Grab your wheels, sidewinders and keyboards, we are off to the track for racing ala Grand Touring. This game sets out to hybridize professional-class simulation racing with arcade-style speed driven excitement. From its original announcement months ago this game had me intrigued. I readily admit to being a serious fan of both genres of racing games, arcade and simulation. The idea of combining the flash of Need for Speed 3 and the detailed realism of Gran Turismo definitely appealed to me. So I quickly jumped on the chance to evaluate Grand Touring.
My first experience with the game was not what you would call a positive one. Upon double clicking on the executable I was presented with the "Loading" screen. As that was it. I sat there. It sat there. I rebooted my PC thinking that something had gone wrong, causing it to lock-up. "click click" Again the Loading screen appeared, and the wait begun anew. After close to three minutes of waiting the main menu screen finally came up.
Needless to say I was eager to get racing, so I quickly setup my controls and began the quick-start game. On first impression the graphics are fairly detailed and impressive. There is quite a bit of chroming and shading to provide each car with an above average amount of detail. Attention was given to the various non-car elements added to enhance the racing areas. Flocks of birds fly around, at night stars twinkle overhead. However for the most part these effects are blurry and poorly implemented. During one race some "birds" flew right through my car's model. They did not cause any damage, but it distracted from the visual realism. Another aspect that I was dissatisfied with was the lack of views during racing. There is no cockpit or secondary view modes, the "above-the-back-bumper" view is the only camera angle during racing. However, during replays the camera uses a wide variety of on-car and fixed camera angles. As a complete package the graphics in Grand Touring are nice, but leave some things to be desired. All the cars actually look like they are touching the ground (unlike NFS3) and the animated in-car drivers are a nice touch. However I could not in good conscious this game a better graphics score, it just doesn't have that "finished" look that Monaco 2, GPL and NFS3 have.
Between the badly timed in-game sounds and the annoyingly cheerful English announcer Grand Touring is lucky it got any points for the sound category. The audio is severely lacking in many vital areas. There is little to no ambient sounds, leaving the race a pure mixture of squealing tires and revved engines. The "crashing" sound is reused for both hitting cars and objects, and is the same regardless of the impact location. The only speech in the game is in the form of an overly excited girl saying, "Let's go!" and a few other pre/post-race comments. There is no support for A3d or environmental enhancement. It is obvious that minimal effort was put into this area of development, and the score reflects this.
Grand Touring has some initial elements (such as long loading time and terrible handling) that make jumping right into this game difficult. The first cannot be avoided but the second can be improved a little bit in the car performance settings. This "little bit" is not nearly enough in my opinion. Even at the best settings the car does not handle in a controllable manner. Momentum and traction physics are all screwed up, and the car often over-steers into turn-walls and other cars. Unless you own a decent racing wheel steering in Grand Touring is going to be a hassle. After a few hours playing with my joystick I found I could tap out many turns, but I still cannot effectively make smooth adjustments to my racing lines.
Like many other racing games, Grand Touring includes tire, suspension and engine toggles that allow you to configure each car optimally for each track. However, most of the tracks are fairly similar in layout and corner types, so very few changes are needed once you get your car setup right. While I am on the subject of similar tracks, let me just formally voice my dislike for the "unlocking" feature in racing games. Having one or two secret tracks or cars is fine, it adds replay value and helps extend the life of a game. Grand Touring is an example of a game that has so much of the game "locked" it severely detracts from the game as a whole. Grand Touring has two cars originally selectable, with 8 more locked up. Variety is the key to an interesting arcade style racing title, and the lack of racing choices makes getting into and enjoying this game highly difficult.
The modes of play themselves are none too original The arcade style checkpoint based mode is somewhat unfairly setup. The two originally selectable cars do not have the performance to make it through the checkpoints with any time to spar. Any slip up or crash takes away precious seconds from the clock, leaving you frustrated and forced to replay the race. Driving tests are borrowed from Gran Turismo, however they lack the intentional learning curve and difficulty that the original license tests has. Simulation racing is basically the same as the arcade, minus the annoying checkpoints. In simulation mode the car handles a little worse, and the AI drives much more carefully and is much less apt to collide with you. I was not able to detect any of the unique driving characteristics that the web page bragged about, I suppose this was just hype.
One of the few good things about Grand Touring was the accurate portrayal of shifting. Dropping gears caused a significant change on the RPM gauge and the cars handling and down force is affected realistically. It is hard experience to explain, but to put it simply the manual shifting is done very well. Multiplayer is support in the form of IPX and modem to modem. Lack of TCP/IP really hurts. Again I stress that many flaws in game design can be partially overlooked if the game has great multiplayer! Unfortunately Grand Touring does not have this, and its fun factor and multiplayer are both affected by it.
