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First and foremost, let me just make clear that I am not "into" cars. I don't understand terms like torque or displacement. I have never been a participant in the age-old Ford vs Holden debate. And ask me who Mark Webber is and I'll tentatively reply: "Is he the dude who invented the barbecue?" In short, my mechanic loves me.
Yet every time a new Gran Turismo game comes out, I am transformed. For a few months, I know exactly what torque is and how it relates to my Nissan Skyline GT-R. I obsess about racing lines and rail at how a missed corner can affect my lap time. I know how important a simple thing like an oil change can be to a car's overall HP. I start back chatting my mechanic.
It's the same with Gran Turismo 4, without doubt the most detailed and passionate computer game about cars and racing ever produced. It's by no means perfect (or even a massive leap forward for the series), but it sucks you in like no other car game can. If you're a revhead, then you probably already have it. If you're ambivalent about cars, then get it anyway: trust me, it's a must have.
When Gran Turismo 3 came out four years ago, it was hard to see how the team at Polyphony Digital could top it. The graphics and gameplay were outstanding, and it showcased the relatively new PlayStation 2 in an extremely positive light.
Gran Turismo 4 takes the best bits of the previous game and revs them up to 110. Want more cars? GT4 features more than 700 real cars, including Ford and Holden models for the local revheads. Want more tracks? GT4 has a 52 track line-up, including the punishing Nurburgring Nordschleife in Germany, one of the most difficult courses in the world. Want better graphics? Believe it or not, GT4 is a significant step-up from GT3. Car and track models are more detailed than ever, with some of the replays looking like real sportscasts thanks to its photo-realistic graphics.
The game's attention to detail, a hallmark of the Gran Turismo series, is frankly bordering on obsessive compulsive. Each car took game programmers three months to build, and are based on more than 500 photos per vehicle. The sound each car's engine makes was also recorded to make sure of authenticity - Polyphony says each car make and model can be identified purely by the sound of the engine.
The tracks in GT4 each took six months to build, and are apparently accurate to within 15mm of the real thing. As an indicator of how close the cars and tracks are to the real thing, Polyphony proudly boasts that real race drivers testing the game found that there was only about a second's difference between their real-world track times and game ones.
Anyone familiar with the Gran Turismo series will feel right at home with this latest version. Players will easily recognise the in-world map, which has various checkpoints to start races, buy or tune cars, perform license tests, and much more.
You start off with 10,000 game credits (though if you have a GT3 save game on your memory card, you're given an extra 100,000), which you can use to buy cars and start racing immediately. The cheapest cars can be found in one of several used car lots (specialising in '80s, early '90s and late '90s cars), but you can go directly to a manufacturer's section and buy direct. A new Holden Monaro, for example, will set you back 48,000 game credits.
Beginners should start in the license tests area, which takes you through various aspects of car control. Experienced gamers also need to complete the tests, as the various licenses are needed to compete in certain events (and it's a great way to score some free cars early in the game).
Races are broken up into categories such as beginners' events, professional, dirt and snow, extreme events, and more. Races for specific vehicles are also available through accessing a particular manufacturer's section. As usual with the Gran Turismo series, you'll be facing off against five other drivers in any given A-Spec race.
You don't always have to do the driving, however. A new addition is the B-Spec mode, which allows you to take the role of pit manager while the in-game AI takes control of your car. All you need to do is send messages to your "driver", such as how aggressive to chase the other vehicles and when to pass. Polyphony describes the B-Spec mode as a way to play GT4 while having a cup of coffee, and while it's a nice diversion, it adds little to the overall game. It is handy, however, if you want to earn some extra credits while you give your thumbs a sorely needed break.
Rides around the world
If you needed any further proof that GT4 is the ultimate game for car lovers, look no further than the game's innovative Photo Mode. Accessed through the main world map, Photo Mode lets you simply take pictures of your cars in various world locations.
You can take any of the cars you own and place them in such scenic spots as the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, New York and many others. Photo Mode gives you a remarkable degree of control over your shots, such as placement, shutter speed, aperture and more. The snaps you take can be collated to form a slideshow, or can be printed out by connecting a printer to the PlayStation via USB. With the resulting print-outs looking eerily realistic, now you can pretend to your friends that your other car really IS an Aston Martin Vanquish: you even have shots to prove it.
If you can read this, then you're too close
GT4's racing is once again superb. Cars handle realistically, and even non-revheads soon appreciate how differently a beast with front wheel drive handles compared to sleek rear wheel soft top. The in-game physics are spot on - slam the brakes on too hard and you'll lose control in a tight corner; tap them enough to slow down before accelerating out and you won't have a close encounter with the barrier wall.
The game's biggest letdown comes in the form of the other computer controlled drivers you'll face. The AI hasn't improved since GT3, with your opponents always blindly following their set racing lines without taking notice of other vehicles around them. If you're in their way going around the corner, expect to get hit - the computer controlled cars will make no effort to get out of the way. While this can be annoying for perfectionist drivers, it's paradoxically a godsend for the control challenged, who can use the opponents as bumper cars to navigate corners.
Other niggling disappointments in GT4 include a lack of damage on vehicles (a holdover from the earlier games) and no on-line mode, although the game does support LAN gaming.
Months of fun
A review such as this can't possibly hope to cover all of the features a packed game like GT4 can offer. With all the different races, tests and special missions available, you'll be playing GT4 for many months to come. In fact, Polyphony says that it would take a year's gaming to drive each car for 15 minutes on each track.
And while GT4 is not the massive leap from GT3 some were expecting, the sheer depth and variety of cars and tracks, great physics model and outstanding extras make it by far the best car game available on any system. Your reviewer may not be a true revhead, but I may as well be for the next few months.
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