In spring of 2005, developer SimBin and publisher 10tacle Studios dragged the PC racing world back to reality with the warmly received GTR: FIA GT Racing game. In a time when virtual vehicular competition was moving inexorably in the opposite direction, GTR was a welcome respite for those who bled transmission fluid and desperately wanted to pilot authentic cars on authentic tracks against authentic competition. Less than a year later, SimBin and 10tacle return to the pavement with GTR's descendant, GT Legends, a game that benefits from SimBin's typically superb physics treatment and attention to detail. It also sports one very intriguing twist.
Rather than following the crowd and throwing drivers behind the wheel of the latest high-tech thoroughbreds, the game travels down a far different road. Effectively mimicking the FIA's current real-life FIA-GTC-GT Historic Racing Championships, GT Legends takes a cue from Papyrus' Grand Prix Legends and concerns itself wholly with vintage '60s and '70s racing machines. From tricked-out water bugs like the Mini and Cortina to growling Shelbys, slick Porsches, and a variety of madly powerful built-for-racing beasts, the game is a journey into the past on today's tracks. And it's one hell of a ride.
Unlike GPL, which initially proved too difficult for so many players, and different from other time-traveling racing games that plop you in glorified hovercrafts, GT Legends delivers a gritty, entirely believable, and eminently scalable experience. When played at the most approachable of its five difficulty levels, GT Legends is a great racing game for those who don't want to sweat the details. But when undertaken at either of its two or three most challenging difficulty levels, it's a truly impressive drive that doesn't keep you on the edge of your seat by being frustratingly impossible (hello, GPL), but rather by convincing you that you must treat your virtual car like you would a real, live hunk of machinery.
It doesn't completely follow the Papyrus NASCAR Racing formula either. Magnificent and certainly light years ahead of its competition at the time, the NASCAR Racing physics modeling engine now seems somewhat rudimentary in comparison. Case in point--any NASCAR Racing road course, where Papyrus' excellent oval-based physics engineering seemed to evaporate under the weight of turn diversification. Conversely, the physics behind GT Legends simply feels right. Everything makes sense. You don't ever feel as if you're "on rails," but at the same time you never believe the designers sneaked a little extra coding in there just to make things more difficult than they should be. And, if you're driving well and you watch the replay closely from a TV view, you'll see your maneuvering doesn't look at all out of place. In essence, GT Legends teaches you how to drive properly and follow the rules of physics. If you don't, you won't win.
Drivers fortunate enough to have driven GTR will undoubtedly feel familiar with SimBin's physics concept. However, this isn't GTR. These vintage cars are far removed from the vehicles on display in last year's effort, and SimBin has adapted well. Perhaps most exciting is the game's added wheelspin. Generally, cars from this era weren't equipped with nearly as much downforce as their modern counterparts, and you'll notice it as you drift through turns and deal with the ominous feeling that you're not quite one with the road as you blast down a high-speed straightaway. Naturally, as with any game of this caliber, a supersmooth approach and careful modulation of acceleration and braking are necessities. Moreover, you'll need to completely familiarize yourself with each circuit before you stand a chance of winning.
Of course, the depth of wheelspin varies from car to car and class to class--as do myriad other factors. Luckily, SimBin is clearly adept at differentiating between each car. Indeed, some are almost tortuous in their lack of corner-carving ability. Others are great through the turns but simply don't have the horses to compete at top speeds. But that was the trade-off when these cars ruled the road, and it is in the game, too. And if you're wondering who in their right mind would even want to drive a Cortina, think again. The truth is that the game's smaller, less-powerful sedans are some of the most fun, if just for their well-mannered behavior and engines that aren't ridiculously overpowered. Indeed, you can go a long way in the "lesser" vehicles because they don't tempt you to drive like a nutcase and they handle the turns so comparatively smoothly. Ultimately, some will prefer them to the pricey fire-breathers. GT Legends is different from GTR in numerous other ways, including its method of car selection. Race sim purists may not like it, but 10tacle has opted for an unlocking routine that keeps all but two of the game's 70-plus vehicles under wraps until certain races are won and championships championed. It's a slow process, too, which will take most drivers several weeks or months (or more) to complete. A game this good probably doesn't need this extra incentive/detraction, though each car is just so fine and so difficult to win that doing so is a very pleasant experience.
