Review: Gran Turismo 4 (Playstation 2)

In this review, we tackle the apex in the Playstation 2 game Gran Turismo 4. We find out how well this racing game plays.

This game was released in 2005 and is the fourth in the main series.

We are growing quite familiar with this series. We first tried the original Gran Turismo on the original Playstation. That game got a great score. Next up, we tried Gran Turismo 2. That game got a slightly better great score. From there, we tried Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec. That game wound up being very disappointing as it got a mere mediocre score. So, we thought we’d try the fourth game in the series to see if it turns things around.

If you are already familiar with Gran Turismo games up to this point, a lot of this will definitely sound familiar to you. There are some small differences with how the game plays, but it should be a very familiar routine exercise.

When you start the game, you start with a small amount of credits. You also have access to a very limited amount of races. To gain access to more races, you’ll need to take on the license tests. The more licenses you obtain, the more races you can play in.

In total, there are 5 licenses. Each license contains more than a dozen lessons. The lessons themselves contain the strictest racing conditions in the game. On the plus side, they teach you anything from simple braking and turning all the way to flying through whole tracks efficiently. You do get an explanation before each race. Additionally, you can also access a demo race in the event that you need a physical demonstration instead of a textbook reading lesson.

To make matters more interesting, you have a time limit. Complete the objective within a certain amount of time and you’ll get a prize award. These prizes are bronze, silver, and gold. Bronze allows you to complete the lesson while gold enables you the chance to earn an impressive car very early on in the game.

The difficulty is the fact that if you knock over a cone, go off track, or hit a wall too hard, then you immediately fail. This isn’t the end of the world for corner tests, but when you reach the lessons that involve full laps, these conditions can be downright frustrating because it demands near perfect driving. This is, after all, a simulation racing game, so understanding the nuances of the road is an absolute must.

One thing that is new is the inclusion of a “coffee break” lesson part way through. Merely completing the courses is enough to complete the lesson, so there is no pressure to nail the course within a certain time. The lessons include driving through randomly placed cones all the way to knocking down every cone in a maze just like Pac Man.

Another new feature to these lessons is the inclusion of the pace car. This car shows up on full lap race courses and is much more powerful than the vehicle you wind up with. The car will travel around the course and stay ahead of you. Pass it or hit it and you fail. The good news, however, is the fact that it basically offers you a braking guide for difficult turns. Basically, brake when the car brakes and you’ll probably get a decent time. Ultimately, this new system ends up being hugely beneficial and is rarely a hindrance to your progress. When you get to the solo lap courses, you’ll likely miss the pace car because you are then on your own to determine how to brake all by yourself.

The bonus in all of this is the fact that for every license you earn completely, you get a free bonus car to help you on your mission to be the best driver you can be in the game. The cars you earn are one time only acquisitions, so if you sell that car, you aren’t getting it back by re-completing the lesson. The only other one-time acquisitions revolve around game completion milestones.

After you ace the license tests, you’ll find yourself trying to figure out what you need to go to first. If you were a huge fan of how well the developers cleaned up the menus in the previous game, you’ll be very disappointed with how the developers went back to the old mess of a menu that you get in this game. You’ll be greeted by a wall of car dealers, halls, testing options, and race courses. In fact, one could make the argument that this game has the single worst menu system of the series up to this point because it literally plasters everything on one massive screen instead of actually consolidating anything.

Still, what you are likely going to want to find is the Sunday cup in the beginner hall as your first set of races. Unless you nail the hard to earn gold medals on the license tests, you are stuck with either taking on the Sunday Cup or the driving missions (which supplies the car for you). If you don’t like any of the cars, you’ll have an ocean of dealers to sift through to find something better. Unfortunately, with the minuscule amount of credits you start with, even if you find a decent car, there is really no way to upgrade it without a bit of grinding at the beginning.

