Thursday, December 29, 2005

Sega GT 2002

I guess I've been in something of a racing mood over the last few months. For what must've been most of the fall, I spent the majority of my spare moments in front of Bizarre Studios' excellent Project Gotham Racing 2 for the Xbox, which I found to be a solid combination of strict simulation and overly flashy street racing. Perhaps it was for direct comparison's sake, then, that upon completing that classic, I was moved to immediately jump over to another Xbox racer. And it must've been fate that Sega GT 2002 was sitting right there on my shelf, barely touched since the day I pulled it out of the box alongside my original Xbox, those few short years ago. It isn't often that I'm so overwhelmed by a game that I'm actually compelled to try out its direct competition in the hopes that they, too, will surprise me with a similarly brilliant end product, and it's even less often that said competitor actually meets and / or surpasses those expectations. GT 2002 didn't break that latter trend. I don't know that it's fair to even begin to compare this game to Gotham 2, the experiences are so completely different, the products such worlds apart.

I know that doesn't bode well for where this review is headed, and honestly it really shouldn't. I won't sugar-coat your expectations here; this game is bad. It's almost worse than bad, and it's no wonder Sega had to resort to giving copies of it away with the Xbox in the winter of '02 just to clear out a few warehouses. It simply wouldn't move on its own, the entire package is so shoddy and second rate. Word tends to get out fairly quickly about next-generation games of this quality, but if it's bundled with the system, well, that's a different story. Your expectations for a pack-in game are already a little bit lower than they would have been if you'd spent an extra fifty dollars on it, but even with those downgraded standards I can't fathom how word about this game's ugliness didn't quite reach me before that fateful day when I finally decided to give it a shot. It's so bad, I'm surprised I didn't notice a foul odor coming from the clam shell. Well, maybe that's a little harsh... it's not all darkness and grit for GT 2k2, more like a really, really dark shade of grey with a few fleeting glimmers of hope and promise thrown in just as you begin to think all hope is lost. But look at me, getting ahead of myself already. Let's take a look at the specifics.

Actually taking a seat in front of this beast is a completely different experience than almost any other racing title, and does quite a good job of showing you just how far the genre has come over the last couple generations by playing the role of everything outdated and mothball-ridden. Where the average racer performs well at delivering the sensation of control, the feel of horsepower underneath your thumb and a fair idea of how most cars respond to such insane acceleration, Sega GT accomplishes none of these. Its use of vibration, an oft-overlooked key component of the experience, is slim at best and often amounts to nothing more than a quiet stir, should you happen to drive over a huge patch of rocks. Acceleration feels more like a ride on the ferris wheel than a moment behind the wheel of a earthbound rocket ship, as your car will join four or five others in ever-so-gently building their way up from a standstill to a moderate speed. It's like jumping into the body of a sixty year old woman, mildly confused behind the wheel of her Lincoln Continental, and racing against similarly-maligned spirits in one of the most anticlimactic experiences I've ever put myself through. Turning is a slow, arduous process and more closely resembles a series of soft, graceful slides on a toboggan than precision cornering. I'd assume that the idea there was to emphasize a rally-style drift racing not unlike that of Microsoft's Rallysport Challenge or Sega's own Outrun 2, since that seems to be one of the developer's ongoing obsessions, but it really doesn't work right in this instance and the quality suffers because of it. The overall physics of GT 2002 have some issues, especially as far as collision detections and responses are concerned. While it's not something I do often (no, really!) the ability to completely screw an opponent's chances with a well-placed nudge are a tremendous last-gasp weapon that often serves to hinder just as much as it helps in other games throughout the genre. Rather than dealing with that by improving the computer intelligence or penalizing the driver, Sega GT just seems to ignore it altogether. Ramming into the side of an opponent's car at top speed only really serves to push him a foot or two to the side and initiate a bit of mild damage to your own asphalt warrior. It's like bumper cars, softly, painlessly pushing but never affecting traction or anything remotely real-world about the situation. Opponents' cars don't give the first hint of losing control, nor does your own vehicle, while something as simple as brushing up against a wall occasionally seems to trigger some sort of a magnet on your grill, resulting in an enraging uninitiated turn face-first into the barricade and a slow halt as your enemies speed by.