But it does limit you. GT Legends funnels you down three paths. The first is the quick race, a format that allows you to choose any of the game's 25 tracks (14 of which are variants of the 11 base circuits) and any of the game's cars. The catch? You first must unlock those tracks and cars by winning credits in GT Legends' central component, the cup challenge. Not really a career, the cup challenge consists of numerous multievent championships. These championships vary in size and scope, sometimes featuring but a couple of short five-minute races or just a single class of car, and other times taking you through a set of a half-dozen or more long or endurance events and placing several car classes in the track simultaneously, just as is they do in the real-world FIA-GTC-GT series.
The critical thing is that you'll never own and operate all or even the majority of the cars unless you first succeed here. Moreover, success is not easy. Fortunately, the game does allow you to select any of the difficulty levels each time you jump into a new challenge. So why won't everyone simply pick "beginner" and blitz through all the challenges? The answer to that is because you accumulate bigger and better winnings by choosing "semi pro" and "professional." And no, unlike GTR, GT Legends does not incorporate a straight-up arcade mode, though its beginner setting is not far off.
And that's not the only GTR staple that has been tossed in the dumper. You'll no longer have a talking crew chief/spotter. You'll no longer contend with rain, a particularly troubling bit of news for those who enjoy the slipping and sliding that results from wet pavement. And, for some inexplicable reason, SimBin has seriously scaled back the game's damage modeling. Whereas GTR cars would blow apart spectacularly in the event of a high-impact collision, GT Legends' autos lose a headlight here and there or maybe a bumper. Perhaps 10tacle will change this sorry state of affairs with a patch, but right now the sensation is rather dismal.
Also concerning is what happens when your car leaves the roadway. Like GTR and most other good racing games, GT Legends is coded to allow cars to lift from the pavement if the situation warrants it. You can see just that when you ride over a curb or brush too hard against an opponent. And in instances of slight lifts, the four wheels appear to settle back on the ground correctly. But if the contact is more severe and calls for your innocent machine to lift completely from the ground, there's no telling where it will end up. We plowed a Mini into both a fellow racer and a wall and were shocked to see it rise up like a Phoenix and float high into space. It returned to earth several seconds later.
Otherwise, with all its many effect and detail levels cranked and its resolution high, GT Legends is easily one of the prettiest visual spectacles ever released into the PC racing world. The depiction of each of the game's 11 storied raceways (Anderstorp, Dijon-Preois, Donington, Hockenheim, Imola, Mondello Park, Magny-Cours, Monza, Nurburgring, Spa-Francorchamps, Zolder) is flat-out incredible. And you'll have ample opportunity to check it out up close, because the game's bumper cam is about a foot off the ground and picks up every nuance and all that hypercomplex curbing. Even the pavement is gloriously detailed, thus resulting in a downright frightening sensation of speed.
The true stars of this visual feast are the cars themselves. Inside, you'll watch your animated driver going about his chores, shifting when he should, gently turning the steering wheel or pulling harder on it when an emergency arises, and shuffling his feet back and forth to work the pedals. Outside, each exterior is completely unique, right on down to the racer's tape on the headlights and assorted paint scuffs. There isn't a misplaced line or a less than perfectly smooth curve to be found. The windows and paint jobs react perfectly to the sun or lack thereof, and the general lighting is much improved over GTR.
The only potential downside--and it's a big one for folks who don't have top-notch CPUs, memory, and graphics cards--is the sheer muscle needed to drive the game to its full visual potential. If you crave 1024x768 or better resolution, a letterbox (widescreen) perspective, a full field of cars, and nifty perks such as driver animations, swaying trees, and high-detail wheels, you must go substantially above the recommended system requirements. Overlays (such as pit boards) and effects (such as shadows) seem to deliver the biggest hits. It's a good thing then that the game looks none too shoddy even with minimized details and effects. It's also a good thing that SimBin provides such a deep and intelligent roster of graphic tweaks.