For the races themselves, there are actually a bunch of halls and one-make races. There is the beginner hall which features some of the easier races. The professional Hall has some of the more advance races in the game. Additionally, there is the Special Conditions Hall which features the more complex courses including alley races, dirt, snow, and even a single wet conditions track. With three difficulties, that alone will keep you busy for a while. Also, there are three region halls for you to take on: Japanese, European, and American. Most of those races restrict which region your car can come from.

Finally, there is the Endurance and Extreme halls. The endurance hall can only be tackled once you complete 25% of the game. The Extreme hall becomes available once you’ve taken on and beaten every event in the beginner and professional halls (note that one event in the professional hall requires completion of every other event in that and the beginner halls).

Don’t be fooled by the beginner hall. Just because it is the first hall you take on to get to the later races doesn’t mean it is a breeze. Some races have very strict conditions and require you to have very specific cars just to compete. One example features a set of races which is just restricted to trucks only. In fact, you’ll probably wind up completing a few region events and professional events before you complete the beginner hall, so don’t be afraid to branch out early.

Another thing to note is that special conditions events feature mostly two races each event (wet course being an exception). The first race has you going forwards while the other has you going in reverse. Additionally, there are some additional unique strict conditions. If you hit your single opponent or a wall, you’ll get a 5 second penalty where the car slows down to a max speed of 30mph before you can accelerate back up to full speed. An exploit is that if the back part of your car is what gets hit, then there is no penalty – which means you can swerve your car in specific ways to abuse the system and snag some interesting wins. Also, each event is tackled three times with increasing difficulty. You can get a lot of prize cars here.

Early on in the game, you’ll likely notice that cash is surprisingly hard to come by. With many races featuring a mere 2,000 credits or so for first, upgrades are immediately extremely expensive. So, your goal isn’t necessarily to just complete races, but also to find some cash cow races as well. Early on, you can find a set of races which offers 5,000 credits per win. Early on, this prize can add up comparatively quickly and make some of the more expensive cars affordable.

Like previous Gran Turismo games, you’ll be given the option to upgrade your vehicles. To upgrade your vehicle, find the dealer with the “…” icon above it. After that, find the dealer with the golden car. This helps finding your dealer a surprisingly simple task. Your dealer will offer a host of upgrades including new tires, chips, weight reduction, and the all-important new addition to the game, nitrous. New to the series, nitrous can offer an increase in acceleration. It is a one time buy and will refill between every race (including in championship modes) automatically.

As mentioned, upgrades can be downright expensive. Even on a car that you paid less than 80,000 credits, some upgrades can set you back as much as 90,000 credits. So, upgrades can be a much bigger investment then the car itself, though it is definitely worth it on a lot of races.

In the regular races themselves, you’ll notice two things: oil and a blue bar. The oil will gradually degrade in quality, however, this feature has been largely improved since its implementation in the previous game. Unlike in the previous game, you won’t need to change the oil after every couple of races. The oil light also won’t pop on half way through a championship or an endurance race even if you change it prior to the race. It isn’t forever, but it won’t go bad after 50KM.

The blue bar, meanwhile, is actually your fuel. Fuel is a brand new feature to this series. Each vehicle will have varied gas mileage, but it is reasonably liberal. In races with a small handful of laps, this feature won’t really mean anything for the race itself. In the longer races, chances are, your tires will wear out faster than your gas tank can empty. So, it may seem like a somewhat trivial feature meant to add realism, however, there is a much more subtle reason for its implementation.

If you play Gran Turismo 3 endurance races, you’ll notice that some races can be beaten on bald tires. All you need to do is ride a bunch of walls in just the right way and you can fly through all the laps without a single pit. In this game, the fuel gauge eliminates that loophole. Even if you figure out how to beat races on bald tires, you’ll eventually need to refuel as well or else you’ll be forced to drive at a very slow pace until you reach the pits. It’s a subtle purpose, but effective.

