As racers have evolved from clunky, sprite-based classics such as Pole Position and Rad Racer, two consistent trends have emerged: one spectrum of racers leans toward exaggerated physics, stunts, and intuitive playability; and the other towards realism, precise physics, and challenging game mechanics. Though both styles of play strive to immerse the player in the nerve-wracking uncertainty of racing, the latter category (a.k.a. "simulators") is distinct in that it attempts to mimic the calculated experience of real-life racing. It is that latter category into which the Gran Turismo series of games fall. Gran Turismo 3: A-spec (GT3) is arguably the epitome of racing simulators. In it, vehicles can be customized and upgraded; cars mimic the physics of their real-life counterparts (if the term physics is too abstract, perhaps a more suitable term would be feel); and graphics and sound are as lifelike as current technology will allow. Why, you can even take your car for a wash and an oil change!
While many of these features have emerged over the past decade in other racing simulators (including, of course, the previous Gran Turismo games), never have they been realized so meticulously or with such accord in a single game. GT3 is not a unique game, nor a particularly original one; as sequels are wont to be, it remains fundamentally unchanged from its predecessors. It is, however, a remarkably refined game, one that successfully attempts to realize the precise, mathematical nature of real-life racing.
True racing skills are not intuitive, but take years of dedication and hard work to achieve. In GT3, players can get an idea just how complex and challenging racing really is. Every car responds differently based on their unique specifications, and there are enough tracks of varying design to allow players to experiment with the strengths and weaknesses of the vehicles. Consequently, racing can be a thumb-taxing challenge. Understeer just a little too much or brake just a little too late, and you could lose seconds off your lap time. The cars may not be precisely representative of their real-life performance, but they need not be. They must only be convincing; convincing enough to provide the sort of suspenseful escapism to which all of the best racers aspire.
Aside from the racing itself, a plethora of races and options await in GT3. There are over two-dozen tracks; over 150 cars (incidentally, far less than in the previous Gran Tursimo game) ranging from bargain-bin economy cars to rare, exotic supercars; an arcade mode; and—buckle up—an 80-race simulation mode. Car settings can be altered to your desire via the options menu and, in the simulation mode, upgraded by purchasing an impressive variety of parts. This is definitely not a game you'll cruise through over the weekend. It's a tremendously long, involved game—and that's the beauty of it. GT3 simply offers more to do than any racing game before it. This depth of options and features, combined with the game's responsive physics and well-designed tracks, makes for unprecedented depth of play.
Suffice to say that this is a game that aspires to be thorough, challenging, involved, and impressively realistic. It was because of this otherwise obsessive attention to detail that I found the game's mundane artificial intelligence (AI) to be a rather egregious blunder. In last year's phenomenal simulator, F355 Challenge, opposing cars would tailgate you, deliberately ram you, make mistakes, even run each other off the track. In GT3, none of this technology is implemented. Instead, opposing cars simply drive along a predictable path, remaining relatively unaffected by your actions. In the face of the game's phenomenal, life-like graphics (complete with real-time lighting and reflective surfaces) and its detailed physics model, it seems ironic that the game is populated with lifeless, mechanical AI. Why would the developers go to such great length to create realistic visuals and physics but be content with thoroughly unrealistic artificial intelligence? It only sours an otherwise engaging experience.
Despite the weakness in the AI, I have ultimately found GT3 to be an enjoyable, challenging game. The Simulation mode, which is the meat and potatoes of the game, is exceptionally deep. At the start, you are given 18,000 dollars (or "credits"), which allows you to buy some lower-end cars (Gran Turismo 2 veterans beware: there are no longer used cars in the game). There are some interesting cars here, such as the PT Cruiser and Mazda Miada, but mostly this is the part of the game that is least compelling. After all, what fun is it to play a racing game just to drive cars you may own in real life? Most players will want to sail past the beginning ranks and start driving more exotic cars, but getting to those nice rides is no walk in the park. You are given such a small amount of money to start and such a negligable amount of prize money for winning races that repeating races is necessary to buy the nicer cars. It's not a glaring fault, but frequently repeating the same races, especially the slower beginner's races, can get a little boring. It's a slightly contrived way to slow the progression of the game, but not dramatically so. The GT3 simulation mode isnt flawless, but it's the best of its kind. So many races and options are at your disposal that it could literally take months to finish the game in its entirety.
The arcade mode is a different story altogether. No "credits," no saving up, or suping-up. You are simply given a list of cars, tracks, and a choice of difficulty. At the onset of the game, you are given six tracks from which to choose. Upon completing the first group, you unlock the second, and so on until all the tracks in the game are unlocked. It's not a new concept, but it's done very well in GT3. There are, of course, tons of options and, though you will only be able to access a fraction of the cars available in the game, there is an impressive list of cars at your disposal.
The Rally mode, intertwined with the simulation and arcade modes, is the finest I've played since 1995's Sega Rally Championship. I would go so far as to say that GT3's Rally mode surpasses that modern classic with its realistic physics and well-crafted tracks. The margin of error is significantly greater than on the street tracks, so I found myself feeling a bit more relaxed. Doing powersildes and making impressive jumps at high speed made me feel like I was playing an arcade-style racer, not a simulator. Incidentally, it's interesting to note that there are actually more tracks and far more options in the GT3 Rally mode than in the aforementioned Sega Rally Championship in its entirety. It just goes to show how comprehensive and detailed GT3 really is.
So it is at this point that I cant help but wonder, "what next?" Aside from improving the AI, how could the Gran Turismo series—or any racing simulator for that matter—evolve? As I said earlier, GT3 preserves the Gran Turismo formula fundamentally unchanged, refining rather than creating. In doing so, it has become the most in-depth and complete racer ever. What more could a racing simulator possibly offer? Better graphics? Better physics? More upgrades? More exotic cars? At some point, refinement becomes self-defeating as gamers grow tired of overused concepts. Unfortunately, GT3 simply does not offer anything new or unique. Where will the creative minds of developers take simulators in the future? Despite its strengths, GT3 leaves that question unanswered.