Let's get right to it—Sega GT probably wouldn't even exist if Gran Turismo hadn't been made. It's safe to assume this because Sega GT is a straight-up carbon copy of the PlayStation best seller. Normally that would set alarms off in the game-reviewing part of my brain since originality is among the most important criteria by which I judge a game. Too many games nowadays either casually imitate popular titles or just blatantly rip them off. Sega GT falls somewhere in-between those two categories, but Sega is able to get away with it this time because this particular racing simulation was released on a platform on which a Gran Turismo game will never see the light of day. Sega knew that in order to get a Gran Turismo-like title on their console, they were going to have to get someone to build it from the ground up.
In that case, developer Tose Software did a superb job of recreating the Gran Turismo effect on Dreamcast. Sega GT plays the same, looks the same and sounds the same as its PlayStation counterpart. Of course, Sega GT is able to take advantage of Dreamcast's superior processing power, so the cars and environments look more realistic and less grainy than they would on PlayStation. Aside from that however, it's hard to believe this game wasn't developed by Polyphony Digital.
I still can't decide whether that's a good or a bad thing. As nice as the graphics and sound are, they're not quite as spectacular as they could have been if they would've taken a more non-Gran Turismo approach. Though the cars look realistic, they use the same false metallic glare as the Gran Turismo games. This effect worked for the PlayStation platform because it gave the low-res racing machines a better illusion of depth and substance. But on Dreamcast, the cars already look pretty great. For the game to rely on the visual tricks of a 32-bit game only brings the sensual impact down a notch. The cars don't reflect the tunnels they run through, the clouds above or the scenery that whizzes by. Instead the same solitary beam of light is stuck on the surface of every single car in the game (and it's even there at night time).
There are other parts of Sega GT that do more to make you feel as if you've played this game before rather than make you feel as if you're playing something new (which Sega GT is). Now I want to be clear here: The fact that the entire game is essentially a remake of Gran Turismo wouldn't bother me so much if some of the minor details were either changed or improved upon. Instead, everything seemingly comes straight out of Polyphony's Gran Turismo design documentation. For instance, why not allow the cars in the game to take damage during races? Isn't that one obvious area the Gran Turismo games failed to explore? Sure, logical arguments can be made as to why developers of racing sims have yet to make their cars react to crashes the way they should, but these games are "driving simulators" aren't they? The whole point of a racing sim is to provide unparalleled realism. Who cares if damaged cars open up a new can of worms gameplay wise? Isn't that exactly what gamers want? A quick message to developers across the world: Go there—at least give it try. Anything to distinguish yourself from the pack would be greatly appreciated, I assure you.
Even when Sega GT isn't doing the same thing as Gran Turismo, it's doing the same thing as Gran Turismo. Let's use the music as an example. Gran Turismo famously made extensive use of licensed pop songs as part of its soundtrack. Tunes from the likes of Garbage and Sound Temple Pilots were repeated endlessly as you raced your cars along the tracks. Thankfully, Sega GT uses nothing but original music all throughout the game, but the score still ends up falling flat on its face. Most of it is rather passive and ordinary—never coming out from the background to kick the game into high gear. And I could swear that the instrumental tunes in Sega GT sound strikingly similar to the pop radio songs in Gran Turismo.
At the risk of wearing out this review by filling it with comparisons to Gran Turismo, I must devote some space to the essence of the game, but even that won't get me anywhere. Sega GT is all about acquiring cars in your garage, racing them, winning prize money and using that money to upgrade your cars or buy new ones so you can win more money. That's all there is to it. The appeal of a racing simulation however is to make the whole experience of racing a car as authentic as it can possibly be, and Sega GT is no different. The game is filled with over 130 real cars, and each of them drives according to their actual specifications.There aren't as many models or manufacturers represented as in Gran Turismo 2, but I liked the in-depth explanations the game provides as to the relationships between the after-market parts makers and the auto makers. With enough sponsors to give new meaning to the term, "sell out," Sega GT takes the time to explain how Nismo and Nissan work together in racing development. Sega GT also allows you to design original cars through the Carrozzeria feature. I was surprised at how much the game limits you when you're building a car from scratch, but there are entire racing circuits that revolve around this mode, so putting forth the effort to develop a strong original car is actually worthwhile.
