Grand Prix Legends - A Retrospective Review
Grand Prix Legends is a 1998 PC-format racing simulator, developed by Papyrus Design Group, pioneers of the racing simulator genre, and produced by Sierra Entertainment. Building on Papyrus' previous experience, it sought to bring a true-to-life simulation of the 1967 Formula One season to the computer screen.
The player takes the role of a new racing driver, racing for one of the teams present in the 1967 season. Racing against such legends as Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, Denny Hulme, John Surtees and Graham Hill, the player must contend not only with the legendary drivers, but also with the volatile nature of the racing cars of the 1960s.
To be honest, there isn't much in the game itself which lends itself to a modern audience. The dated graphics show the game's age all too well, the game has limited and buggy support for DirectX and OpenGL, a third-party patch must be applied to the game to allow users with computers with modern processors to play the game and the game is notoriously hard on processors, making the minimum specifications a joke. Yet, despite these obvious flaws, the game has a thriving community which remains to this day.
To understand why, we must answer a simple question: Why would anybody choose to simulate the 1967 Formula One season? The answer: The 1967 Formula One season was one of the most challenging and dangerous in the history of motor racing, and Grand Prix Legends manages to simulate it in a highly and often brutally realistic fashion.
Imagine, if you will, a car with 350 to 430 horsepower in a chassis weighing just over half a ton, with no downforce, rock-hard bias-ply tyres, no seatbelts and 160-plus litre fuel tanks, containing high-octane, highly volatile fuel, made in such a way as to surround the driver. Sounds like some sort of fictional death race, doesn't it? But instead of this being fiction, this was an all-too-present reality for the Formula One drivers of the 1960s.
Some people may be asking at this point, "430 horsepower? That's nothing - my Gran Turismo 4 Nissan Skyline can produce over 1,000 horsepower!" But there are a few fundamental differences between that Skyline and the Formula One cars of the 1960s. The Skyline comes with thirty extra years of chassis and suspension experience, and most importantly, is completely full of computer processors. The nearest thing to a processor in a 1960s racing car was the brain of the driver, a man with balls almost the size of the car they were driving, and invariably, the sorts of reflexes which would make the very best of professional computer gamers cry with inadequacy, a man which knew the chances of his demise at the racing track, but still chose to give the Reaper the finger before roaring off in their violently powerful racing car.
Vicious, snarling monsters, controlled by some of the bravest men in existence.
Because of its realistic approach, the game is easily one of the most uncompromising and unforgiving experiences in the gaming world, serving up the sort of experience which would make veteran players of Battletoads and Ninja Gaiden feel distinctly incompetent. Even the developers pinpoint this in the manual, cautioning, "The first time you go out on the track, you will spin and crash. This is because, the first time they play Grand Prix Legends, everybody spins and crashes."
I went into the game with a great deal of overconfidence, with at least some driving simulator experience to my credit. I left my first practice session having opened my eyes to the heroism of the racing drivers of 1967, as these cars speared out of control with the most minor provocation, serving up massive amounts of oversteer, and, just as the developers had predicted, it did not end well. This was no unfair level of difficulty either, unlike the aforementioned Battletoads or Ninja Gaiden; this was the result of absolute simulation.
And as an absolute simulation, it is imperative that you pick the right peripherals for the job. While the cars can be controlled with a keyboard or joypad along with the more customary steering wheel, the keyboard is an extremely inadequate solution, due to its lack of analogue controls, and even a joypad leaves something to be desired. A good-quality steering wheel is almost imperative to control the cars properly, and with the addition of force-feedback support, the game can finally be played in an appropriate fashion with modern steering peripherals.
But outrageous difficulty alone would have only given this game notoriety, rather than any lasting success, so there has to be something in the game that appeals to people who aren't just masochists. This "something" is the detailed approach to everything in the game, of a level that wouldn't become commonplace in racing simulators for at least another five years, with the onset of SimBin Studios and their GTR series, and Image Space Incorporated's rFactor.
Unlike many racing games, there is absolutely no head-up display inside the car. All of the instrumentation that the car possesses is in the cockpit, which the developers have laid out true-to-life in every car, right down to the offset tachometers in the middle of the dashboard. There are no chase cameras - everything you do is in an actual driving position, complete with all of the equipment in front of you.
A view of the infamous BRM P115 from inside the car - note the large central tachometer and the fuel gauge to the right.
There are a number of other very impressive features that can be noticed from the moment you enter the car. The engine torque is transmitted onto the chassis, something that becomes quite evident if you blip the throttle in neutral, causing the car to contort and flex as the engine serves up its torque. But be careful you don't rev the engine too hard - engines explode if they aren't treated right.
Once you get onto the track, the cars slide all over the tracks as the rock-hard tyres find difficulty in gripping, just as would be expected. For a game from 1998, the driving physics are very impressive, even if they are a bit primitive by modern standards.
The game has a rudimentary damage model for those undoubted times when you will slide out of control. While, like the driving physics, it is a bit primitive by modern standards, lacking cosmetic car damage, and also appearing to give the car far too much damage resistance compared to modern games, certain parts of the damage model are only rivalled by the most modern titles, including the engine damage model, where over-revving the engine will lead a large engine detonation, leaving the car useless.
After the large amount of practice that is recommended, players will finally be ready for their first race, competing against virtual versions of some of the most legendary drivers in history at a variety of different tracks, including Watkins Glen, once home of the United States Grand Prix, Spa-Francorchamps and even the legendary Nurburgring.
Unpredictable cars at a fearsome track. Question: Who thought that a Grand Prix race at the Nurburgring was a sensible idea?
The AI, as with many features of this game, is primitive compared to certain modern titles, in particular the SimBin simulators, but it still manages to impress as it makes attempts at blocking the player and even creating a dynamic strategy. Considering the trouble that most people will be having with keeping the cars under control, having too strong an AI would probably be more of a curse than a blessing, and the drivers are still adequate even today.
Overall, Grand Prix Legends was far ahead of its time, and even though some later racing simulators have increased accuracy, realism and superior AI, none of them have returned to that unique perspective brought by Grand Prix Legends, which simulated a season where the driver was more important than the car, and death stared every competitor in the face.
Bottom Line: A unique experiment in the simulator world, and fantastically well-presented, especially for its time, but dated graphics, the requirement of third-party patches and the frankly terrifying difficulty leave this as a game for the most committed racing simulator fans alone.
Recommendation: Most racing simulator fans should already have this in their collection. As for everybody else, consider the amount of time you are willing to sink into the game - it could be a long time before you can compete with the AI.