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This Affair I'm Having Has Gotten Serious

I love games, quite a bit in fact, but when it comes to things I'm passionate about, they're a distant second to my life's obsession: cars. I love cars so much that they're the one thing I'm interested in where I can't keep my nerd tendencies in check. I love pretty much everything about them, and I love pretty much all of them. A lot. To levels that are kind of scary. I've sort of declared myself an enemy of the green movement because of how they've demonized cars and one of the reasons why I know my girlfriend loves me is because she plays along when I geek out and launch into some impassioned sermon about how amazing and brilliant things like Wankel engines and the hydropneumatic suspension in the Citroen DS are. I am a total and complete car fanboy. It's a sickness.

The great thing about being someone who self-identifies as both a raving loony car nerd and a gamer is there's a game made specifically for raving loony car nerds: Gran Turismo. Even though the amazing experiences I had with Grand Theft Auto IV and Uncharted 2 are what made me decide to start blogging about games in the first place, Gran Turismo is where I've always gone to do that thing that gamers love to do: live out a fantasy. While it might be fun to pretend that you're a hardened criminal shooting his way through New York's underworld or are cheating death as a globetrotting treasure hunter, I don't actually want to do either of those things. What I do want, though, is have a garage full of hundreds of cars that I can drive like a maniac around the world's greatest circuits, once I'm done tinkering with them, of course. I don't want to know what it feels like to be shot at. I do, though, want to know what it feels like to reduce a grown man to tears by introducing him to a world where his Corvette Z06 is 3 seconds a lap slower around Laguna Seca than my brown 1988 Honda Accord. This is what Gran Turismo lets me do, and my god, I love it.

The reason why Gran Turismo is such a great game for obsessive gearheads is the man behind the series, Kazunori Yamauchi, is the world's most obsessive gearhead. And obsessive really is the right word. Yamauchi and his team at Polyphony Digital make the games with an attention to detail you just don't see in other racing games or pretty much any other games, for that matter. I often hear people say that the car lists in the GT games are artificially inflated with different trim levels of the same car (“Gran Turismo 5 will have 1000 cars, and only 50 of them are Skylines!”), but the thing that Gran Turismo does that puts it miles beyond all other racing games is that Polyphony is actually able to discern the differences between different versions of the same car and reproduce them faithfully in game, no matter how subtle. And then there's the tuning. Most racing games these days let you modify cars, some even do the “buying and installing parts” thing better than GT, but no other racing game I've played outside of those ridiculous PC racing sims has done tuning, getting in there and adjusting the settings of those parts you just bought, as well as GT does. You can actually feel the difference in how the car behaves between one fraction of a degree of suspension geometry and the one next to it, especially if you're playing with a 900 degree force feedback wheel, even if it's a minute one.

And this is what keeps me hopelessly addicted to the Gran Turismo games: that never-ending pursuit of perfection. The hours spent going back and forth between two barely different spring rates, trying to decide if the slight reduction in understeer is worth the increased risk of losing control on rough pavement. To some, maybe even most, this may sound tedious, or even the opposite of fun, but to people like me who like that sort of thing, it's bliss.

Which brings me to the horrible, painful thing about being a Gran Turismo fan: the waiting. That endless cycle of delays, each one more agonizing than the last. It's that obsessive attention to detail, the thing that makes the GT games so great, that's causing the delays, which makes them even more maddening, because that means the game is delayed because Yamauchi wants it to be perfect.

The wait for Gran Turismo 5 has been particularly bad. It's not just the five years we've all been waiting in which we've seen all three Forza games be released. It's that GT5 looks to be the game Gran Turismo fans have always dreamed of, one with damage modeling, AI that behaves like racing drivers and not a train, online multiplayer, incredibly advanced driving physics that takes pretty much everything that can influence a car and how it performs into account, even how dense the air is, one thousand cars with interiors including, finally, Ferraris, more diverse racing types including WRC and NASCAR, every track able to be raced on at night, in the rain, or both, a downloadable video service where you can watch automotive and racing programming from around the world and the deepest level of customization ever in a racing game, with “every conceivable part” yours to swap, upgrade and tweak to your heart's content. It's like waiting for the love of your life to come home after a long time abroad, only to see them get stuck out there again and again for years.

GT5 Prologue made things even worse, since it showed us how amazing the game looks and how brilliant the new driving model is. I made the mistake of playing it, and it feels so much better than GT4 does, so much better in fact that it ruined the actual driving part of GT4 for me. And I can't just play GT5P, since that's pretty much all it is, the driving, with only a handful of cars and tracks and only rudimentary level of tuning. It's a tease, and a horrible, nightmarishly frustrating one at that.

So what I've done in the meantime is to do the unthinkable and play other games to try to fill the Gran Turismo shaped hole. It's been a long succession of games that while good, are just not what I so desperately need. It was fun running a racing team in GRID, but there was no customization other than your livery and sponsor decals. I enjoyed how Need For Speed Shift was so immersive that it made a driving model that wasn't actually all that realistic feel pretty damn real, but there were only a handful of cars, the upgrades you could do to your car were broken (installing a bigger turbo, a higher flow intercooler, the associated plumbing that moves air more efficiently and a new engine management system to make the most of those additions adds a lot more than three more horsepower), and the tuning might as well have not been in the game. And then there was the series that this blog entry is actually about: Forza Motorsport.