Racing against "live" computer-controlled competition can be challenging, although that's largely because you'll always start a race in the last position and the opposing cars are usually more powerful than your own. Even though it lacks the obnoxious "kill the human" pack-hunt attitude of Project Gotham 2, the A.I. generally leaves a lot to be desired. It took me all of ten minutes to realize that the opposing drivers are easily-intimidated cowards, and rather than risking an accident by driving directly up your ass, they'll often let off the accelerator and give you a few extra milliseconds of padding. CPU drivers always seem to take their turns at half speed, and mysteriously make up the time with a sudden burst of unfathomable speed on the straightaway. Or so it seems... again, that could be the constantly vast difference in the quality of their cars versus my own. They're cautious to the point that it's almost laughable. Not that they need to be... although player-controlled cars bend to the will of an bar graph styled on-screen damage meter, (no visual damage ever shows up on your cars) the computer's drivers seem to have no such problem. The doling out of punishment with said meter is stern but fair: grazing the edge of a nearby car will result in a tiny deterioration, while ramming head-on into a wall results in a huge dip on the deathometer. Although it's disappointing that ongoing visible damage wasn't possible, it's not really on the list of my biggest gripes with this one. After the race, your winnings are reduced, depending on how banged up your car is and how much those repairs will set you back. That works for me.

One unique, surprisingly cool add-on to most of GT 2k2's races is the inclusion of a post-race replay editor and photo system. In action, this is a nice shift from the norm, allowing players to slice and dice the best video angles of all of their past racetrack exploits, saving them to the Box's internal HDD to show off to friends later, or to revisit with a bag of popcorn, lonely and afraid on a Friday night. Whatever suits your fancy. The photo editor is, likewise, something that sounds completely stupid at first but is, in actuality, extremely cool in action. After an important race on one of the career mode's circuits, the game will automatically jump right into a replay of your efforts, but rather than sitting back as a mere spectator, you're given the ability to change angles, zoom and capture up to six different in-action shots. After you've used up all of your film, you're taken to a screen to review the shots and select your favorite of the bunch, which is then displayed on the wall of your in-game garage, right above the trophy case. It's a fresh way of giving the player a sense of personal accomplishment, visually identifying your achievements with the actual act of achieving them, and is one of the few aspects of the game that's an unbridled success.

Sega GT 2002's variety of differing modes for game play are conspicuously similar to those of Sony's Gran Turismo series; you've got a straight "day in the life of" career simulation, the standard "try to beat my best time" so-called arcade setup, a head-to-head competitive racer with support for a maximum of two players, and a mildly interesting storyline option dubbed "chronicle mode." Even at first glance, the B-studio nature of this production begins to take hold. Following a visually solid introductory movie that seems to set the stage for bigger and better things, you'll find yourself staring at a main menu that looks chillingly like a default template from one of those corny "make your own DVD" software packages you'll find littering the shelves at the nearest Best Buy. It seriously looks like the programmers had wrapped the game up, sent it off for production, and then realized they completely forgot to pack in a menu system. It's a weekend rush job, if that. It's also not the first time you'll find yourself surprised that a supposedly-renowned developer like Sega could shovel out such a dingy display of effort.

The career mode, officially titled "Sega GT Mode," certainly aspires to be a Gran Turismo killer, but opts for a more straightforward, linear path in contrast to Turismo's famous free-form career progression. Sure, you start in the same place: a couple thousand dollars in your pocket, a dream, a knack for the track and endless amounts of free time to dedicate to your craft. The similarities, however, really end once you've chosen a bottom-of-the-line car with which to begin your journey and actually start to take part in a few races. In Polyphony's PS2 pack-leader, you'll first learn the basics in a stern series of license tests designed to function as a quick-and-dirty introduction to the basics in racing dynamics, as well as to the game's button configurations. Once you've gained your first license, you'll climb out into the world to try your luck and find yourself immediately overwhelmed and astonished by the humongous amount of possibilities, options and locations. It's amazingly similar to actually climbing into a wide-open global racing scene (or so I'd assume) and the process of trying to decide which race you'll try your luck in first is a truly monumental task. The staggering scale of Gran Turismo's world and that game's amazing ability to project a feeling of awe directly onto the player is a big part of what makes it so highly respected, so iconic among gamers. In the world of GT 2002, you'll buy your starter car, perhaps spend a few minutes tuning and improving its performance, and head out into a world filled with... wait for it... a stiflingly narrow career path and maybe one or two choices to make along the way. You won't even take your first "license test" until you're already three races into your career (how, exactly, does someone race professionally without a license?) and the tests themselves are as bargain-basement as they come. Instead of slowly working your way through each important aspect of racing a high-performance automobile, (showing the judges that you know how to accurately brake, to turn without nipping some off-turf terrain, to pass without ramming your opposition into a stationary object) you drive a game-specified car around a game-specified track for one lap. That's it! If you don't finish with a time that the judges deem to be acceptable, you fail. For the purposes of license testing, your standard race-time damage meter is temporarily replaced with a strange sort of "failure meter," which quickly drains if you nudge a wall, allow your wheels to leave the track at any point, perform a power slide around a corner or potentially turn your head the wrong way. If the meter hits empty, you guessed it, the test is over and you automatically fail. So, in addition to timing you on your run, the judges also expect you to drive like a grizzled veteran along the way, which is cute because there's no sort of training module to introduce you to the title's flipped-out physics engine. Hope you like flying blind, because Sega is here to dispense the blindfolds.

