Review: Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec (Playstation 2)

In this review, we go for the gold trophy in the Playstation 2 game Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec. We find out if this racing game is worth playing.

This game was released in 2001. This is the third game in the main series (save for the Prologue and demo games of course). We are growing familiar with this particular series. We previously reviewed the game Gran Turismo and that game got a great score. We then played the game Gran Turismo 2. That game also got a great score – a slightly better score than the first game. It’s only natural that we try the next game in the series to see if the game keeps getting better and better.

If you are familiar with this series like I am going into this one, you’ll know that there are certain systems this game typically employs in the simulation mode. This includes an extensive menu system, license tests, car dealers, and the main races. While it is true that this game does keep to this system, you’ll immediately notice that the menu systems have been tweaked a fair bit.

The biggest change in the simulation menu is that the dealers aren’t spread throughout the entire city. Instead, they are all consolidated into one item. The different dealers are certainly present, but have been reorganized into a sub-menu. They are divided by country of origin and subdivided again into different makes.

With the dealers housed into a single menu item, the other items now fit into a single screen. There is a maintenance shop, home, racing menu, machine test, license test, and a single tune shop. With the tune shop held into a single menu, this greatly simplifies things further so you don’t have to run around town looking for your dealer to tune up your car.

Like the previous Gran Turismo games, you really can’t do any racing without passing various driving tests. So, you’ll find yourself taking on the driving tests. Each class is divided into a series of tests. Some are as simple as accelerating and stopping while others can be as complex as completing a whole lap on one of the games many tracks.

Also like in previous games, you can earn prizes for each test you pass. The five possible outcomes are fail (typically from hitting a wall too hard or driving off course), time expired (not even making it within the bronze time limit), bronze, silver, and gold. Bronze will count as a pass and you can pass every test with just that medal. However, if you want bonus cars from the get-go, you need to earn nothing but golds. These early bonus cars can help players avoid some early grinding. However, it should be noted that the times are extremely tight. Only a perfect or near perfect run will do. So, you need to ask yourself if you’d rather be frustrated now or put up with grinding later.

The best license you can earn is the Super license. This allows you to participate in all races. There is, however, a separate rally license that is separate from other courses. Obtaining this license will allow you to race in the rally events.

From there, it’s on to the races themselves. Unless you earned a bonus car from the license tests, you’ll find yourself browsing the car dealerships. Like previous games, you’ll start with a limited amount of credits. The credits are only enough to either buy a near bottom rung car or a bottom rung car with a small number of upgrades. Another thing you’ll notice is that used cars have been stripped out of the game. This means that you’ll be stuck with an even more limited number of cars because of the car prices.

Once you have picked up a car you hope will serve you well, your next step is to go to the races. There is the beginner league, amateur league, professional league, and endurance races. Unless you feel like being completely destroyed right off the bat, you’ll want to try the beginner league.

Like the previous games, you’ll have the option of trying your hand at the Sunday Cup. The prize money is small, but you’ll not only get a better handle on how actual races are run (because the driving tests don’t necessarily fully prepare you for them). Again, unless you’ve won your share of bonus cars from the beginning, this is where you’ll find yourself grinding out some extra credits to afford the (at the time) very expensive upgrades.

As you build up your credits, you’ll eventually have a car suitable for clearing out all the remaining Sunday Cup trophies. There are three total and clearing the list will net you an additional one time prize car and bonus credits. These precious credits can further improve on your current car or allow you to start upgrading whatever prize car you snag. In the next few racing events, the difficulty does jump, so this winds up being quite a slow part of the game – even frustrating to some. Still, you’ll eventually start building up some decent cars thanks to you spending almost every last credit you earn from the races.

When you build up to the point of taking on some other events, you’ll notice that there are some events that feature a race series. You can take on the tracks individually for the cash prize or take on the whole event. Either way, if you win all the races, you’ll earn gold trophies in every race. So, it really depends on your strategy early on in the game.

Another thing you’ll notice along the way is that various races have specific restrictions. These restrictions can be placed on whether or not you can tune your car (important to note that changing the tires does not count a tuning), the specific drive train of your vehicle, whether your engine is an NA engine or a turbo engine, or what kind of car you can bring with you in the race. The limited HP races are gone and the country of origin is modified and limited to a very select few events. Some races are largely only winnable with a car you can earn as a bonus car, so if you can’t find it amongst the cars in the dealers, try winning other races in the mean time.

If you think that progress is slow early on, you’ll be correct. Even after you build up your first monster car, even winning races on a regular basis won’t necessarily push that completion counter up a whole lot. Each race counts as a certain percentage whether it is a short three lap race or a massive 2 hour endurance race. Still, completing each race is necessary for your progress rating to go up.

