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Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec(PS2) Review (Import)

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A short time ago I provided my initial impressions of the import version of Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec. At the time I wrote the piece as a hands-on preview of sorts. By now, I've logged well in excess of 50 hours on this game, enough for me to make some concrete opinions on just how good Gran Turismo 3 is, and of course the indications for the American release of the game.

For those of you living under a rock, GT3 is set to arrive domestically in just a couple of weeks. When it does, gamers will be able to race with over 100 cars from several dozen manufacturers. You can expect names like Toyota, Chevrolet, Nissan, Lotus, Fiat, and more encompassing every type of car imaginable. There are front-engine front-drive (FR), front-engine rear drive (FR), mid-engine rear drive (MR), and four-wheel drive (4WD) cars at your disposal.

With over a dozen tracks and more than 80 events (the majority being multi-race events) covering 5 classes of racing, there's plenty of driving to be had in GT3. And of course the requisite license tests in 6 classes are here along with the substantial arcade mode. When it's all said and done, GT3 will outlast even your most fanatical racing fan. But is Sony emphasizing quantity over quality?

Presentation/Graphics : 97
I could have given GT3 a perfect score in graphics simply because it's the best looking title yet. But I'm a perfectionist and GT3's graphics aren't perfect. On the positive, the cars in the game are nothing short of spectacular. The high polygon count really comes across as the cars have every feature imaginable. Mufflers, exact body trim, and taillights are just some of the features you'll notice when you start the game up. Of course, the game goes a little over the top. I imagine you could probably catch a glimpse while racing, but during replays you can watch as rotors glow due to the heat buildup from the disc brakes. After a few seconds off the brakes the discs gradually change back to their cooler temperatures and the glow disappears.

If you can take your eyes off the beautiful cars you'll notice equally impressive tracks. The daytime courses give you the opportunity to really view the circuits in their entirety. Places like Rome and Seattle are visually stunning. I've been to Seattle once and I instantly recognized many of the features. The roads look realistic, but more importantly the off-track detail is some of the best looking you'll find. Dreamcast owners may argue that MSR is just as good, and they are right. But GT3's tracks look as good if not better than the equally stunning ones of MSR. The difference is that GT3 runs at a consistent 60 frames per second with absolutely no slowdown.

Continuing with some of the tracks, Laguna Seca is mapped to perfection. The elevation changes are truly impressive: a long straight rises in height and on the other side of the apex is the intimidating Corkscrew turn at the track. The dive down from the Corkscrew is an adrenaline rush as you head down to the Rainey Curve. Equally exciting is the run at Cote d'Azure (the Monaco course). After the St. Devote turn you make the long way uphill to Casino Square. Eventually you dive down to the hairpin at the Monte Carlo Grand Hotel. About the only complaint you can make on this course is when you enter the tunnel. Monaco Grand Prix 2 on the Dreamcast portrayed the change perfectly. In that game you'd enter the tunnel and the screen would instantly go dark and then lighten up. This was done to mimic the effect your eyes have when going from a lighted area to a darker one. GT3 doesn't do this, but still the course gets a giant thumbs up. While it's not a great racing track, it's my favorite technical track in all of racing. Kudos to Polyphony for giving it to us.

Another nice touch is that when racing on courses with a little dirt off track, a wheel off the road will kick up some dust. The dust cloud dissipates realistically, and if you're behind the car who got off, your view gets clouded. This is even more critical on the rally stages where much of the course is on dirt. If you get behind another car and drive in the first person view, you'll feel as though you're driving blind. The screen fills with dirt and pumps up the adrenaline.

With so much good in the game, how could I not give the game a perfect score graphically? Well, there are just a few nit-picks. First, there is pop-up. At first I didn't notice it. But after time as I got more comfortable with the tracks and cars I could spend more time focusing on the off-track detail. What I saw was plenty of pop-up on the horizon and pop-down in my rear view mirror. It's relatively minor, but it is noticeable. Next, the views are limited. The game ships with two views - a third-person angle and a first-person bumper camera. I would have loved it if Polyphony could have included an interior view like F355 or Colin McRae. Even the horrible Driving Emotion has a nice interior camera. Finally, a real minor issue is that cars leave no tire marks. I know, I'm grasping at straws. Overall, Polyphony should be commended for the fine job in terms of graphics.

