Pokémon evolve: keep them long enough, make them fight other Pokémon in that ever dangerous long grass and soon enough they’ll make a big song and dance about changing into an evolutionary state far beyond that of their original biological composition. Likewise, Nissan’s been messing around with the Skyline GTR for years, forcing it through caves and dragging it along beaches waiting for other cars to challenge it enough to force a similar transition to everyone’s favourite multicoloured creatures. It’s this evolution that’s ensured fans of the Japanese thoroughbred find favour in Polyphony’s Gran Turismo series as the two go hand in hand with almost every variation of the classic car represented across the PlayStation exclusive series, and Gran Turismo PSP is no exception.
Thankfully, such a verbose ramble can be qualified with another startling similarity between Nintendo’s collect-em-all and Sony’s new reboot of the GT brand because this time Polyphony have placed more emphasis on seeking out and capturing every last vehicle in the game than ever before. And there’s around 800 of them, more than you’ll find in even the latest Pokémon title, last time we checked. The key differences, then, are threefold: the stripping out of the traditional career mode (Gran Turismo PSP has no cups, no tournaments and no linear path to tread); the rather Prologue-esque method of letting the player select his car, track and difficulty; and the way the car showrooms only let you buy from a small selection of manufacturers at any given time in the game. With several hours under my belt now with the final review version of the game, I’m happy to say that although the game won’t be telling you what to do next in a career mode, the design choices actually seem to have paid off.
It’s an interesting set of decisions that must have weighed heavily over at the developer’s Japanese headquarters – Gran Turismo has always presented the player with a series of ever increasingly difficult sets of races bundled together into classes, cups and manufacturer only races and whilst there’s often been sweet spots where repeated play on a given race brought easy rewards (Speed 12 TVR, anyone?) most of time it was getting through the game’s structured mechanics that powered your desire to keep playing, with the expanding garage something of a side effect rather than a catalyst. By doing away with this, and presenting the player with just single races, time trials and drift trials across all the tracks unlocked from the off, it’s almost as if you’ve already finished Gran Turismo mode and are now left dipping in and out of the Arcade mode.
However, initial shock aside, we’re quite happy to announce that all this actually works. For starters, you’re given a healthy pile of credits (100,000, to be exact) which will, for the first time in a GT title, buy you something halfway decent – I opted to start with an ’00 Honda S2000, which handled nicely without being too much of a beast under the bonnet to ease me into the game. And yes, whilst the PSP matches up three other cars based on your choice of wheels each time ensuring every race is balanced, you do actually ‘level up’ on each track as you play. Each direction on each track starts you off at level ‘D’ and you’re meant to work your way up to the coveted ‘S’ rank where the AI is much more competitive, and with rank-ups happening every three races or so there’s clearly some length in just doing this – something the stats screen takes great delight in reminding you.
It’s an effective substitute for a more rigid Career mode because it means you’re free to pick and choose your path throughout this overarching task at will – any car, any track, any difficulty level at any time means tick boxes for a quick-fire race on the 10 minute train journey to the office but enough substance to warrant your skin going all wrinkly in the bath during a more extended stint, too. It’s unclear whether this was the intention, of course, or whether the launch date required some last minute cutting room floor sweep ups, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter – it seems odd at first, but an hour or so into the game and the Single Race mode becomes your very best friend and without doubt was the right decision for Polyphony to make. The beauty of all this is, and we’ll re-ignite the Pokémon theme again, the way the cars require ‘collecting’ now rather than just ‘purchasing’. I’ll explain.
The Dealership only offers four manufacturers at any given time, from the likes of Mazda through to esoteric Japanese tuner brands, and even if your favourite brand appears in the menu, there’s no guarantee that they’ll ‘have’ the car you want right then – you’ll need to wait until that manufacturer rolls around again and chance your luck. It’s a really clever concept because the game can not only hide its sheer volume of four wheeled beauties from an overall view but it also forces you to be selective in your buying and all the while keeping a decent amount of cash to one side just in case a rare vehicle rolls around for purchase. To bring back Nissan into the equation, the first time I saw their cars in the showroom I dived in, 150,000 credits at the ready, looking for a Bayside Blue R34 GT-R. There wasn’t one, but there was a V-Spec tuned R35 and the detailed catalogue information (that’s available for every car in the garage) convinced me that the price difference over the stock R35 resulted in a lighter but more powerful car. So I bought that instead.
You can see where this is going – compulsive collecting backed up with a solid adhoc-based trading and gifting system. For example, if the missus stumbles across that elusive ’99 model Skyline I’m hoping I can convince her that my shiny pink Renault Megane would suit her better and would be far more practical for the shopping, and thus we’d be able to trade. Yes, it’s a shame there’s no online mode for this feature, but I’m expecting the forthcoming Adhoc Party application which runs on your PS3 will go some way to providing a robust infrastructure mode for games like Gran Turismo PSP anyway. Whilst we’re on the subject, the adhoc races work perfectly with the host controlling the track selection whilst three other friends await the green light for some great multiplayer racing. Sadly, the framerate drops to 30 during multiplayer racers, the norm for PSP games but jarring when you’ve been enjoying the super smooth 60fps that the single player provides.
Visually, then, it’s a solid achievement given the host platform. The game manages to throw around the exact same courses that we enjoyed in Gran Turismo 4 on the PS2 with remarkably few cut-backs – yes, the texture detail is lower, there’s obvious seams in the tracks, the polygon count is a little less on the roadside objects and the lighting rather passive, but given the framerate and the four nicely detailed cars on screen (throughout all the modes, including the drift races) any slight feelings of last-gen can be forgiven. Polyphony have wrung more out of the PSP than anyone else has, with the possible exception of Ready at Dawn, and managed to represent that clean, sharp Gran Turismo aesthetic almost perfectly. The sound’s exactly what you’d expect, too – multi-note engines, skidding on every corner and music seemingly pulled from Vidzone’s current top twenty with the likes of The Prodigy headlining the licensing. The ‘Start’ and ‘Finished’ voiceovers are at odds with the GT ethos a little though, especially as the text after the race says ‘Finish’ anyway, not ‘Finished’.
And that’s Gran Turismo. On Sony’s portable platform, now invigorated by a renewed focus on getting AAA quality games, Polyphony have taken what everyone thought was vapourware and come up with a brilliant display of coding ability without compromising on the number of tracks or cars, something especially important to Gran Turismo fans. Yes, there’s no linear route to take through the game’s single player mode, but there’s plenty to do and we’ve not even mentioned the extensive Challenge mode, consisting of license test-esque scenarios in which obtaining Gold for each will take considerable investment. Besides, if you’ve been paying attention this game isn’t about the exposition, that’ll keep for Gran Turismo 5 (in which you’ll be able to transfer your cars from GT PSP) – rather, you’re meant to remember you’re playing a portable game with modes designed for dip in and out portable play. Gran Turismo, like the aforementioned Pikachu and friends, has evolved.
Graphics: Typically clean and over clinical, void of a little character but packed with hundreds of superb cars, and at 60fps too: 8/10
Sound: The engines lack grunt through the PSP’s speakers but a pair of decent headphones changes everything. Nice music is a plus: 7/10
Gameplay: It’s the Gran Turismo we know and love and handles perfectly with the d-pad, with enough nuances between cars to keep it interesting: 9/10
Overall: Easily the PSP’s finest tuned racer so far with loads to do if you’re happy without the career mode. Online would have bolstered the score a notch, though.