While the original car mode is a new addition to the genre, everything else gameplay-wise strictly follows the Gran Turismo formula. You can choose to play the game in a single- or two-player arcade fashion—where you can select from a limited number of cars, but before you can do any racing in the Championship mode, you have to earn a driver's license. In Sega GT there are four classes, each ranked according to engine size. Starting at the bottom, you have to work your way up—each class more difficult than the last—but thankfully the driving tests aren't nearly as tedious or as unforgiving as the tests in the Gran Turismo games. Getting a license in Sega GT simply involves achieving a good lap time instead of completing a series of skills tests. This is not to say that the game is cakewalk. It will take much practice before record-breaking times will be in your reach, and during races opposing cars like to resort to nasty and sometimes unfair tactics—almost as if they're trying to keep you from winning. Perfection is the only thing that will put you in the winner's circle. It can be frustrating, but I thought the high level of skill that Sega GT demands from the player was the best reason to keep playing. You've played this game before, but once you get wrapped up in it, you want to get better and better until you can hang with the best.
Whether you're a car fanatic or not, Sega GT does manage to surprise on a few occasions, but not quite enough in my opinion. If you're VMU's batteries aren't dead, you can play a mini-game called Pocket GT, which allows you to earn money and new cars in a variety of ways. There's also an Internet feature that lets you enter the Network Cup, upload scores and lap times, as well as download Ghost Car data. Overall though, the Internet feature is hardly worth the effort of plugging your Dreamcast's phone line into the wall unless you're just dying to find a way to put yourself to sleep. Head-to-head online races, which would have been a real treat, are nowhere to found in Sega GT.
I like how the game throws you bones early on—like the new cars beginners will find in their garage after winning a few of the easy races. At this point, the game is telling you, "If this is what you get for winning an easy race, just think of what the prize will be for winning a difficult race." This idea works pretty well for a while. All the hard work that goes into placing first in a series seems worth it when you're rewarded with beaucoups of money and a nice bonus car. If you can manage to break the record for a particular track during a driving test, you win an exclusive new car from whichever manufacturer sponsored the test. What I don't like about this system however is the fact that you can keep reentering the same races even after you've won them. In other words, the game never really finds a way to move you along. If you need money, keep entering a race you've mastered and every time you'll get the money plus the bonus car—which you can sell for more cash. I would've like the game to stop me at some point to steer me toward some sort of finale or ultimate goal rather than allowing me to simply play the same parts over and over and still get rewarded for doing so.
Sega GT can be a fun game, but the fun never reached critical mass for me. The Gran Turismo games never aimed to please the general gaming populace, and since Sega GT is stubbornly cut from that same mold, it can only offer the same incentives to keep you playing—new cars, new races and some hidden extras here and there. But apart from sports car fanatics, is that really enough? I like Japanese sports cars, and this game has those to spare, but let's face it—racing sim or not, driving a Honda Prelude in Sega GT isn't even close to the experience of owning the real thing. If the game can't manage to replicate at some level the feeling of racing a modest sports car like a Prelude, what's the point of working toward a dream car like an Acura NSX or Integra Type R?
Sega GT would've benefited from a more tightly woven game concept, not to mention just a hint of taking the genre into a new direction. I would've liked to have seen the game delve deeper into the feelings that surround sports car mania and Gran Touring racing. I wanted Sega GT to at least try to capture some of the more subtle elements of its subject matter. I wanted more than Gran Turismo for Dreamcast, but for some that might be enough. Imitating a proven best seller was a safe bet for Sega, and Dreamcast's stock of racing games is deep enough now that they can afford to target a more focused audience. There are probably legions of Dreamcast owners who are just dying to taste the Gran Turismo flavor on their console. Sega GT was made for them.