Presentation/Audio : 95
Sound in realistic driving games is critical. In fact, you can make the argument that sound is more important than detailed graphics. A game with tight sound will provide feedback on your driving. If you are getting close to the edge the tires should squeal audibly. If you get a wheel off track or off the ground the revs should kick up. Likewise, shift points can be determined through sound rather than looking at the tachometer. Fortunately GT3 does a superb job at implementing the sounds of driving. Now the sound of cars colliding is still quite suspect, but the other sounds are great. You could also make a case that some of the imported (that is, non-Japanese) cars don't have the correct sound, but this again is a nit-pick issue. All the cars have unique sounds that change as you tune the engine, transmission, and exhaust.

A really unique feature to GT3 is the drafting model. In many games drafting is implemented but there is little feedback aside from the fact that the speedometer reads faster. The NASCAR series from EA has a nice visual draft meter, but GT3's feedback is vastly superior. As you drive solo around a track, you can hear the wind buffet against the front of the car. If you get in the slipstream of another car you can hear the faint sound of the air disappear. It's a nice touch.

Interface : 97
Really there are too many options to list. The game has just about every option under the sun. For owners of widescreen televisions you can play in 16:9 format. The sound interface lets you adjust the usual parameters. All standard stuff. All these options feed into the principal game modes of GT3. The game ships with a substantial Arcade mode, the Gran Turismo mode, as well as multiplayer I-Link battles. I unfortunately only have one import PS2 and one copy of GT3, so the I-Link capabilities won't be mentioned.

The Arcade mode is worthy of its own release. This mode has more racing than most arcade racers. The racing can take place at the easy, medium, or hard levels, and the confident souls can access the "hidden" super-hard level. Initially only six tracks are playable, but as you beat a group of tracks another set opens up. Ultimately there are 34 different races to complete in the arcade mode covering rally and street racing.

In the Gran Turismo mode you can spend the good part of the year completing the many events and license tests. I've put well over 50 hours in and am only about halfway through the game. There are license tests in 6 classes of racing - the B, A, IB, IA, S, and R classes. The R class features rally cars and is loads of fun, whereas the S class offers the most challenge. Many of the license tests are the same that have been carried in the two previous editions of the game. And of course there's the challenge of getting a bronze, silver, or gold rating for each test.

Once you grab a license or two you can head to the track and start racing. Here is where you'll spend hour upon hour. Across the 80-plus events you'll race over 300 races and have access to over 100 cars. With all those cars you need a nice system to organize your garage, and GT3 lets you sort on manufacturer, power, type, and more.

The actual driving interface is of course the Dual Shock 2 controller. My early impressions of GT3 and the pressure sensitive buttons were not great. With time, however, I've learned to finesse the analog gas and brake buttons to an extent that I can move around the track more effectively. Unfortunately, the buttons don't really behave like a true analog device; both the gas and brake seem to be able to dial into one of about 3 or 4 values. Still, the ability to lay off the gas some is better than full digital control. Steering with the analog stick is a snap. Subtle movements can be made, but in reality there is limited throw on the sticks meaning you'll be hard over on the wheel most of the time.

For grins, I went out and purchased the Logitech Formula Force GP wheel. This wheel is a PC compatible product with a USB port. It just so happens that this PC product is 100 percent compatible with GT3 and the PS2. So rather than wait for the PS2 version, you can run out now and pick one up. Now I have certain expectations when I play with a wheel. First and foremost is that I expect better control. In the case of GT3, that would be a difficult task as the analog stick already provides excellent control. What I found was unfortunately the exact opposite. GT3 became more difficult with the wheel. I actually lost a few seconds each lap when the wheel was used compared to my DS2 lap times. While I appreciated the pinpoint control with the gas and brake foot pedals, the Logitech wheel, with its force feedback, was bouncing all over the place. Getting it to drive straight was even a hassle. The force feedback isn't perfect, but you could definitely feel every curb and side impact in the game. I would have expected that the force feedback would want to pull the wheel back to the neutral position on turns, but found no such characteristic. Still, driving with the wheel was an experience. With some of the better performing cars, the wheel was making the game more exciting and giving me an experience similar to the wonderful F355 on the Dreamcast (using a wheel of course). I'd suggest using the DS2 for license tests and the wheel for racing. You'll really enjoy the involved experience it provides.

