GTR FIA Racing Review (PC)

The concept for GTR FIA Racing is about as perfect as it gets.  Take a great simulation physics engine (EA’s F1 2002 by Image Space), a group of hardcore PC mod enthusiasts (SimBin, which crafted the GTR mod for F1 2002), and then license the engine, hire the modders, and let them go nuts.  If you want something done right…
GTR FIA Racing boasts “Get Real!” right on the box and jewel case, and with a group of guys dedicated to realism behind the title, it’s no surprise to find out that the physics and driving model in the game are superb.  It’s got some very nice features (some of which every future racing game should take note of), but there's the occasional rough patch as well.
To be honest, my PC is ancient by today’s standards (Athlon 2100, a gig of PC2100 DDR RAM, and a Radeon 9800 Pro), but it still runs most titles adequately at 1280x1024 resolution, with enough detail to be pleasant to look at.  Unfortunately, GTR seems to tax my system more than most games, and even then it doesn’t look like the prettiest girl at the dance.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an ugly game to look at.  However, some newer games definitely have more eye candy for the same framerate hits I take with GTR.  Granted, a lot of that fact is due to the original engine licensed from Image Space (last updated in 2002, to my knowledge), and the fact that you can only cram so many new textures and models onto an aging engine before performance begins to take a hit.  However, unless I dropped the number of entrants to silly levels and lowered a lot of details, going through pit areas proved to be a slide show.  If you have a beast of a PC, this entire paragraph probably means nothing to you.  However, if you’re on an aging rig wondering if you can run GTR effectively, consider this a warning.  If you run most games at 800x600 and don’t mind the jaggy details, then you probably won’t care.  Personally I don’t even like the look of 1024x768 resolution, so 1280x1024 is about all I can handle.  I guess it’s time for an upgrade, but that’s another matter entirely. 
If you can turn all the detail up, however, GTR doesn’t disappoint.  Car models are nicely done, and the on-track details are believable, if unspectacular.  It’s the actual cockpits themselves that command the most attention.  Each car has its unique cockpit, and some of them are downright beautiful.  There’s also a set of configurable keys to slide the “driver’s seat” forward or back, and also to change the elevation up or down.  The latter part of that is subtly beautiful.  By simply raising your perspective a few inches within the cockpit, you can get a much better vantage point of the upcoming track surface, which can dramatically improve your lap times.  Such a tiny detail makes such a huge difference.  When looking at the game through the swingman camera on medium detail settings, however, the game looks no better than a PS2 game, which isn’t a compliment.  The cars and tracks themselves look detailed enough, but the overall grainy feel of the graphics tend to drop it a notch or two below some of the titles that have released in the past year or two.
The audio department is decidedly different than the visuals, however.  Each and every car sounds unique, and while that isn’t a new concept in itself, it’s the believability of each car that sets GTR apart.  Other games have tried to sample each car included, but rarely does the captured sound come across so immersive.  From the rumble at idle to "taching out" at Monza, each car sounds different, and the more powerful vehicles sound more powerful.  Over-driving into a corner (frequent in the early stages of learning the game, by the way) elicits the expected tire squeal, but it sounds a bit meatier in GTR.  You don’t think of a Mini Cooper on 8-inch street tires when you hear the brakes lock up…it sounds like a Viper on racing slicks, exactly as it should.  Everything about the audio presentation is superb, except for the techno menu music.  There’s no single type of music that will do it for everybody, but I’m just not a fan of techno beats blasting from my speakers when I’m gearing up for some hardcore racing action.  Maybe I’m just getting old.
Thankfully, for each quibble I have with the graphics engine, I have equal praise for the driving model and AI.  It’s been quite some time since I’ve installed a racing sim on my PC and had it bring an instant smile to my face after a single lap.  GTR did just that, however.  From the opening lap at Barcelona (even in one of the lowest class of cars, a GT3 911), I could tell that I was going to love this game from a single player perspective.  Diving right into the “simulation” difficulty proved harder than I thought it would, but it was not completely impossible to keep the car on the track.  After a few laps I was taking better entries into each corner, and found myself trailing another 911.  At this point in the first practice stage, I noticed I was racing quite a bit harder than I normally do during the “learning stage” of a new game.  Attempting to give the car in front of me a light tap on the bumper to let him know I was there, pulling alongside and attempting to out-accelerate him heading onto the long front straight…I was pulling out every trick in the book and simply could not get by him.  Eventually I pushed it too far, hit the kitty litter and hit escape to head back to the garage.  By that point I had turned seven laps without even realizing it.  The last time I could spend fifteen minutes in a practice session for no real reason was the wonderful Grand Prix Legends.  When you fire up GTR, whether you hop into the arcade, semi-pro, or full-blown simulation mode, the AI will fight you tooth and nail for every inch of space on the track, but never cross the line to become mindless drones.  The AI drivers might brake earlier than you when coming to a tight corner if outside, then you’ll find them cutting to the inside and beating you off the corner on exit.  They’re that good from time to time.
