I predict that there will come a time when computer based simulations are so realistic that they provide such a true representation of an activity that they are nearly discernable. High-end, multi-million dollar flight simulators are already very close to that, and can in fact be used to train and certify a pilot in a new type of aircraft, up to including huge planes like 747s, without requiring any flight time at all in an actual aircraft. As home computer technology continues to improve, I'm hoping that simulators of this fidelity will not only become available on our PCs, but will expand beyond flight simulation into some of the other areas we enjoy on our PCs. First amongst those on my wish list would be auto racing. Top tier racing, like many types of aviation, is financially out of our reach, so computer flight and racing sims are the closest we can get to the actual experience. But how realistic are the state-of-the-art racing sims that are available today? Well, I'm glad I asked since I just happen to be in the mood to review the newly released GTR 2, co-published by Viva Media and 10tacle Studios.
Just like its predecessor (GTR), GTR 2 is developed by the SimBin Development Team. SimBin is known for their intense attention to detail, as evidenced in all elements of the program including the physics engine, the race tracks, the racing rules, the intelligence of the computer-controlled opponents, the car models, and the engine sounds. In every category GTR 2 is very, very good, and might just be the best PC-based racing simulator available today. SimBin even managed to successfully balance the tight line between arcade-ish with a fast, quick learning curve and ultra-realistic but darn near impossible to master. At beginner level the game is very approachable for the novice, and at the pro level it's challenging and satisfying for the experienced and well-equipped driver.
By "well-equipped," I'm not necessarily referring just to the horsepower of your PC and graphics board. You'll need a bit of gumption in your box to be sure, but what I'm actually referring to are your steering wheel and pedals. You need them, and you need pretty goods ones if you want to drive at the pro level. I'm using a Logitech Momo Force and the pedals that came with it, and I'm very happy with both the sensitivity of the control and the force feedback effects of the wheel. The pedals offer a nice, smooth control as well. Without smooth and comfortable controls, it's going to be a far greater challenge to make the laps times you'll need to be competitive.
So, just what’s so special about GTR 2? It’s not any one thing, exactly, but the seamless integration of best-of-breed facets into a very satisfying package. Starting with the obvious, GTR is an acronym for GT Racing, and more specifically in this case, FIA GT Racing. The FIA is the Federation Internationale de L’Automobile, and is the sanctioning body behind other racing leagues such as World Cup Rally, Formula One, and a host of other primarily European racing series. GT is considered an endurance form of racing, and is mostly known for its 24 hour races, although there are shorter races throughout the season as well. It’s one of the few racing series where mid-race driver changes are de rigueur, and is also unique in some of the rules intended to keep the annual championship close and interesting. For example, there are weight penalties applied to cars that win races, detailed by FIAGT.com as follows: “Cars which finish in the top three in either the GT1 or GT2 classes are awarded penalty weight. In GT1, they get 40kg for a first-place finish, 30 kg for second and 20 kg for third. In GT2, these weights are halved, so they get 20 kg, 15 kg and 10 kg respectively. Cars which finish from 4th and under progressively lose any penalty weight they might have accumulated. A 4th place finish loses 20 kg in GT1, with a loss of 30 kg in fifth place, and 40 kg are removed for sixth place onwards. The maximum weight that can be carried is 100 kg in GT1, or 50 kg in GT2. If a car carrying the maximum wins a race, they are given a 'supermaximum' of 150 kg in GT1 or 75 kg in GT2.” All of these arcane rules are supported in the Championship mode of GTR 2.
The GT cars are typically high-end name brands like Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini, Maserati, and even a few American marques like Corvette and the Dodge Viper. There are a number of classes that race simultaneously, as described by FIAGT.com: “the cars are entered in two main categories, GT1 and GT2. Two more categories can take part, G2 and G3, but do not score points. GT1 cars are more powerful, between 600 and 650 bhp, and can be more heavily developed. GT2 cars, around 450 bhp, have to remain closer to the production models.” The cars are modeled to a nearly photo-realistic level, and even have incredibly believable engine and ancillary sounds specifically tailored to each model. For example, a V10 Viper is achieves the lion’s share of its torque at a relatively low RPM, so as you’d expect, it has a deep, throaty sound to it. Move into a high-revving Ferrari and you will definitely hear a difference in the overall sound package. This is a sim where you will be mighty tempted to crank your speakers up to canine-painful levels, and if you haven’t already got one, you’ll surely be tempted to pick up a subwoofer. Each different model handles differently too. That Viper is very heavy compared to something like a BMW M3 Coupe, and you will feel the difference in the corners. The Viper also packs a commensurately higher horsepower engine under the hood, and this will make itself evident on the straights. It makes for a very interesting sparring session when you get in a dust-up with something light and nimble when your steed is one of the heavy, fire-breathing mega-cars. With its light weight and excellent cornering abilities, the lighter car will shoot past you in the turns, but your horsepower advantage will carry you back around him on the next long straight section of track. This is racing at its finest, and can easily lead to white knuckles on the steering wheel.
