I always enjoy it when I'm able to learn something about myself when playing a game. It can be something as simple as, "Gee, throwing people through windows sure is fun," or as complex as "in a post-Cold War world, I'm more than a little uncomfortable playing a game where I shoot Russian soldiers." If Gran Turismo 4 taught me one thing, it's that I'd be quite a good driver if it wasn't for all those corners.
Much like the last two Gran Turismo games, GT4 is an overwhelmingly ambitious driving simulator that offers hundreds of automobiles to race on dozens of tracks, with enough customization options that, mathematically speaking, you'd probably win the lottery before you'd tried all of them. For the fourth time in row, the real standouts on the game's development team are the licensing people. There are a huge number of cars available in the game, from the cheapest hatchback to the million-plus racecar, each one as close in appearance and performance as the PS2's processor will allow.
Naturally, the game's graphics have improved since Gran Turismo 3, but that isn't really news per se. While the cars are significantly rounder this time, and the 2D crowds do a remarkable job of seeming 3D, the graphics have the same antiseptic, artificial quality that the series has long suffered from. While other games have made huge strides forward in environmental and atmospheric graphical effects, GT4 still resides in a world where it never rains or snows, where going from zero to 120 in the space of three seconds doesn't leave rubber marks on the ground, and there's no heat distortion when driving by the Grand Canyon on the hottest day of the year. Of course, the most famous graphical quirk in the series, the inability to damage cars in any real or cosmetic way, is still present, and it affects the gameplay just as critically this time as it ever has in the past.
Gran Turismo 4 bills itself as "The Real Driving Simulator," and it's a little odd that their main marketing point is the focal point of my problems with the game. GT4 really is more of a driving simulator than it is a game. Of course, these terms are a little fuzzy, so I'll try to be clearer: the simulation is, aside from a few hiccoughs I'll address below, spot on, but the player's enjoyment of it will be entirely dependant on how interested they are in roughly approximating the experience of driving a car down extremely bendy tracks. The game aspect is a little less well thought out and implemented.
The meat and potatoes of the game is the "Gran Turismo Mode," in which the player must compete in a series of races to earn cash to buy and improve their cars so they can compete in higher-end races to earn more money to buy faster cars to compete.. and the cycle continues for roughly three months of casual play. So it's a pretty big game. If only one, just one of those races had felt like I was actually racing against someone, maybe the vast majority of my time with the game wouldn't have felt like such a dreadful bore.
The game doesn't seem to have any driver AI at all. Each opponent car always knows every nook and cranny of every course, and drives each of them in the most perfect manner imaginable. Since each computer car is driven to perfection, the only variable is the power of the car being driven—meaning that if I, the player, were removed from the equation, the computer cars would always finish in the exact same order, with the exact same time. I actually tested this a few times and discovered that, yes, except for variances in the hundredths and thousandths of seconds, the lead car always finished with the exact same time.
Up against this kind of perfection, the player has only two options. The first is that they can obtain a car so overwhelmingly powerful that they can just blow past the computer cars. This is fun the first few times, but minute-long lead times on cars that can't speed up, or even deviate from a set course, to save their lives, quickly becomes a tiresome experience.
The complete predictability of these computer cars makes me wonder why they were included in the game at all. Racing against them is no different than racing against an arbitrary track time, the way players are required to in order to obtain their driver's licenses. In fact, the only purpose these cars serve is to facilitate the second option for beating the superior computer opponent: cheating. Early in the game, dealing with cars considerably faster than my own, I became quite skilled at coming up on them fast as they slowed to make turns and ramming into them. This would invariably send the lead car sliding off the track, and correct my heading and speed so that I made the turn. My car's above-mentioned invulnerability made this an attractive option until I could afford a decent car. I shouldn't be able to do that in a racing game. More importantly, I should never feel like I have to do that in a racing game.
So the main part of the game is a bit of a bust, but still worth playing for any non-billionaires interested in obsessively collecting the world's fastest automobiles. So how does the game fare under its own criteria, as the "Real Driving Simulator"? It's the best one around, but that certainly doesn't mean it's perfect. Ironically, the game's accurate driving mechanics cause most of the problems. As in "real" driving, GT4 rarely asks the player to turn the steering wheel all the way to the left or right, or jam their foot on the accelerator. Subtle changes in speed and heading are key. Unfortunately, despite its analog design, the Dual Shock 2 controller just isn't designed to easily allow for the kind of careful correction the game requires, especially at the speed the game asks it of players. Simple moves, the equivalent of nothing more than changing lanes, can be a dangerous endeavor when there's no way to easily and accurately re-align the car using the virtual steering wheel. I'm sure that most of these problems are nonexistent when playing with a full-on steering wheel and pedal controller, but since the vast majority of people playing this game won't have access to those controllers, it's worth mentioning that the game is significantly harder without them.
Worse still is the somewhat broader problem that as Gran Turismo games have been getting more and more realistic at depicting the mechanics of driving, they've actually brought players father away from the experience of driving. As anyone who's spent any time driving can attest, it very quickly stops being about remembering road rules or watching gauges, and starts being about intuitively knowing how to drive. Feeling the inertia pulls in tight turns, the sudden shake before a car starts to fishtail, the slight change in engine pitch when it's time to change gear. Cues like these give real drivers all the information they need to make split-second high-speed decisions. The spinning of a little shaky gyroscope inside a controller doesn't really approximate this effect, and even if it could, the controller really only rumbles in one way. That little rumble has to mean so many things that it's not really useful as a source of sensory information. So the game wants players to drive according to realistic physics, but it can't give them the tools they need to drive under those conditions. As a result, driving becomes less about intuition and skill and more about rote course memorization, which is considerably less of a "Real Driving" experience than I'm sure they were hoping to create.
Unfortunately, the developers were so focused on reaching their goal they forgot that while accuracy is a noble goal to strive for, it doesn't hurt for games to be a little fun as well. All games have to decide how far they want to go down the sliding scale towards realism, and it's my opinion that until the technology exists to create the real driving simulation effect that Polyphony is clearly going for, they might want to consider dialing the next game back a few notches. Or at least letting the computer players make a mistake every once in a while.