If you’re reading this, I bet you owned or have played a PlayStation 2. That’s a safe bet to make with the best-selling home console of all time. What can I say about the PS2 that most people don’t already know? It was birthed on the frozen fjords of ancient Viking Scandinavia by Legendary Feared Viking Warrior Pomplain Forst, who was suckled by a she-wolf as a babe until he was old enough to wrestle polar bears with one arm bound behind his back.
Though the exploits of Old Pomplain are legendary (the hillfolk still sing songs of him to this day), I am making this all up. I made up Pomplain Forst too – it’s an inside joke that began with a misspelling of “complain first”.
The real story of its origins are straightforward. It’s just the sequel to Sony’s PlayStation, which was the runaway success story of late 90s console gaming. When Sony announced the specs for the PS2, it made a lot of people forget completely about the wonderful (and beloved by many) Dreamcast, and sales for that system never recovered. The PS2’s main selling point – besides better specs than anything that would exist on the market at that time – was an included DVD player.
DVD technology was new in 2000, and DVD players were still expensive. So much so that they were a significant investment to make, and to think that you could get one free with the purchase of a game console was mind-blowing. Then to realize that this DVD player would be of high quality and that the game console including it would be less expensive than many DVD players… well, these things went flying off the shelves. This was especially true in Japan.
You might wonder why no one else thought to include DVD-playing functionality in their game consoles as a selling point around the same time. There were some at Sega who did, actually, if you can go by the anecdote that a Dreamcast with DVD-playing capabilities was shown off at a consumer trade show. If the recollections can be believed, some people at Sega wanted their console to play DVDs, and they wanted the game media to be DVD as well. But Sega just didn’t have the money to do it, and Sony did.
So when it became available, the PS2 quickly became the console of choice for anyone who wanted a video game system at home. Sony’s other good move was to give the PS2 full backward compatibility with the PS1’s expansive and strong library of games. This was done by including an almost complete PS1 chipset inside the PS2. When a PS1 game is inserted into an original “fat” model PS2, these chips take over and play the game. Compatibility is 99.9% perfect.
Couple all this with one of the best controllers that has ever come with a console, and it’s easy to see how the PS2 sold so well. It amassed a collection of 3870 games. Many of those are considered to be true classics in their genre or among the best games ever made.
Racing games for the PlayStation 2 are easy to find. I don’t actually have a very large collection of PS2 games. Believe it or not, I have 3 times as many PS1 games as I do PS2 games. I chalk this up again to the fact that I just prefer older games. So again, these reviews won’t be focused on games that you’d normally expect to see reviewed when you think of PlayStation 2 racers.
Grand Theft Auto III (2001)
Okay. I know what you’re thinking. This is not a racing game. Correct you are, though at the beginning of these reviews I did say that I would also review driving games, and you can sort of play this game like a driving game. (Screenshots are from GameSpot.com.)
If you’ve never heard of the Grand Theft Auto series of video games, then allow me to extend my hand in welcoming you to Earth, alien visitor from another planet. Nanu Nanu, etc. I hope my shitty little blog isn’t your introduction to life on our homeworld in general or we’re all doomed.
When GTA3 came out, it was the first “open world” game that truly caught the attention of a mass audience. You could go anywhere and do anything in this game – within the limits of the game engine, of course. And if you want, you can get in a car and drive around all day and all night.
That’s what I did for this review. I played this game so much when it came out, and I haven’t played it at all since 2005 (according to my PS2 memory card), so this was a blast from the past for me.
The gameworld is set in the fictional (think New York) Liberty City. There goes a Liberty City Police Department car flying above. You play as a dude named Claude (I had to look that up. Check out the link, it’s pretty amusing.) and you can carjack any vehicle you see, steal weapons from anyone you kill, etc. You can also be killed or busted by cops if they catch you, so there’s that.
Shown above: The Banshee – the sweetest ride I could find. If you know where to get it, you’ll be heading back for one whenever you need it.
Since I was playing this purely for the driving, I didn’t play any of the missions, which are actually the whole story and point of the game. None of these screenshots I selected show much of Claude walking around or interacting with any of the other people, and that’s a pretty big part of the game too.
Instead, I got in a car, turned on the radio, and drove. And let me talk about the radio stations first. There are nine radio stations – eight with music and one talk radio. They are all very well constructed, and often hilarious. Chatterbox – the talk radio station – is probably the funniest thing I have ever heard in a video game. I spent about four hours playing GTA3 for this review, and most of that was just driving around the streets listening to the radio. I had a blast.
