14 March 2005

































































Why Gran Turismo 4 is the cheap baked beans of videogaming.

It's kind of sobering to realise all of a sudden one morning that the best part of your life has been an exercise in futility, viewers. But we'll get to that in a bit.

Oddly, your reporter recalls absolutely nothing of Gran Turismo 3. The anticipation, followed by crushing disappointment, of the first game remains fresh in the memory. The foreboding, blossoming into pleasant surprise, of the sequel is as clear as if it was yesterday. But of the series' debut on PS2, all searches of your correspondent's mental archive come up blank. It must have been played, to some decentish length. All reason and belief suggests that it was. But not a single fact or detail of it remains in consciousness. This may or may not go to show something terribly significant, but it's not important right now. Let's talk about GT4.

It probably took as long to build that one shiny car as the whole of Manic Miner.

The first thing you discover on booting up GT4 is that it thinks you're a cretin. Despite the fact that we're on at least the sixth game in the series (including spinoffs like GT4 Prologue, of course), and despite the fact that approximately 50% of all PS2 games are driving games, GT4 insists - like its ancestors - on treating the player as a dangerously retarded dimwit who's never seen a motor car before and doesn't really understand the concept. To start playing the bulk of GT4's main game, you once more have to go through a series of "licence tests". The first and most basic of these comprises a daunting 17 little lessons, and of the first eight of these, no fewer than FOUR involve simply pressing the accelerator and brake buttons (no steering required) in order to drive up a short stretch of track in a straight line and then stop within a marked area.

It's possible to load in saved licence data from GT4 Prologue in order to skip this section, but not from any of the other GT games. So immediately, having paid your money for the dizzyingly vast amount of driving content in GT4, the game won't let you actually play any of it (well, except for a tiny handful of pointless "Arcade" and beginner races) for at least an hour and a half because it isn't sure that you understand the concept of acceleration. It's the gaming equivalent of those ever-longer unskippable bits at the start of DVDs, full of idents, corporate cockstroking, screenfuls of convoluted copyright warnings and laughable "anti-piracy" threatverts. "You want the fun you paid for? Wade through all this shit first, you scum. Because we hate you, and because we can."

The point of forcing the player through this excruciating tedium is especially hard to ascertain if you look at it in any depth. You might assume, for example, that the point of having four "accelerate in a straight line and then stop" tests, each over a longer stretch of track than the previous one, is to teach the player about the longer braking distances required at higher speeds. However, each test takes place in a different car, with entirely different acceleration and braking properties, so it's impossible to apply any accumulated knowledge to each successive test. All you're left with is a series of increasingly annoying trial-and-error guessing games, where you race up to (say) 900m of a 1km stretch, apply full brakes, discover that this doesn't stop you in time, then restart the test and try again, this time braking from 850m, then 800m, then 750m and so on until you find the right point for that particular model of car.

It's a car on a road.

This information is, of course, of absolutely no use in the actual game, since in the game you never have to stop within a marked area, you probably won't be driving that car, the track is rarely straight for 1km at a time, and in any event it doesn't have lines painted on it every 100m to tell you where you are. Nevertheless, GT4 makes you perform this pointless exercise over and over again until it deems you fit to join the game proper. If anyone can explain why this is a good idea, WoS would like to hear it.

Other elements of the licence tests serve to further emphasise their irrelevance to the main game. For example, several of the tests for the easiest licence involve "guide laps", where you follow a misleadingly-named pace car (misleading because its pace is dictated by you, not the other way round) around a particular course, ostensibly in order to learn its layout. However, should you stray more than an inch or two from the tarmac, the game will instantly fail you and send you back to the start of the test. In the real game, however, you're both able and encouraged to take shortcuts across grass and gravel traps to circumvent difficult sections or overtake, so the information about the track layout gleaned from the test is worthless, even a hindrance, when it comes to the actual race situation.

It took your reporter two days to achieve GT4's first licence, not because the tests are difficult but because the crushing tedium drove him so close to tears that he had to keep switching the PS2 off after two or three "lessons" and go and do something less boring instead, such as watch the glue drying on the new shelves he was building. But if you have a really high tolerance of soul-crushing banality, a continuous stint of around two hours of miserable moto-drudgery should see you safely through to the most elementary sections of the game proper. And that's when the pain really begins.

The rally stages, packed with three-dimensional moving spectators, are among
the most striking showcases of the game's undeniable graphical qualities.
Though not in this particular screenshot.