There really are only two special kinds of races: endurance and rally races. Each one has unique features associated with them. For the endurance races, these are, of course, exceptionally long. Some races are like other races with just a really large number of laps. Other races have a time limit (typically 2 hours). With races like those, you basically race for two hours. After the two hours have expired, the next lap you complete will end the race.

Meanwhile, the rally events are all held on completely different courses. They are one on one individual races with each race progressing in number of laps. There are also two events that take place on the more familiar concrete roads of Special Rout 5. The critical difference is that these races are held in the rain. Weirdly, these are the only two events (6 races total) held in the rain.

As you complete larger and larger chunks of the game, you’ll eventually start earning bonus cars for amount of game you complete. You’ll earn bonus cars at 50%, 75%, and 100% completion. If you are in the middle of a race series when you cross over that threshold, the game will wait until the end of the event to reward you with the bonus car.

You’ll probably also notice that this game requires oil changes. This is a new feature of this game. Unless you are just starting in the game, this small bit of maintenance doesn’t cost much. Still, if you see the oil light on, that is definitely an indication that you need to change your oil.

A problem with this feature comes late in the game when you take on a particularly large race series. Some race series feature so many laps, that they become a quarter of the length of an endurance race. At 10 races in the series, even if you change your oil right before the race, you’ll see the oil lamp flick on part way through. The kicker is that, unless you quit the race series, you can’t actually change the oil.

Supposedly, if you leave the oil unchanged for long enough, you’ll end up causing permanent damage to the engine with lost horse power. I’ve never encounters permanent damage, but it did feel like I was pushing things too far with the oil light being on for half a series.

The ultimate goal is to obtain an F1 car. You can’t actually buy one, so you need to win one. These are won in endurance races, though there are a few races you can win them on outside of the endurance races as well. Once you manage to score one of these, unrestricted races (save for the GT1 cup) will be worked down to a mere checklist because the difficulty will ultimately drop to almost nothing. With the prize month you earn from all of these races, all the other monster cars you can run through the more restricted races will be extremely cheap. Worst case scenario, you’ll need to sell off some prize cars to buy the last few.

When you get used to the car you are driving, you’ll eventually get so used to the tracks, you’ll be able to pick out certain track features that tell you when to brake and turn. This can mean the difference between barely being competition and conquering some of these races.

Taking things a step further, you’ll also eventually find ways to more or less “cheat” in this game as well. Some of the more “open” races have track features you can essentially skip over by quickly driving over the gravel. Meanwhile, the more walled races will have certain walls you can just grind along. I like to refer to this as wall riding. While you do lose speed doing this, this can be quicker than breaking, swerving, and figuring out exit speed. Not all walls can be ridden, but some walls can help you push yourself that much further ahead from the pack. Just know that not all walls are created equal if you employ this tactic. This, of course, depends on how honestly you want to race each track.

For me, I was looking forward to playing this one. Given how good the other racing games were in the series, it only stood to reasoning that this would continue on with the quality because all the basic concepts are certainly there. Even better, the game is on a whole new and more powerful system. So, the expectations that this is going to be a great game is even higher. I was disappointed with this one.

The first problem is a mixture of tracks and initial difficulty. It is almost the exact same problem I had with playing Adventures of Lolo 2. If you played the previous game, you are punished to some degree. If you didn’t play the previous game, you are punished to a certain degree.

In this case, if you played the previous game, you are punished. This is because the tracks on this game are almost all from the previous game. I can only recall one completely new track and that is found in the license testing. Not only this, but save for the reverse direction, all the track variations have been removed as well. Some tracks have even been removed completely (Autumn Ring being one example) So, thanks to this, it is a very stripped down version of Gran Turismo 2 for the most part.

If you haven’t played the previous game, you are punished in the way of difficulty. I don’t know if the length of time between playing the series, but this game felt very difficult in the beginning. The difficulty in the license tests alone are enough to deter some who are new to the series. In addition, the almost required grinding in the beginning can also be enough to deter other new players. Since this is a simulated racing game, the controls can be frustrating to players who don’t have much experience in this kind of game.

To further the point of the stripped down track selection, the previous Gran Turismo game features track variations. In the first few races, you have tracks that are not only shortened, but easier as well. This actually allows players to get into the series much more easily. To make things even better, as you get to harder races, the tracks open up to reveal longer routs and more complex layouts. This game stripped out this critical feature and pushed the hardest variations onto the players at the very beginning, making this game much less approachable.

As you progress in the game, you’ll just keep racing the exact same tracks over and over again. As a result, the game gets old much more quickly. Because of the length, all the fun gets sucked out of the game after the first few days of play and then tacks on at least an additional 66% at least. The only real variations is what car you are forced to race in next.

A more minor flaw is that computer players can actually cheat themselves a little. This is very subtle, but there are a few races where computer players race in cars that aren’t actually permitted in the race. A specific example that I’m aware of is the roadster cup. I’ve seen a ZZII and a Shelby Sport Car in some of the races. If you enter in either car, you’ll be kicked out for a race violation. While my RUF3200S still dominated the race, I found it odd that something like this was missed in testing.