I have the other Grand Theft Auto games for PS1 and Ps2, and this one has the best radio stations, I think. But enough about them. How’s the driving? Well, aside from being able to commandeer any vehicle you see (including cop cars, taxis, ambulances, big rigs and fire trucks) it’s very good. It’s not the best driving control I’ve experienced in a game, but it’s very good.
Each car handles differently, and the driving control takes advantage of the analog buttons on the PS2’s controller. The harder you press, the faster you accelerate, for example. Analog steering isn’t done so well, and it could have been improved I think. But overall, it works.
That’s driving. What about actual racing? Well, if you want incentive to race and drive fast, just start doing something to get the attention of the Police. You have a “wanted level” on-screen at all times, and once it starts filling with stars, you’re going to find yourself being sought-after by cops. They’re going to try to catch you whether you’re on foot or driving in a vehicle.
Luckily for you, there are some “power-ups” in various locations of the city that will lower your wanted level by one star. These appear as rotating orbs with a golden star inside. Driving through them will lower your wanted level. Just be careful while you’re racing over to get one that you don’t run over any pedestrians and notch your wanted level up a few more stars.
Once you’re down to one star, another one of these power-ups will get the cops off your tail. They will also forget about you after a while if you just keep evading them with only one wanted star.
There are also some jumps and tricks you can do for excitement if you’ve had enough of being chased around by the police.
There are certain points in the city with natural or artificial “jumping” points set up. Driving and launching your car off these ramps will get you graded and rewarded with cash if you do crazy enough flips or travel far enough, as shown in the screenshot above.
Just watch out when you’re doing crazy stunts or racing from the Police, because your vehicle can accrue damage. Some can get damaged more easily than others, and eventually your car will smoke and burst into flames. If that happens, you need to get out. It will explode within a matter of seconds. A car that’s flipped upside down will also explode pretty quick.
Luckily for you, a new car is always close at hand – even if it is kind of crappy.
The graphics are good, though not as polished as what we would see in later titles for the PS2. Even later games in this series like GTA Vice City and GTA San Andreas make this game look rough by comparison. The frame rate here gets choppy if there’s a lot of action happening on-screen.
But this is a deep and complex game with a lot going on, and it blew many a mind when it was released. Even restricting the gameplay to driving like I did, there’s so much you can do, and it’s tons more enjoyable than a lot of racing games I’ve played.
And if you like, you can pick up hookers too. There’s one in the screenshot above. They can push your health meter above 100, so they’re actually pretty handy to have around. You can also drive around with them if you want, though you end up spending about $1 per second just to have them sit there next to you. So they’re kind of like having a girlfriend, I guess.
Though it’s not strictly a driving game, Grand Theft Auto III is fun enough to play that way, and you should add it to your collection if you don’t already have it. You should also get GTA Vice City and GTA San Andreas, because they’re all great. Judging by the sales these games had on all the many platforms on which they were released, you’ve probably already played them.
The Simpsons: Hit & Run (2003)
Also known affectionately as “Grand Theft Simpsons”. This is a wonderfully fun game that parodies the GTA games and makes for a great experience on its own. (Screenshots are from GameSpot.com.)
The gameplay is a lot like what you’d find in the Grand Theft Auto Series, except that there is no violence or blood. This is Springfield, after all. You can drive or walk almost anywhere, and you can even attack other people.
Instead of carjacking, you can commandeer other vehicles and ride as a passenger while they take you places. Running over pedestrians is amusing as they fly and bounce all over the place and say some funny things too.
You also have a “rage meter” on the screen. Cause too much damage to the people and places around town and the cops will come after you. In this “Hit & Run” mode, you can try to outrun the cops, and you might just lose them. If you don’t you pay a 50 coin fine.
Without getting into too much of the non-driving aspects of the game (read about the game on Wikipedia, it has a decent story too), you need coins to do things like pay those fines and upgrade your vehicle.
You start out as Homer with the pink family sedan, and you can eventually access more vehicles – besides the ones that you see anywhere that you can ride in.
These other vehicles have different ratings in the attributes of speed, acceleration, toughness and handling. The game is mission-based, so you will need to choose the appropriate vehicle for each mission.
Barney will let you borrow the Plow King for 150 coins, for example. It has a lot more toughness than your pink sedan, and it comes with a full load of road salt. I’m not sure why it’s salting the roads in the Summertime, but it looks pretty funny.
After you’ve earned a particular vehicle, it will be available at any time for you. There are phonebooths around Springfield, and all you have to do is call and request a vehicle. It will magically appear right there for you.