If you buy nitrous, you’ll notice a red gauge. This gauge indicates how much of your nitrous you have left. You can use any amount you want at any point during the race. One thing you have to keep in mind is that if you run out during the race, that is it. You can’t refill it in on a pit stop. Once you are out, you are out for the entire race. In some races, you’d be hard pressed to use the whole bottle. In other races, it is easy to run out in a small handful of laps. It’s unclear what affects consumption speed, though best guess is the speed you are travelling.

Another thing you’ll notice is that tire wear is now mandatory for every race. Whether it is a single lap race or an endurance race, you’ll get the tire wear indicator no matter what. You’ll start with blue tires. As the race goes on, your tires will turn green. This indicates that the tires have “warmed up” and will reach peak performance. From there, the tires will turn yellow, then orange, then finally red. As you get closer to red, the performance of your tires will degrade. Red can mean you basically slide around as if you are driving on ice, so changing the tires wind up being a must at that point if you get there.

Tire performance degradation depends on a number of factors. This includes the drive train of your vehicles, how much you are braking and turning, and the type of tire you use. There is a sepctrum of tires available that affects the speed of performance degradation and performance of tire wear. Harder tires will mean your tires will wear out more slowly. They have the unfortunate side effect of having the lowest performance, but the good news is that they are the cheapest tires you can pick up. Softer tires have a much higher performance. Unfortunately, they wear out more quickly and are more expensive. So, the optimal tire, if you are upgrading your tires at all, depends on the race length. Medium is a good starting tire.

In total, you square off against 5 opponents in the various races (special events is a duel one on one race) throughout the game. The higher the position, the bigger the prize money. If you are in a championship series race, you’ll also get up to 10 championship points for finishing first. The lineup is somewhat random in nature, but they do conform to the race rules.

At the end of each race, you’ll notice another new feature in this game: A-Spec points. You can earn anywhere between 1 and 200 A-spec points for each race. If your car can completely decimate the opposition, you may get the top prize money easily, but you’ll also earn a measly 1 A-Spec point. If, however, your competition is fierce and your vehicle struggles to keep up, winning a race can mean earning a massive 200 points. The A-spec points don’t do anything to affect gameplay, but it does function as a point scoring system.

You can also play in B-spec mode. Like A-spec mode, you can earn B-spec points for wins. What makes B-spec mode different is the fact that you don’t actually drive. In fact, you have another driver drive your car with the hopes that the driver can beat the race. You can give instructions such as overtaking or holding your position, but otherwise, you are letting the game play itself for you. Some refer to the driver as “B-Spec Bob”. Definitely a more passive way of playing.

After you complete a series of races or championship race, you’ll earn a prize car. Each prize car is yours to upgrade or do as you see fit. The thing to keep in mind is that some prize cars cannot be bought normally. So, if you sell it, you’ll get some credits, however, you may come across a race that has a very strict set of rules that makes some of those prize cars a very attractive thing to play. So, unless you know of no race you’ll use that prize car for, selling it may cost you more in the end.

As you progress through the game, you’ll find that prize cars are hugely useful in very specific races. Some prize cars in single make races can be the ultimate car on other strict rule races. Conversely, some races in the main events will reward you with cars that are highly useful in the single make races. As such, a linear approach of taking on halls one at a time, then single make races next is definitely inefficient because you’ll probably need to flip back and forth between them to get the better prize cars.

As you explore the main menu map further, you’ll notice some additional features including the tuner village and the used car lots. There is the used car lots 1 and 2 as well as a historical car lot. Cars in these lots can be very cheap, however, they will need an oil change after you buy it (50 credits, so very cheap!). Some cars can also only be found in the used car lots, so checking them out is very worth it every so often. The huge caveat here is that you have no real control over which car becomes available. Every couple of days, the inventory will change out, so you may or may not find the vehicle you want here.

Meanwhile, tuner village can upgrade some cars in unique ways. For instance, you can add an NA Turbo level 4 on some of your cars. However, if the tuner village supports your car, you may even find a turbo level 5 upgrade. It may not be much of an upgrade, but you can squeeze that little bit of extra performance out of your car under certain conditions if you really need it.

