Tuesday, April 18, 2006

PS2 Review: Tourist Trophy

Answer two questions. First, do you like Gran Turismo? Second, do you like motorcycles? If you answered "yes" to either of those questions, you owe it to yourself to give Tourist Trophy a try.

To give you a little history, I played the original Gran Turismo and GT2, but lost interest after that for the duration of the next two installments. More cars, more courses; been there, done that. I need something new! It's as if Polyphony is spying on me, for they've made something capable of freshening up the tried-and-true for me. How? By subtracting two wheels.

Sure, there are other things that have changed. Rather than adding turbo kits and doing weight reduction on your ride, you learn better when to tuck down or adjust your riding style to add or subtract lean. This does as much or more for your handling and performance as those aforementioned tweaks. It takes some getting used to, but ultimately feels like you're more in control of the action.

Tourist Trophy sidesteps the monotonous grinding of the GT series by removing money from the equation, and I commend them for that. In GT, you had to buy a cheap, lame car and do the same low level races over and over and over until you could finally afford something respectable, let alone upgrades for it. Not so in TT, and their approach makes it feel more like a game and less like work. Jump right into the career mode, head for Challenges, and start filling up your garage. Don't forget to earn those licenses along the way, but other than that, getting new crotch-rockets is only as hard as they are to race against.

See, the way you open up bikes is by giving them about a 10-second lead, then trying to overtake them and stay in front for either 10 seconds or till the race is over, whichever comes first. Personally, I love this approach, because it keeps you from suffering the frustration of wiping out on the last turn of the race and having to do it all over again. Get in front and stay there for 10 seconds and the bike is yours. Simple as that.

Sure, wipeouts still happen as you learn the feel of each bike, but don't expect Flatout's level of ragdoll physics for your rider. Wiping out causes you to fail a challenge (as does wiping out other riders or leaving the track for too long), and falling to the turf in major races only causes a delay while you get back on your motorcycle. Some would gripe about this, but I'm not. It's a racing game, not an injury simulator. Adding realistic body damage and hospital bills would detract from the fun.

Don't get me wrong though. It's not a piece of cake getting a handle on these two-wheeled terrors. They behave very realistically. Some would say "brutally so," but I disagree. Sure, you have to learn and be patient while you work out the kinks. After about three days of playing, a friend noticed my riding had improved dramatically.

At the same time, if something "feels" like it would work in real life, it will work in the game. Brake sooner, slap on tires with more grip, pick a lighter bike; all these things affect handling and performance, and with more than 100 bikes to choose from, you'd be hard pressed to find one you don't like.

Sure, there's a lot of Japanese influence in the roster (Suzuki, Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha), but that's not all they've got (MV, Triumph, BMW, Aprilia), and there's a respectable variety from each manufacturer. Either way, these are racing bikes. You want choppers? There's a game for that elsewhere. I'm not upset at the so-called "weak" or "lacking" roster because the existing stable is more than enough to keep me happy, and I know this game will see a of follow-up if this one is any indication of the quality to come. A sequel means more bikes, fewer hiccups, and more race venues.

Again, I see complaints online that the game recycles mostly tracks from the Gran Turismo games, but what did you expect? Those tracks are familiar and well worn, but feel a whole lot different on two wheels as opposed to four. Also, none of the GT games have managed to include an online mode, so it's not much of a letdown to me that TT doesn't have one either. If you really want that, take a half point off the score. To me, it was a pure racing thrill, flying a foot off the pavement at 195mph, with nothing but the wind rushing by and the whine of the engine to keep me company.

While the sounds Tourist Trophy has are certainly good, this is one area where I will ante up and say needs more work. Where's the music? Some half-there funk/pop isn't going to get my blood boiling out on the track. After about an hour of either dull music or no music (some modes have none at all), I muted the game and threw in some Metallica. That did the trick.

Visually, it's very much in line with what you'd expect from Polyphony. They must do some voodoo under the hood of the PS2 that other studios don't know. The bikes in particular look amazing, and even better in the replays and Best Photo mode, where the game takes tons of snapshots of your replay, which you can then print directly via compatible Epson printers, or save to memory card or a USB flash drive. The images and visuals all around are really impressive, but you can also crank it up to 1080i on HDTV sets. I rocked it on a 62" LCD HDTV in 1080i and simply couldn't look away. What's more, the photos it took that I copied to my USB flash drive copied perfectly to my laptop in glorious 1280 by 960 resolution. Wallpaper, anyone?

The game won't take you forever to complete (100+ bikes, 100 or so challenges, five licenses, 20+ races = about a week), but I haven't gotten this much of a rush from a racer in a long time. Go ahead, throw your weight back just before winning a race and wheelie across the finish line at 150mph+ and tell me you don't get a kick out of it, too.

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