Thanks to glowing reviews and a fan base of rabid racing purists, Gran Turismo has built up a reputation as the definitive driving simulation for the PlayStation. While that proved good news for Sony's coffers, it posed a tough challenge for its developers: How can the sequel surpass the original?
For better or worse, Gran Turismo 2 has taken the Star Wars: Special Edition approach to tackling this challenge. The bulk of the game's top-notch graphics and gameplay remain true to the original, but this version is packed with extra add-ons - more tracks, more cars, more races and more secrets - that have turned the game into a mammoth two-disc experience. The sequel may not play or look noticeably better than the original, but it's certainly a bigger meal to digest. With that said, prospective buyers will fall into four categories:
* Fans who loved the original Gran Turismo and have actually unlocked all the game's secrets: The purchase of this game is a no-brainer.
* Fans who loved the original Gran Turismo but lacked the patience or skills to unlock all the game's secrets: The addition of an off-road rally racing mode won't be enough incentive to rehash a gameplay formula all too similar to the original, despite having more cars and tracks. This might not be your cup of tea.
* Those who haven't played Gran Turismo but who love cars and seek a pure racing simulation: The purchase of this game is also a no-brainer, assuming you have a lot of free time ahead.
* Casual video gamers looking for fun, easy racing entertainment (or for those shopping for a kids' gift): It's a toss-up. The skill needed to master the nuances of this game, as well as its depth, might prove too much for those looking for a less sophisticated, less demanding racer. The arcade portion of the game will still sate most gamers' needs - but a whole half of the game might go to waste in the meantime.
For an in-depth review, keep on reading.... Gran Turismo 2: Crunching the numbers
A by-the-numbers look at this pure driving simulation shows how much depth this game offers. First off, the game comes on two CDs. The first CD offers arcade-mode racing, which features one-player races and two-player split-screen competition. When a player places first on a track, a hidden car is unlocked. The second CD is the more valuable of the two; it offers the Gran Turismo simulation mode. In this ultra-realistic, one-player-only mode, you earn credits by winning races - credits that you can then use to buy additional cars and upgrades. To unlock more races, you must pass a series of driving tests (at least 50 to start) to obtain licenses. These licenses can then be transferred (via memory card) to unlock new tracks in the arcade mode; in addition, the cars created in the Gran Turismo mode can be raced head-to-head in the arcade mode as well. For those who've played the original, all this will be familiar territory. For those new to the series, it'll be an overwhelming experience to wade through.
Back to the numbers: The game features more than 400 car models from various years, covering everything from lowly compacts such as the Volkswagen Golf to muscle cars like the Chevrolet Corvette. There are also special off-road rally cars and high-performance super sports cars (for the wealthy). These are not mere graphical swaps either, as each car has its own unique performance and handling specifications. The attention to and depth of detail imprinted on each car gives this game virtually enough credibility to stand as an interactive encyclopedia on performance racing cars. In addition, you have almost 50 real-life car manufacturers to choose from (including all the big car names known worldwide), and each manufacturer has cars, car parts, and special racing events specific to its brand. In terms of car parts, you get an extensive modification list that ranges from the engine to the muffler - even hubcaps can be altered. Imagine earning enough money to buy every type of car from every manufacturer - that's the mind-boggling quest that Gran Turismo 2 lets you undertake.
More numbers: The game's ads boast more than 40 tracks, although the real number floats just under 30 - the ads count the 20 or so courses that can be driven in reverse as separate tracks. Still, 30 is a grand total most gamers will be satisfied with, given the wide variety of the tracks: everything from the streets of Rome and Seattle to the legendary Laguna Seca. A few tracks are identical to those in the original Gran Turismo, which might not pose a challenge to veterans of the first game.
The numbers aren't the only addition to Gran Turismo 2: The most prominent new feature is the addition of off-road rally racing, which lets you slip and slide on mud rather than on asphalt. The developers also added features to address complaints about the original. For the license tests, there's a demonstration mode to help newbies figure out how to pass the tests, reducing the frustrating guesswork that plagued the original. Plus, in both arcade and Gran Turismo mode, "percent complete" screens help you chart how much of the game's secrets you've unlocked. Gran Turismo 2: Maintaining the status quo
At this point, you are probably saying to yourself, "This review sounds more like a features list up to now! Where's the review?" The point is, the added extras are what make Gran Turismo 2 better, because in terms of control and graphics, the game plays just as well as the original.
Graphically, it appears the Gran Turismo series has tapped out the PlayStation's capabilities. Although the game's ads boast improved graphics, fans of the series won't notice any substantial improvement over the original - which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The attention to details, lighting effects, and car rendering make this one of the most convincing PlayStation games on the market in terms of visual realism. The game reeks of authenticity, from the real-life billboard ads to the elevation changes in the mountainous Laguna Seca track (a track this reviewer actually drove on in real life). Gran Turismo also has mastered the lighting-effect trick that gives cars a shiny sheen as they drive from camera to camera - an impressive visual that's coupled with the speed-sensitive hubcap-rotation effects that accurately portray the "whoosh" of cars going past. Finally, each car that's modeled on the track looks recognizable on sight - no easy feat, considering the 400 or so vehicles to choose from.
