaustive selection of cars (over 140 total). If you like import racing, or simply enjoy racing in general, then you will have an absolute blast playing around with this portion of the game. You will find cars in this mode that are unavailable in the Quick Arcade mode, such as the late-model Nissan Silvia (1996 Nissan 240SX SE in the states), the Japanese-equivalent of the Lexus SC400, late-model Honda Accords, special edition Corvettes, the rare Honda Civic Type R, and many, many others. Also included are the true prize automobiles, such as the aforementioned touring-style Castrol Toyota Supra. Each of the major car manufacturers featured in this game house one of these rare beauties, and each one of them can be yours for the bargain price of 50,000,000 yen. The number of cars is staggering, and no matter what your preference, you're bound to find one of your favorites in here. Each car manufacturer has its own location on a main map, and within each location is the option to buy/sell cars and upgrade performance parts from the manufacturer's own speed/tuning shops. Those who are in-the-know with the import aftermarket should recognize such prestigious names as Nismo, Mazdaspeed, Mugen and TRD. Each shop sports all of their token upgrades, ranging from brake pads to tires, sway bars to shocks, ECU power-curve upgrades to turbo kits, in addition to many, many others. You name it, they got it. Custom paint jobs and all sorts of other bells and whistles are at your disposal (front/rear downforce spoilers, etc.), if you have the cash. In fact, about the only thing missing from Mugen is their trademark red valve cover! Additionally, each of these categories are broken down into various stages. You can select from several different types of exhaust systems (sport, race, etc.), and turbo/engine upgrades are broken down into multiple stage applications.

When you buy items, horsepower gains are provided on the spot, so you can see how much more power your motor will be putting out with each upgrade implemented. Think your intake is breathing too much hot air and that the efficiency of your motor and turbo is going down because of it? Invest in an intercooler to keep the cold air flowing and see if that makes a difference. Speed increasing, but handing decreasing? Invest in racing suspension components and tires and then see if things improve. Quarter mile times lagging with your front-wheel drive car? Try stiffening up your suspension and put soft racing tires up front for more grip. It doesn't end there, either. Most of your upgrades are fully adjustable, so for example, if you need better cornering stability, knock your camber out a few degrees (they're adjustable to within 1/10th of a degree). Lower or raise your car to your heart's content. Don't like your standard gear ratios? Bump them up or lower them; it's all up to you! Adjustments can be made to almost everything, and that's 90% of the fun of this title. Mixing and matching, tweaking and adjusting. Almost all real-world applications can be put to use here, and more often than not, they work as they're supposed to; except here, it only costs you the price of an import game, instead of tens of thousands of dollars.

It doesn't stop there. In order to get the most out of Gran Turismo mode, you must compete in any number of different challenges, which range from single-track spot races to multiple-track point-system competitions ( la MTGP2). There's a wide variety of different events, but in order to take place and win in any of them, you must first obtain 3 different classes of licenses and then buy and upgrade cars that will ensure that the odds are in your favor when you take your car out onto the raceway. Licenses are obtained by passing a wide array of tests, such as acceleration and stopping power, basic/advanced cornering, E-brake turns, and single-circuit time trials. The criteria is tough, but you can try these as many times as you like until you qualify. You need to complete each task within a specified amount of time to avoid failing, and only the most expert of drivers will obtain gold medals in each of the tests. Luckily, licenses are awarded regardless of which medals you collect, and you will need to win in these races in order to earn enough cash to purchase new cars and parts.

These unlocked races are exciting, and you can earn money in all sorts of different ways. While qualifying, you can earn bonus cash by coming in first, allowing you to start in the starting grid's pole position. You win money for each race you win, and in the end, if you come in first, special bonuses and rare prizes are awarded to you that you cannot find anywhere else in the game.

Gran Turismo mode also sports a very nice Machine Test area, where you can put your cars to the test in some controlled-condition performance trials (one is quite similar to the popular -mile runs in the US). Additionally, you can test the maximum speed of your vehicle in a high-speed oval track, the likes of which you would see in Japan's popular VHS magazine, Video Option. This portion of the game is absolutely perfect for trying out your new modifications. Did that turbo you just bought really help your quarter-mile times? Did your new exhaust manifold help? It's all in the numbers, and slight cuts in your times - just like in the real world - are exciting to witness and really make you feel closer to your vehicle. Apparently, Polys thought of this, and included a humorous (yet relatively useless) Car Wash feature, which 'cleans' your car (for 5,000 yen). Good to use before you put your car back into the garage, but basically, it's just there for people with money to burn. Give it a whirl at least once!

