With the release of Gran Turismo 4 slated for early next year, Sony and developer Polyphony Digital have thrown fans a meaty bone--to tide them over--in the form of a demo named Gran Turismo 4: Prologue Edition. The demo, recently released in Japan, features a limited assortment of cars and modes to explore (some of which are unlockable) that offer a modest taste of what's to come. We took the demo--which offers quite a bit to do--for a spin to see how Polyphony is polishing up the gameplay we've seen in various other versions of GT4 that we've tried previously.
The game comes with about 50 vehicles, which range from consumer automobiles, like a 2003 model Nissan March, to an F1 race car, like the McLaren GTR Fina. There are also a few surprises, like the Mazda Kusabi, which is a futuristic concept car that made its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show just this summer. Unfortunately, these and a number of other cars aren't available when you first start the game, as you'll only have about a dozen cars to start with. The cooler cars will be "rewards" you'll earn for playing through the available modes.
You'll find two game modes in Gran Turismo 4: Prologue Edition--arcade and school. In the arcade mode, you'll choose a car and a course, and then you'll go on a time trial run. Some of the courses will give you the option to drive against cars that are controlled by the AI. When you finish a race, you can save your run and play it back at any time, or you can race against a ghost of it. You'll find five racing courses, each with its own characteristics. The Tsukuba Circuit and the Fuji Speedway are both standard racing courses, and they reflect different numbers of curves and different lengths of track. The New York course is built by closing out the roads in the city. Since the course is made out of street blocks, the curves are all 90-degree turns. The Grand Canyon course features a dirt road, so your vehicle will be constantly skidding (or, rather, drifting) on the corners of the track. The Citta di Aria is a racing course based on an Italian town. The roads in the Citta barely fit one car, and there are a number of blind corners that need to be memorized to successfully negotiate the course.
School mode consists of about two dozen stages, which are laid out on a Monopoly-style board/map with road sign icons. Each of the stages contains a lesson on useful techniques for playing the game. You're rewarded with a new car to drive for each lesson that you successfully complete. While the lessons in each of the stages are explained by a voice in Japanese, you really don't need to understand what's being said, since a demo clip actually shows you what you need to do while the announcer is talking. Most of the lessons are focused on driving through the corners, so they're basically aimed at familiarizing newcomers to the GT series with racing fundamentals. The lessons, such as "how to corner on a dirt road," don't sound too hard, and they usually aren't. However, the lessons have one catch: You'll automatically fail the lesson if you leave the course at any time. This bit of ego-deflation should be familiar to longtime fans of the series, whose license tests are good evaluations of skill. This little catch kind of makes the lessons feel a bit like playing a game of Milton Bradley's good old Operation. As a result, your first priority is to play it safe and steady rather than go for a time record. Passing through all of the lessons should only take about two hours for someone who's used to playing the series, although trying to get the top record for every one of them is another question.
Polyphony Digital appears to have put a lot of effort into the backgrounds of the various stages. For example, in the New York stage, which is based on the well-known Times Square area, you'll notice some nice attention touches. If you look closely while driving near the course's Virgin Megastore, you'll see that there's a McDonald's and a T.G.I. Friday's right next to each other, just like in actual life. Given that attention to detail, it's not surprising to note that other points of the game, such as the partial shadows cast on the cars when driving underneath trees and the different engine noises used for each of the vehicles, show an equal amount of care. The game's visuals offer a pretty solid sense of speed despite the assorted details and lighting effects on display.
Since Gran Turismo 4: Prologue Edition represents only a sneak peek of what's to come, the game is understandably missing a few functions, like versus play and the anticipated online functionality. The game is also missing a calibration option for the GT Force Pro steering controller, which seems to be causing issues with players who can't bring out its full potential. The human AI engine that's been talked about by the game's developers doesn't appear to be in Prologue Edition either. For example, the audiences that are supposed to react to the passing cars look like they consist of flat polygons that only move in a single pattern.
Even with these minor omissions, Gran Turismo 4: Prologue Edition should provide a solid racing fix for those fans who are patiently waiting for the game's full release. The game retails at the price of 2,980 yen (or about $27), and, while its option menus are in Japanese, the language barrier shouldn't be much of a problem for anyone who's looking to import the game, as it doesn't affect general gameplay. To see video footage of Gran Turismo 4, including a montage of every single vehicle in the Prologue Edition, check out our media section. We'll bring you more on the game as its release date approaches.