Such details prove effective because Gran Turismo never suffers from slowdown. The worst effects are polygon dropout, which occurs during isolated camera angles, such as at the start of some races - however, this is only occasionally noticeable during a race, and it never hampers gameplay. The two-player mode also doesn't seem to take a knock in performance and runs smoothly, which will seem a step-up to those who saw flaws with the original. Again, an aspect where Gran Turismo shines above the competition is in its extensive replay mode. Not only can replays of a race be saved (at great expense to a memory card), but they can be viewed from myriad angles, including overhead and beside-the-tire views. More useful is an optional "button display" during a replay that shows you when you've hit the brakes, accelerated, or shifted gears or steered. It turns the replays into instructional videos, so you can learn which parts of a track you must improve on. This new feature makes the replays a bit more than eye candy. From an audio standpoint, Gran Turismo 2 excels in some portions, but may disappoint in others. Perhaps the greatest boast made by the game's makers is that all the cars have unique engine sounds - some even recorded specifically from the actual vehicles. Such nuances will probably be lost on the casual gamer, but it is pleasing to hear that a Honda Prelude sounds much more timid than a Ford Mustang. Even more useful, in terms of gameplay, is that these unique engine sounds can help you listen for a car catching up from behind. The potential disappointment comes with the music: As they did on the original, the game's makers have used tracks from the big names in today's alternative rock: Garbage, the Foo Fighters and Beck, just to name a few. However, for those who hate alternative rock or plan to play 100-plus hours, those songs will get old rather quickly - so prepare to have a stereo system nearby while playing. Still, the sound experience overall is a slick package that fits the game's atmosphere well.
While Gran Turismo prides itself on its looks and sounds, its strongest feature by far is its realistic control and car physics, which goes back to the immense variety of cars. Attempting the same turn at the same speed, a four-wheel-drive car will control differently than a front- or rear-wheel-drive car. Now, factor in the different acceleration rates for each car, based on its horsepower - then consider that cars can be upgraded with new parts that alter their horsepower. In total, each car offers a unique driving experience based on its real-life statistics. Veterans will learn that groups of cars with similar stats will tend to drive in the same fashion, but the preponderance of variables translates into ultimate replay value - a huge plus for hard-core racing-simulation fans. However, it also means a steep, almost intimidating learning curve - a tough pill for casual racing fans to swallow.
The responsiveness of the game's control, without question, is flawless. Thanks to analog steering and Dual Shock vibration feedback, the controller can never be blamed for failing to keep up with the onscreen driving. The sequel seems better equipped to handle cars when they're airborne (no doubt as a result of the rally-mode addition). Although flipping cars over isn't in the realm of this driving sim, the game does as realistic a job as it can while still maintaining fluid gameplay. Still, the control could stand improvement in some instances. The new off-road rally mode control is competent enough, with the muddy, slippery roads adding yet another variable to the control equation and - letting players get a better feel for the ability to slide through turns. Unfortunately, the muddy tracks feel too clean - it would've been better to see mushy, water-filled holes, sand, or dry spots to mix up the cars' handling. In its present state, the rally racing seems a tad basic, in both control and visuals, to match the depth of road racing. Granted, it's a very welcome addition - but it's one that could stand improvement. Bottom line: The rally mode doesn't pack enough punch to sway you away from other off-road titles.
In addition, the car physics still seem suspect in isolated instances, particularly when cars get bunched up. In the arcade mode, it's understandable for cars to trade paint when crunched side-by-side and experience no ill effects. However, this anomaly remains preserved in the Gran Turismo mode - when cars brush at high speeds, they experience no ill effects other than a drop in acceleration (such as two cars who've locked tires). The game addresses this problem somewhat by offering the option to turn car damage on and off. Still, one would expect more dire consequences from such encounters, such as rapid loss of control, especially at high speeds. It's the only aspect of the game's physics model that doesn't seem up to snuff with the rest of the game. Gran Turismo 2: Does more equal better?
Perhaps the worst aspect of Gran Turismo 2, oddly enough, is the existence of Gran Turismo. Given the success of the original, the game's developers probably had no wish to fix anything that wasn't broken - and preferred to build on the successful formula by adding more cars, car makers, and features, such as the rally mode. Fans of the original and those looking for a pure driving simulation should flock to store shelves without delay, but for the rest, that add-on philosophy may not sit well. Once again, you will have to slog through the prerequisite license tests - not a tough chore, but many of the tests are clones of the original. Wouldn't it have been better to offer instead some sort of "pass/fail" racing school, with a different variety of tests? Also, the game has one night course, but the developers neglected to add weather variables such as rain, ice patches, snow, or fog that might have added a twist to the racing conditions. Plus, the formula of unlocking cars by winning races is great for pure racing aficionados, but the repetition and lack of variety of unlocking cars (arcade mode) or earning money (Gran Turismo mode) may cause some gamers to lose interest. In the meantime, potential innovations for unlocking cars lie unused. Two examples: Why not have a two-player team vs. "evil" computer car team mode, which would introduce concepts such as drafting and cooperative racing tactics? Why not have on-the-side wagers before races in which players can make bets with other drivers?
Perhaps these ideas for improvements are just wishful thinking, or perhaps the PlayStation can't handle them. In response, then, this game probably should have been titled "Gran Turismo: Special Edition" instead. It's still a great-looking game, and it's marvelous in terms of depth and realism - it just sticks a little too close to the original's blueprint. As a result, gamers disappointed with the first game will find few changes that'll change their minds - just more of the same. On top of that, the game's depth makes for a high learning curve that may actually hinder less-spirited racing fans (or younger kids) from taking the plunge - this is a game that will take most gamers months to complete 100 percent. This reviewer's parting words to the developers: Save the "2" for the PlayStation2, and take more chances with the game-design formula before this top-notch series grows stale.