GT's career mode also includes a set of different options for the racing enthusiast interested in souping up and improving the performance of his or her chosen vehicle: the standard parts shop and the used parts shop. You'll find most every standard option here; weight reductions, new suspension, turbo charging, new tires, racing brake sets... the works. Buying from the standard parts shop may cost a little more than buying them used, but the catch is that once used, these upgrades slowly deteriorate in quality until they're almost completely useless. Yep, there's no such thing as a completely maxed-out car in this game, because if you've raced it then it needs a tune up and a few new parts. Needless to say, I found this aspect of the process a bit unnecessary and nit-picky. There are just some things that don't need to be simulated, and the constant deterioration of upgrades to your car is one of those things. It isn't enjoyable, it doesn't make me feel like I'm any closer to the real deal, it's just a hassle and an obnoxious necessity of life in GT 2k2's little world. Really, it reminded me of the wear your weapons take in the PS2 RPG Dark Cloud, in that it's something that is introduced to the game for the sole purpose of aggravating the player. If it doesn't need to be there and it's got no eventual reward, take it out. I don't think anyone will be missing it. Aside from parts, the used auto parts shop also sells useless little nick-nacks and doo-dads, which (as far as I've been able to tell) do nothing more than drain your bank account and make your garage look a little more interesting. For instance, you can purchase an electric guitar for about the cost of a new set of brakes, which then sits uselessly behind your car for the rest of your career. Nice. Little experiments like this occasionally pay off, as I mentioned in the "photo mode" of the post-race replays, but I really can't see how anyone thought scattering expensive little 3-D items around your garage would be even remotely compelling.

While the head-to-head mode is your standard split screen affair and the "Quick Race" option is run of the mill, the "Chronicle Mode" seems to have its heart set in the right place, even if the results are less than spectacular. Aiming to fill gamers in on the history of circuit racing, as well as the trends in car manufacturing that have come and gone, "Chronicle Mode" asks you to climb behind the wheel of one of a dozen different '70s muscle cars and race against opposition from three historical decades. Should you choose to drive a classic Corvette Stingray, you'll work your way through the historical ranks by racing it against cars from the 70s, early 80s, late 80s, early 90s, late 90s and "21st Century," observing as its early strengths are surpassed by the rapid progression of technology and toiling as the older model's inherent weaknesses become harder and harder to ignore. Before each race, the game gives you a little historical lesson in the form of a three or four paragraph essay, explaining what advances had been made in the automotive industry over the five years in question. As you complete your run(s) through the decades, new cars become available for use in the aforementioned head-to-head mode. It's a great concept, but the historical essays seem to have been written by someone with only a passing knowledge of the English language and considering the inherent flaws in the standard game itself, the last thing you're going to want to do is handicap yourself by racing an antique against a souped-up 21st century monster.