The last feature of note is GT Auto. Like the previous game, you can change your oil here. GT Auto also features a car wash and even offers an ability to upgrade the spoiler on some cars. A trip here is pretty much a must after picking up a used car.

Later on in the game, if you get to unlock the endurance races, you’ll notice that these races have their own unique rules. The obvious aspect of these races is that they are long – very long. A lot of them are also highly competitive as they feature some of the higher performing opponents in the game. In fact, the only way to find stiffer competition is to take on some of the events in the Extreme Hall. The other rules are basically carried over from the previous game. Some races feature a limited number of laps. Other races feature a time limit. Complete the most laps within the time limit to win.

There is one aspect that is unique to this game, however. While the previous game features endurance races that force you to race for 2 hours or so, this game takes the time limit and takes it to the absolute highest limits. Three endurance races have a time limit of a whopping 24 hours. If there is any way a developer can say that you are not likely going to complete the game, it’s asking players to take on a single race for a solid 24 hours. There is no way to take breaks part with through the race outside of pressing pause.

If you manage to fend of boredom throughout these races, you can not only earn a whopping 1 million or so credits for a win, but you can also snag the formula 1 cars which is among the best cars in the game. Is it worth it? Probably debatable.

For me, this is one of those games that take a few steps forward and a number of steps back.

Some of the steps forward include the introduction of the pace car. While it may not sound like much, the pace car really helps aid the learning process. As such, I felt like I was learning better with the pace car aiding me at the beginning.

Another positive is the gear hints during races. A red gear number will appear above your actual gear indicator as you begin to approach a turn. When it flashes, it is suggesting that you brake to that gear immediately. While the hints are far from perfect, they do help you avoid making mistakes on misleadingly difficult turns.

Also, the bronze medals are much more easily obtained in the lessons. I no longer felt like I was pressed to make perfect runs in each just to snag the bottom of the run bronze medals. In this game, bronze medals requires at least decent driving to earn. So, as a result, I didn’t get anywhere near as frustrated as I did in the previous game.

To add to the positive steps, the number of tracks in the game is impressive. All of the old races from previous games are found in this game. This game also brings back the alternative routs that made previous games so interesting. In fact, I can only think of the two license courses in the previous game as the only tracks that didn’t make the cut here. It’s ultimately no big loss. In fact, this game introduces a number of new courses as well to help spice things up further. So, if there is any complaints against this game, a lack of courses isn’t one of them by any means.

Another good feature is the inclusion of gas. It adds to the realism of the game. With the oil being a massive improvement from the previous game, the overall driving experience when it comes to fluids is a huge improvement.

Finally, the return of used cars is a nice thing to see. It adds an interesting dynamic to the overall game. It was nice in the previous game and is a nice thing here as well.

Having said all that, this game suffers on a number of fronts.

The first and most immediately obvious pitfall in this game revolves around the main screen selection (the one with dealers and halls on it). It is the worst and most inefficient system this game offered to date. In previous games, there was a mess of dealers and a race menu. Things improved greatly with the dealerships being consolidated in the previous game. Now, it’s as if the developers felt that everything needs to be shown all at once. So, you have a massive mess of options and features hitting you right away.

When I first saw this, it felt extremely overwhelming. It made me feel like I had no idea what I was even doing. I felt like I was just guessing at what I needed to do next. After a while, I did get used to the system, but it felt like I was sifting endlessly through menu’s.

For instance, let’s say you want to buy a used car and take it onto a single make race. First, you need to select one of the used car dealerships and scroll endlessly through a list of random cars. Fail to find it, then you need to back out and go into the other dealership on the other side of the map. Then, you sift endlessly through the other list to find a good car. When you buy the car, you need to back out of the dealership, then go half way across the map to the GT Auto store. When I’m in the store, I need to select the oil change icon, then agree to the oil change. After that, I sit through a long drawn out animation to complete the change. After that, I need to back out of the oil change area, then the GT Auto section.

