Gran Turismo 3
What a difference a few months can make! Polyphony Digital showed off the latest version of their quintessential PS2 racing game and it is indeed both new and improved. Besides added cars and tracks (including the awesome Deep Forest course), the most noticeable difference would definitely be the resolution of the game, which has been boosted to an insane level, without jaggies, and without sacrificing any of the speed or environment mapping (where everything around the car reflects off it) we saw in earlier versions. Also on display were the new force-feedback steering wheel and pedals (below, made by famed PC peripheral maker Logitech) that Sony will be putting out at the same time as GT3. We had a chance to try the wheel out at the show and were very impressed--suction cups and clamps lock it down tight and give a sturdy feel while the give and take of the force feedback seems as realistic as the rest of the game. Of course all this progress comes at a price: The release has been pushed back, now to sometime 2001.
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Its not the best place for an interview. Every five minutes, a train trundles just feet above the roof of Detroit's airy and bright COBO Center, directly over the Mazda booth, where we're trying to chat with Kazunori Yamauchi at this year's North American International Auto Show. Yamauchi is the director of the Gran Turismo series, including Gran Turismo 3 A-spec, due in late-March/early-April and widely regarded as the first big PlayStation 2 game to get excited about. He's here for the unveiling of Mazda's sleek RX-8. It's the most recent car Yamauchi added to the game. Kiosks containing playable versions of GT3, complete with the new RX-8, stand in the Mazda booth not far from the just-unveiled car.
This auto show is the biggest of its kind in North America. Manufacturers from all over the world come here to announce their new cars, usually one per hour. You thought the gaming industry's Electronic Entertainment Expo was big? NAIAS dwarfs it. Its booths and displays easily out-pizazz E3's. Jeep's booth, for instance, features a massive waterfall that spells out slogans and logos in torrents of falling water. But it's not this high-octane atmosphere, the maddeningly repetitive Mazda theme tune, the camera crew here to film Yamauchi for Japanese TV, or the overwhelming din of passing trains overhead that's making our interview so difficult. It's our guilty conscience. Yamauchi is a legendary car freak, and this show is his playground. It's obvious he can't wait for a break in this interview so he can zip back to the show floor and breathe in as much of the atmosphere as possible. We're standing between him and auto nirvana, and we feel bad about it. Sure enough, as soon as we're through with our photos and questions, Yamauchi grabs a camera from an associate and disappears into the show-floor throng for 45 minutes. "He's been doing that all day," says Taku Imasaki, the U.S. producer of GT3 and our translator for the interview. "We've lost him for hours at a time." According to Imasaki, Yamauchi is a skilled photographer, especially when it comes to cars--and that skill, he says, comes through in the sleek, artistic presentation of the vehicles in GT3.
Without a doubt, the "artistic presentation" of this game blows the doors off anything we've seen so far on the PS2. You probably know all about the real-time lighting, shadows and environmental mapping on the game's cars; drive under a bridge and you see it reflected in your glossy paint job. And you've no doubt seen the stunning detail of the car models--so detailed, in fact, that you can see engine parts beneath hood mesh.
But you haven't seen the heat haze that hangs above the track. You haven't seen the focus effects in action. During replays, the camera keeps your car in sharp focus, while objects and autos in the distance blur slightly. ("It's hard to tell if you're watching a real TV broadcast or not sometimes." Yamauchi says.) And you haven't witnessed the newly included weather effects, which add reflective puddles and blowing mist--not to mention an element of slippery-when-wet danger--to the game. Despite all these effects, and despite the game's vertical resolution being twice that of any PS2 title so far, GT3 runs at a flawlessly smooth framerate.
"Notice how the brake discs heat up and glow," Yamauchi says, fresh from his wanderings of the show floor. He's back at the Mazda booth playing his game at a PS2 kiosk. We give him room so he can show off for the Japanese camera crew. (We're aching to challenge him to a race, but the two-player mode hasn't been implemented in the version he's playing.) Yamauchi's screwing around with different cars, experimenting with their handling, burning out, slamming on the brakes, laying circles of charred rubber on the track. He's having fun, oblivious to the spectacle of the auto show and the rattling trains above that are so loud we have to reask questions after they pass.
