Nearly four full years ago, Sega released Sega GT, a Dreamcast racing title with its sights set firmly on competing with Sony's flagship racing franchise Gran Turismo. Unfortunately, due to sloppy controls and a remarkably poor interface, Sega GT just couldn't be compared in the same light. Unabashed, Wow Entertainment, the development team behind the game, released Sega GT 2002 for the Xbox. It seems the developers took studious note of the shortcomings of the previous title and went to work. The game saw a serious overhaul in just about every way. The graphics, control, and career mode were all polished to make a game that was instantly familiar to fans of sim-style Grand Touring games, yet it was completely unique due to the structure of its career mode. The series returns to the Xbox with Sega GT Online, which boasts the same gameplay at a budget price and includes Xbox Live compatibility. Unfortunately, the game falls short of the lofty expectations it has garnered.
If you played through Sega GT 2002, then you've essentially played through the offline mode in Sega GT Online. With the exception of a few added cars and some additional race modes, you're in for the exact same experience you had before. For those who missed it the first time around, you begin the game with a small amount of cash with which you buy your first car. A sizeable number of manufacturers are represented, from domestics like Ford and Dodge to European imports like Renault, Peugeot, Fiat, and many others. From here, you begin your racing career in two different race circuits: official races and event races. The official race category contains a short series of three to five races, and then there is a license test. Once you finish all the races, you're allowed to take the license test, which must be passed before you can move on to the next series of races. Most races award the winner a small cash purse, in addition to a possible car or the possible unlocking of performance parts that can be purchased later. Between these races, you can spend your money to upgrade your car with performance parts, like exhaust kits, turbo chargers, or new suspension setups. The event races allow you to compete with other cars and drivers within your license class--who are also all competing for larger cash purses. You'll find yourself spending a great deal of time here when saving for a particular car or when building that car up for the next racing class you'll be competing in. All races in the career mode are conducted as races against five other contenders. While you race, your car takes damage from colliding with cars and fixed objects, like guardrails, and this is depicted by a damage meter. While the damage you take does not affect your performance, the cost of repairs is automatically deducted from your earnings. Additionally, over time your cars will show signs of wear and tear--in areas like the engine, brakes, tires, and suspension--and will require regular maintenance to keep them competitive.
Sega GT Online's new offline modes include gathering, time attack, and chronicle. Gathering mode lets you compete in various challenges, which range from checkpoint races to tests that check to see if you're able to follow a proper racing line. Successfully completing challenges unlocks various cars that you can then purchase in the career mode. Time attack is exactly as it sounds. This is a chance to test and analyze your time trials on any of the game's 14 tracks and in any of the game's cars. Chronicle mode functions like a miniature career mode where you can pick a racer from the early 1970s and compete against other period cars, thus progressing on to newer and newer cars and upgrading your car as you win races. With so little change to the game's offline mode, you would almost expect the game to allow you to import data from Sega GT 2002 so you wouldn't need to play through the career mode again, but unfortunately, this option is not offered.
Regrettably, Sega GT Online's Xbox Live compatibility is far more problematic than its offline play. To put it in as few words as possible--it's just a mess from top to bottom. Joining a game is done in the usual means. You can jump right in to a quick match, or you can try to find a group of players who are similar to you in both skill and progression level by using optimatch. Quick match selection often has trouble finding games, while optimatch displays a number of games that it claims are not currently involved in races (when they actually are). The game doesn't present the option of waiting in a room until the race is completed. Instead, it kicks you out to the main menu, thus forcing you to enter your optimatch search criteria all over again. Once you do find yourself an online game, there are a number of different ways you can compete. Free battle is just like it sounds. You compete in a wheel-to-wheel race against everyone else in the room--up to six players total. The oddball catch is that the finishing rank is determined by whatever order the cars are in when the winner crosses the finish line. This means that if someone temporarily hooks around you at the time the race is over, you are ranked third--even if you would have easily passed him a second later. Additionally, you can compete in team battles where you can organize the players in the room into teams of two or three. As one team member finishes a lap, the next one takes over the controls. The last type of online competition is a navigation battle where you team up with one other player. One is the driver, and the other is the codriver. The driver's vision is severely limited, so he or she must rely upon the directions indicated by the codriver, who can see clearly.
Regardless of which online game type you decide to compete in, any game that you play will be stricken by a pretty severe amount of lag. Even games played under the most optimal of conditions--against a single opponent--presented for us cars that jumped around the track erratically. Furthermore, the player's voice chat became garbled and unintelligible. While the game does offer online ranking and scorecards, players are arbitrarily ranked based on their performances in a race, regardless of who they're up against. In short, you can easily rise in rank by picking on lower-ranked players with inferior cars. Additionally, you can trade cars or trade cash for performance parts online. You can race for them, though you may not want to (given the spotty performance of online play).
Graphically, the game is identical to the appearance of Sega GT 2002. While that's certainly not bad, the bar has been raised considerably since then, which gives the game a somewhat tired look. Fortunately, the frame rate never skips a beat. The sound in the game is pretty good, and each engine has a very unique sound to it. Each car's sound will actually develop over time, as you add upgrades to it like exhaust kits and turbo chargers. As your engines age, you'll be able to hear a considerable knock in high RPMs, which indicates that it's probably time to overhaul the engine. The tire squeals have a nice, throaty tone to them, and they chirp slightly before letting loose, which provides a very good sense of traction. The soundtrack contains more than 30 tunes from independent punk rock acts, and it also supports custom soundtracks.
In the end, Sega GT Online comes off as a pretty big disappointment. With its budget pricing and the fact that the offline mode is nearly identical to that of Sega GT 2002, the game seems passable. However, it's got a problematic online mode. If the Xbox Live compatibility had a much better online implementation, then it would be an easy game to recommend to fans who were looking for a good simulation racer that they could enjoy for competing online. If you missed it the first time around, then the additions made to the offline mode and the lowered price make it a game only worthy of recommendation to fans of Grand Touring games. However, if you just plan on picking the game up for its online capability, you would be well advised to steer clear of this one and should just stick with Project Gotham Racing 2.