20 years ago today, Sony launched the Playstation 2. A sixth-generation console, the PS2’s new dedicated graphics chip unlocked rich (for the time) 3D visuals that made it a superb platform for a new generation of racing games - and sparked something of a renaissance in the genre.
And with that computational power, a new era of driving games arrived. The list of notable titles is long, but we’ve boiled it down to ten of the best. Happy birthday, PS2, thanks for all the memories.
Gran Turismo 4 - 2004
Sure, Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec arrived in 2001 and was the first Gran Turismo game to grace the PS2 platform, but it was the arrival of Gran Turismo 4 which really unlocked the power of the PS2. With more than 700 cars and 51 tracks there was much more variety compared to A-Spec, and alongside a superb selection of fictional street tracks from New York to Tokyo, Hong Kong and Paris, there was also the Japanese cult favourite of Tsukuba and the mighty Nurburgring Nordschliefe.
Eventually becoming the third highest-selling PS2 game (behind GT3 A-Spec and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) GT4 was the most comprehensive Gran Turismo title on that platform and one that had serious longevity: it wouldn’t be succeeded until Gran Turismo 5 arrived in 2010, with the Playstation 3. It was also the first to gain some semblance of online multiplayer (albeit only in Japan), something that would become a core part of the franchise in 2017 with Gran Turismo Sport.
Auto Modellista - 2002
Capcom is a company known best for its fighting games, and if you’ve ever played Auto Modellista you’ll know why – it sucked at making racing games.
Its terrible physics engine made winning races a frustrating exercise, while oversimplified drift dynamics meant it wasn’t even challenging for keen drivers. However, there was one good reason to persist with the racing: it earned you the credits needed to take advantage of its awesome customisation options.
It was a Japanese car freak’s wet dream, with plenty of JDM sports cars all able to be modified with brand-name aftermarket parts AND visual upgrades too. Not only that, but the virtual ‘garage’ that housed your collection could be customised too, which was just plain cool back in the early noughties. The cel-shaded graphics also imparted an anime aura to the whole thing, and made it more than just another ho-hum racing game.
We hated the actual driving, but we sure loved the rest of the Auto Modellista experience.
Enthusia Professional Racing – 2005
Being a fairly obscure Playstation exclusive, not many will remember this one. Those that do, however, will know that Enthusia came remarkably close to offering a Gran Turismo-beating driving simulator experience.
With a Japan-centric car lineup and a surprisingly accurate physics model, Enthusia was definitely one for serious driving enthusiasts. Cars behaved realistically and challenging dynamic traits like lift-off oversteer were simulated faithfully.
You’d even get a post-race breakdown of sector-by-sector performance to help you analyse your driving style, giving data nerds plenty to digest. The storyline and career progression mechanics were a bit unusual, but as a realistic racing game Enthusia was one of the best on the PS2 platform.
Test Drive Unlimited - 2007
Test Drive Unlimited’s main attraction was its expansive open-world environment modelled after satellite images of Hawaii’s O’ahu island, and allowed players to explore almost 1,600kms of open roads and highways. From dense rainforest to sandy beaches, TDU straddled the line between an open-world racing game and The Sims; with players able to buy houses to store their cars, and visit each individual dealership throughout the island to purchase new vehicles.
It was truly a game to get lost in, with just as much entertainment to be found in exploring and cruising the island under the speed limit as you would in challenging other real-life online players in free-roam. Fun fact: the PS2 version of the game was heavily aided by Melbourne-based game studio, Krome Studios (formerly known as Melbourne House), some of whose Beta testers were gifted naming rights to prominent NPCs in the PS2 game.
Need for Speed: Underground 2 - 2004
There’s a reason that NFS:U2 is frequently held as the definitive high-point for a franchise which has suffered a tremendous fall from grace over the past decade for faithful fans. A pioneer for open-world street racing games; this was the last time Electronic Art’s premiere racing game truly and faithfully tapped into the then-popular modified car culture.
This was the game we looked forward to getting home and firing up after school back in 2004. And while underbody neons, tribal graphics and scissor doors haven’t exactly aged well, this award-winning instalment of NFS hasn’t lost any of its nostalgic appeal. We’re still waiting for a remaster, EA!
Need for Speed: Most Wanted - 2005
While Need For Speed: Most Wanted lost much of its one-track focused street racing appeal, Most Wanted was a grimier narrative that blended much of the beloved car customisation established in the Underground series, and re-introduced the signature police chase mechanics of the original Need for Speed Hot Pursuit. Its campy semi-live-action cutscenes were cutting-edge at the time, and hours and hours were at-times-frustratingly spent wilfully engaging in the most daring police chases to complete in-game ‘milestones’.
For younger generations, this is the most polished example of NFS’ signature police chase system and delivered a tangible sense of thrill and excitement… until you worked out you could simply go AFK while parked on top of the buses in the depot, and watch the police AI trip over itself at ground level.
Wipeout Fusion – 2002
You don’t need wheels to have fun. The original Wipeout was a high-intensity futuristic racing game that won many fans on the first-gen Playstation, and Fusion continued that legacy into Sony’s second console.
Big, bright graphics, fast-paced racing and one of the best game soundtracks of its era, Fusion was huge fun. And, being a Playstation exclusive, it was one that could be only enjoyed on the PS2.
Juiced 2: Hot Import Nights - 2007
Did you read Speed Magazine and go to Autosalon shows around the turn of the century? Well imagine if that scene of sex-spec chrome wheels, neon lights and gratuitously scantily-clad women was put into a video game. That’s Juiced 2.
The game starts with your character and car selection… in a nightclub, because of course it does. The gameplay was horrid and the visuals laughable, but you could modify your chosen car down to the side mirrors and steering wheel. And if you were plugged into the burgeoning internet-tuner scene, Hot Import Nights was the name to know in global modified car shows, and gave us a taste of the US sport-compact scene over here in Australia.
Colin McRae Rally 3 - 2002
Colin McRae Rally was a landmark game for the genre, introducing a fair whack of realism to a field that, prior to then, was mostly associated with the arcade-favourite that was Sega Rally. Colin McRae Rally 3 continued that and exploited the PS2’s processing power to increase the fidelity of the rally-racing experience even further.
The damage model was expanded, cars built up a realistic layer of dirt and dust as you progressed through each rally stage, bits would fall off your car if you crashed it, and the handling was profoundly affected by surface changes. The McRae series eventually morphed into the Dirt franchise, and today’s Dirt 2.0 is arguably one of the best rally sims around.
Midnight Club 3: Dub Edition Remix - 2008
Midnight Club 3: Dub Edition was a game far ahead of its time, bringing licenced cars and parts to the franchise for the first time, and a comprehensive car customisation (both visual and performance) system.
Through the game’s progression, players gain access to various new open world environments; San Diego, Atlanta, Detroit and Tokyo and offered players the choice to delve into a diverse blend of vehicles ranging from full-size 60s American lowriders, pimped-out Cadillac Escalades and all the compact tuners popularised throughout the early 2000s, as well as a selection of motorbikes. AI racers could be ludicrously difficult towards the later-stages of the game, but it was truly a pioneer of the modern open-world and customisation-heavy arcade racer formula.