Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec Hands-On

We recently had the chance to sit down with a new demo build created specifically for the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and we were able to check out more of Sony's next-generation driving simulator.

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Easily the biggest game on Sony's upcoming release calendar is Gran Turismo 3. The next game in the popular driving simulation series, Gran Turismo 3 was originally scheduled for release alongside the launch of the US PlayStation 2. Now scheduled for a spring 2001 release, Gran Turismo 3 is the first-party game that PS2 owners are most looking forward to. We recently had the chance to sit down with a new demo build created specifically for the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and we were able to check out more of Sony's next-generation driving simulator.

New to the build we played was a visual replay demo that showed various cars driving through the rain-soaked streets of the special R5 stage, the rally mode, and plenty of new cars, including the newly announced Mazda RX-8. Additionally, enhanced AI and a refined physics engine made the auto-show demo a much truer experience than the previous demo we had played.

The replay demo of the R5 stage was probably the most visually impressive aspect of the demo build. The cars look the same as they do in the other modes, but it's the street and the amazing use of reflections and particle effects that really make the impact. The lights of buildings in the background and the arched streetlights have a much greater effect when cast against the darkness of the night sky. As in real life, the rain collects into stretching puddles on the road, and when lit up by headlights and other light sources, they become shimmering pools of white-streaked reflections. Taillights that fly by the puddles make a particularly pleasing reflection in the water, with a very nice fade effect as the car speeds off. Cars passing through the puddles will kick up water, creating a good-looking particle effect that really sells the whole rainy weather experience.

Another new addition to the Gran Turismo 3 demo is the rally mode. The rally mode was playable in the auto-show demo, but it was extremely limited. You could only pick one track, Smokey Mountain, and only one car, the Suburu Impreza Rally Edition. Still, from what we saw in the very early demo, the rally mode in Gran Turismo 3 has been vastly improved since the last game. While Gran Turismo 2's rally mode essentially replaced asphalt with dirt, it's obvious that Gran Turismo 3's rally mode has a completely new set of driving parameters. Cars on dirt react exactly like you would expect them to--there's lots of sliding and bumping, and the physics accurately depict high-speed off-road racing. Additionally, plenty of different surfaces help differentiate between racing on and off the path. Gravel and grass not only affect your handling, but they also make a completely different sound effect when you drive over them. Like in Gran Turismo 2, the rally racing lets you race against opponents, which, while unrealistic in rally racing terms, helps you gauge your performance while you're driving. And while the scope of the rally mode was limited in the demo, the enhancements that have already been made are definitely a good sign.

Mazda's newly announced RX-8 was featured in Gran Turismo for the first time in the new demo build. We had a chance to race with the car, and we found that the midship engine and the tight handling make the RX-8 an excellent choice for the formidable winding courses. The car isn't as speedy as others found in the demo, but it whips around corners with style and grace. The graphical model looked extremely realistic, and it's obvious that the development team spent plenty of time with the car before it was officially announced.

Gran Turismo 3's most stunning aspect is its graphics. Amazingly realistic car models moving across very defined backgrounds make Gran Turismo 3 one of the prettiest games around. Each of the car models has well over 3,500 polygons and looks absolutely fabulous. All of the tiniest details are in every car, from realistically modeled drivers inside the vehicles to tiny contours on the bumpers. Additionally, each of the tracks looks absolutely amazing, and those based on real-life locations, like Laguna-Seca, look genuine. While some racing games go overboard with reflections, Gran Turismo 3 features a generous but not unrealistic amount of reflections on the car models. Clouds, lights, the road, and other cars will all realistically reflect in the panels of each car. Additionally, accurate animations make Gran Turismo 3 look amazing in motion. Each car features perfectly accurate suspension physics, and tilts and buckles exactly like it would in real life. Speeding around a tight turn will cause your car to violently lean in the appropriate direction, and moving over rises and dips will make your tires rise and fall in the wheel wells. Particle effects like kicked-up rain, dust, and dirt in the rally mode and hazy heat waves in the replay mode also help make Gran Turismo 3 a graphical gold mine.

At this point, the sound is probably the weakest part of the demo. While engine noises, screeching tires, and appropriate road noises made for realistic sound effects, the single song featured in the demo got old fast. Sony hasn't officially signed any deals with artists for the soundtrack, so it's in no hurry to put additional music into the demo. As such, anyone who wants to play any of the Gran Turismo 3 demos gets to listen to a shortened version of Kick Start My Heart an endless number of times. Still, music misfortunes aside, the sound effects are a treat, and they're an excellent indication of the work going into Gran Turismo 3.

Gran Turismo 3 sports advanced AI routines in the computer-controlled opponent drivers. And while earlier builds of the game featured AI that was only slightly more advanced than that of Gran Turismo 2, the AI in this most recent build really shows promise. The AI in this build is very smart, and it not only demonstrates a general driving know-how, but it also works the pack and the road environment to win. Instead of simply driving a preset path through each level, every car drives like it wants to win. Cars look for opportunities and take them, sometimes breaking from the pack to make a dramatic move for the pole position. This advanced scheme not only makes the game harder in general, but it also keeps you honest. You can no longer learn opponents' paths and use them as giant bumpers to make tight turns at high speed. But while the AI was certainly more advanced, it still wasn't finished. We didn't see any of the emotional AI that Sony is promising--supposedly disgruntled AI opponents will try to settle the score by ruthlessly cutting you off or forcing you off the road. Still, the game has a good ways to go, and we've seen only little bits and pieces of the overall product.

At this point, it's difficult to get a perfect picture of exactly how the finished Gran Turismo 3 will look, but we can still put the pieces together to get a fairly accurate image. From what we've seen so far, Sony has had good reason to delay the release of its flagship title so frequently, as with each passing month, the game seems to become more polished. With everything that has made the Gran Turismo series popular, plus tons of new modes, vehicles, and tracks, Gran Turismo 3 is definitely a title to keep an eye on. And with stunning graphics and plenty of gameplay improvements already in the works, Gran Turismo 3 looks like it could be the premier next-generation racing game. Gran Turismo 3 is currently scheduled to release on April 15.

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