However, because Gran Turismo mode was made with the car enthusiast in mind, pure arcade racing game players or casual game players may be turned off by the seemingly overwhelming amount of detail in this portion of the game. If you prefer, you can get by without making adjustments to your vehicle, making the game accessible to those players who simply want to race and win. It's a bit more difficult, but it can be done. I do highly encourage that you play around with parts upgrades and adjustments, though. Buying new parts, tweaking them, and then taking your wheels out onto a test course to see how your car performs is one of the most rewarding and educational experiences this game has to offer, and I guarantee that if you stick with it, you'll be hooked before you know it.

Now, in terms of visuals, Gran Turismo can hold its own against any other home racing game out there, whether it exists on the PlayStation, Saturn, N64, or PC, and in most cases, it surpasses them all. Gran Turismo is the first PlayStation racing game to make full use of environment mapping, a programming technique of projecting textures onto 3D models. This technique was put to pretty good use when Mario turned metallic in Super Mario 64 (N64) and to a much lesser degree in Delphine Software's Moto Racer, in which the name entry screen had a spinning, environment-mapped trophy in the background. The difference between this and every other racer out there is that these cars actually look metallic and real. And depending on when and where you're driving, what's reflected on your car's exterior differs. This is the first time I've ever seen this particular level of detail done in a game. Driving at night in the city? Building and city lights are reflected on your car's body. In the country at sunset? Hazy, orange sunlight glints off your car's every curve. The car models themselves are also extremely detailed, and look exactly like their real-world counterparts. You want detail? Take the Honda Integra Type R, for example. Red emblems, mid-size racing wing, and Type R-specific 5-lug wheels are all here, just as they're supposed to be. Polys left no stone unturned, and it shows. When you're driving, the inner portion of your wheels appear to spin at a different rate than the outer portion, better simulating the sensation of speed. Brake lamps light up, headlights turn on for night races (and also exhibit the blue and gold iridium hues of their parent countries' OEM headlight bulbs), and track detail is high. The game moves along at approximately 30fps, and draw-in is kept to a minimum.

Once you complete a race, you are then treated to some of the most realistic replays you've ever seen. For the replays, car detail is brought even higher with the use of more detailed environment mapping and dynamic camera angles, zooms and pans. You can select which car you'd like to follow by manipulating the directional pad (useful for when you want to study another driver's techniques), as well as selecting between external and in-car views with the four main buttons. And if you want, you can choose to save replays to memory card. You can even rename them, if you want.

Gran Turismo also excels in the sound department. Never before has there been more realistic sound effects in a racing game. If you're driving a car equipped with turbo, you'll hear the turbine whizzing away inside your engine bay. If you're driving a Honda equipped with a VTEC motor, you'll hear it start to come alive right past 5,000rpm and roar wildly when it nears the rev limiter, just like it's supposed to. Inside the cockpit of a Mazda RX-7, you'll hear and feel the notable differences you get with the powerful 1.3-liter rotary powerplant. Upgrades to your car also affect the way it sounds, and ultimately, each car you get in sounds almost exactly like they do in real-life. It's that good. Music in the game is also quite pleasing, combining a good amount of melodic rock with funk, jazz, and even some reggae. The Options menu music and the tune that plays at the Subaru HQ in Gran Turismo mode are among my favorites. The end song is great musically, but the vocals aren't very strong, which is unfortunate.