GT Legends' audio is both stunning and disappointing. On the upside, SimBin's depiction of engine and associated car sounds is incredibly captivating. We were particularly impressed with the guttural, throaty roar of muscle machines such as the Shelby Mustang. It's difficult to put sounds into words, so let's just say that if you have one of these monsters coming up behind you, the raw power of its engine notes alone may scare you off the track. Of course, you'll feel downright threatening when you're at the wheel of one of these thunderous beasts. But engines are just a small part of the game's aural landscape. Gearshifts are wonderfully mechanical and gritty. Tire scrub varies from car to car and moment to moment, effectively translating the struggle between rubber and pavement. Road noise is alternately harsh or comparatively smooth, depending on your vehicle and current situation. And what vintage car would be complete without a variety of backfires and exhaust pops? Furthermore, the game offers a thorough roster of individual audio adjustments and fully independent control of virtually all the above elements.
Of course, we lamented the loss of GTR's helpful crew chief/spotter. Perhaps it's SimBin's way of telling us that radio communication has no place in vintage vehicles. But we would have preferred the option of utilizing his wisdom. You won't find a track announcer either, and you'll undoubtedly be perplexed when you noiselessly bang doors with a competitor. Granted, the game delivers audible wallops aplenty should you hit a wall or become involved in serious car-to-car contact, but silently swapping paint is just weird.
And this may be just a symptom of a more pressing problem. To wit, the game's collision detection seems slightly flawed. Again, there's no trouble whatsoever if you hit a fixed object or forcefully smack another car. But if you're merely bumping your rivals, you may not be bumping at all. We encountered several instances when our front end appeared to "merge" through the back end of another vehicle rather than bounce off it. At least, it certainly looked that way from the bumper cam. This might explain the fact that we were consistently able to barge into turns with cars all around, and emerge with nary a bruise.
Other more serious imperfections, at least in the North American version of the game, are apparent. Most critical is the program's potential instability. Indeed, our normally solid PC crashed no fewer than four times while running the game, a situation that does not appear isolated judging by a quick check of several online GT Legends forums. Additionally, the publisher neglected to include the multicharacter "online key" that's required to register for online racing. Again, a check of the forums revealed that numerous copies of the game were sold without this key. Customer support ultimately came to our rescue, but we shouldn't have been put in this situation in the first place.
One final quibble concerns the game's documentation, or rather the lack of it. Considering the magnitude and depth of GT Legends, the printed manual can be described as nothing other than skimpy. It glosses over so many crucial areas, and barely touches upon garage setup schemes. On a more positive note, the game lets you download user-uploaded setups for each of the various circuits. It's a simple and welcome process that's accomplished without exiting the application, but the manual doesn't even touch upon it. It does, however, go into some detail about multiplayer competition. The game officially supports 16 human drivers through its online component, though we found several races where up to 26 humans were successfully racing together. We joined several events and found the experience quite satisfactory. Of course, real people are considerably more, ahem…mistake-prone than the game's believably human, but far more skillful, artificially intelligent drivers. But the game itself flowed smoothly enough for us to want to revisit more online sessions in the future.
Speaking of the AI crowd, they're generally quite convincing. As in GTR, the AI tend to bunch up too much before ultratight turns. They are also slow to a crawl if obstacles such as crashed cars are on the track in front of them, when they could seemingly quite easily stick a couple of wheels off the pavement to circumnavigate the situation. But they're otherwise very credible. They'll dodge in and out of the draft, looking for openings. They'll seize upon opportunities to pass and they'll work hard to avoid unnecessary collisions. In short, they don't exhibit a pack mentality. One warning: You can no longer ramp up their aggression levels as you could in GTR. So you can say goodbye to "psychotic" competition...unless you play online, of course.
Imperfect as it is, GT Legends is nevertheless a must-have for PC racing realism enthusiasts. Indeed, given its many "detuning" options, it's also a great place for arcade-type racing fans to make the move to the other side. You can put up with a few boo-boos when a game looks and drives this good.