There are also power-ups scattered throughout the city. Some of these are glowing golden wrenches, and driving through them will repair whatever damage your vehicle has accumulated. These are handy because if your vehicle gets too damaged, it will start to smoke, and eventually burst into flames and explode. You won’t die when this happens, but you will lose coins.
There are also street races and driving tests to be played, and winning these will help unlock vehicles too. When you start the game, you play as Homer, but you also end up playing as Bart, Marge, Lisa and Apu.
The driving control is pretty good, though the camera is out to lunch a lot of times. This is most noticeable when you’re out of your car and during the non-driving missions. You can control the camera by using the right analog stick, but the control seems to be mapped backward – especially if you’ve just played a GTA game.
Another similarity with GTA is the controller layout. While driving, it’s almost a direct match, though the reverse control is mapped to the ○ button instead of the □ button. It takes some getting used to.
Other than that, the graphics are crisp and colourful. The sound and music are great, and The Simpsons voice cast appears in this game to add to its “authentic” effect. The series writers were responsible for the storyline and much of the scripted content too, which explains the consistently high quality of the game.
It’s a fun and funny game to play, especially if you like the humour of The Simpsons. When I reviewed “Looney Tunes: Space Race” for the Dreamcast, I mentioned how that game was like playing a Looney Tunes cartoon as a video game. “The Simpsons: Hit & Run” plays the same way.
Typical for mission-based open-world games, the missions start out easy and simple and get progressively harder and more complicated. But this is a hilarious ride, despite some frustrating camera and control issues. It was a stroke of genius to parody the GTA franchise by moving it into the Simpsons world, and fans of either franchise should definitely check this one out.
Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec (2001)
This is one of the games I bought with my PS2. So you’d think that I’ve played the hell out of it and that the disc is damn near worn out from overuse, wouldn’t you? No, actually, though I did play the hell out of GTA3 – so much so that I can give directions to anywhere in Liberty City without needing to load the game. And I’m not some knuckle-dragging troglodyte. I know how to handle DVDs, so my games are in pristine condition, thank you very much. (Screenshots are from GameSpot.com.)
I just wasn’t all that much into racing games when I bought this. I only got it because I heard it was hands down one of the best games you could get for the PS2. It still holds that distinction. Oh and there was also a huge Gran Turismo 3 ad at my bus stop that I’d see every morning on my way to work. It must have been there for months.
I can be honest that along with most people, my jaw dropped when I saw how real everything looked in this game. This is the racing game people point to as the turning point where ultra-realism became the thing. And it gives me the chance to go into another little digression about graphical power and console hardware.
The PS2 flourished and dominated in the sixth generation of home video game consoles. If you ask me, that was the last generation to really provide any “wow” factor in graphical improvements. Since then, systems like the PS3 and PS4 are definite advances in graphical technology, but they don’t look as different from the last (or even next-to-last) generation as the PS2 looked from the PS1.
Almost every generation before had that massive leap in graphics that made it easy to look at a gameplay video or even just a still image to tell what generation the game was from. These days, it’s harder and harder to tell unless you’re looking for it. This is just considering graphics, mind you.
Back to specific hardware of the sixth generation, yes Gran Turismo 3 in particular is a spectacular showcase of what the PlayStation 2 can do in the right hands. It still looks beautiful today. But take a look at what I had to say about Tokyo Xtreme Racer 2 for the Dreamcast. On a 27″ CRT TV, Gran Turismo 3 does look better, but not by that much. You have to look for the differences.
But compared with the sales of the PS2 and Gran Turismo 3, nobody noticed Tokyo Xtreme Racer 2 on the Dreamcast. So GT3 gets all the glory for being the first ultra-realistic racer that everyone remembers. It’s the second best selling PS2 game ever with 14.89 million copies sold.
And it’s a fantastic, nearly perfect game that deserves the reputation it’s earned. Every racing fan needs to have this in their collection. I know, I usually save that pronouncement until the end of a review, but come on. This is GT3.
The game is structured into Arcade and Simulation modes. There is also a replay theater for your saved replays. I’ve seen the replay cinematics of this game praised, but anyone who thinks that these replays are great should see how they’re done in Suzuki Alstare Extreme Racing.
The full range of options and settings available here should make anyone happy. I was thankful that the controller configuration could be fully customized so that I could use the right analog stick to accelerate and brake. Though I did find a bug in this feature. I mapped the emergency brake to R1 and found this setting dumped periodically. Quite annoying to find the e-brake not working when I needed it, but it’s the only bug I found.
There are also some difficulty settings, specifically the Automatic or Manual transmission setting, and two other settings. Driver Assist features ASM (steering management) and TCS (traction control). The cars handle more smoothly and thus the game is easier with these settings turned on.
