Racing games generally come in two forms - arcade-style or sim - and so do racing fans. Some players enjoy the raw excitement and unfettered control of an action-oriented contest, while others go gaga over the realistic physics and heavy-duty customization features of a sim-style game. Rare indeed, almost nonexistent, is a racer that has a legitimate appeal to both camps, a game that blends the elements of action and sim in such a subtle manner that something altogether new is the result.
Enter Gran Turismo. Sony's foray into the auto-racing category is the equivalent of a "mighty blow" that should snap its competitors to attention, lest they risk being knocked out altogether. Gran Turismo presents you with the most realistic, most challenging, and most in-depth racing game currently available for the home market.
Let's start with the basics: The game includes some 150 vehicles, from manufacturers such as Toyota, Honda, Dodge, Aston Martin, and Chevrolet. What's interesting about this isn't the sheer number of options available, but the level of variety those options represent. Sure, you can hop into supercars such as the Acura-NSX, Aston Martin DB-7, or Dodge Viper - that's par for the course in a console racer. But you can also drive more "real world" cars such as the Mitsubishi Eclipse, Subaru Legacy, or Honda Accord (in Sedan or Wagon, no less!). There's even a selection of classic cars - old Supras, Corvettes, RX-7s, etc. - available, along with a number of ultra-high performance machines that are generally restricted to theJapanese market.
Why is all this so important? Mainly because each of these cars handles realistically, which is to say, differently; each car's unique mix of grip, power, weight, and balance directly influences the way it responds and performs on the track. And as a result, you have an almost-unlimited challenge before you: gaining competence with (let alone mastering) all of the cars could take months, if not longer. But most players won't go that route. Instead, they'll pick their favorite car (or more likely, cars) and then begin to modify them. As you gain experience and money in the game, you gain access to an ever-increasing array of parts, add-ons, and performance-enhancing accessories that you can apply however you see fit. At first, it's tempting to go straight for the horsepower - bigger engines, turbo chargers, etc. - but over time you realize the best way to spend your money is to use it to offset your own weaknesses as a driver. If you tend to be late and ineffectual with the brakes, beef 'em up. If you're constantly spinning out, get stickier tires. By the time you're finished, you'll have a machine that fits you like a glove - a car that takes advantage of your strengths and hides your shortcomings. You can even save your creation to a memory card and take it with you wherever you go.
And where will you put this car to use? On the track, of course. Gran Turismo offers a great number of racing modes for you to try. If you choose the arcade mode, you can begin racing right away, alone or with another player. The arcade mode is a lot of fun, especially as a quick two-player race or as a way to get comfortable with the game. But the sim mode is where the real action is. Here's where you'll take part in a number of racing circuits and special events, everything from the introductory Sunday Cup all the way to the ultimate event - the GT World Cup. Again, the number and variety of venues and events are a pleasure to behold.
One important note: Before you can enter a given circuit, you must obtain certification in the form of a license. If you don't pass, you can't race. This is certainly the most controversial aspect of the game and the reason that Gran Turismo scores only an 8 in gameplay. The license tests can be very, very difficult, so much so, in fact, that some players might quit the game in frustration. And needlessly so, because skilled racers will succeed in the later events even if they lack the ability to pass the licensing tests. Next time around, let's hope the developers either make this section optional or provide more balanced, more instructive licensing tests. When all the qualifying, prepping, and tweaking is over, it's on to the race itself. And here is where Gran Turismo really shines. The experience of racing is simply awesome - the controls are precise (especially with the analog controller), the physics are realistic, and the sense of pure speed is palpable. It's easy enough to get good at the game, but as with all classic games, becoming a true master at Gran Turismo is a long and arduous task, with your progress being measured in fractions of a second.
As for the look and sound of Gran Turismo, well, they're both excellent. In fact, the graphics are among the best ever seen on a PlayStation racer; everything looks positively real, and there's little in the way of distracting pop-up. The sound is also quite good, with authentic in-game effects and a pulsating soundtrack. In fact, the only thing better than the racing itself are the replays - hi-res, multicamera affairs that visually are darn near indistinguishable from a television broadcast.
So there you have it. Gran Turismo is racing game with superior depth, variety, gameplay, and audiovisual effects. No matter what flavor of racer you favor, Gran Turismo will take you for a ride you won't soon forget.