'Gran Turismo' a Driving Force

aaron.curtiss@latimes.com; ashley.dunn@latimes.com

Racers often get a bum rap as the most reptilian of all video games--simple, straightforward and low on intellectual horsepower. So it might seem sacrilegious to stereotype "Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec" for Sony PlayStation 2 as a pure racing game.

But that's exactly what it is. And firing up "GT3" forces players to confront this uncomfortable reality: Other racers suffer because they lack the mercenary clarity of "GT3" and make too many compromises in their pursuit of audience.

Let's review. Racing is about speed. Speed is about physics and engineering. Physics and engineering cost money. And money has always been the driving force of the "Gran Turismo" franchise.

Players begin "GT3" as they began the first and second installments: with a little cash and a lot of ambition. The first task is to buy a car, usually a squeaky little used compact. Only by winning early, low-stakes races can players earn cash to either upgrade their existing rides or buy new ones. The more money players earn, the more money they need to move up.

Players can choose from more than 150 cars from 37 international manufacturers--from Acura to Volkswagen. Every vehicle can be tweaked in the game's garage, which allows players to swap out tires, drive trains and suspensions and add on aftermarket gear such as turbochargers. Players also have to worry about changing the oil and keeping their cars clean to reduce drag.

Slipping into the more exotic cars requires true driving skill. Just racing on advanced tracks--with richer purses--requires getting a series of special licenses.

But, oh, what a trip. The game's 19 tracks span the globe--from Tahiti to the Swiss Alps to Tokyo--and each is rendered in picture-perfect detail. The courses range from slick stadium-style racetracks to dirt and mud roads winding through exotic countrysides.

Designers took full advantage of PlayStation 2's graphic power to create landscapes that glide flawlessly across the screen. No PS2 game to date can match "GT3" in terms of fluidity and detail.

Added realism comes from Logitech's GT Force steering wheel, a $100 peripheral that includes a force feedback wheel as well as brake and acceleration pedals. With the wheel, players can feel every rock under the wheel. More impressive, though, is the pull in the wheel as players negotiate tight turns. "Gran Turismo" has always offered dead-on racing physics, but they often got lost because players had to simulate steering with the PlayStation thumb stick. Actually feeling the wheels strain against the pavement takes the experience to a new level.

Perhaps the only major flaw in "GT3" is the lack of realistic crashes. Because the vehicles in the game are all licensed from manufacturers and based on real-life models, few car company executives were willing to have their babies get smashed up. So players can literally bounce a car off a guard rail with nary a scratch to the hyper-reflective finish.

'Diablo II Expansion: Lord of Destruction'

For all the debate about whether "Diablo" is a role-playing game, an action game or a straight-up dungeon crawler, what the game ultimately boils down to is one big treasure hunt.

It has taken the developer of "Diablo," Blizzard North, a while to figure out this fundamental truth: When you find good stuff, the game is good; when you stop finding good stuff, the game is lame.

After a lame start with "Diablo II," Blizzard has come out with an expansion pack that adds so much new sword-and-sorcery gear that even the most power-mad players will be happy for many months to come.

"Diablo II: Lord of Destruction" is a terrific expansion pack and makes "Diablo II" the game it should have been in the first place. Besides all the new equipment, it adds two new character classes--the assassin and the druid--and a new episode, which much expands the "Diablo" realm.

Other tweaks, such as beefing up hirelings so they can fight a few monsters, have helped transform that often tedious "Diablo II" into one great dungeon romp.

Let's digress here for a second to recap the story. According to Blizzard: "After possessing the body of the hero who defeated him, Diablo resumes his nefarious scheme to shackle humanity into unholy slavery by joining forces with the other Prime Evils, Mephisto and Baal."

OK. Now, back to all the neat new equipment. Blizzard has cunningly added some items called runes and jewels. Each of the items, which are randomly dropped by monsters, has special qualities that can increase damage, strength, skills and other attributes.

They are designed to be plugged into equipment to add new capabilities. Certain combinations of runes and jewels can produce swords and armor of even greater power. This feature allows an infinite number of possibilities for creating cool gear.

Blizzard has added a bunch of equipment sets that finally address the needs of higher-level characters. Some of the items, such as Tal Rasha's Wrappings, give incredible skill boosts, although they can be used only by fairly high-level characters.

Action is nonstop in the expansion pack, and the last act of the game is one of the best Blizzard has turned out. It's huge and filled with a diverse collection of monsters.

One disappointment is the final boss, Baal, who is barely worthy of our sorceress' hydra spell onslaught.

Then again, who cares? He drops great loot.

*

Aaron Curtiss is editor of Tech Times. Ashley Dunn is an assistant technology editor at The Times.

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The Skinny

"Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec"

Genre: Racing

Platform: Sony PlayStation 2

Price: $50, plus $100 for optional Logitech steering wheel peripheral

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

ESRB* rating: Everyone

The good: Tons of cars, scads of tracks

The bad: Unrealistic crashes

Bottom line: A game that finally shows what PS2 can do

"Diablo II Expansion: Lord of Destruction"

Genre: Action-adventure

Platform: Mac/PC

Price: $35

Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment

System requirements: On the Mac, full version of "Diablo II," G3 with 64 MB of RAM and 800 MB of available hard disk space. On the PC, full version of "Diablo II," Pentium 233 with 64 MB of RAM and 800 MB of available hard disk space.

ESRB rating: Mature

The good: Tons of new equipment and two new character classes

The bad: Much routine hack and slash

Bottom line: Great expansion that makes Diablo II what it should have been in the first place

*Entertainment Software Ratings Board

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