From there, I need to go all the way across the map to the dealership country of origin. From there, I need to sift through the list of dealers to find my dealership. Inside the dealership, I need to select the tune shop to slap on an upgrade or two if I need it. In the menu, I need to select a sub-menu to upgrade a specific kind of part. In the sub-sub menu, I need to buy the specific part, wait through a useless install loading bar a few times. After that, I need to back out of both menus, then select the one make race icon. In the one make race icon, I need to select the event, then enter the event to select a race. After selecting a race, I can enter it.

Yes, I just spent two long paragraphs describing myself buying, upgrading, and entering an event. How is it possible that something like this can be so complicated. With the multitude of races and cars I need to play to make decent progress, you can already picture the multiplication effect building already. That, in and of itself, is a headache.

Another long standing problem is the replay system. I’ve complained about this in every game and, in this game, the developers doubled down on how bad it is. the developers practically beg you to watch through instant replays here. Not only do you have to skip the instant replay just to collect your reward, but they place your cursor on the instant replay after you skipped it. While this isn’t anything new, what is new is the fact that the developers force you to sit through a 10 second animation sequence at the beginning of any race that gets you to start at speed. There is absolutely no way to skip this. The intention seems to be to waste as much of the players time as possible without being overbearing. It’s annoying.

To add to the complaints I have with this game, it’s the length. You can almost visualize the developers saying that bigger is better full stop. If it’s longer, it is automatically better. This is really bad game design thinking. The best game I’ve ever played to date is Worms:Armageddon for the N64. I can easily finish this game in two or three days. This game takes months and it gets so dry after a while.

To give you an idea just how long this game is, check out the GameFaqs entry. This game is listed as number 2 in the longest PS2 racing games ever made. It is also listed as under 80 hours. This is a very misleading statistic.

First of all, there are three 24 hour endurance races. That totals 72 hours. There is an additional 8 hour endurance race, 4 hour endurance race, and 2 and a half hour endurance race. That totals 86 and a half hours. It took me weeks just to unlock these races. I’m personally willing to bet that it takes at least 150 hours to complete this game from beginning to end if you know exactly what you are doing and you basically win every single race (which is very unlikely).

This doesn’t count the long drawn out animations, the hours you spend sifting through the cars, upgrading everything, and working with a horribly inefficient menu system.

As such, for 99% of all the gamers that try this game, you’re basically playing this game until you are bored with it. You are not playing it to get 100% completion by any means. Even if you are one of those gamers that loves to play games from beginning to end, this one is a very tall order. This leaves only the strictest of dedicated fans to spend countless hours making it to completion. Believe me, if the game is meant to be played until you are bored, you are already looking at a game that is, at best, a half decent game. While the varied tracks does stave off boredom pretty good, even the large track library has its limits.

Another problem is the car selection. While some games have the problem of having way too few cars, this game has the exact opposite problem. There are way too many cars. While a large selection does allow for players to find their own unique ways of getting through the game, there are a lot of useless cars on offer as well. This goes way beyond the car that offers 1HP of performance. A part of the problem is that with the performance upgrades, it’s impossible to tell how good the car can be without dropping a bunch of cash on it. The kicker here is that a lot of cars that qualify for races will basically see you watching tail lights vanishing into the distance. Even perfect driving won’t save you in some cases.

As a result of this, it’s not a matter of if, but when you are going to start punching in “Gran Turismo 4 [event name] best car” into Google just to get you by. You pretty much have to out of self defence sooner or later. Yes, you can just pick a decent car and make it through a handful of races. Unfortunately, best choices gradually become less and less obvious. With credits almost always being on short supply, your choices are either seeking assistance or a metric ton of grinding when you guess wrong on a car. With high expectations in races and an ocean of choice, you are going to find yourself drowning in choice unless you are a total gear head and know how every car performs.

