A New Dawn
The PlayStation 2 has had a lot of outspoken critics, but even they would have difficulty finding fault with Gran Turismo 3. It's a visual tour de force, an auditory delight, and a game that will suck more hours out of your life than smoking fifty a day. It has so much to offer, it does it with style and finesse, and boasts an unparalleled reward structure to keep you coming. Can you tell that we like it yet? It's not entirely without its problems. Without further ado, let me introduce you to the AI, an acronym which any cinema-goer who didn't already know can now tell you stands for "Artificial Intelligence". It might as well mean "Artificial Incompetence" where Gran Turismo 3 is concerned though. Even as a humble greenhorn, yours truly was able to take a few championships simply by lining up cars attempting to pass in the mirror so that they bounced harmlessly off the rear bumper. The computer controlled cars bash into walls, they bash into each other, and they show absolutely no stealth or cunning in overtaking you; they are not artificially intelligent. Overtaking manoeuvres really get the blood pumping, but if developer Polyphony had managed to instil some logic into the minds of the other drivers the game would be even more exciting. Fending off a Dodge Viper with your Corvette's rear bumper is an unlikely scenario for a game that prides itself on its realism, and any game that allows you to lean on that Dodge Viper to get round a corner when you haven't braked hard enough is just taking the Mickey. Furthermore, you cannot tell me that in a vaguely competitive field of drivers the human player should always win, despite having a technically inferior vehicle. Where's the logic in that? But it happens. You can blow away rival drivers by taking the corners with an ounce of bounce, or simply making sure they can't get up the inside of you. They only ever use the racing line, so it's not too difficult to avoid that. Breezing through later championships with a car that isn't even on the same page as the other five runners is pretty upsetting, especially when you've invested so much time in the game.
And given how good everything else in Gran Turismo 3 is, you will be investing a lot of time in the game. For starters I have to talk about the graphics, which are simply amazing. From the start of the very first race you're mesmerized. As you sit on the grid the heat haze wafts upward, distorting the air. As you pull away, the textures of the road and background will look vaguely attractive (and inexplicably unique from inch to inch), but what really catches your eye are the reflections in the metal of the other vehicles. The trees, sky and roadside artefacts are painstakingly inverted and modelled onto the curves of the cars in real time. It's enough to make PSOne Gran Turismo owners weep tears of joy. As you continue the graphics become less important, and are occasionally spoilt by one or two brief bouts of pop-up at the extremities of the landscape, or garish Firestone billboards with their flawless opaque reds and whites that just look wrong in such a sumptuous environment. But these are minor defects, especially once you move onto the replay section. As in the first two games in the series, once you complete a race in GT3 you are whisked back to the starting line to watch it again in the exhaustive replay mode. You can watch from certain preset camera angles that change TV-style as you watch yourself zoom around the track, or you can flip to the in-car view to see how things went. Using the D-pad you can navigate between car views, which is incredibly useful when you're trying to establish how so-and-so in the Mazda MX-5 took that corner so perfectly, and since you're not at the controls every detail is visualized, analysed and swooned over. A good amount of my early hours at the reins were spent in Replay mode. As you move through the game the level of presentation is exceptional, with wonderfully clear menus and instructions etched onto the screen, and a million and one new cars to marvel over in the Garage, the body shop and on the race screen. New conditions like wet tracks rear their heads making the game far more interesting and visually even more stunning. The improved Rally tracks look dusty and gritty, with little tufts of grass that stick up realistically from the ground and huge clouds of dust dancing around in the haze. Huge trees overhang some areas of the course, and driving through deciduous arches of forestry with the sun beaming through the gaps and peppering the track is frankly unmatched in any other game I've encountered, on the PlayStation 2 or anywhere else.