Another aspect that is a bit of a good news, bad news situation is trying to determine which car is needed to win races. The bad news is that some of the races feature such a wide variety of cars, it’s difficult to really tell what is ideal. The good news is that there are plenty of web resources around that can offer suggestions. Is it cheating? That depends. For me, the game is so long as it is, the occasional suggestion is fine as far as I’m concerned.

A strategy some people employ is to race in a single race, figure out which car wins, then buy that car and soup it up fully before re-racing that track. That does help a fair bit under most circumstances (computer player cheating aside of course).

While this game does have its flaws, there is a fair bit going for it as well. You have a lot of vehicle variation going for it. With that effort for realism, you’ll definitely get a lot of that in this game. If you want to lay down some rubber in a PT Cruiser, this game offers that ability. If you want to rub paint with a Lotus Elise, that is definitely an option.

Some people criticize this game for a lack of damage ability. No matter what you do to your car, you’ll never get scratches, dings, or a whole missing bumper. While I do agree this takes away from the realism, the way this game is balanced, this would only deter newer players that much further. Imagine having only 500 credits left in your first few races, smashing your car enough because a computer opponent cut you off, and being forced to spend that last remaining 500 credits on repairs. All that grinding early on goes to waste. Because of this, I’m glad damage isn’t included in this game or I would have quite much earlier on in frustration.

Another positive in this game is the fact that this game can keep people busy for hours. Length is, by far, not a problem with this one. In fact, it’s so long, it’s actually a fault in this game. So, you’ll never be bored with a lack of races after building up your war chest after a while.

One really annoying aspect is that the forced instant replay is still present. Like previous games, once you complete a race, you actually have to exit a menu to avoid sitting through the instance replay. When you exit, your first option is to replay the instance replay. I don’t see why the need to force it down the players throats still. It made no sense previously, and it makes no sense now. Leave it as an option, but don’t force the issue.

Generally speaking, this game has its share of faults that make this one disappointing. While the oil is an interesting addition to the game, you can’t change it during long race series. The balance is pretty bad with much of the difficulty being concentrated at the beginning of the game. Meanwhile, the stripped down tracks can easily make people bored – more so for experienced players than newer players. The game has good length, but players will easily be bored long before the game is complete. The instant replay issue is, annoyingly, still present in this game. While this game does feature some pretty solid variety, the faults of this game do obscure the more positive points found in this game.

Where this game shines the most is the graphics. Every race and car have been given a very nice amount of polish. The draw distances have been improved greatly. A lot of otherwise 2D graphics have been nicely upgraded to 3D models. Some effects that were just drawn in like the light rays in Deep Forest now have fully rendered beams. While this game does boast some nice frame rates, the only caveat is that the special effects are a little bit lacking. The sparks, flags, dust, and dirt kicking up are nice, but nothing I haven’t seen in many other racing games on, say, the N64. Still, having said that, the graphics are quite nice overall.

This leads to the audio. Starting with the good, it is nice hearing the engine sounds, wind (which cuts out while drafting), screeching, and dirt sound pretty good to me. There could have been a bit more dynamic sounds, but I personally can’t complain too much.

The downside is the music. The first Gran Turismo was great and the second one was less impressive, but still great. Unfortunately, the downward trend not only continues, but accelerates by quite a bit. While the soundtrack is large, I can only count three tracks that were actually enjoyable. Those are Grand Theft Audio – As Good as It Gets, Methods of Mayhem – Crash, and Goldfinger – 99 Red Balloons. The music eventually gets old and is partially obscured by the other sounds in the game. Of the first three games in this series, this game has, by far, the worst soundtrack in the series so far. So, audio is a disappointment.

Overall, this game is a huge disappointment. The difficulty curve is wacky with the high difficulty in the beginning, the sudden drop in the middle, and the game just getting annoying by the end. Tracks are heavily stripped down, making the game both repetitive and disappointing for experienced players. The replay system is still awful. There are, however, menu improvements. The game gives plenty of features, which means you’ll never really run out of things to do (at least, before you get bored of the game). Meanwhile, the graphics are the real shining star with only limited special effects holding this back slightly. The audio, meanwhile, is a huge disappointment with a fairly lacklustre soundtrack which features very few good tracks. Considering where this series was before, this one is a big disappointment.

Furthest point in game:
Completion rating: 75.1% (Doesn’t sound like anything huge, but that took me about a month to accomplish)
Beginner League, Amateur League, Rally Events, and Endurance Races complete.
Professional League: Won everything except FF Challenge, Vitz Race, Elise Trophy, Won Formula GT Championship, though didn’t place 1st in 4 races.

General gameplay: 16/25
Replay value: 3/10
Graphics: 9/10
Audio: 3/5

Overall rating: 62%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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