The second this post goes live, stores around the world will be opening up and finally, after 5 years, you’ll be able to get your hands on Gran Turismo 5. There’s a certain poignant resonance about that sentence – a game that’s continuously teased a rabid fan-base with a slow, methodical drip feed of screenshots and info, a game that has already poked two stunted, stripped down versions out in the form of free-to-download GTHD and demo-esque Prologue, is finally here. A monumental achievement, a tale of automobile nirvana, the ultimate car racing game.
Gran Turismo 5: finished, complete, perfect. Right?
We’ll get back to you on that one. You see, there’s a problem here: the game’s out now but TheSixthAxis, along with (it’s safe to assume) every UK outlet with an advance copy, only received final code at the weekend. That’s – if you count Saturday and Sunday – four days to not only write and prep the review for launch but also play through the entire GT Mode, sample Arcade and play and test the online functionality – this, you’ll no doubt appreciate, is impossible. That’s why, if you’ve not already skipped to the end, there’s no score here – assigning such an abitrary figure to just a subset of the game would be disingenuous.
And besides, how can you objectively quantify a game of this scope anyway? Yes, you can discuss the technical merits of GT5’s massively improved physics model, you can dissect the graphics and you can analyse the multiplayer (and we will) but surely the bulk of the game, the aforementioned GT Mode, is a personal, subjective experience that’s so carefully open and purposefully organic that it’ll be an entirely different game depending on the individual, rewarding the player through a constant supply of new cars, new trinkets and the ever addictive crawl of the RPG-like level bar. Like no other racing simulator in the past, Gran Turismo 5 gives back as much as you put in.
The R34 posing for photomode.
The desire to achieve the zenith of the genre is the driving force behind Polyphony Digital’s recent output, not that the studio has been particularly numerous in their offerings. Indeed, apart from last year’s slight misfire on the PSP everything since the 2005 release of PlayStation 2 GT4 has been high definition whispers, cautionary notes of what might be if we all wanted hard enough. Few could argue that Polyphony haven’t succeeded in the past, though – the Gran Turismo series is widely regarded as the best racing simulator on consoles.
The elephant in the room now, of course, is Turn 10’s Forza lineage. A trio of games that peaked with last year’s Forza III, a supremely confident title that embodied the online community more than anything else before, turning gamers into artists, tuners and market-sellers through the notion that user designed content reigns supreme. Forza III’s livery editor, for example, was (and still is) incredible and was, along with the ability to sell and trade engine set-ups and the vehicles themselves, the driving force behind the social network of fans that continue to keep the game in the limelight. GT5 might offer more cars, more tracks, more substance, but Forza III forged a new direction for racers and it worked out very well.
Snapping at Polyphony’s heels then, you might think, but the Japanese studio’s ability to seemingly ignore everything else is bewildering. Dwelling on GT5’s user interface might seem flippant and unnecessary to some but it’s a perfect example of Polyphony doing their own thing and barely moving forwards. Here, then, is a somewhat inconsistent, often confusing series of mismatched, unconnected menus that seem to throw away any kind of fluidity and usability, from the home page’s bizarre smattering of oddly shaped boxes to the tradional (but still grating) My First Photoshop race event cards. You get used to them, but at first it’s offputting to say the least.
And it’s not just about the graphic design: circle isn’t always used to go back (in some menus hitting the button will just move your cursor to the exit button, and then you’ll have to press X), cars aren’t automatically suggested and prompted for requirement-heavy races (you’ll need to move to the Garage and search for one), events that you can’t enter aren’t marked as such from the overview leaving you to dip in and out blindly until your garage is more complete, it’s not clear which GT Auto options you can choose per car unless you manually scroll through them all first and don’t get us started on the sheer amount of vertically stacked tabs, boxes and icons that litter every single page.
A Mine’s Skyline catching air.
Gran Turismo games have never really followed any strict guidelines on user interface design, though, so the ardent fans might be able to forgive the shortcomings perhaps only evident to those versed in the subject – but for a game so precise in its car modeling it’s a real shame that this aspect of the game doesn’t match up. There’s some bizarre niggles elsewhere, too: why is there no section in the Tuning Shop for brakes, for example, and why does every menu option take so long to load? Why is the 22B called the ‘Base Rally Car’ when you win it? And then there’s the issue of the difference between Standard and Premium cars, something that might prove to be a contentious discussion point amongst gamers.
Basically, Gran Turismo 5 features just over a thousand cars. Give or take variations on a single vehicle (for example, the seventy Nissan Skylines) that leaves about 800 individual machines. Approximately 200 of them are what the game calls ‘Premium’ – built especially for Gran Turismo 5 and featuring damage, cockpit view, working high beam headlights, wipers and come with the ability to change wheels. When coupled with the game’s often stunning lighting engine, these Premium cars look fantastic, real even, and easily on par with anything else on the market (and frequently breathtaking in the Photo Mode). The problem is, anyone with basic maths will have realised that there’s a huge amount of Standard cars remaining, roughly 75% of the total.
