Gran Turismo 4: A Timeless Masterpiece Before Microtransaction Mania

The real driving simulator

Gran Turismo 4: A Timeless Masterpiece Before Microtransaction Mania
Gran Turismo 4 is nearly 20 years old. It still looks stunning. Source: Polyphony/Sony

"Can you believe they put so many cars in this? Over 700 the last time I checked," I said to my friend as we popped Gran Turismo 4 in.

We'd just finished our final exams, and the summer would roll on until autumn decided otherwise. What I didn't know then as the intro began to play was just how obsessed we'd become with it.

Weekends normally reserved for stoner pals to come around and eat pizza while listening to Pantera were replaced by the sound of tyre screeching and intermittent jazz.

It was car paradise.

A veritable buffet of highly detailed machines ranging from small and humble kei cars right up to overpowered and expensive machinery, like the much-hyped Pagini Zonda.

This is a racing game that has it all. Not just in 2004, but in 2024.

Peak automotive design as far as 18-year-old me was concerned. Source: Polyphony/Sony

So I think we need to talk about Gran Turismo 4 like the classic game it is - a shining example of what gaming was before the industry became mired in exploitative monetisation practices.

It wasn't just a great car game, it was a paragon of great design and a stark reminder that early to mid-2000s gaming was something to behold. It felt like a last hurrah before internet connectivity became all too pervasive, bringing with it the bean counters and accountants who wanted to extract as much return from gamers as possible.

Gran Turismo 4 represented the franchise at its purest - a digital homage to the romance of driving, untainted by the realities that would eventually encroach.

Dear Cars, I Love You

While GT4 achieved overwhelming depth and quality through ingenious design choices and an obsessive commitment to authenticity, it also had a significant advantage - it was built upon the rock-solid architecture established by its predecessor, Gran Turismo 3.

Gran Turismo 3 was a phenomenal game in its own right but often felt like Gran Turismo all over again, just with prettier visuals. That didn't make me love it any less as an established lover of JDM wagons.

But Gran Turismo 4? It was so significant in delivering everything a racing game could. Well, apart from online play, which Kazunori Yamauchi at the time said the team was exploring without committing to it.

"...a wholly redesigned gameplay system has been proposed, including new modes of play and that network compatibility (online play) is something that the team is exploring." - Kazunori Yamauchi

Ultimately, after extensive testing, Polyphony faced technical challenges and stability issues. They pulled the online feature, focusing instead on perfecting the offline gameplay and overall quality of the game.

I was fine with this, and I imagine many others were too.

Gran Turismo was my solo gaming escape, and lots of other people thought so too. Unless I hauled my PS2 over to a friend's place, it was just me and that game motoring alone together.

Gran Turismo 4 iterated and expanded on GT3's already impressive car modelling, physics engine, and overall racing simulation. This allowed them to focus on refining the experience, taking it to lofty new heights that felt like the true peak of the series.

Whether or not that peak has been surpassed in recent times is debatable.

Gran Turismo 3 -
Gran Turismo 3 was cited as being an iteration of sorts, but that didn't make the driving experience any less sublime. Source: Polyphony/Sony

With GT3's proven tech as a launching pad, GT4 doubled down on making the act of driving itself as immersive and nuanced as possible. The staggering garage of 700+ cars didn't just look different, they each handled with distinct personalities that rivalled real-life counterparts.

Screenshot of Gran Turismo 4 (PlayStation 2, 2004) - MobyGames
With over 700 cars to choose from, there was something for everyone in GT4. Source: Polyphony/Sony

From iconic muscle cars like the Ford Mustang and Dodge Charger to European exotics such as the Ferrari Enzo and Lamborghini Murciélago, Gran Turismo 4 had something for everyone. It also included a comprehensive selection of Japanese domestic models, something I'm a huge fan of, from the humble Toyota Corolla to the high-performance Nissan Skyline GT-R.

I even once tweeted that we'd be unlikely to see cars like this featured in a game, ever again.

Each car looks glorious too, with each being made up of some 4,000 polygons compared to Gran Turismo 1 and 2's 300.