When you go to break down GTR into modes, you’ll find the selection somewhat limited compared to most games on the market today, however.  You won’t find license tests and any kind of RPG aspect like in the TOCA games.  What you will find is a supreme driving model in straightforward racing…round by round in the GTR FIA Championship.  Choosing your number of opponents, the length of the race, opponent strength and aggression, as well as things like weather and class of cars you’ll race against.  In the real life GTR series, you will be on the track with cars that can be much more powerful than yours…so while you might end up 13th overall, you can still be 1st in your class.  It makes for interesting racing to drive a 450hp 911 GT3 on the same track as a 600hp Saleen S7.  No matter what you do, you just have to get out of the way and try not to get run over.  You never feel as if the AI doesn’t recognize your place on the track, however.  You won’t get run off the road or slammed for no apparent reason, even when dicing back and forth with multiple cars.
I will say that getting to the point where you can maneuver the car successfully at speed will take some time for almost all drivers.  There’s no “racing line” option like a lot of arcade racers (and some realistic ones as well), so you’re left finding the line on your own.  There are many levels of driving aids to ease you into the game, however, ranging from stability control to multiple levels of anti-lock brakes and traction control.  With all of the assists on, it’s very tough to lose control of the car, but also very tough to get around the track with any semblance of a decent lap time (as it should be).  The most helpful aid in my experience was definitely the “suggested gear” indicator, though.  If you’re using a manual transmission, you get the suggested gear for the upcoming corner, and it’s given with enough time left to brake and downshift, ensuring that you rarely overshoot corners and leave the racing surface.  Once you learn the tracks you don’t need it any more, but it’s definitely helpful for racing some circuits that you’ve never seen before.
By the time you graduate to the Simulation mode and turn off all the aids, you’re in for racing nirvana.  Pitching the car into the corner, edging through a long sweeper in a slight four-wheel drift, and applying just a bit too much throttle and looping the vehicle, backing it into a retaining wall at 100mph are all exhilarating feelings that GTR recreates with great frequency.  Trying to nail that perfect line lap after lap with the AI turned up to 100%, fighting you at every turn, proves to be more difficult than you would imagine.  You’ll want to spend some time in the detailed garage area, but if you’re not a garage head, GTR has the single greatest feature I’ve ever seen in an online-capable racing game: user-uploadable setups built into the game’s garage interface.  With a couple clicks of the mouse, you can browse the setups by track directory, and each setup is capable of being rated by the drivers who downloaded it as well.  To keep pace with the AI on the highest difficulty settings, the default setups will definitely need to be replaced, either by a setup of your own making or a downloaded setup from the online garage.  All future racing games should take notes on this feature - it makes getting a more stable (or less stable but hilariously fast) car much easier than spending hours in a practice session if you don’t have the time.  In the end, when you start winning your first races against the AI cars in Simulation mode, you’ll feel more fulfilled and accomplished than in almost any other racer on the PC.  When it comes down to racing the AI and the driving model itself, GTR is in a class by itself…literally.
All of this on-track gameplay is gravy…right up until you try to get online and race other players.  It’s certainly not a bad experience, but it’s not as functional as Papyrus’ games, even with fewer cars online.  I was running on some servers with 40-50 ping and still seeing some drivers skip around.  When you’re running nose to tail at 150mph heading into a chicane, you can’t have the car in front of you warp-hopping around like a jackrabbit.  You need a rock-solid connection for online racing, and the multiplayer code doesn’t seem to be as fine-tuned as some of the other online racing games out on the shelves right now.  I don’t know how far leagues and the community will take GTR...the number of races that I found lag-free were far outnumbered by the ones in which I had to dodge jumping cars and skipping frames.  Given time, perhaps the code can be optimized for a greater number of drivers with reliable results, and it’s possible that I could have had rotten luck.  It’s not something that plagues my connection too often, however, so I have to believe that it’s a combination of using the same engine that EA had employed in its previous F1 and Superbike titles, which were notorious for having problems when you had more than a handful of drivers logged into a server.  If your primary focus is online competition, I’m sure you can still have some fun with GTR.  It’s not a bad game online by any means.  When you can hook up with another driver of comparable skill, even hot lapping becomes a blast.  Watching the car in front try to block down, or over-drive and leave the track, or any number of things that can happen in the midst of a battle, is sheer joy (or pain if you’re the one over-driving).  Add to that host options to force cockpit view, allow or disallow all driving aids, and you have a recipe for some good, realistic racing.  Finding a lobby with 20 to 25 drivers all taking the green flag at once, with more than 10 or 15 making it through the start is something else entirely though.
I had a lot of fun with GTR. I will continue to play it for some time, as the driving model in the game is rivaled only by the venerable Grand Prix Legends, a 7 year old game that still sets the bar for driving realism today.  Offline is a sheer joy, and the AI drivers provide some of the most realistic door-to-door action found in a PC racer today.  Online play has some snags, as well as the performance hit for a graphics engine that shouldn’t be that demanding (or at least you wouldn’t think so by looking at it).  Everything is wrapped up nicely with the wonderful audio presentation and the online garage is something that every future racing game on any platform should attempt to copy.  If you’re a hardcore race fan, you owe it to yourself to check out GTR.  If you’re a casual fan that just wants to drop the hammer and go fast, you might still find some fun with the game in Arcade or Semi-Pro mode.  GTR could very well be the game that converts you to a "sim" junkie, if you spend enough time with it.  It’s that good on the track.  If it weren’t for the pesky multiplayer code and abnormally taxing graphics engine, it would be a 5/5 game.  However, something has to be left for SimBin to improve upon for the next release, right?  Here’s hoping.

GTR FIA Racing Score
out of 10