Grand Prix 4 comes from a truly grand dynasty of Formula One computer games. Geoff Crammond’s original Grand Prix, developed for the PC and Commodore Amiga, featured the 1991 season rendered in simple solid-colour blocks. But even in these early days it developed a reputation for attention to detail and quality that has become a hallmark of the franchise.
The most recent incarnation – Grand Prix 4, released in 2002 – models the 2001 season and even though the quality of the graphics and sound are immeasurably advanced over the original, the core qualities of game play and even some of its most essential characteristics are unchanged. You still have five skill levels from rookie to ace to choose from, and can configure the input system (on the PC version) for keyboard, joypad, joystick, wheel or anything.
The Grand Prix series has never been at the cutting edge of graphic technologies, but although the 2002-spec 3D engine looks rusty by modern standards it still shows up very well against PlayStation 2 games – in GP4 you get a 20-car field compared to Gran Turismo 4’s paltry six. Water and heat haze effects are present, and video walls dotted around the circuits that work in real-time are an excellent touch. Each chassis is individually modelled, which even today most recent F1 games do not stretch to.
The circuit layouts are derived from satellite imagery and as such are breathtakingly accurate. No other F1 games gives a truer impression of the daunting confines of Monaco, or conversely the vast expanses of Sepang. Of course, modelling the ‘tobacco’-specification car liveries and track adverts is out of the question – you have to look to the Internet for that. Being now four years out of date, the modding community is at work striving to produce updated and new circuits, but the unfriendly and poorly supported editing tools aren’t helping.
The artificial intelligence of your computer-controlled rivals is a bit wooden. They stick rigidly to their pre-determined racing lines, but they do defend position well, making worthy opponents out of them. Drivers can even spin off through error, but the difficulties they often have rejoining the circuit show up flaws in the programming. Similarly car failures are modelled, but occasionally computer opponents can have maladies as terminal as engine failure repaired in a short pit stop!
The plethora of driving aids can make things a bit easy though, so do turn them off at the first opportunity. Race stoppages and safety car situations are not modelled – nor are they in every other F1 game, but you always expect more from this franchise.
But as ever, what sets GP4 apart from the opposition is its stunningly convincing physics and sense of speed. This is no mere arcade game where you can cruise around on autopilot: GP4 demands, grabs and holds your attention. The greater effort you put in can be measured by improvements in your lap times, which is immensely satisfying.
Still the game is not perfect – in the main its detractors crave an even more accurate simulation and decry GP4’s few, Xbox-inspired arcade leanings. At three yews old, it is also beginning to show its age. These limitations aside, GP4 is the best Formula One game available for the PC – or any format, for that matter.
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