In the areas of gameplay and control, Gran Turismo has its highs and one particular low. Control is simply stunning. Using Namco's NeGcon, Sony's standard analog controller, or Sony's new dual-shock analog controller will yield in extremely precise control and realism. Utilizing a refined version of MTGP2's physics engine, your cars exhibit a high degree of realistic mass and momentum. Sony's analog controllers vibrate differently, depending on your situation in the game, and reflect the action on the screen flawlessly. Gran Turismo marks the first game made specifically for Sony's new dual-shock analog pad, and the feeling is quite similar to Nintendo's Rumble Pak. The controller is sturdy and feels perfect while playing this game. It is highly recommended. Racing against the computer in Quick Arcade mode, however, is an exercise in patience and the suppression of anger. In certain classes, Gran Turismo exhibits one of the worst computer A.I.'s that I have ever experienced. It's not that they're bad drivers - they're actually decent drivers and make mistakes of their own. However, computer-controlled cars tend to get a magical boost of speed when you least expect it, and nonchalantly pass you up like you're walking. This is most apparent in straight-aways, regardless of what car you're driving. No matter how good you do on a track, they will almost always find a way to catch up with you. This is very much like the cheating A.I. in Nintendo's Mario Kart 64, and it is a poor excuse to justify a challenge. Yes, it makes the game extremely challenging, and it forces you to try and find the right car for a particular course, but it also undercuts the whole realism factor of this title. Fortunately, bumping into other cars doesn't slow you down that much, so nudging them to keep them from passing you up works well. Luckily, this does not occur in Gran Turismo mode to my knowledge, and in the grand scheme of things, this really helps to balance that problem out, and makes it seem relatively minor. In Gran Turismo mode, if you're faster, you'll pull ahead and you'll -stay- ahead.

The extensive amount of Japanese text in this game will undoubtedly frustrate many import players. The menus are set up in such a way as to be easily understandable by all people and there's a lot of English text in the game, but if you want to learn about the histories of all the cars and find out exactly what a part will do for your vehicle and application, a good working knowledge of the Japanese written language is a must. Luckily, FAQs are popping up all over the place which explain the more vital areas of this game (especially license tests), so if you have a chance, pick one of them up. For starters, try this site or point your browser to http://www.gamefaqs.com. Also, if you want to learn more about the parts, cars, and terminology used in this game, there are tons of websites out there as well as US and Japanese print publications, such as Option, Turbo, Super Street, and Sport Compact Car Magazine, bristling with information pertinent to this game.

All in all, Gran Turismo is the best racing game out there, and is among the best games of 1997. In fact, I was shocked at how archaic Rage Racer felt when I tried playing it after a long session with this title. Give it a try, and see for yourself why this has become one of the most sought-after PlayStation titles for the 1997-1998 winter season. Happy racing.

 


Score Breakdown:
================

GRAPHICS: 9.7/10.0
------------------
+ Clean, 30fps game engine.
+ Highly-detailed cars and track detail.
+ Exquisite use of environment mapping on all vehicles.
+ Gorgeous CG FMV opening sequence.
+ High-resolution, icon-based interface.
+ Amazing final bonus feature in Quick Arcade mode.
+ Unbelievably realistic race replays.
- Minor clipping problems and pixellated textures.
- Very slight slowdown in replay mode only.

SOUND AND MUSIC: 9.3/10.0
-------------------------
+ The most realistic and dynamic engine sounds ever heard in a video game.
+ Lots of ambient sound effects, including crowd cheers, etc.
+ Nice selection of music, ranging from smooth funk to driving rock.
+ Ultra-clean handling of the Doppler effect.
+ Each car manufacturer has a different musical piece.
+ Nice end song composition.
- End song vocals are somewhat of a let-down.
- Some menu tunes are slightly on the weak side.

GAMEPLAY AND CONTROL: 9.8/10.0
------------------------------
+ Flawless control, each car feels and handles differently.
+ Support for almost every controller out there.
+ Dual-shock analog controller works beautifully.
+ Almost endless replayability options in Gran Turismo mode.
+ Lots of different races to take place in.
+ Limitless upgrade combinations and settings.
+ Challenging and fun license and machine test trials.
+ Realistic rendering of turbo vs. non-turbo cars.
- Cheap A.I. in some Quick Arcade class races.

=================
OVERALL: 9.7/10.0
=================

Buy it, play it, love it, and then play it some more. This is as good as it gets. The US version is going to lose LOTS of cars (probably the Japan-only models, such as the sexy Nissan Skyline GT-R, Mitsubishi FTO, etc.), so pick up the import if you haven't done so already.

Review Copyright 1998 by Michael Motoda (mmotoda@interplay.com). Please feel free to email me with your comments, questions, and/or criticisms. Thank you for your time.

-- Michael Motoda

Sony Computer Entertainment 1997

Last updated: October 05, 1998

 

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