These Standard cars are mosty ported over from Gran Turismo 4 and Gran Turismo PSP, and it shows. They’re still reasonably impressive given their last-gen roots, but they don’t hold a candle to the Premiums and the differences side-by-side can be startling: blocky textures replace mechanical seams, headlights look like stickers, they don’t have an internal cockpit view and they don’t suffer visual damage save for a few superficial scratches and marks. The game tries to split the two sets of cars neatly by ensuring that all ‘new’ cars from the Dealerships are Premium and all second-hand cars from the Used Dealership are Standard, but the game is still happy to award Standard cars as you progress through GT Mode.
It’s easy to be melodramatic here, but there really is a distinct difference between the two classes. Naturally most of us will enshew Standards as much as possible and keep our garages stocked with the beautiful Premiums (and 200 is still a generous amount of cars) but there’s also the fact that a lot of the best cars in the game, the ones that people will aspire to collect, are only available as Standards. The Bugatti Veyron, for example, is one such vehicle that you’d assume Polyphony would have taken the time to craft from scratch, but instead it’s a Standard car pulled from GT PSP. On a lighter note, importing your cars from the PSP Gran Turismo is a breeze, even if the results are a little ugly.
The artifacting seen on edges in the rain and dust.
And in-game, whilst most of the time the game is utterly stunning to look at, it’s not always a perfect picture. As a poster child for the PS3’s ability to shift 1080p, sixty frames per second graphics Gran Turismo 5 pretty much stands alone these days, and it’s clear why: with a pack of cars ahead of you the engine can struggle to keep up – frame rates drop, there’s screen tearing, and the rain and smoke effects show up as pixellated, low-resolution edges on cars which is more distracting than you might think (see image above). It’s generally fine, of course, but every now and again there’s a stutter, a falter, and it stands out like a sore thumb when the game looks as good as it does.
So, UI issues, a real mixture of cars, fancy effects that clash with the usually high resolution sheen…
Where it counts – on the track – Gran Turismo 5 is a beast. From the very first second you take your initial ride for a spin in the Sunday Club, Polyphony’s racer grabs you and doesn’t let go. It’s not just the compulsive instinct to win that drives you forward, it’s the way that the game expertly offers up a learning curve unlike any other game of the ilk and manages to constantly reward with vehicles, trinkets and goodies at every step of the way. Likewise, the clear split between A-Spec and B-Spec means that once you’re in the GT Mode you’ve effectively got two games in one – the half where you’re the driver and the other, where you’re the manager of a team and get others to drive for you.
But it wouldn’t be a Gran Turismo game without offering up a deep set of licences, too – there are six categories of licence and each contains ten trials, and as you’d expect obtaining a bronze is easy but all golds will take time and skill, and for the first time, as with everything you do in GT Mode, your current ‘level’ determines what licences you’re able to take. This ever increasing bubble of RPG-ness, split into seperate levels for A-Spec and B-Spec, determines everything you can do in Gran Turismo 5, from what cars you can drive to what events you can enter, and even goes as far as limiting car damage and opening up the driving options until the game thinks you’re good enough.
It’s a very clever system, as although it still enables you to craft your own way through the game, it means that you can’t just dive in at the deep end and race around with the fastest vehicles, you’ll need to slowly, methodically work your way up the ranks. We’re hopeful, too, that additional tracks are unlocked as you make progress, but one of the neatest things that get unlocked as you go are the Special Events – individual themed races and trials that offer a diversion from the remainder of the game just as much as the licence tests too.
Rallying is a delight.
The one you’ll no doubt be most familiar with is the Top Gear Test Track event, which (as with most of the Specials) opens up with an incredible realtime introduction and then, for the beginner level at least, throws you behind the wheel of a Volkswagen Samba Bus behind a pack of other racers and challenges you to get to the front without knocking over any cones. Along the way the game helpfully highlights each section of the track (The Follow Through, Gambon et al.) which is a nice bit of fan-service. Other events include karting, NASCAR school and rallying (which is great fun) and although these events improve as you rank up, even from the off they’re great side quests to the main game.
But it’s the A-Spec mode that’ll take up most of your time with Gran Turismo 5, and for all the right reasons, it’s brilliant. Effectively split into five series (again, locked until you rank up) each series offers up a collection of events which range from one off races up to a full championship, and whilst we’ve already mentioned that entry requirements aren’t always as intuitive as you’d like, they ensure that the player dips in and out of the garage enough to sample more of the game’s vehicle range that they might normally limit themselves to. Yes, it’s great fun to save up for your first Bayside Blue R34, but by the same token grabbing a Yaris for the Vitz Race means you can try for that gold too.