Gameplay : 80
So far, so good. I mean just about everything I've written about the game is positive. So where's the rub? Well, all good things have to come to an end, and sadly for GT3 it's in the gameplay. It's not terrible, but it does have problems. My initial impressions of the game focused on a few key areas - opponent AI, collision physics, and handling (and the associated single-vehicle physics).

The opponent AI can be described in a word - blind. Races often turn into a weekend gathering of bumper cars rather than a six-car race with realistic drivers behind the wheels. Early on you'll experience races where all the cars stay in one massive pack. There's plenty of bumping that goes on. At first you learn to accept this behavior. After all, the cars are evenly matched and there's only so much room on the road. As you progress further in the game you can outrun your opponents. It's here where you really notice just how bad the AI is in the game. In any given three-lap race you can expect to be hit no less than a dozen times. The problem is that the AI cars have prescribed paths around the track, and if you obstruct their motion they just bowl right over you. If you brake early with a car behind you, expect to get hit. Likewise, when going around a turn with an AI opponent nearby expect to give up the racing line no matter if you have position or not. No matter how hard I tried, I could never push AI cars out of the way; they never yield their position. I don't want a weenie AI system, but I expect a little give and take.

What really did it for me was when I decided to coast around one of the tracks and watch some of these AI cars. What I saw was embarrassing. I found further evidence that AI cars would repeatedly take the same line around the course. While there were some variations, for the most part each car would repeat their mistakes at particular points. That is, one car I was following would go off the track and into the dirt at the same point on every lap. Not only that, but their braking and acceleration zones defied logic. I actually saw one AI car slow down at the beginning of a straight just so it could get back on its predetermined path.

A byproduct of the poor AI is a wretched collision system. Collisions in GT3 account for only the linear motion of the vehicles; rotational response is completely ignored. As a test I headed to the lengthy test track and deliberately smashed into the AI cars. Entering the turn I'd gather up speed and broadside them at the rear quarter panel. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the car getting hit should spin about its center of gravity and completely lose control, especially with a high impact velocity. In GT3 the AI car did not budge one inch. Now this is only possible if the AI car is much more massive than your car, which it is not. I'm sure Polyphony threw out the physics book to make it more accessible for the masses, but frankly it waters the game down. A game priding itself on being a driving simulator should have realistic physics. I love the sensation of getting loose due to an impact in a game like NASCAR 2001 on the PS2 and recovering with proper driving techniques.

The car handling is obviously hampered by the aforementioned collision physics. Fortunately the rest of the handling is pretty darn good. The only exception is the performance on certain off-track areas. If you get into the dirt on some courses you can accelerate (it's much tougher with the wheel, however) as easily as you can on asphalt. There's never a real threat of spinning so you can use this to your advantage. Likewise, when using the DS2 controller, curb and wall impacts never upset the balance of your vehicle. Blame it on the poor collision physics. It's really kind of odd since the programmers added things like very realistic physics to traffic cones. That's right. If you hit a cone it tumbles across the track in a manner that has me convinced they programmed up the full dynamic response. When you pick this title up play around with hitting cones. You will be amazed.

All this boils down to needing to get out in front of the pack and avoiding the AI cars and walls. When you do you'll find a driving model that is pretty tight, assuming you make the right switches in the options. By default, traction and spin control are turned on. No matter the type of car, they all have terrible understeer problems. However, the extensive options include the ability to turn these features down or completely off. Once off, rear drive cars can drift or powerslide into turns and get a little squirrelly accelerating out of turns. Cars tend to have too much mechanical grip, however, as can be seen by performing slalom runs at over 160 mph without losing control. This could also be due to Polyphony tempering the physics engine to make the game, ahem, more enjoyable. Next time guys don't hold back. I want the real stuff. Don't sugarcoat it.

The other play mechanics are similar to the previous versions of Gran Turismo. The modus operandi is to race, earn money, upgrade car, earn more money, buy more cars, earn more money. You get the idea. The never-ending assault of race events takes months to complete. There are essentially five classes of racing. The Beginner League is a nice introduction. As you move up to the Amateur League the racing is a little more intense, and by the time you make it to the Professional League, you'll be toe to toe against some pretty powerful machines. There's also a wonderful Rally League as well as a lengthy Endurance League.

