Thursday, September 11, 2008

GTR Evolution Review

GTR Evolution, developed by SimBin and published by Viva Media.
The Good: This plus all of the included RACE 07 features gives you a huge amount of content
The Not So Good: Seven new car classes and three new tracks isn’t much, arcade mode isn't arcade enough
What say you? A great standalone racing product, but a meager expansion to RACE 07: 5/8

Another year, another SimBin racing title. Not that there is anything wrong with that, as SimBin has been responsible for a series of quality racing simulations, starting with GTR and continuing through last year's RACE 07. This year's iteration is effectively a combination of SimBin's two series, taking the fantastic RACE 07 gameplay and adding in the GT cars from games past. GTR Evolution takes an interesting approach to the standalone expansion: existing owners of RACE 07 can buy it for $20, or new players can get both games in one package for $40. This is a win-win situation, as new players aren't missing any of the former content and don't have to worry about having to purchase two separate games, and continuing drivers don't have to pay full price. Since I am familiar with RACE 07, we'll examine what new things GTR Evolution brings to the table and also show how game scores can be misleading when dealing with expansions that include the original game.

The graphics and sound of GTR Evolution seem to be almost identical to its predecessor, other than adding the new car models into the game. This isn't a bad thing, though, as I thought RACE 07 had (and still has) some nice graphics, from the cars to the tracks to the little environmental touches. The new track environment seems to be spot-on, including the graffiti on the Nordschleife race course. The sound, I think, has been somewhat improved, as some minor effects that I don't remember hearing before are now more prominent: tire squeal is more pronounced, and the track announcer is more vocal. These two things bring the tracks alive and create a very satisfactory gaming experience. In addition, there is a new theme song that I do prefer over the old one. So while there is nothing of note added in terms of graphics and sound, the high level of quality has been maintained.

GTR Evolution has all of the robust features of RACE 07 with some additions. First off, GTR Evolution comes with the “R-Cade Extreme” mode, intended to be fast, quick, and action-packed racing. It doesn't really work, though, as the cars still handle too realistically. When I use full throttle coming off the corner in an arcade mode, I expect the rear wheels to stick, but not here: it's still too much of a simulation to be a true arcade mode. In addition, you can only experience the “R-Cade Extreme” mode using the new WTCC Extreme cars: an seemingly unnecessary limitation. The other major game feature is that you can download hot lap times from other drivers within the game, although you have to exactly match the car and track used in order to see them in the browser (and with 2,000 combinations, this is a tricky proposition). Downloaded replays come with the setup and a racing line, so this can serve as a great learning tool, assuming good drivers take the time to use the time trial mode and upload replays to the server.

As you would expect in a racing game, the rest of the additions come in the form of cars and tracks. GTR Evolution comes with three classes of GT cars (pro, sport, and club) and a number (usually five) of models per class. The game also comes with production versions of four of the GT cars, which add an interesting challenge: they are (obviously) a lot like the GT cars, except with crappy brakes. The GT cars also come with endurance (timed) race options for both quick races and season-long championships. The WTCC cars are now more extreme thanks to the appropriately-named WTCC Extreme class: the horsepower has been doubled for racing that's more akin to the overcharged GT cars. Add these new vehicles to the cars that were already in RACE 07 (WTCC (2006, 2007, and 1987), Mini Cooper, Formula 3000, Formula BMW, Caterham, Radical), and you have quite a diverse lineup of vehicles to choose from.

While the new vehicles are nice, the new tracks are disappointing: all you get is three flavors of Nürburgring. Although one of these flavors is the manly and lengthy Nordschleife (German words are cool), I was expecting a lot more tracks that would be more fitting for the GT cars. What happened to all of the tracks from the GTR games: they couldn't be imported into GTR Evolution? The game also lacks tracks from the 2008 WTCC season, although technically the only one missing is Okayama in Japan. Yes, 40 track variations (three here plus the ones from RACE 07) is a lot, but one year of additional work should produce more tracks.

As for the racing, it remains excellent. The GT cars hold the high simulation standard set by previous SimBin titles and they are fun to drive. I still prefer the slower, easier-to-handle WTCC cars, but the variety shown by the selection of vehicles in GTR Evolution will satisfy pretty much any racing appetite. The AI is tough as ever, and 100% strength will provide a great challenge for budding drivers. Online multiplayer isn't the most lag-free experience (probably because most (if not all) of the populated servers are located in Europe), but it is enjoyable though generally wreck-filled (brake is on the left). It should be noted that accessing any of the game's online options requires you to install Steam, even if you buy the physical retail disk.

Part of the reason why I dislike reviewing standalone expansions is there isn't a consensus how to score the game. Do you rate it as a whole for new users, or just rate the improvements? My stand has been that if I reviewed the former game, I'm basing my rating on the additions, but who knows what inferior review sites do. So here is the bottom line: GTR Evolution is fantastic as a whole, but the new features come up short if you are upgrading from RACE 07. $20 for an upgrade from RACE 07 to GTR is a bit steep for what you are getting, and the jump from RACE to RACE 07 offered more content than going from RACE 07 to GTR Evolution. The new GT cars are nice, but one track with three variations leaves room for a lot more. In addition, the arcade mode can't shake SimBin's simulation roots. GTR Evolution is more of a slight Mutation than a true Evolution. If you missed out on RACE 07, then GTR Evolution is an excellent racing game. There's no reason to pay $20 a month for good racing when GTR Evolution brings in subscription-free racing with excellent features. However, as an expansion, GTR Evolution is disappointing with how little it brings to the table. I still like the RACE series of games and, as a whole, GTR Evolution is my favorite non-Stock Car, non-arcade racing game. But the number of improvements and additions made from almost a year ago are not sufficient for owners of RACE 07.