"Since the original release of Gran Turismo, the real driving simulator has evolved to the levels and capabilities of tutoring sports driving. Seven years ago, we changed history for the driving game genre.
"This year we hope Gran Turismo 4 will trigger another revolution."
So reads a message from Polyphony Digital on the packaging of the Gran Turismo 4 limited edition. It's a bold claim, and an even bolder hope, especially since GT4 has suffered so many problems throughout its development.
Initially it was due to hit the grid back in the latter part of 2003. Then it was delayed so the much-vaunted online mode could be tuned up. Then it was delayed further. And then the online mode was scrapped altogether.
So here we are, seven years on since Gran Turismo redefined the driving game, with a fourth generation sequel that has entered the running shorn of the one killer feature we'd been promised. Can it really trigger another racing revolution? We strapped ourselves into our racing seats and turned the ignition on our Japanese import copy of GT4 to find out.
One thing is abundantly clear from the moment the intro movie runs - Gran Tursimo 4 is autophilia of the highest order. Soaring opera music accompanies lingering, almost voyeuristic shots of a Ford GT's every aspect. As the camera tracks around the four-wheeled work of art and the background subtly morphs into each of GT4's stunning environmental vistas, you're left in no doubt that Kaunori Yamauchi and his team are true automobile fetishists. It's beautiful.
As is the game, in the visual sense. This is undoubtedly the finest looking game you'll ever see on PS2. Just watch the attract video - it's truly difficult to distinguish the digital representations of the 700-plus motors present in GT4 and the numerous locations from the real world. The cars in particular are stunning, perfectly modelled and glistening like turbo-charged diamonds from even the smallest light source.
The visuals are appropriately decadent because in GT the car is, quite literally, the star. This kind of deification of the motor vehicle's form has been a hallmark of the series since day one. For better or for worse, so too has the structural conceit that your first few hours playing a new Gran Turismo game must be simultaneously patronising, dull and frustrating, interrupted only occasionally by uplifting moments of adrenaline. You guessed it. The license tests are back.
In theory, we love the idea of license tests in GT. It's a perfect way to tie in the tutorial with the game structure by making sure the player is prepared for the challenges he's facing, and can also really make the player feel like he's learning something about the art of driving in the process.
In practice, wading through the license tests is thoroughly demoralising. The first few are insulting simple, such as 'drive in a straight line and stop in the box' or 'go round this gentle corner', while the later challenges become infuriatingly unforgiving as time limits get tighter and the motors get more powerful.
Minor Fault or Major Fault?
Fortunately, GT4 cuts back on the frustration of redoing tests over and over again as far as it could without getting rid of them altogether. The very early tests remain a pointless irritation, but they pass fairly quickly. In fact, the whole process has been streamlined - we had earned our A, B, Ai and Bi licenses within around three hours of play and without too much steering wheel slapping.