In the four years that passed since the release of “Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec” for Playstation 2, numerous contenders have sprung up in the racing game genre, all vying for the title of best racing simulation. Publishing giant Electronic Arts’ “Need For Speed Underground 2” has made great strides with intricate tuner car customization, but it can’t keep pace with Sony’s latest masterpiece.

TV/New Media Reviews
NASCAR, but without the trailer park. (Courtesy of SCEA)

After all, the “Gran Turismo” series was the title that bucked the trend in ’90s racing games, presenting a racing competition that was more about actual racing, not about shortcuts and power-ups. The PS2 owes much of its success to “GT3.” “Gran Turismo” is a venerable series, but can this latest iteration possibly live up to the first three games?

Part of the series’ mystique has been its unforgiving level of difficulty. Before even getting on a track, players must pass a series of tests to receive licenses — tests that required extensive study and a deep understanding of racing theory and physics. The tests may seem laborious, but gamers who get their licenses have learned a real skill — something that should be present in more games. This difficulty is still present in “GT4;” it’s just spread further. Instead of five tests per license, the game now has seventeen, although they are much easier to achieve than ever before — some can be passed in only two or three tries.

When gamers do finally get to race, they’ll find more than 300 cars, painstakingly modeled down to the recorded howls of each individual engine. The high quality of detail that the developers put into the cars and tracks is astounding, but also functional — gamers can feel the difference in their vehicles with each tweak of the limited slip, clutch or flywheel. The after-market tweaking in “GT4” makes “NFSU 2” — in which players can install gullwing doors, sound systems and neon to boost their car’s “style rating” — look superfluous. All of the upgrades, just like all of the features in “GT4,” are directly related to racing, and rightfully so: Even the biggest clump of parsley won’t make a bad steak taste any better.

Improvements over the last “Gran Turismo” — a significant change in roster, new items to buy and two new modes that aren’t worth mentioning — are much better than those in an annual “Madden” upgrade. They might seem like slight changes, but “GT4” is more than just a minor improvement.

For one thing, the number and quality of the tracks is much improved. The inclusion of Germany’s formidable Nürburgring track is worth the price of admission alone. It’s massive, taking about 10 minutes to complete a single lap, and perfectly showcases “GT4’s” new speed simulation: At around 200 miles per hour, the music and engine noise fade as a huge-sounding rush of wind starts filling the speakers. It’s a crushing, tense and frightening experience — the most realistic representation of speed on a video game to date.

“Gran Turismo” has come to stand for real, unflinchingly difficult racing. It is a passionate love letter written to the automobile, and it still is, without question, the king of the driving game.

Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

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