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Too good to be true ?

Simon Bradley

Yellow GSX-R 750K4 on the Nurburgring? Giving it berries around Ex-Muhle? If I didn't know better I'd say it was me... (Actual screenshot, unmodified)You're tucked down behind the bubble, really going for it. The scenery passes in something of a blur as the bars kick and buck in your hands. Over the crest, through the blind bends afterwards, up and around the Swallowtail and through onto the back straight. At nearly 200 miles per hour you streak under the gantry, sitting up and congratulating yourself on another sub 7'30" lap of the Nurburgring while you gently slow down and cruise around to the pits. You're good and you know it - good enough to consistently break the official lap record by a fair margin.

And you've not even left the sofa to do it.

A couple of years ago, games console aficionados were treated to the delights of Gran Turismo 4 on the PS2. It's the daddy - the driving game by which all others are judged and against which most come up short. The only real failing of GT4 was that everything in it had roughly two too many wheels. But now, with the release of Tourist Trophy, developers Polyphony have addressed that shortcoming. And then some.

35 tracks, including most of the circuits in Gran Turismo, and over a hundred bikes, all as accurately modelled as we've come to expect from this dynasty, keep things sufficiently varied. And a bewildering choice of personal equipment - leathers, gloves, boots, helmets etc - mean that you are pretty well guaranteed to be able to clone yourself right there on the screen. It feels a little odd but you'll get used to it soon enough. The blurb says that the physics are ultra-realistic and that the graphics are second to none. We'll have to see.

Starting the game gives the familiar (to anyone who's ever seen GT4) intro film which is pretty good and promises great things for the game itself. There are several modes available, starting with the ubiquitous (and frankly boring) arcade mode which turns off most of the physics and makes the whole thing ideal for small children and car drivers who have no idea how to ride a bike. The only good thing about Arcade mode, in fact, is the head to head option which allows racing against another human player, which is really the best possible entertainment that a game like this can offer. Especially if you use the i-link facility to get, say, eight of you on the grid. Or get yourselves online and play across the internet, of course. Probably worth mentioning that I haven't tried either of these options during the test as I don't know anyone else with the game yet...

Same corner, same bike, different angle. Just to show the ambience... (Actual screenshot, unmodified)Tourist Trophy mode is the proper mode to play in, though and that's where we'll be spending the rest of the time from here on. Getting into the game is straightforward enough, and the licence school is a similar deal to that found in many other driving type games - a series of tests you need to pass before you are awarded a licence at a certain level. This licence allows you to participate in different races, get your leg over different bikes and so on. Very much like real life, in fact. Passing a licence grade normally results in your wardrobe getting filled up. The weird thing - and the biggest surprise to me - was the fact that there is no money involved. In GT4, along with almost every other game of this genre, wins give you credits which you can send on modifications or on buying a new bike or car. Here, though, there don't seem to be any modifications available at all other than a performance exhaust which comes when you get the bike. And the only way to get a bike is to win it - there's no buying and selling to be done. I have to admit that, to me anyway, that takes away some of the longevity of the game. It feels like you've achieved something when you get enough credits together in Grand Turismo (or Riding Spirits - the real rival to this) to get that car/bike you've been after and to make the modifications you need to make it behave exactly as you want. Rather like real life, actually. Here you decide on the bike you want and race against the same bike, one on one, to win it. And that's it. You get the choice of fitting a performance exhaust as soon as you get the bike, you get to choose the colour before you race and...nothing. Then you can use that bike in a race series if you want to, winning leathers, gloves, boots or helmets. Occasionally you'll win a bike. But you'll never be able to modify it.

Again it's the same corner taken from a different angle. Photo mode is rather good like that... (Actual screenshot, unmodified)One thing you can change, though, is the way you ride. You can adjust what the game calls your 'riding form' to affect the way it all looks and the way the bike behaves. You can, in fact, tailor the rider on your virtual bike to behave differently - to load the front, hang off like a gibbon and extend his leg an awfully long way (think Colin Edwards) or you can have him sit back, get tucked in and be ever so neat all round the place like Troy Corser. Or anything in between. There is also a Motard option complete with stuck out leg. There are lots of things you can change and the good thing is that it really does make a difference.

We've talked about gameplay and longevity, but not about the riding experience. And that's where things start to get rather better. Because the game really does work very well. The bars shake and buck, steering starts to wander until you tuck in, the wind noise increases and the impression of speed is excellent. At the same time, you get geometry changes under braking, you are able to adjust your line using front and rear brakes separately and you are able to fall off in all sorts of bizarre ways. Including running out of ground clearance on bumps, dips and kerbs. The physics is pretty convincing generally, making the whole thing, at least in TT mode, feel like a simulator rather than a mere game, and the opposing riders you find yourself up against aren't bad. Not as good as you, obviously, but they do make mistakes and can even fall off - something that doesn't happen very often. You can normally out-drag them to the line so if you want to learn your way around a circuit then tucking in behind a computer player for a couple of laps is a good way to do it. Just pop past to take the win at the end of the last lap...

As well as the already dismissed arcade mode, there's one other thing you can do. You can take any bike, any kit and ride any circuit. Record the lap(s) and then go through the replay and take pictures. You can control camera position, height, zoom, aperture and speed (so managing depth of field) and all sorts of other things. You can also wrote the pictures straight to, say, a memory stick in one of the USB ports on the PS2 which means that with a little care you could engineer a picture of yourself on your bike at Valencia. Or the Nurburgring, as the shots here show. Neat.

At the beginning I mentioned circuits. And that's where Tourist Trophy really scores. Because there isn't another bike game of any sort (as far as I'm aware) that features the Nurburgring Nordschleife in all its glory. For that single feature I would buy the game. Add the range of real bikes and the ability to play human opponents and it's a winner. Great physics, pretty good (though not really cutting edge) graphics, a fabulous range of bikes to play with and the best circuit in the world. It doesn't get much better than that...

PS Tourist Trophy is available in shops now. Retail price is £39.99 though it's already cheaper through many online retailers. It's only available for the PS2.



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