Gran Turismo 4 “Prologue”
The Gran Turismo series is a franchise of mammoth proportions. Since the first game’s launch in 1997, the series has sold over 34 million copies worldwide and when Gran Turismo 4 launches this November, that total is sure to rise beyond the 40 million mark. Gran Turismo 4 “Prologue” is a game which has been thrown onto the market in the wake of the increasing anticipation of GT4. It’s meant to be, “an exclusive ‘Advanced Skills School’, designed with the most ambitious drivers in mind”, according to its creator and “provides an opportunity to prepare for the imminent challenge of GT4“. The somewhat painful truth is that it’s the most expensive demo disk ever created.
Gran Turismo 4 “Prologue” is essentially divided into two sections, School and Arcade. The former is a set of driving lessons in which the aim is to perfect your technique so that when the real GT4 comes along, you’ll be ready. There are 46 lessons in all, laid out on screen like a board game, with a traffic cone (you) moving from one icon (lesson) to another in turn. Each one unlocks a car on completion which you can use in the other mode, Arcade. Every lesson starts with a video outlining the tutorial, with a voiceover from the motoring journalist Vickie Butler Henderson of Top Gear and Fifth Gear fame. You then attempt the simple stages which can range from a few seconds to a number of minutes. This would be all well and good if the tasks themselves weren’t so lame and pointless.
You see, each one is really a case of following a blue line painted on the road, braking and lifting off the accelerator when the line goes red and white respectively. Many of the first challenges are simple ‘learning how to steer round a corner’ affairs, something that shouldn’t even need to be there. Learning how to handle the car and to use it effectively is part of the fun of many racing games; it’s something you gain experience of yourself, not something you’re taught. On top of this, it’s most likely fans of the driving genre who are going to interested in this game, the exact people who already know how to steer round a corner or through some cones. Tutorials are fine in games like RPGs and FPSs where the control scheme may be complex or the game mechanic daunting, but this is a racing game like any other.
When you do visit Arcade mode, you’ll find only five tracks on which to race, with only three of those featuring other cars. There are 64 cars to race round them, but how long you can spend on so few circuits is questionable. What Arcade does reveal though, is what GT4‘s gameplay is shaping up to be like, and it’s not all good news.
When your car hits a wall, you expect it to break, but not in Gran Turismo. The series has never had any damage modeling and it’s disappointing to see that it’s still the case. Before the excuse of the manufacturers disallowing it was ample, but with Project Gotham 2 featuring a full damage system for many of the cars that feature in GT, this becomes unacceptable. The physics model is also a little suspect. It’s fine most of the time, but when you strike another car or the scenery, it acts in a strangely unrealistic way. When vehicles hit each other, they seem to act like bumper cars, with no real momentum carried over to the recipient of the crash. The same happens when you smash into a barrier; you just stop and there aren’t any physical repercussions. For something that’s meant to be, “The Real Driving Simulator”, it’s extremely unrealistic in some respects.
Gran Turismo 3 introduced off-road rallying to the concept and the same feature returns in GT4. “Prologue” offers a single rally course – The Grand Canyon – and it shows off the alterations made to the game’s rally formula. The tracks are narrower this time round and the cars handle a little more authentically, but when put up against games like Colin McRae Rally 04, GT4‘s effort pales in comparison. There’s no co-driver is present to guide you around the circuits and invisible barriers plague the stages. Straying from the track towards the bushes also results in a sudden collision with an unseen barricade that keeps you where you should be. Drive into a plastic netting barrier in other games and you’ll go through it and down a cliff, but not here, where plastic has adopted the attributes of steel. Even stranger, is the continuation of using tracks which loop back on themselves, which never happens in normal, A to B rallying. I thought GT was meant to be realistic…
Gran Turismo fans need not despair though, for there is plenty of good news to offset the bad. The cars handle perfectly for a simulation-orientated game, requiring delicate and precise maneuvering to squeeze the best lap times out of cars. Project Gotham allows you to slam on the brakes at a corner and power round it in style, but GT4 has none of this, sending you off into the gravel if you handle cars with too much vigor. You get used to it after a while and it becomes second nature, but for those who are used to more arcade-styled racers, it comes as quite a shock. Let’s just say that driving in GT is more of a science than an art.
That doesn’t meant that the game isn’t beautiful, far from it. I revisited GT3 the other day and was shocked to find how dated the graphics looked. In comparison, GT4 looks stunning, with car detail, lighting and a frame rate on par with the best the Xbox can offer. Notably, there is a tiny amount of pop-up on some courses, but this should be ironed out by the time the full game hits our shores. In addition to the standard nose-cam and low chase, there’s a high chase viewpoint. This raised and withdrawn perspective gives you ample vision of the track ahead and your car’s positioning on it. It may not seem like much, but it gave me a pleasant surprise when I discovered it. GT4 really shows that graphical improvements don’t necessarily rely on hardware upgrades.
The audio department mirrors the previous games like no other, with exactly the same mix of good and bad as we’ve seen before. Vehicle sound effects are superb and taken directly from the real cars themselves, rumbling in the background as you tear through New York or wherever you happen to be. The in-game music also returns, offering a suitable soundtrack to all your motoring adventures. Off the track though, it’s the same bemusing story as before, with exactly the same cheesy synthesised rock and comical blips as you move through the menus. Tongue in cheek as it may or may not be, the developers can do better and I can’t believe it hasn’t been altered in all this time.
“Prologue”‘s Achilles heel is undoubtedly its replay value. With only five tracks in Arcade mode and the weak School mode available, you’re going to be struggling to make the entertainment last more than a week or so. Even though GT4 will feature online play, it hasn’t been included here and that really is the killer blow to the lifespan. Even with the low price tag, there’s little lasting value to be had here at all.
What the game does give us is a preview of what Gran Turismo 4 will be like come the winter. “Prologue” reveals both the positive and the not so promising aspects of what is still essentially work in progress. If the developers can clean up the gameplay and polish off the visuals, removing annoying little features like being penalised for crashing, and tune the physics to be slightly more realistic, then we could be in for one hell of a game. I just hope that it doesn’t end up being a shinier, tweaked version of GT3 instead of being something more innovative like it should.
Ultimately, Gran Turismo 4 “Prologue” is an enjoyable drive, but an incredibly short one at that. Why they didn’t include an expanded Arcade mode instead of the debacle that is School and why there isn’t any online play, I don’t know. What I am certain about though is that with over 500 cars to play with on a wealth of tracks, both offline and online, GT4 could really be something special. “Prologue” though, is strictly rental material only.