Finally, a lot of statistics are buried under very technical aspects. You can go by raw horse power, but that only tells one part of the story. It’s a bit of a taller order to figure out acceleration and handling. If horse power is the only statistic you need, then you’ll gravitate towards cars like the Escudo Dirt Trial car. Meanwhile, the largely superior on the road 787B car boasts smaller horse power, but is widely known as a far superior car thanks to better acceleration and turning. Again, it requires solid power mechanics knowledge just to sift through the data and know just how to maximize efficiency of your car. Otherwise, you are basically guessing and hoping for the best.

Generally speaking, this game seemingly takes on the thinking that if it’s longer, it must be better. Unfortunately, the raw length of the game winds up being its own undoing. With inefficient menus and excessively long gameplay, the biggest challenge is fighting boredom for as long as possible. Seeking advice from Google winds up being an eventuality just out of self defence to get into the game further thanks in part to the excessively large number of cars available in the game. While fluid simulation and other features do offer some improvement, the improvements are overshadowed by the much larger problems found in the game.

Graphics is always a strong suit in this game. When it made an appearance on the original Playstation, it showed that the console is able to produce games that get close to the then-high performance N64. Unfortunately for this series, the competition is getting better even within the system this game is featured on. With games like Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Timesplitters: Future Perfect, We Love Katamari, and Sly 2: Band of Thieves already out there, this game really needs to step things up to stay competitive.

Unfortunately, this game doesn’t get things into the next gear on this front. Instead, players get a mild improvement on the race tracks and the animation sequences of photographers fleeing the track at most. Beyond that, there is very little in the way of special effects outside of the dull fade in and fade outs. As such, this game gradually gets left behind even if the cars look decent enough.

If there is anything I was hoping in this game, it is a turnaround in the audio. The series starts strong with a powerful, if limited soundtrack. Ever since the first game, there is a noticeable decline in quality. In fact, there is a gradual move from quality to quantity as the series progresses. Unfortunately, this game continues this tradition with a soundtrack that manages to sound more out of date than the soundtrack from the first and second games. Some tracks sound promising, unfortunately, the promising tracks get watered down in some pretty bad remixes such as Papa Roach’s Getting Away with Murder and The Crystal Method’s Born Too Slow (the original and superior version appearing on Need for Speed: Underground).

There are highlights in the soundtrack such as “Deepsky – Real Dream”, “Borialis – Don’t Mean a Thing”, and “Rock n’ Roll Soldiers – Funny Little Feeling”. I wouldn’t call it amazing music, but in the massive ocean of mediocrity, they become welcome appearances to break things u a bit.

A big problem in the audio is the overall mastering. By default, the sound effects overpower the music to the point where wind makes the music almost completely lost. Even after tweaking the sound options early on, in later races, the wind and engine sounds seem to increase in volume. As such, the sound effects manage to overpower the music even after some tweaking.

The only interesting thing here is the fact that you can tell when you are in the slip stream of another car. Once you go to pull out, the wind blasts you, indicating that you are definitely getting wind resistance again. Beyond that, the engine sounds are decent enough and the jingles are passable. Overall, the audio winds up leaving a bit to be desired.

Overall, this game is a pretty big disappointment to me. It’s basically what happens when quantity pretty much rules the day over quality. It takes a long time to play and it’s long, drawn out, and boring after a while. Even with improvements to fluid simulation and track selection, the long drawn out animations and painful forced replays overshadows what improvements are made. The convoluted menu system only makes things worse. The graphics are seemingly almost stuck in neutral with other games passing this one by. Finally, the audio is a mess with sound effects drowning out a mediocre soundtrack. So, this one winds up being a passable, but forgettable game.

Furthest point in game: Completion rating: 50.9%
Beat the special events hall, beginner hall, professional hall, and Japanese hall. Beat 6 endurance races and beat the “Like the Wind” event in the extreme hall. Beat all the easy driving missions and got all the licenses (a couple of silver finishes, but no gold). Completed a couple events in the European hall, but left the American hall alone. The rest of the completion rating (and it’s actually a small amount) came from the single make races.

General gameplay: 12/25
Replay value: 5/10
Graphics: 6/10
Audio: 2/5

Overall rating: 50%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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