Grand Prix 4
Whether it’s your mother trying a different flavoured marinade on the Sunday lunch, your boss trying a different ill-fitting toupee at the weekly board meeting, or your wife trying a different PVC/rubber combo outfit on the Thursday 'appointment’, it’s always nice to see people trying something new.
So it is with the fourth of the long-running and long-admired Grand Prix series from F1 simulation maestro Geoff Crammond. Not much has changed regarding the actual game, but this time it all comes packaged with a handy in-game F1 DIY guide called the Gpedia.
The idea is that it takes you through all of the horrendously complex car tuning options with step-by-step guides to adjusting your bumpers and flattening your wings and so on, During the preview stages it all sounded like the greatest thing to hit F1 games in years. Can you guess what happens next?
Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda
Something must have got lost in the translation somewhere along the line because the much heralded Gpedia turns out to be little more than an in-game manual. It’s certainly no more informative than any of the printed ones that come with every other F1 game out there, except with amateur video footage accompanying the text that makes Plan 9 From Outer Space look like an Oscar-worthy masterpiece.
But let's not allow that to 1 distract us. We ' didn’t come here to read about Formula One, we came here to live it. And I’m happy to report that on the simulation side of things, Grand Prix 4 is about as perfect a driving experience as it’s currently possible to get without strapping yourself to David Coulthard’s ample chin. The feeling of control is far superior to that offered in F1 2002, GP4's nearest rival, with vastly improved handling and a greater range of tune-up options.
The sense of racing is also much better than anything we’ve had before, with Al that on the whole does a grand job of giving you the impression of being in a real battle for the chequered flag. That said, there are a few flies in the ointment of realism. For example, spin out of control and end up lying across the path of another driver and will they reverse back then steer around your prone car? No, apparently Mika Hakkinen (sadly the teams and drivers are all last seasons) would prefer to continually nudge your car’s chassis for half an hour, until the marshals run on to drag you away - marshals who, incidentally, have both balls and bodies of steel as they’ll happily run onto the track as other cars scream past at a zillion miles per hour (or 1.6 zillion km per hour if you’re feeling metric) before attaching you to the invisible cranes by the side of each track.
There are other questions too. Why are all the driver and team names in lower case? Why can only save changes to the game’s set-up options when choose to quit the game? Why can’t change my keyboard set-up mid race? Why is there no instant restart for a quick race? Why can't choose what data is displayed on the steering wheel readout? Why does your pit crew tell you the road is clear for you to pull out of the garage despite the fact that there are four other cars all accelerating in your direction? Why? Why? Why?
The emphasis being on simulation over gameplay throws up other problems. What if you want the accuracy but don’t want to drive for either Ferrari, Williams or McLaren? Without the option for team improvement over seasons, either through the purchase or development of better equipment, you’re not really going to have much chance of success if you opt to drive for one of the smaller teams such as Minardi or BAR, no matter how much you tinker with the spring stiffness or ride height.
And what about the sense of achievement or reward? Certainly, there’s a feeling of progress as you get to grips with each track, learn each corner and push the speed envelope a little further with each lap. But a brief, generic animation sequence after a race doesn’t really offer any major incentive to keep plugging away. You don’t even get a grid walk before a race - practically a staple for any F1 game.
What we’re still not getting, despite all the authenticity shown in the driving side of the game, is a true sense of being a F1 driver. It’s all too easy to get carried away praising the accuracy of the simulation that Crammond has produced here, hailing GP4 as the finest driving game of all time and that, but F1 is about more than just the driving.
Anoraks Aren’t The Only Fruit
If I’ve sounded rather negative throughout this review it’s only because this could have - no, deserves to have been the definitive F1 game on the market. You can’t ask for a finer pedigree than Geoff Crammond, and from a simulation point of view there’s nothing to touch Grand Prix 4. Absolutely the best, no question. But gameplay, people. Gameplay, gameplay, gameplay.
This whole genre needs a shot in the arm if it’s going to start appealing to an audience beyond obsessive F1 petrolheads. Otherwise all you’re getting with each new game is little more than a graphical and statistics update (see panel). I have absolutely no interest in the American sport of TOCA racing. None. But the imminent new TOCA game has my attention, perhaps more than any other driving game out there, simply because it’s attempting something new with its story and career-based gameplay.
That’s the lesson F1 developers need to learn. We don't just want to compete with Michael Schumacher on the track, we want to compete with him off the track as well. Don’t just make us drive. Make us care. Saying that, though, GP4 is top of the pile. Graphically lush, anally detailed (the telemetry options alone are staggeringly comprehensive, not to mention the car setup options) and with some of the best Al to date, it edges out EA's offering for pole position. You won’t find a more accurate racing sim anywhere, and no F1 fan should be without a copy. Let’s just hope that next time, Crammond and co put some soul into what's an otherwise superb simulation.
Download Grand Prix 4
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
One Of The trickiest jobs in this business must surely be PR manager on a new Formula One title. What in the name of Henry Kelly's arse can you say about them?
"We've got a stunning new graphics engine!" So have they all, mate. With every passing racer we get slightly better tree quality, more realistic dust clouds or a marginally shinier paint job on the chassis.
"Our tracks are all modelled to within nano-millimetres of the real thing! You'll feel every bump and dip!" Every F1 game that arrives seems to have had a team of graphic artists treading over every blade of grass, every rock and pebble at every circuit in the world just so they can boast the most realistic tracks ever.
"Our Al is unparalleled! You'll swear they were real drivers!" By which you mean that they'll hug the racing line like brain-dead automatons, occasionally acknowledging that you overtaking the slower cars but never once actually exist in their world as they happily slam right into the back of you on an empty straight. Truth is, every Formula One game is pretty much the same as every other Formula One game. There may be massive differences going on under each development team's bonnet in the way the physics are coded and the package is put together. But to you, Johnny Punter, it's all realistic looking cars driving around realistic looking tracks. The only way to tell them apart is the packaging.
Which is why it was all the more refreshing to see something other than all of the above being peddled at the recent Grand Prix 4 launch. Yes, all the shiny trees and things were being touted about, but there was also something new in Geoff Crammond's latest assault on the genre. Something called the GPedia.
OK, it's little more than an interactive F1 encyclopaedia but it does have the very handy function of acting as an idiot's guide to tuning your car. Finally. Admit it, like me you've often felt like trying an ultra-realistic race in one of the other F1 titles only to find that as soon as you're faced with the dozens of screens detailing suspension dampening, camber realigning and rear-wing lift ratios you've given up and gone straight back to the Reverse Racing First Corner Pile Up Challenge. Well, the GPedia is designed to take you through it all. Step-by-step guides, tips from the experts (the Arrows team in this case), detailed breakdowns - everything.
Sepangs Of Doubt
OK, it's not as though GP4 redefines the genre, but it's a start. Otherwise it's F1 business as usual. The latest graphics, the latest teams (well, last season's thanks to the FIA's stupidly restrictive licensing deals), the latest track detail (GPS modelled this time for ultra-ultra realism), the latest Al routines, etc, etc. True, a hands-on with the game at the launch gave a pretty impressive ride, but we'll soon be able to tell you in a detailed review whether or not it has enough gas in the tank to really stand out.