Gran Turismo 4 is the first of that storied series that I’ve played. It’s almost the only driving game that I’ve played this generation (the exceptions being the forgettable F-Zero GX and a few rounds of Mario Kart with friends): I got pretty burned out on driving games last generation, and I needed some time off from them. I enjoyed driving games at the start of last generation: Extreme G was actually the first Nintendo 64 game I bought (admittedly, only because all the games I actually wanted were temporarily unavailable), about which I have no regrets, and Wave Race was quite nice, if not the crown jewel that it is frequently claimed to be. But it took me a little while to notice that IGN kept on giving 9 ratings to racing games that were at best good executions of a genre not known for innovations; by the time I figured that out, I’d lost my taste for driving games.

And GT4 was a good for my one driving game of this generation. I have no idea how they got graphics like that out of a PS2. The physics model seems better than in other driving games I’ve played: it’s the first game I’ve played that modeled drafting, for example. And I learned a lot more about driving from this game than from other games: in less realistic games, you just have to memorize the course and keep control at completely unrealistic speeds, and in other more realistic games I’ve played, I still succeeded by sticking to the insides of corners and braking enough to stop myself from skidding. But my approach to cornering (and in particular to using the whole width of the track) had to completely change when playing GT4, and honestly I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface there. It helped that they had a nice set of graduated lessons in the form of driving tests to hone your skills.

Some parts of the game play didn’t work so well, though. The way a racing game traditionally progresses is as follows: you start off on easy tracks against bad computer opponents. After getting used to the game and the track, you win; you move on to harder-tracks and/or harder opponents. You frequently get some sort of better car as a side effect of winning; that, combined with your increased skills, mean that the new difficulties are enjoyable but surmountable.

This is cliched, perhaps, but not because it’s a bad idea: driving games by their nature give you a limited design space to play in, and there are only so many ways to get a good difficulty gradient in that design space. The GT series, however, is somewhat famous for ways in which it tries to enlarge the design space: it has lots and lots of cars and lots and lots of tracks (most real-world, some fictional). Which is quite impressive; it doesn’t push my particular buttons, but I acknowledge that it’s a significant accomplishment.

The thing is, though, it makes your progress through the game a good deal less linear. Your choices in cars and tracks start off somewhat restricted (by your budget and lack of driving licenses), but even at the beginning you have many choices, and the number only grows. There are many ways that a player can approach this; I decided to treat it mostly like a normal driving game, and start by playing the first designated beginners’ race.

This was fun: with the only car that I could afford and my initial incompetence and ignorance, I didn’t do well in the races at first. But as I learned the tracks and got better at driving, I placed higher, earned more money from my finishes, was able to upgrade my car (the game has a certain RPG-ish aspect), and with a combination of better skills and better car, was able to win that circuit.

So far, so good; what’s next? There were multiple next-level beginner’s courses (for the different engine positions that your car could have); I picked the one that matched my car’s engine. Like the previous circuit, it started out badly, but started to get better. The thing is, though, it didn’t get better very quickly; some of that could be blamed to my skills (though I don’t think I’m any worse at this sort of thing than your average video game player), but if half the field is pulling away from you on straightaways, ultimately you need to upgrade your car. And the fourth- and fifth- place money that I was earning wasn’t getting the job done fast enough.

So what was I supposed to do? I could have gone back to the easier circuit and earned more money from winning it again, but that would have been boring. So I looked around at other circuits; I found a “Japanese cars of the 90’s” one that I could enter, and surprisingly, it turned out that it was easier than the other circuit that I’d been going through, was in fact just at the right difficulty level for me.

So that was a good outcome; better if the game had made it easier for me to find an appropriate circuit to play, but at least I found one eventually. And with the prize money I got out of that, I was able to upgrade my car to an appropriate level to, with a bit more effort, win the previous circuit that I’d been trying.

The story doesn’t end there, however: when I won that Japanese circuit, I didn’t only get money, I got a car. You get all sorts of random cars when you win circuits; most of them are interesting for car collector geeks but useless for racing terms. This one, however, was very powerful. It had a different engine position than the car that I had been using, so I tried the second-tier beginner’s circuit that was appropriate to that engine type, and I found that I could blow away my opponents, even when driving very sloppily. Which is no fun, but what was I supposed to do? I suppose I could have tried to buy a worse car of that engine type, in an effort to get a reasonable challenge level, but that would have felt perverse; basically, that circuit was turned into a loss for me. And that wasn’t an isolated occurrence: that same car let me blow away several other races as well.

The story here wasn’t all bad: while I soon found an even more obscenely overpowered car that I could use to blow away more opponents, that mattered less in the higher circuits. What started to happen was that I would screw up on corners, allowing the other cars to gain a significant lead on me, which I would proceed to eliminate on the next straightaway, leaving us with a more or less level playing field. So to win the races, I had to memorize the courses, learn the appropriate speeds and locations to enter the corner, and execute correctly almost all the time. Classic good, challenging gameplay, in other words.

Ultimately, there’s a huge amount of depth to this game, and a lot of good gameplay to be found; I’m quite glad I bought it. The bad design of the player’s progression through the game is a serious flaw, however. Like several games I’ve played recently, I could have probably enjoyed playing this game for longer than I had, learning all of its intricacies, but given the breadth of video game choices that I have, I felt it was time to move on.

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