Overall: Some nice looking cars and tracks are about the extent of Grand Touring's gaming experience. It is a disappointment to me after following the development of this game for quite some time the final product is mediocre and has that "unfinished" feel. Some polish could have made this title a solid addition to the racing genre. The combination of simulation and arcade elements was not implemented well, leaving both sub-par in comparison to other like racing titles. Though it is doubtful, I hope that enough interest is invested to warrant a sequel, perhaps a second effort by Empire would really improve this game. In the words of Rocky, "This game could have been a contender!"
Empire puts out a racing sim? Hmmm, well everyone else is so why not? This one takes racing back to real cars and real racing so it stands out a little from the recent releases. I'd have to say the closest comparisons to this game would be Gran Tourismo or Need for Speed 3. It's definitely touring racing, so you'll have the opportunity to drive cars from the BMW Z3 to the Viper GTS.
It's nicely done graphically. I was rather surprised to not hear anything about this game and then see it come out. It's DEFINITELY a euro version, so for those of you in the western hemisphere, it may look different when it comes across the ocean, IF it comes across the ocean. The graphics are up to par with Need for Speed 3, maybe a little crisper. The cars are nicely modeled and have a smooth glossy finish to them. The tracks are pretty well done, skid marks stay and the backdrops are pleasant to the eyes. You can race at night as well. It does take advantage of most of the cool lighting effects and they look great at night. You've got the choice paints for your car so you can customize the looks a tad as well. It has a little extra flair with the tire smoke and ground dust that crank it up a notch. I'm STILL waiting for a game like Colin McRae with damage and dirt modeling. Is that too much to ask for? Come on DEVELOPERS! (specially you US ones cuz the UK guys are kicking your ass). I only see support for Direct3D, so all you non-3D accelerators, you won't be playing this one.
The sound is good for the most part. The background music doesn't really fit that well. It's got too much of a futuristic sound that would go better with Motorhead or DethKarz. The engine noises are pretty standard, they don't sound any different gear to gear either. You get a little bit of road noise depending on what surface you're driving on. It doesn't have good positional sound or environmental sounds. You don't hear any of the opposing cars at all.
The physics are pretty well done in Grand Touring. The cars handle somewhat realistically and they behave the way they should. I found it hard to tell much in between each of the cars at each of the stages, but it did seem to me like there were small differences. The damage physics was arcadish at best. You have two pieces that get damaged, your engine and your tires. Of course the damage will influence how your car performs. Damage your engine and you won't accelerate or shift as smoothly. Damage your tires and you slide. When it rains, you slide easier.
The control is one of the features that takes some time to get used to. It's very tight and for the first while you're playing, you'll be spinning out all over the place. I've heard lots of complaints from other people playing it, but if you take the time to get used to it, it gets better once you get used to it. EXCEPTION - I like to use gamepad buttons for accel and brakes and steer with the gamepad, so I set the game up like that. Unfortunately, it doesn't disable up and down on the gamepad from accel and braking. This really pissed me off when I'd go into a turn and my brakes would come on and totally lock up my steering.
Like most racers, it doesn't have a lot of tracks. It does the usual race in the opposite direction and it also changes the layout of the track. This gives it a bit more flexibility, since the tracks aren't the exact thing you've already raced. This ends up giving you sixteen tracks under four different landscapes plus two hidden tracks. You also get two cars per race league for five leagues, plus two secret cars for a total of twelve. Cars include the Lamborghini, Diablo and the Lexus GS400. It's got quite a good mix of play options to keep it fresh.
It's got quite a lot of features for game style. It has the old fashioned arcade style, with checkpoints for time. GT also has the simulation mode similar to games like DethKarz, where you progress to the next level of competition by beating each level. Each new level gives you access to new cars, so it's nice to progress along. However, it's TOO DAMN HARD to beat levels. I try and drive through a level, and even if you're accustomed to the control, it's still too picky. You can drive great for 6 laps and make a mistake and everyone passes you. It also has a couple of less common play options. You have timeclock racing where you go for your best times which hasn't been implemented in a lot of recent games. The other option is the practice training. This was more interesting because it's not done out on a course. You do it in a little area with cones and gates. I didn't find it extremely helpful, but it was sort of different. The cars are very customizable which I found interesting, because car configuration REALLY does matter. You can gain quite a bit of speed by optimizing your setups. The replay mode looks really smooth as well. If I did good in a race, I loved watching the replay.
It's sort of fun. It's too hard for anyone to really want to play it for extended periods of time. The control is also too picky for some people to take the time to get accustomed to its unforgiving nature. It is definitely more suited to people that want a good simulation then a good arcade racer.
Multiplayer is decent, but unfortunately it doesn't support internet play natively. It supports IPX so it makes a decent LAN party game, but there's no TCP/IP support which limits the replayability with friends.
Grand Touring creates a great game but by combining it as arcade/sim it kind of falls out of its league. It's too difficult to be a catching arcade racer and it's not a great sim for everyone. It is however, well done. I think a select few will love this game, but overall I think it's just not going to be a crowd pleaser.
Highs: Looks nice, realism is pretty good in simulation
Lows: damn picky control, difficult to win, no TCP/IP