Grinning, he launches his car head-on into a crush of oncoming racers. It's obvious that Yamauchi's favorite element of GT3 isn't the actual racing gameplay or lush visuals--it's the religious attention to detail paid to each vehicle's road handling. In fact, Yamauchi says that although it's possible for future iterations of the GT series to feature better graphics, he doubts they'll surpass the realism of GT3's physics model. "In terms of using the PS2 hardware to its maximum," Yamauchi explains, "I feel we have done so on the programming side..." That goes for the A.I., too--the GT3 team says opposing racers are extra tenacious this time out and will even remember your actions if you, say, cut one off in a turn. Drive defensively, although don't worry about scratching your paint job--as in GT 1 and 2, the car models here won't take damage if you bash them around. Too many of the car manufacturers wouldn't allow it. When it came to capturing every nuance of every car in GT3, Yamauchi and his team did the same thing that worked so well for the first two games: They headed to the race track. Last summer, at Tokyo's Motegi circuit, the team gathered more than 100 vehicles from international auto manufacturers. They photographed the cars and recorded their revving engines and gear transitions. "Included in those cars were some that were also in GT1 and 2,"
Yamauchi explains, "but we had to rerecord and re-photograph those cars because the PlayStation 2 hardware specs are so high that the data we had for GT1 and 2 was insufficient. We had to take higher-quality engine sounds and more accurate pictures in order to match up with the PS2 hardware specs."
All told, GT3 will pack more than 150 cars. Yes, that's far fewer than the 400-plus offered in GT2, but the team is quick to point out that nearly all the manufacturers from the last game are represented here. New cars such as the Toyota MR2 have been added, as well as a few 2002 models like the Lancer Evolution VII and, of course, the RX-8 unveiled here at the show. Yamauchi said one reason the game has fewer cars is so his team can focus on making the included vehicles as true-to-life as possible. Quality over quantity, he says.
Nevertheless, Yamauchi has made no secret that--RX-8 unveiling aside--the main reason he's come to this auto show is to scout for new vehicles to add to GT3. Sony isn't keen on any more additions, however, since the game's ship date is looming and development is already coming down to the wire. It is interesting to note that GT3 was recently delayed in Japan for unknown reasons, but Sony assures us it's not because Yamauchi won the fight to stuff more cars in at the last minute.
Still, Yamauchi has been able to jam a surprising amount of stuff into GT3. Back when the game was first announced as a PS2 launch title, under the name "GT2000," it was supposed to be nothing more than a stopgap installment in the series--a demo, more or less, to tide fans over until a full-fledged PS2 sequel could be developed. If all had gone according to Polyphony Digital and Sony's original plan, GT2000 would have launched months ago and Yamauchi would be working on a proper sequel right now. But Yamauchi's sensibilities and devotion to the series got the better of him. He couldn't bring himself to launch the scaled-down GT2000, which was only supposed to feature about 50 cars and four tracks. He kept adding to the game, tuning the physics and improving the graphics, until it was worthy of the name GT3. Yamauchi admits that the next installment in the series will look even better and may carry some form of online component, but GT3 definitely offers enough improvements to be considered a bona-fide sequel.
What you get is a game with all the modes you're familiar with. You'll find the Arcade Mode, which offers splitscreen, two-player racing. And you get the comprehensive Simulation Mode. For the uninitiated, this mode has you passing driving tests, earning licenses, competing in races, and buying and tweaking your autos. "It will have the same amount of features, the same amount of depth of customization as we had in GT2," Yamauchi says of the sim mode.
"But the way we present it in the game, because of the new DVD media and the improved hardware, allows us to put a lot of dynamic movies and animation on the menu screens. It makes the user feel like he's constantly moving." (Car makers are providing footage to help jazz up the menus.) And if the series' challenging sim stuff scares you, fear not: As with GT2, you can switch from Drift Mode to Racing Mode to get more relaxed, arcade-like control.
GT3 will offer 15 courses in all, including the off-road rally tracks first seen in GT2. New tracks include Monte Carlo's F1 course and another set in downtown Tokyo, complete with real landmarks like Sony's HQ. The rest of the game's batch of courses--such as Laguna Seca, for instance--come from the first two games.
We want to tear into the Simulation Mode and as many courses as possible, but unfortunately much is still missing from the version here at the show. Just as well--it's 5 p.m. and the crowd is thinning. It's time to leave the Mazda booth and head to dinner. Together with Yamauchi and the camera crew, we hop one of the trains that have been making so much racket all day. Yamauchi falls dead asleep as soon as he sinks into his seat. As the COBO Center and its exhibition of 700 exotic new cars rolls away beneath us, we think we know what he's dreaming about.