Once on the tarmac (or indeed, dirt or snow) Gran Turismo really starts to flex its muscles – although the game is best played with a force feedback wheel even through a standard controller you can feel the road, the acceleration of the engine, the point at which your tyres start to lose traction. The attention to creating a realistic driving experience is unflinching and unforgiving – this is a simulator in every sense of the world but one that still appreciates that not everyone wants to race with a manual clutch and the minimum of driving aids; if you want the racing line on you can, if you’d like the game to help you out with traction control, you can. But, by the same token, if you fancy going hardcore and doing everything yourself then GT5 is quite happy to let you dial down the sliders and do so.
Battling for the lead in a tunnel.
It’s a remarkable flexibility and a welcome, relaxed attitude that permeates throughout the entire game. The player really is able to put whatever they want into Gran Turismo 5 and get it right back – be that hours of dedicated racing a day or just the occasional dip into the online multiplayer, which is expanded well beyond the simple notion of racing. From the GT Mode homescreen you can jump into the lobbies, choose a few filters and immediately see who’s racing, what they’re doing and the properties attached to that lobby (fixed ownership, type of race, track etc). You can then join or create your own lobby, which can of course be private.
At the time of testing most online players were based on the European mainland (there wasn’t a single UK hosted lobby) so our interaction with the on-screen chat was limited to our (admittedly poor) French. Once you’re in, you can drive freely around the track until everyone else in the lobby is ready, which is a nice idea, and then after a short countdown the action will begin. Naturally you’re going to get a real split in the types of cars people are driving, but we’re hoping our TSA Community games will be much more balanced, enjoyable affairs – there’s little fun in pitching a Le Mans race car against a Golf GTI, for example.
Online racing is – you’ll be glad to know, lag free. In fact, it’s a fussless experience, a breeze to set up, offers the same great sense of speed of single player and is slick enough to warrant some serious investment down the line. Gran Turismo 5 goes beyond just racing, though, with a Facebook-like messageboard (albeit with Twitter like 140 character limits), a log of all your achievements, a section for email and another for gifts, which is where you’ll be notified if someone has sent you a car ticket, or a tuning part or a paint colour. It’s a whole new social angle for the series and it’s great to see it so well integrated into the game, even if at the time of writing the server seemed to be really struggling with any updates.
A GTi beneath the Nordwand.
Another fun aspect, drawing on the desire to collect everything in the game, are the Museum cards. Gran Turismo 5 Prologue offered up a glimpse into this idea, but 5 takes it further, awarding you a handful of Museum cards every now and again, and challenging you to trade with others to try to complete the collection. Each card is based on a vehicle manufacturer and gives some insight into the people and cars behind the brand names – a clever touch and one that we’re expecting the Japanese players to really get behind even if the concept might be lost on a good portion of petrolheads here in the West.
And then there’s the killer blow: the tracks. Not just expansive and diverse, the courses here might have been boosted in their numbers with the odd reverse and ‘weather changing’ track but there’s no filler – and whilst most are pulled from prior Gran Turismos the city courses in particular look incredible in high definition. There are (obviously) new tracks on offer too – Cape Ring in all its flavours is wonderful and the return of the Nordwand first seen in GTHD (which also gains a rally version in 5) is most welcome. Sure, some of the routes modeled on real life circuits are a little bland in places but when you see Madrid and Rome with a full pack of cars it’s a sight to behold.
All this demonstrates Polyphony’s time since Gran Turismo 4 has, on the whole, been well spent. There’s a massive amount to see and do, some features we’ve not seen before (the mid-race day/night transitions are beautiful) and the insane amount of detail on the Premium cars will ensure that the game’s Photo Mode will find favour with photography enthusiasts just as much as it would with motorsport fans – GT5 is capable of some amazing looking real-time shots, some of which are dotted about this article and are untouched, straight from the game.
So, gran Turismo 5: finished, complete, perfect. Right?
No, not quite, but it’s pretty damned near close. Gran Turismo 5 is essential gaming for race sim fans, something that will grow with you the more you play. Sure, there’s some visual issues here and there and the game’s UI is fussier than it needs to be, but as a racing game, which is presumably the reason everyone’s buying the game for, it’s unmatched, unrivalled and as comprehensive as you could have ever hoped for. It’s unfair to score the game at this point, though, we’re barely a quarter of the way through A-Spec and less through B and it has continued to get better every step of the way.
But it doesn’t matter anyway – just go and buy it.