Forza, as you all know, is Microsoft's take on the Gran Turismo formula. It does all of the things GT does, so this should be what I'm after, but for me it never has been. The first two were good games, don't get me wrong, but there was something off to me about them. It did all the Gran Turismo stuff, just not as well. The car selection was never as good and the cars that were there weren't made with the same attention to detail dedicated to capturing the essence of what the car is like to drive, a problem made worse the driving model, which lacked feel, which led to the double-whammy of cars of similar specification essentially being the same to drive and a tuning system that was a bit of a guessing game where you only had to be close to the ideal settings to optimize your car which made finding a car that is perfectly suited to your driving style nearly impossible, so I never really felt attached to any of my cars. “I wish this is more like Gran Turismo” is not what I want going through my head while playing a game. It's my own damn fault, falling in love with GT like I have, making it into some sort of ideal game, if only in my head.

So when Forza 3 was released, I didn't give it much thought. It just seemed like more of the same, just with more cars and tracks. A good game that just wasn't as good as Gran Turismo. Not even getting it as a Christmas present could get me interested, so outside of a couple brief play sessions it just sat on the shelf. One of my other presents, a Logitech G25, a brilliant piece of hardware that both enhanced GT4 and GT5P exponentially and could not be used with Forza, was the final nail in the coffin. And then, the other day, the new GT5 trailer hit the internet and those new and better Gran Turismo cravings came back, harder than ever. In my desperation, I sat down with Forza 3 again, and somehow I was able to see it not as what I thought it was, a second-rate imitation GT, but what it actually was, a game that does what GT does, just in its own way that, while different, is just as enjoyable. I wasn't playing it because it was like Gran Turismo, I was playing it because it was like Forza 3.

It was the realization that Forza does some things better than Gran Turismo that made the whole thing exciting, but in a naughty sort of way. It felt like I was cheating on my beloved GT, that I had found something new and wonderful, something to go to when I wanted a little sumthin-sumthin on the side, something that Gran Turismo just wasn't giving me. The first thing is it's actually enjoyable with a controller, while a wheel has pretty much been mandatory for Gran Turismo since GT4. And then there's the thing I really like, the customization. You can upgrade a huge variety of parts in Forza, which makes it incredibly satisfying. I can't even begin to explain how happy it makes me to choose from a multitude of engine components instead of just buying “NA Tune 2”. Your control over how the car behaves doesn't come after you buy the parts, it comes with the buying of the parts itself. And then there's the customization option I love the most: engine and drivetrain swaps. Where Gran Turismo required you to hack the game with a Gameshark to swap engines or convert a car from front to rear wheel drive, swaps like this are just a standard part of customization in Forza. I had finally found a game where I could quickly and easily make the stupid yet wonderful monster cars I had always wished I could. I mean, this is a game that lets you drop the V8 out of a Corvette into an Aveo. And that is AWESOME.

One thing I didn't expect to find was a tuning system that actually works, with even more control over your settings than GT has. I now have even more variables to obsess over, and more to obsess over makes me very happy indeed. While the changes you make aren't as apparent as they are in GT, I can still tell what impact the changes I just made have had on the car. And tailoring a stupid car to my driving style gives me that sense of attachment to my cars that I loved so much from GT. I'm not driving the car because the numbers say it's faster, I'm driving it because I like it better than the others, because it is mine. Which is why I'm using the Mitsubishi FTO I bought for the F class championship for 6 grand that I stripped out, dropped the engine out of an Evo in (modified to put out over 700 horsepower, obviously) and converted to all wheel drive, with a 15/85 split front to rear and brakes that lock up the rear wheels and make the thing do hairpins like you wouldn't believe to eat Vipers in the R3 championship using the magic of over 700 horsepower in a car that weighs 2500 pounds and changes directions like a gnat.

As good as I'm finding playing Forza 3 on its own merits to be, there still are lots of things in Gran Turismo that I prefer. Forza's car selection is extensive and varied, but all but a few of the cars are “good”, as in they're logical performance car choices. One of the things I love most about GT is taking a POS econobox that doesn't belong on a racetrack and transforming it into something that can blow the doors off of cars that were purpose built for performance driving. In Forza you can just make fast cars fast, which is still good, just not as rewarding as making something out of nothing. The tuning, while excellent, lacks the feedback that GT has, like I said before, which makes it somewhat less engaging. And the driving physics, while great, are a bit too forgiving at times. I've been able to make it through screwups with little penalty that should have caused me to drop 5 places, which makes the driving feel less rewarding. I want to win a race knowing I won because of how well I drove, not because the game let me get away with things I shouldn't have gotten away with.

Overall, though, I'm quite pleased with Forza, and even more pleased with my realization that the Forza and Gran Turismo can coexist, since they're both provide different enough experiences which are both rewarding in their own ways. I went looking for a game to replace my favorite game while I waited for the next installment but instead I found a new friend to spend time with. And I'm really happy that I did.
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About The Passengerone of us since 1:41 PM on 02.14.2010

My life was ruined when my dad brought home a disk for our Atari 800 with Zaxxon on it. Since then games are what I do.