Even the initial control setup for GT 2002 is more than a little lacking. Rather than sticking with what familiar gamers would be comfortable with, it attempts to craft a new control scheme, mapping the gas to the "A" button, the brakes to "X", and the transmission to the trigger buttons. Personally, I've never been so into a racing title that I've been moved to try out the manual transmission, so I had no time for a layout that featured them in such a central location. Fortunately an alternate, more user-friendly control scheme is readily available. It follows the rules laid out by those that came before; the right trigger accelerates, the left hits the standard brakes, "X" represents the hand brake, initiating a mild power slide... but one somewhat important thing seems to be completely missing: the ability to shift from drive into reverse. Either I'm completely stupid and couldn't manage to press the right button to get the wheels spinning the other way or the development team completely left the ability to back up out of the game's programming. And, considering the computer's reluctance to do anything but spin its tires head-first against a wall after an accident, choosing to wait for the front end to eventually grind its way to facing the correct direction rather than merely shift into reverse and drive away, I'd imagine the functionality just isn't there. How do you develop a racing title without the ability to shift into reverse? The same way you can race professionally without a license, presumably.

As far as visuals are concerned, this isn't really a game that you're going to want to show off to friends. It's mediocrity at best, topping the visuals of its immediate predecessor, Sega GT on the Dreamcast, but failing to live up to the standards established by its direct competition, Gran Turismo and Project Gotham Racing. The car models look oversimplified, the environments are lacking in detail and the spectators are blatantly two-dimensional, animated cardboard cutout fare. Maybe that last one wouldn't be such a big deal if it weren't staring me right in the face around almost every turn. They've planted people in the stands, on the median between the pits and the track, under trees... almost everywhere you look, here are these jolly, pixelated, hideous semi-beings, waving and trying to stare at you through their blurry, one-dot eyes. Even the pre-renders featured on the front cover of the DVD casing are sub-standard, attempting to simulate the brilliant reflections, glares and textures later accomplished by Project Gotham 2 and failing unspectacularly in the process. This is a game that could've benefitted tremendously from a few additional months of focused concentration and development in the graphics department, but for whatever reason that potential was never realized and we're left to deal with yet another visually unimpressive also-ran. There's nothing wrong with the modeling nor the direction, but the realization and execution are half hearted at best.

About the best thing I can say about the sound is that it allows for the use of custom soundtracks, although they aren't exactly easy to utilize. Truth be told, I never managed to find the option to turn on my saved tunes, although both the game case and IGN assure me it's in there somewhere. The pre-packed tunes are so generic and dull, they'd make fans of Sega's classic tunes, such as the theme to Sonic the Hedgehog or the original Outrun, burst into tears and go after their own ear drums with a sharp pencil. It's almost like listening to a parody of a parody, these songs are so bad, and they get even worse when "Chronicle Mode" tries to get exotic and match musical genres with the decades in which you're meant to be racing. The 70s are matched with a horrible mockery of the Dick Dale surf guitar style, the 80s with a dirty rock ballad, the early 90s with more generic guitar rock, and the late 90s and 21st century with, I kid you not, J-Pop. Compared to titles like Gran Turismo, which has always been accompanied with an outstanding collection of licensed music, geared almost flawlessly toward the speed, adrenaline and heart-pulsing excitement of a race, this is a bad joke. It's like somebody farted in my mouth and somehow forced me to hold my breath for a few minutes. Even the non-licensed generic music of Project Gotham 2 surpasses this crap, because it makes no secret of what it is and never gets in the way. GT's melodies may as well trip over their own feet and fall under the front of your car.

I know it's tough to compare a game like GT 2002 to such a well-established, universally-praised behemoth such as the epic Gran Turismo series, but by positioning itself so directly as a supposed competitor to the industry-leader, Sega leaves me little choice. I'd liken it to passing around a platter at a huge social gathering where tiny slices of two-week-old baloney sit right alongside flawlessly steamed slices of ham and gorgeous, mouth-watering hunks of turkey. When all of the good meat has been picked over, the slower-moving guests who find themselves stuck with the smelly, discount-brand baloney to snack on will be complaining. Loudly.

This is about as loudly as I feel like displaying my disgust toward Sega GT 2002. There's not one area in which it excels. The gameplay is rotten, the story modes are redundant and unpolished, the controls are missing pieces, the graphics are a generation too late, and flat silence would be an improvement over the existing audio. I don't know how a developer I hold in such high regards could possibly go so wrong, but this wouldn't be the first time Sega has managed to accomplish what seems to be impossible. Despite a few mildly amusing developments with the replay system, I can't recommend you do anything but run from this one.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 1.7

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