Gran Turismo 4 Hands-On Impressions

We take the latest build of GT4 for a test drive and chat with the series' creator, Kazunori Yamauchi about some of the game's new features.

Earlier today, far from the crowded and noisy E3 show floor, we met with Gran Turismo creator Kazunori Yamauchi to check out some of the all-new features that will be appearing in Gran Turismo 4 later this year. Yamauchi, who is the president of Polyphony Digital and senior vice president of Sony Computer Entertainment, was in a particularly buoyant mood having recently ordered himself a new Ford GT40 and, as we were soon to discover, devised a way to incorporate his love of photography into his latest game.

For the bulk of today's presentation, in fact, Yamauchi discussed the previously unannounced "photo mode" that will be appearing in the game, which allows you to take photos of your favorite cars, organize them into slideshows, share them with friends online, and even print them out at a resolution of 1280x960 if you have a photo-quality printer you can plug into your PS2's USB port. In addition to taking photos from your saved action replays, GT4 will allow you to stage your own photo opportunities simply by selecting a location, placing a car in it, positioning your camera, applying any effects and filters you like, and then hitting the shoot button. The photo mode's ease of use belies a surprisingly sophisticated system that allows you to use different lenses, adjust the field of depth, apply motion blur effects, and even choose different types of camera film. One of the walls of the room we were meeting in with Yamauchi was literally covered with photos taken in-game, and it wasn't long before we were encouraged to have a go ourselves.

In the final game, you'll be able to set up photos using any of more than 500 cars (from more than 80 manufacturers, some of which no longer exist--the cars date back as far as 1886), 50 courses, and 16 locations created exclusively for the photo mode. The options available to us represented only a small fraction of those, but after only five minutes or so of playing around with our shot of a classic Corvette on one of the Italian street circuits, we were ready to commit our efforts to paper. Incidentally, the options when setting up your shot won't be unlimited as far as car and camera positions go--we were basically presented with a top-down view of the environment with designated areas for the car and camera highlighted in red and blue respectively. When you're producing photos and distributing them online, the file sizes will be kept very small since they really contain nothing more than the positions of objects. We soon discovered that the same won't be true when printing them, though--our postcard-sized photo, which could easily pass for a photograph at a glance, took almost five minutes to travel from the PS2 to the printer.

The other new feature of Gran Turismo 4 that Yamauchi was eager to show off was what he referred to as the game's "human elements." Not only will you be able to see realistically animated drivers inside all of the cars now (complete with helmets that show off the game's real-time environment mapping as well as the cars do), but you'll also find that the spectators have evolved from cardboard cutouts into fully 3D, animated models. The crowds aren't content to just stand behind barriers and clap as you race past either, and particularly during rallies you'll see spectators stepping onto the track to get a better view or to take photos before jumping out of the way when you approach. The spectator animations are extremely realistic and, like those used for the drivers, have been created using a human physics engine rather than motion-capture techniques.

With more than 500 cars in the game, Yamauchi and his team have seen fit to design an all-new user interface so that selecting one from your garage doesn't become a chore. The new interface hasn't been fully implemented yet, but it will allow you to sort your cars using a number of headings such as manufacturer and class, and it will also let you create your own list of favorites. One of the new interface screen designs we were shown revealed that secondhand cars will be making a comeback in Gran Turismo 4 (they were featured in GT2), but Yamauchi seemed uncertain as to whether or not the GT2 option that allowed you to transform regular cars into race-spec machines complete with body kits and custom paint jobs will also return--perhaps because something was lost in translation during our QA session. The interface screen mock-ups we were shown also revealed that the game will feature drift competitions--rewarding you for your style of driving rather than for your final race position.

Toward the end of our meeting Yamauchi revealed the names of three previously unannounced courses that will be appearing in GT4, namely the streets of Hong Kong, the Costa di Amalfi tarmac rally track in Italy, and Germany's famous 13-mile-long Nurburgring. All of the circuits in the game have been painstakingly re-created to the extent that every single point in the environment is accurate to within 15mm--around two-thirds of an inch. To drive this point home Yamauchi told us that Nissan's top test driver, who happens to be a huge Gran Turismo fan, was asked to drive one of the Nissan Skylines in the game around the Nurburgring and compare his Gran Turismo time to his real-life time. The driver was able to complete both in times of a little over eight minutes, and the two times ended up being within just five seconds of each other.

At the end of our meeting we were invited to play the latest version of the game, and we opted to take a drive around the neon-lit streets of Hong Kong. The handling of our '70s Toyota Celica boasted all of the subtleties and realism that we've come to expect from the Gran Turismo series, and while we've really nothing new to report on that front right now, we're sure you won't be disappointed to learn that Gran Turismo 4 promises to deliver more of everything that you love about the series, and lots more besides, come November.

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