Also in the settings are the ability to turn the ghost car feature on or off. I hate this feature, so it’s good to be able to kill it. However, after every single time you drive, you are given an option to “update ghost data” and if you select yes, you get a ghost car if you drive again in the same session. Little things like that and the always automatic replay that you need to exit out of are kind of annoying to me.
Sound effects and music can also be customized. You can turn background music off during races and menus, and you can even specify which of the game’s 33 tracks you’d like to hear during gameplay. This is a very nice feature to have, because even though there are some gems in there like Jimi Hendrix and Judas Priest, there are also some shit bands like Mötley Crüe and Papa Roach. And it can be kind of incongruently jarring when you’re racing along having a great time, and you hear some privileged 20-something white dude singing over shitty metal about how hard life is. And I can’t not mention that Snoop Dogg recorded a track specifically for this game. Word, etc.
The Arcade mode is the pick-up-and-play side of things. You can do Free Run, where you select one of six tracks and just drive any car you choose for as long as you want. You have dozens of cars to choose from in C, B, A, S and Rally classes. You can even choose colour in most cases. Each car handles and sounds like they would in real life, which makes this game (and the GT series) all the more sweeter for car fanatics. This is where I had the most fun.
Time Trial mode lets you choose from ten different tracks, and each of these has its featured car that you must use. The rules are very strict during this mode, and if you go too far out of bounds, you will fail and the race is over, so you can’t drive like a maniac and bounce off the walls. You race against three already posted times, and must beat them to win.
Single Race mode lets you choose from among six tracks again. These are 2-lap races with six drivers, and you get a chance to win a cup depending on how you finish.
The Simulation side is where most of the game really resides. This is something of a career mode, where the object is to start small and eventually win all the races you can.
The main map will show you your home screen, car dealer, tune shop, license center, machine test and “go race”.
You start with $18,000 and no car. You must first visit the dealer and buy your vehicle, and you will soon see that most of the cars on offer are out of your price range. So you have to buy something cheap and start winning races. Standard career mode stuff.
After you get the car, you can visit the tune shop if you have any money left over. This is an area where you can buy “upgrades” to your car that make it go a little faster or handle a little better. You will notice here too that most of the options are too expensive when you start the game.
So time to start entering and winning races, right? Well, yes and no. There are five types of races: Beginner League, Amateur League, Professional League, Rally, and Endurance. For all but some Beginner League races, you need to get your licenses.
This is a part of the game that I really dislike. The license tests are all very specific driving tests, and they all feel like work to me, not play. I found them all to be nothing but tedious, but since the game requires them to get anywhere in Simulation Mode, they can’t be avoided.
This brings me to another point I want to make. It was around this time that a little too much emphasis got put on realism and obsession over detail in racing games. Whether or not a racing game was fun kind of became secondary for a lot of titles. This same problem affects a lot of modern video games from what I can see, which is what makes me stay with my old consoles and my old games.
But never mind that for now. You’ve done some grinding and you’ve got your licenses, so now you can start entering races.
You’ll want to be winning, of course, and spending the money you earn on upgrades right away.
If you can upgrade to a faster car, then do it. You will get money for trading in the car you already have.
And if the thought of spending $50 for a car wash and $250 for an oil change is appealing for you, then you can visit the “GT Auto” shop. You can also buy fancy wheels here, just because, you know, it totally makes a difference what they look like.
But once you really get going with this game, you can immerse yourself in its universe for hours and hours.
This game takes a very long time to complete, and the reward for doing so is the ability to unlock and drive some special cars.
Again, this is just a car fanatics dream. Gran Turismo 4 came out for the PlayStation 2 in 2004, but I don’t have it, so I can’t say much about it.
Playing this game for my review was actually the most I’ve ever played it. And though I really enjoyed it, and though I intend to play it a whole lot more, I was reminded why I felt kind of turned-off and ultimately unimpressed by the overall package when I bought it.
That has to do with my own particular taste in video games. Like I’ve stated before, I like older video games. When I first played this, it didn’t really look like a game. It looked like TV. It looked too real. I need a little bit of “unrealness” in a game so that my imagination can start working, and that’s what really gets me engaged in a game.
So as great as this game is, and as marvelous and as awe-inspiring as it stood as a technical achievement in 2001, it doesn’t rank in the list of my favourite racing games. I’ve also talked about the “racing feel” that some games have. For me, this one doesn’t have it.
But it is Gran Fucking Turismo 3, so you need to get it. You probably already have it, actually. Get it on ebay, because there are so many copies out there you can probably find one for under a dollar.