It's actually a bit of a waste of time discussing the mechanics of GT4 beyond this point, since anyone reading this article will be all too aware by now of how the series works. Having obtained your licence, you're rewarded with a fairly crappy car, with which you can enter a few of the lowliest sets of races. It'll be far too underpowered to win any of them, but by slogging through each one a few times, you'll be awarded credits - even for finishing in last place - which you can laboriously save up until you can spend them on parts and tune-ups for your trundling runabout and eventually have something with a fighting chance of coming first. You then repeat this process approximately 12,074 times until you've unlocked every car and every track and every new set of shiny hubcaps and brake discs in the game, and you try not to think about what you could have achieved with your life instead over the six months or so that it's all likely to have taken.  

The differences between GT4 and its predecessors in this regard are few and far between. New (your reporter thinks, bearing in mind he can recall nothing of GT3) are the "driving missions", little vignettes where you have to perform a specific type of racing skill over a short section of a track. They're basically extensions of the licence tests, except with other cars present on the course, and in any event none of them are accessible until you obtain an "International" licence, an advanced qualification requiring several hours of play. This reporter also doesn't recall previous GT games prefacing each race with an unskippable 20-second FMV intro of the cars rolling up to the start line, but wouldn't like to be quoted on that for sure.

Otherwise, GT4 retains the same curious, schizophrenic structure of the previous games. It's been noted many times by many reviewers that "The Real Driving Simulator" is a fairly ridiculous subtitle for a racing game where barrelling off your opponents' passenger doors at 150mph is a valid and crucial steering tactic and going into a concrete wall head-on at top speed necessitates a small amount of reversing and time loss rather than a fleet of fire engines and a high-speed helicopter ride to the Intensive Care Unit, but rather more unreal than even that is actually the game's attitude towards time.

The excitement of GT4 perfectly encapsulated, there.

GT4 will happily let the player take part in the exact same race 50 times in a row, with prize money accumulating each time, which if you think about it is a pretty strange concept. Certainly, it's  lot less "real" than something like, say, Super Mario Kart, in which flunking a race requires you to either make up the lost ground in the other races in the series, or start again, losing all the points you've garnered in that series up until then. It also makes a mockery of any notion of claiming that this is a game about developing racing skills. The only quality you need to achieve success in GT4 is Olympian levels of stamina. You can come last in every single race, but if you plug away for long enough you'll still eventually "earn" nearly everything the game has to offer. (The sole exception to this rule being those grim licence tests, which DO demand a certain minimum level of achievement, but which represent only a tiny fraction of the time most players will spend with the game.)

The game's lax attitude to the normal rules of time is oddly inconsistent, however. Like the earlier titles, GT4 has a compulsory autosave which kicks in after almost any significant event. Normally this is a welcome feature, preventing the player from accidentally losing important progress because they forgot to save or there was a power cut or something. But GT4's autosave also butts in when you buy a car, or add new parts or tune-ups or the like. Why is this odd? Because one of the prime selling points of the Gran Turismo games is their enormous, ridiculous range of vehicles and tuning options. Right at the beginning, if you head to the used-car dealerships to buy yourself a starting crate, you'll be faced with a dizzying array of literally dozens of cars within your price range, each with dozens of enhancement options available from a plethora of different suppliers and tuning shops.

There's no test-drive option, and hence no way of ascertaining which of the cornucopia of motors is most suited to your own style, and also no way of sampling enhancements before you pay for them. But if you pick a duffer - hardly your fault, of course, since there was no way of trying it out first - you're stuck with it for the rest of the game unless you either start all over again, licence tests and all, or plough through about 30 races to recover your cash, in a car you don't want to be driving and will have to "unlearn" when you buy the new one. Which, of course, might be just as duff.

Compared to Out Run 2, the clarity of the draw distance leaves much to be desired.

(You can, strictly speaking, sell cars as well as buying them, but only by taking an absurdly massive loss. By way of example, your reporter's first purchase was - as is his wont - a lovely Mazda MX-5, which cost a little over 5,000 credits. A basic tune-up added another 4,500 credits to the ticket, for a total basic outlay of 9,500cr. An immediate trip to the player garage then revealed that the total resell price of your correspondent's pride and joy was now a mere 1,435 credits, an instant loss of around 85% of the car's value via the simple act of driving it home. Auto dealerships are, of course, known for heinous marking-up, but for a car that was second-hand in the first place, that's a little stiff, no?)