The Rest Of The Package
Completing the illusion of reality are some electrifying samples. The sound of engines roaring brought goosebumps out on my back, and every single car has a unique engine signature which sounds distinguishably different. Quite an achievement. If there's one thing I enjoy about driving in real life it's the sound of the engine, that low rumbling as you rev it before it's called into action, the loud roar as you release the clutch and the gentle dip as you go up a gear. I love it, and Polyphony evidently do as well. There's passion here. As you zoom down the straights, the wind whistles playfully and bobs off your bonnet or howls past you depending on your viewpoint. In previous games there were three alternative viewpoints, but in GT3 there's front bumper and there's up-and-behind. Both are useful in the course of a race to judge position, corners and most of all slipstreams. As you make your way into the wake of that Dodge Viper GTS I mentioned earlier, you will want to make sure that you're not losing speed because of him, and the sound of the wind is your key here. Unfortunately GT3 boasts a stunning soundtrack to boot. I say unfortunately, because you'll want to turn it off to improve your chances in the race. Although there are some classy tracks from the likes of Iggy Pop, Feeder and other groups, with the ability to pick out your favourites and set up your own playlist, they don't fit the atmosphere. Moving away from the overall aesthetic though, the most obvious thing about Gran Turismo 3 is that it is big. To start with there is the Arcade mode, in which you can race pretty much any car you like on your own. This can be done as a time trial, against a friend in split screen mode, against a friend on another PlayStation 2, or even against five other PlayStation 2 owners thanks to the versatility of iLink... Arcade mode at its highest levels is almost more challenging than Gran Turismo mode.
Gran Turismo mode is where you will spend most of your time though. Newcomers to the series will dive into the License test area and learn the basics of starting, gear shifting, stopping distances, cornering, speed control, how to work in slippery conditions and so on. There are six different licenses, and each contains eight tests which must be passed at a minimum of Bronze level. Silver and Gold times can also be challenged for, and you will keep coming back for them. You don't need a license to get going, and Gran Turismo veterans may take this as a good reason to go and blow some cash on a motor. For the 18,000 nondenominational credits you start with, a decent range of low-power vehicles are available, including a few gems like the Mazda MX-5. There are 185 cars in Gran Turismo 3, a bit of a dip from the last game but still a huge number, and not all of them can be accessed simply by blowing 50,000 bucks. Some can only be gained by winning competitions, and others are unlocked for purchase by winning things. For instance, there are ten Formula 1 cars from the last two decades that can be raced once unlocked, but it requires you to win about sixty championships, and each race can be anything from ten to seventy laps. Once you've picked a car you can clock some performance statistics in the Machine Test or throw it around a track in one of the Beginner championships. Even before you get to the hidden modes, the Beginner, Amateur and Professional leagues each feature twenty championships made up of anything from three to ten different races, many of them set across a huge number of laps and featuring proper qualifying sessions. Then there is the Rally event, made up of ten championships with three races each, which by itself puts Colin McRae and most other dedicated rally games to shame. Beyond that there are ten Endurance races, which are so-named for a reason, each taking upwards of an hour to complete! It isn't just about the racing either. You can tune your car up with new parts bought from your winnings - new suspension and brakes, shock absorbers, lightweight alloy bodies, all the way through to whole new engines. And yes, they sound different to the old ones.
Gran Turismo 3 is everything to everyone. If you're a casual racer you can blow yourself away in Arcade mode, uncovering hundreds of little bonuses and racing against friends. If you want a bit more depth, there's the Gran Turismo mode where you can spend time tuning your car, making it purr, winning championships and unlocking more cars. If you get bored you can spend time shaving hundredths of a second off your license test times. The feeling of jubilation once you have Gold awards for every area of every test is immeasurable. I've been playing Gran Turismo 3 solidly for a week now, doing little else in that time, and I can't honestly say that I've done more than scratch the surface yet. I will probably be playing this game for months, and even then I won't finish it. It's all-encompassing, and like its predecessors before it, teaches the racing genre a thing or two about itself. Developers will be copying it for years, gamers will be playing it for years. It doesn't matter who you are, you should buy GT3. It's not perfect, but it's very, very close.