With the unfortunate stranglehold EA Sports has on the Formula One series, it’s interesting to see the market respond by moving into lesser known, but no less interesting series like GT. In many cases, the same world-famous tracks are used as with the Formula One racing, but when F1 makes the fly-away trips the GT series visits some of the lesser known European venues. These tracks are all modeled with painstaking attention to detail in GTR 2. If you are an aficionado of European tracks, you will certainly recognize Eau Rouge in Belgium, the pair of Lesmos and the Parabolica at Monza, and the Tamburello turn at Imola. Unfortunately, the fidelity of the modeling follows along with the periodic molestation of these famous tracks as chicanes are added in an effort to slow down the pace of the racing, but there’s no real choice for the developers on that – they have to follow the changes in the real world to maintain accuracy in the sim.
Allow me to stipulate that the AI cars, the track and car models, the sounds, the physics, and all those things are as good as they can be with our current level of personal computing horsepower. That statement is arguable, but only at the nitpicking level. Where GTR 2 really shines, though, is in the ways that it did NOT piss me off. I have a list of pet peeves when it comes to racing sims, and chief amongst them is my outright hatred of being put in a box and having to fight my way out of it to get access to the cars and races I want. I’ve always held that a simulation should allow me, the guy that plunked down the dinero, the right to drive every car available in the title from the moment I finish the installation. I get frustrated by tightly constricted “Career” modes that require me to start out in some weak-kneed back marker, and earn my way into the premier cars. I don’t have the time or patience for that – if I did, I’d go out and slog my way through real world racing and endure all of the incumbent challenges thereof. No, I want to race what the big boys are driving, and I want to do it NOW! GTR 2 gives me the latitude to determine what to race, where to race it, and who else I’ll be racing against. That said, GTR 2 will allow you to live a more structured life if you so choose. Completing certain “Driving School” topics will unlock various racing championships, such as a 3 lap rookie race series or the like. Why anyone would want to try to race a 3 lap race is beyond me, but that’s the point: GTR 2 doesn’t force me to. I can create a single race weekend at any track I want, with any mix of cars I want, and configure various difficulty levels to provide the challenge that I want. It’s a very libertarian mode, and that fits my desires nicely.
One challenge a highly accurate simulation is always going to face is the steep learning curve. Some of the best racing titles in the past have been vilified by people not willing or able to devote the time and effort required to learn to drive the cars. GTR 2 does a great job of welcoming those folks to the community with its highly granular difficulty configuration, which allows individual users to set the difficulty anywhere from “close your eyes and stomp on the gas” to “press that gas pedal as if there’s an egg under it.” Beyond that, GTR 2 now has a Racing School mode that will enable drivers to quickly learn new tracks. In the past, the way to learn your way around a 3+ mile track was to drive lap after lap. This could be an inefficient approach to take if, for example, you were only having trouble with one small part of the track but had to drive entire laps to get back to the area where you needed more practice. In the racing school, you can concentrate on two or three turn sections of track, over and over again. There’s even a nifty racing line overlaid on the track to indicate where you should be applying the brakes, where you can coast through with a simple lift of your right foot, and where you should have that right foot planted as firmly as possible against the firewall.
No modern racing title would be complete without a multiplayer mode, and GTR 2 has one. I connected long enough to run a few practice laps with some human-driven cars, but never entered a full-fledged race. I’ve been suffering from an under-performing cable connection lately, so my ping times were awful. Because of that, I don’t think I can definitively give a rating to the quality of the network code, but it seemed pretty reasonable in my admittedly brief experience.
In maintaining a good balance between supremely challenging simulation and manageable difficulty, GTR 2 has successfully breached the divide between too much hand-holding and a sink-or-swim approach, allowing all comers to dive in and enjoy the incredibly realistic racing experience. For those willing to explore middle-tier racing series that aren’t quite as famous as Formula One or NASCAR, GTR 2 offers everything anyone could want in a PC-based racing sim.