All this may or may not be realistic - and most reputable car dealers WILL give you your money back if you're not satisfied after a few days - but in a game which picks up and discards the notion of "realism" as it feels like it, it seems a horrible, punitive thing to do to the unfortunate player. And that - skipping over most of the game proper, for the reasons explained above - brings us to the core observation noted in both the strapline and opening paragraph of this review.

GT4 is the videogaming equivalent of supermarket economy-brand groceries - that is to say, it exists primarily to punish poor people for being poor. If you're so skint that you can't afford the extra 20p for a tin of Heinz baked beans or proper cola, there's an alternative available which ostensibly fulfils the same purpose. But the "economy" version will be watery, tasteless, bulked up with sawdust and mechanically-recovered mush and stuffed with nasty, cheap, borderline-poisonous ingredients like sweeteners instead of sugar, and generally unpleasant and depressing. (Crisps and boiled sweets, incidentally, are exceptions to this rule, but that's a feature for another day.) Now, you might be thinking that that's a pretty weird analogy for a game so detailed, shiny and expensive-to-produce as Gran Turismo 4, but that's why you don't do this for a living, man. Let's elaborate, shall we?

A rare sight of opposing cars.

Your correspondent isn't rich by the wildest stretch of anyone's imagination, but one of the perks of being a journalist is that you get review copies for free, and it's also the reason why professional videogame reviewing is possibly the world's most totally futile job. Because the fact of the matter is that the things that professional critics want from videogames, and the things that gamers handing over money for them in game shops want, are so fundamentally, diametrically different that they aggressively conflict with each other.

If you've got a game for free - or if you're so wealthy that you can buy as many as you feel like - you want it to provide you with some fun and entertainment. When it no longer amuses you, you can discard it cavalierly and select another from the teetering pile in the corner. Games have to engage you solely on their merits, because there are plenty more to choose from if they don't, in a neverending supply.

If, on the other hand, you're a bit poor and can't afford to be coughing up 40 a time on something that's really enjoyable but over in three hours, because you won't be able to buy another game for two months, then you need something that's going to keep you acceptably occupied for a long time, even if qualitatively it's as inferior as 19p-for-two-litres Happy Shopper sugarless cola is to the real stuff that costs six times as much. You might tell yourself that the watery all-sweetener dross is just as good as sweet, sweet Coke, but in your heart you know it isn't, and you long for the day when you can frivolously splash out on the Real Thing. In the meantime, of course, you can at least afford to buy three times as much of the crap and still only be spending half as much money, which is why so many poor people are so fat and unhealthy and unhappy and why videogames are currently so hopelessly conservative and sterile and overblown and unbelievably fucking boring.

These pictures present a misleading impression of how interesting most of GT4's scenery is.

Gran Turismo 4 is tedious and gruelling and slapped together with little rhyme or reason, but boy, is there ever a lot of it. From the miles-wide expanse of the main menu screen to the hundreds of cars with thousands of tweakable settings, from the scores of courses and challenges to the hundreds of times you'll have to race each track to get your hands on a decent proportion of the game's content, GT4 will keep you glued to the screen for months, in the same sense that your eyes are glued to the inside of your eyelids in the morning when you wake up with a really bad hangover after drinking cheap dog-lager in a miserable, tacky town-centre chain pub all night. And why fight it? Stay asleep, consumer.

The medical profession refers to cheap, bulky food with little or no nutritional value as being packed with "empty calories" - stuff that'll keep you chewing for a long time and make you fat, but do you no good. But that's easy for them to say, because they have good jobs and plenty of money to buy the nice healthy stuff with. Only critics and the wealthy can afford the luxury of seeing, for all their bulk, just how "empty" games like Gran Turismo 4 truly are.

Your reporter is only too aware of the precisely zero difference that this article will make to the game's success. There probably isn't a single person alive in this country today whose decision about whether or not to buy GT4 will be shaped by a review, here or anywhere else. The games industry, by one means or another and helped by the cynicism and short-sighted stupidity of magazine publishers, has successfully lifted reviews all but entirely out of the buying equation. Your correspondent can only glance helplessly around at what videogames have become and the seemingly-unstoppable forces driving them there, look back at the promise they once held, and sink ever-further into despair. And oh my God, I can't believe it. I've never been this far away from home.

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