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Slightly less-detailed racing for the rest of us
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Member since Oct 2007 · 316 posts
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Subject: Sega GT Online
There are generally two types of people who play racing games, those who love cars and those who love driving. While there's some overlap, you can usually pick one side or another based on the games you play. I fall pretty squarely into the latter camp, as I prefer the immediate action of competition between equals. Daytona, San Francisco Rush, Sega Rally, Outrun, and Ridge Racer are the ones that come up most frequently in any conversation. The fact that Sega makes three of the five top arcade racing products makes you think they would also offer an equally compelling simulation product. Sega hits all the right notes but doesn't get serious enough to be noticed with Sega GT Online on the original Xbox.


Many, many websites have this same screenshot. I'm assuming it comes from the official Xbox page for the game, which is no longer available for me to verify against.

It's impossible to review any racing sim without first making comparisons to the Gran Turismo series, Sony's flagship racing game product. While earlier editions also included a pick-up-and-play arcade mode, Gran Turismo games really became well-known for the depth and breadth of their simulation functions. More and more with each new version, players who wanted to could customize any aspect of a vehicle's performance, to the point that the screen would be filled with a giant normalized database user interface so that you could install asymmetrical tires and adjust the downforce effect of a rear spoiler. And the Gran Turismo series has certainly earned its fine reputation and all the praise that goes with it from players who love cars. For me, the problem with a game that's so intricate is that it's not for everyone.

Exotic brand names don't thrill me. Manufacturer rivalries mean nothing to me. I know instinctively that weather and aerodynamics will affect the performance of a vehicle much more than any component under the hood. I know from real experience that superstition and emotion never trump physics or chemistry in determining the outcome of a race. In short, I care about driving a car more than I do any of the arbitrary qualities of that car. With its emphasis on driving, and its ability to efficiently abstract all the overwhelming detail of car customization and maintenance, Sega GT Online is a racing sim that fits my particular tastes and lack of attention span. It's not for everyone either, but it is for the rest of us, that that suits me fine.

Sega GT Online is a patch on Sega GT 2002, the original Xbox game that shipped as a pack-in with the Sega edition of the American hardware release. Play follows a pattern familiar to anyone who has played a racing simulation before. With only a small amount of money, you have to buy the cheapest car you can and win a race. Winning races earns you more money, and licenses to enter more prestigious races. The more money you earn, the better cars (and parts) you can buy. Repeat. As you lose sleep and neglect your loved ones, your obsession compels you to own one of every available car. And there are a lot of them, as this newer version of the game includes a host of European and Japanese models that weren't available in the earlier edition of the game. I think the official count is around 160? Not nearly the 800 or so of Gran Turismo 5, but more than enough to occupy
me over a few leisurely weekends.

I think the best way to illustrate the simplicity of Sega GT Online is to look at a specific example of tuning as compared to more complex games. Gran Turismo 4 gives you the ability to control every last numerical value of a suspension component as it relates to wheel position. Toe and camber? Fully adjustable from -6 to +6 and the full twenty degrees of tilt. Damper and bounce? Completely realistic fluid and air measurement depending on the types of shocks or struts you have installed, of which there are dozens to choose from.

By comparison, Sega GT Online gives you a single slider to adjust suspension. All the way to the left means it's set up like a stock street car. All the way to the right is aggressively performance-tuned at the expense of component lifetime. To me, it's the most sensible compromise that takes nothing away from my enjoyment of gaming. Why would I run seven trials with my car on the test course with every possible configuration, knowing that it won't affect the outcome on the actual track? Let's keep the adjustment simple, so that instead of playing with numbers all afternoon I can just watch the garage shop cut scene and then get out there to drive again.

One of the oddball features of the game is component wear, something that wouldn't be replicated in any other racing game (as far as I know) until Gran Turismo 5 on the Playstation 3. Cylinders get worn down, tires lose tread, brakes fade. It's the only part of the game that's arguably any more realistic than in another racing game, but it's the sort of thing that I like because you have to consider consequences. Can I win the next race on this set of tires, or do I have to spend the money to replace them now?

I'm a much better player than I was ten years ago when Sega GT 2002 first came out. The most appealing feature of Sega GT Online is that wonderful easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master quality that Sega imbues in all its best games. The first few races were not overtly tutorials, but by limiting the difficulty I was provided with a sense of  accomplishment that made me want to play more. Then with the first license test, in a car not of my choosing and on an unfamiliar track, I was exposed to the real challenge of the game. And by keeping everything else nice and casual, I'm able to accept occasional (or even frequent) race losses as just part of the cost of doing business in this game world. Like with Sega's other finest products (Virtua On and Burning Rangers come to mind) losing is graceful in how it informs and educates you. I am absolutely hopeless against other Class-B License drivers at the moment, but I understand that's a limit of my skills and not a flaw with the game.

Of course, this approach is right for me but not for a majority of players who prefer the intricate, detailed sim. Sega GT Online definitely leaves out a lot of minutiae of racing, and the price of doing that might feel limiting to some gamers. But at the time, the budget $20 launch price was an indicator that this game wasn't out to change the world.

Sadly, one of the best features of the game is no longer available to us. Online racing is no longer supported, as the servers are down and the original Xbox network has been scrapped. Unique features (like the rally-inspired co-driver mode) aren't there for us to enjoy, or to mock. I think it's worth mentioning that Sega was always ahead of the curve in terms of Internet connectivity; the very first Sega GT on the Dreamcast supported scoreboards, as did Sega Touring Car Championship on the Saturn before it. Online competitive racing would not be available for Gran Turismo until the fifth game in the series on the Playstation 3.

You may have noticed that I don't mention the graphics of Sega GT Online at all. There's nothing wrong with the presentation or the realism of the cars, and all the usual first-person and third-person views are available. But beyond that, I don't personally care about particle effects or shadows or framerates. Unless it looks like there are loose polygons pouring out all over the track, I trust most any developer to produce the most realistic driving that they can with the graphics hardware that's available.
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