Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix 4 features a new graphics engine with anti-aliasing, environment mapping, and cars with 3000+ polygons each. Over 30,000 photos were used during production to help ensure realism, and the pit crews have been created with the aid of motion capture photography. The computer car AI has been improved, with driver error and stress taken into account. Global positioning technology helped make the game courses copy the real-life tracks, and the physics engine allows drivers to feel the traction as they round sharp corners.
While most racing games are forgettable, others are revolutionary, and some -- such as Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix line -- push the realism envelope so hard they can be downright alienating. To be sure, Grand Prix 4 is a souped-up version of its predecessors with no major innovations, but this is about as close as you can get to the real thing without being scraped off the pavement.
There are the standard quick race, quick laps, and practice options, each just a couple of clicks away. Depending on how many of driver aids you've enabled (auto-brakes, auto-gear, indestructible, etc.), this will come pretty close to an arcade-like racing experience, with the major distinctions being that you'll most likely spend a good chunk of time spinning out in the gravel pits, playing with the many impressive camera angles, wishing you could catch up with the competition. Even the most casual modes will require some work on your part before you reap the real rewards.
There are, however, many rewards of which to speak. Rookies should spend a chunk of time watching each of the tutorials in the "GPaedia," which details the step-by-step basics of tweaking vehicles, familiarizing oneself with the dynamics of each track, and so forth. It may all seem a bit daunting at first, but once you've learned the importance of shifting your wing tips, switching the springs in your car, altering the front and rear anti-roll bars, and so on, you'll find yourself spending less time in the gravel pits and more time competing with other cars on the track.
As the dynamics involved become increasingly familiar, gradually disabling the driver's aids and upping the ante on car realism is the best way to proceed towards that pure adrenaline rush. Seasoned pros may opt for maximum realism settings from the get-go, but until you've really learned the ins and outs of this game, it's best to ease into it, lest you find yourself in a Jason Priestley-esque wreck moments after leaving the pits.
Once you're good enough to go head-to-head with the pros, you're treated to a superior racing experience. Graphically, this is the best PC racer around. The level of photorealism (with the exception of the pixelated crowds and other minor details) is literally jaw-dropping. Droplets of water hit the camera lens during rainy races, convincingly refracting the images in motion. Heat waves rise from overheated engines. Every object in sight, from individual members of the pit crew to the surrounding architecture, competing cars, and flag-waving masses, will realistically reflect in both side-view mirrors during a race. When you shift camera angles, you'll find that everything is realistically reflected (in distorted chromatic form) on every portion of your vehicle and helmet. I was so initially distracted by the overall clarity of these effects that I almost failed to notice the subtle reflection of the cars on the wet track itself. Even the tires look great, with accurate designs and crystal-clear logos that blur when you step on the gas.
The sounds are great too, which is truly rare in a racing game. I usually find the sound of revved-up engines exceedingly annoying in simulated form, but there's something about the samples used in GP4 that genuinely add to the excitement of tearing up the track.
Eye and ear candy aside, what really makes Grand Prix 4 leave the competition in the dust are its staggering physics and computer AI. Racing around the twisted and claustrophobic Monaco circuit, I decided to cut off a CPU opponent and floor the brakes at a pretty tight spot, just to see what would happen. I watched the opposing car swerve to safety in my side-view mirror, and was astonished to see several other cars respond, zigzagging accordingly, each quickly regaining its composure and momentum. Within moments, I was struggling to catch up to the lot. This might not seem amazing, but the way each car responded was just so eerily real, I had to catch my breath as I floored the accelerator.
With the realism settings on high, it generally takes me between 15 to 30 seconds to lose a wheel, axle, and all. This may be strongly attributed to my sadistic tendency to try to run other cars off the road, a strategy best left behind in a game like this (unless you've got the "indestructible" feature toggled on for your car). Still, what makes it really interesting here is that until the car is completely inoperable, it's possible to keep driving. In one case, I lost the right-front wheel, kept driving, got rear ended, lost the back-left wheel, kept driving, and teeter-tottered my way all the way to the pit stop, where I expected the crew to wag their fingers at me in shame.
More cautious drivers will still take some damage from time to time, whether it's wear-and-tear on the tires, a freak spinout in the rain, an overheated engine, or some other unforeseen mishap. The pit crew generally operates pretty quickly, but you've got to strategize your pit stops well, or you'll be left behind at the finish line.
Similarly, you've got to really learn the nuances of each of the 17 tracks before you stand a chance of conquering them. Each track is realistically rendered based on GPS imaging, with the simplest bumps and dips taken into account. As in past Grand Prix titles, championship modes include practice laps, a qualifying race, a warm-up race, and then the ultimate competition. It's essential to spend some time practicing on each track, and customizing your vehicle step-by-step accordingly.
Save options allow you to customize your vehicle differently for each track, as well as exit a competition in progress, and come back to it later. Multiplayer, sadly, is limited to eight players on a LAN, so you won't be racing your buddies online.
By the time you've played through an entire championship season in Grand Prix 4, the feel of winning a race is incomparably triumphant. Few games will force you to put as much thought and effort into earning a trophy. For those with lower-end systems or lower-end patience, the most obvious noteworthy alternative is EA's F1 2002, which is less taxing and considerably more arcade-like, but is also far less impressive and less rewarding in the long run. The learning curve may be too steep for the casual gamer, but no F1 game is quite as impressive and entertaining in the process as Grand Prix 4. Avid petrol-heads should not pass this one up.
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