Dare I say that the rally racing is almost as good as the Colin McRae? I shall. While it's not true rally racing as modeled by the McRae titles, the one-on-one racing is intense. Repo men are always intense. The courses have plenty of hairpin curves, and the powersliding is omnipresent. Earlier I mentioned the dirt clouds that get kicked up if you fall behind the opponent. Trying to overtake to get out from the muck just fuels the adrenaline. The Endurance League features races which last 90 minutes or more. During the race tire wear comes into play and multiple pit stops are required. Of course, this is the only damage you'll find in the game. There is no penalty for repeated collisions.

Racing on the paved surfaces is fun due to the challenging courses. A couple of real tracks (Cote d'Azure, or Monaco, and Laguna Seca) complement a nice selection of contrived courses. Grand Valley, Deep Forest, Route 5, and Route 11 make it back yet again. Tracks like Seattle (with great elevation changes), Rome, Mid Field, and Laguna Seca make an encore appearance, as do many of the rally tracks. Yet the track count is actually smaller when compared to GT2.

The best part of the GT series has always been the selection of cars. GT3 continues the fine tradition of giving you a little of everything from underpowered hatchbacks to Formula 1 cars. Yep, you heard that right. If you win a race in the Endurance League you get a shot at an F1 racer. I finally got an F1 car and have been impressed by its qualities. While the racing is still restricted to six car fields and the AI continues to be lousy, the handling is superb. The cars have exceptional aerodynamic grip at higher speeds and don't have too much mechanical grip at slower speeds. In fact, on cool or worn tires the handling is downright nasty. I happily raced my F1 car at Monaco and was impressed by the realistic lap times (around a minute and 21 seconds per lap on warmed up tires).

For standard cars, a full assortment of upgrades is available. You can upgrade and tune your car in every imaginable category. Engine modifications come in stages along with transmission upgrades which allow for fully customizable gear ratios. For races where tire wear is an issue, you can purchase racing tires which range from supersoft (better grip at the cost of rapid wear) to superhard (last long but take time to warm up).

Even if you bypass the entire GT mode, there's still a substantial arcade racing mode. Pack racing is the order of the day here. Don't expect to run away from the competition. The game's racing model handicaps slower cars. When ahead cars stay close to you. When behind, they'll slow down to let you catch up. In fact, you can give them a half lap lead and catch up by the next lap. If you can tolerate the constant bumping, the arcade mode will provide many hours of enjoyment.

Overall, the gameplay is certainly good. It's not perfect due to the AI and physics issues, but it is certainly better than most of the titles out there. The game even is a little too easy because of the upgrades available. After awhile it turns into a pretty time trialer. I may be a little hard on the game, but for a game to be held to such high esteem, I expect the best. And frankly, there are games with better AI and driving models out there. It had been some time since I played the original GT. I went back and instantly recognized many of the characteristics from GT have simply migrated to GT3. The AI and collision physics are virtually unchanged. The game hasn't really evolved since the original release. What was groundbreaking back then is simply getting repeated today. I used to use GT as the benchmark for racing titles. Now other games beat it in terms of AI and physics. Games like Colin McRae or F355 offer vastly superior physics, and the AI in games like NASCAR 2001, TOCA, and Monaco GP 2 make mincemeat of GT3's AI.

Replay Value : 90
The replay value of GT3 excels in spite of its problems. A game has to be pretty good for me to spend more than 50 hours on it. I admit I'm a racing nut, but casual gamers will no doubt be pulled into the racing. The short-term replay value is high, particularly the challenge for the casual gamer. The long-term replay value drops a bit since boredom can set in. There's just so many times I can race the exact same tracks event after event. The prospect of devoting another 100 hours or so to finish the game completely is daunting. But hey, how many other games have 150 hours worth of play in them?

Overall : 89
Gran Turismo 3 will be hailed by many as the greatest racing title ever. Pretty graphics have a tendency to cause many gamers to look at titles with blinders on. I've attempted to look past the shine and expose the personality of the game. Like most titles there is some good and some bad. The game is far from perfect due to questionable AI and some issues with physics. The liberties taken with the physics keeps the game from being the true simulation most gamers think it is. Perhaps the marketing as the "real driving simulator" has fooled most of you. Heck, even Mario Kart is a driving simulator. Think of GT3 as a game that has a blend of realism and arcade elements. The mix is pretty good, but you must understand the limitations of it. But the amount of play and value you get with the game is unquestionable. Fans of racing as well as the casual gamer will want this title in their PS2 library. Yes it's a rehash of GT and GT2, but GT3 has evolved into a nice title on its own. And it's well worth the cash outlay.

By: James Smith 7/10/01

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