20 years ago, Tom Bramwell of Eurogamer said, "Visually of course everyone knows that it's unparalleled on the PS2 and makes everything else - including GT3 - look grainy, jagged and underdeveloped by comparison."

Now in 2024? It has absolutely no business looking as slick as it does on ancient hardware. It was a showcase for the PlayStation 2 on release, and it still is now. Go on, pop it on your TV or emulate it on your PC and I guarantee you'll be impressed with what the PlayStation 2 was capable of.

I still hit that Gran Turismo 4 photomode : r/granturismo
Source: Polyphony/Sony

No aspect of this game felt phoned in.

Even the license system is fun and engaging, often encouraging you to give it just one more go to enjoy the upbeat number that plays as a gold GT trophy spins on screen.

This is also where you'll first realise just how much the driving feel has levelled up from GT3. Even the random assortment of vehicles used for the license tests, ranging from humble hatchbacks to beastly supercars, all have a surprising fun factor behind the wheel.

From the most mundane runabout to the hair-trigger exotic, GT4 makes taming these very different automotive personalities an engaging experience. Then there's the opportunity to take these cars in all their humble splendor, and give them more power and less weight.

Tuning your ride opened up a pandora's box of possibilities to intimately understand your vehicle's dynamics. I mean, it wouldn't be Gran Turismo if you couldn't tune your car, right?

There are countless videos online dedicated to getting the best from your car. Source: TeaKanji

The overflowing selection of races and challenges seemed never-ending too, always leaving you hungry for one more event rather than pushing you toward microtransactions for gameplay-altering content.

The overall setup is quintessential Gran Turismo, and the sheer scale of content in GT World mode is just massive.

Even after sinking multiple weekends and dozens of hours in, me and my friends game completion percentage was still embarrassingly low. Gran Turismo 4 is unashamed in its presentation of available content - there was an incredibly daunting amount of stuff to get through.

This is the only Gran Turismo I didn't 100% of the original four.

While the License Tests do a good job of walking you through driving fundamentals with progressively deeper explanations, once you're released into Gran Turismo mode itself, you're on your own. My rate of progress basically came down to how quickly and efficiently I could poke around the GT World map and its different areas.

It's both liberating and overwhelming having that lack of handholding. There was also no pay to win here, and while this meant a good degree of grinding, I never felt that it overstayed its welcome.

I enjoyed GT4 for years after its release, frankly. I still do to this day.

What may come as a surprise is that Gran Turismo 4 pioneered in-game photo mode on consoles. This lets you stage elaborate photoshoots with your prized vehicles, carefully framing the perfect shot before saving or printing it out via USB.

How antiquated.

An MR2 vs a Fiat Punto. Is that a 206 in the lead? Seriously, where else would you see that?

Completing each hard-earned goal felt like a worthy accomplishment thanks to the realistic handling and high skill ceiling. It is as close to perfect as we'll ever see for a Gran Turismo game, and honestly, it's probably the last time we'll see a game like this.

In an era when major AAA studios are tripping over themselves to nickel-and-dime their fanbases, GT4 is the counterpoint - a product of genuine passion and creativity rather than corporate greed. Its quality shone through from the moment the disc booted up until you finally powered down for the night after hours of being consumed by its soul and spirit.

The missions and car collecting in GT mode were an addictive and methodical routine. We look back at it now like it's an automotive encyclopedia, boasting over 700 unique cars, but just how many cars would it release with in this day and age?

Just how many cars would be available as costly DLC?

Checking off each requirement and amassing your garage's armada provides the compulsive, structured thrills. We'd do well to discuss games like Gran Turismo 4 with the reverence it deserves as a beacon of what this hobby can be when it pursues artistry over profits.

An entire generation of gamers missed out on this gem, and that's a damn shame - because experiences like this are exactly why we all fell in love with gaming in the first place.

Fancy a copy for yourself? Head over to eBay to pick one up, and if you do, we'll get a small kickback from each sale.

Gran Turismo 4

Gran Turismo 4: The ultimate driving simulator. Unparalleled realism, gorgeous graphics, and an extensive car lineup for racing enthusiasts.

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