When I bought a PlayStation 2 my wife told me flat out, "If you are going to get a PS2, you need Gran Turismo." I knew this, but it underscored the series' impact. Nearly a decade later little has changed.
Gran Turismo 5 is a racing game that brands itself as "the real driving simulator". Players can compete in various types of races that range from hot hatches to go karts to exotics to NASCAR and WRC. As with previous Gran Turismo games, players can race in a straightforward "arcade mode" for quick one-off races or log into GT Mode to enter in a series of challenges and structured races to gain experience points and credits. Experience enables players to race at increasingly higher levels, while credits can be used to buy cars. The game features a whopping one thousand-plus cars divided into two categories: "Standard" and "Premium". The difference between the two is level of detail and the realistic cockpit view. Players can customize their cars by visiting the Tuning Shop. GT5 players can also customize tracks with a new course maker or ride on pre-built courses, like the test track from popular BBC show Top Gear. Online multiplayer for up to 16 players not only gives GT5 legs, but establishes a strong community of players.
The Gran Turismo series is viewed by many players as the premiere racing sim, and for the most part, Gran Turismo 5 lives up to those expectations.
From the hardcore boyracers to the armchair spectators, GT5 is for racing fans of all shapes and sizes. There is a broad range of licenses, cars and tracks to suit players of varying abilities as well as a B-Spec mode that allows players to dictate instructions to drivers and a self-descriptive spectator mode for online.
Over five years in development, Grant Turismo 5 is the year's most eagerly anticipated PlayStation 3 title. The game is not only a big deal to Sony or the game industry, but among car lovers and in the auto industry as well. People will be buying a PS3 just to play this game — and GT5 is all they will be playing for who knows how long.
Is there a big difference between Standard and Premium cars? The game's developer, Polyphony Digital, lovely recreated the interior of the 200 "Premium" class cars, so much so that sitting in a Alfa Romeo Brera looks just like a Brera. The Premium cars are available through an in-game dealership. The Standard cars can be bought through the in-game used car dealership, and they generally have a "used" car feeling to them. The level of detail on the Standard cars is lower, and the car's windows are tinted so that players cannot really see inside — unlike the Premium versions, which offers glimpses of the stunning interiors. Those cars look beautiful in Travel Mode.
Travel Mode? GT5's Travel Mode is one of the in-game photo modes that enables players to take pictures of their beloved cars in locations like Kyoto's Gion or the Bern Marktgasse. My Lancia Delta Integrale looked wonderful under gently falling cherry blossoms. The in-game camera has an array of options available to those who understand cameras, but for those who don't, there's a handy auto-focus. What is a shame is that players cannot take photos of their beloved Standard cars in Travel Mode. I have this wonderful 1991 GT-R that I bought used and that I've tuned extensively — it's a great, great car. I love it. I'd like to stick it under some cherry blossoms, snap photos of it, but cannot.
But those Premium cars must look nice. They sure do. They really, really do. This is the closest I'm going to get to driving, say, a Lamborghini Miura Prototype or a Mercedes Benz 300 SL, and I'm more than tickled to see them in the game. While the Premium cars are just dazzlers, some of the game's textures — especially some building textures are less so. Ditto for the spectators, which are copied and pasted through the crowds. The way humans — like even NASCAR star Jeff Gordon — are rendered isn't up to snuff to today's standard. Ultimately, this is a wash, and it doesn't really matter. Stages provide ambiance more than anything else, and nobody is playing GT5 for the way people look. This game is about cars. Full stop. And personally, I'd rather have the game's developer sacrifice some textures in exchange for weather effects.
Do the weather effects change the game at all? The Gran Turismo series has largely been a sunny day racer. GT5 not only offers players the chance to race in the wet, but in the snow. Globs of rain splat on windows, while snow flurries are wiped away by the windshield wipers. (Well, working windshield wipers for the Premium cars...) There are also day and night cycles, adding variety to the experience. While it might not seem like a huge departure for GT, the inclusion of weather opens up the game even more, pushing it closer and closer to its "real driving simulator" status.
Speaking of "real driving", how is it playing against real drivers? At the time of posting, GT5's online service is still in its infancy. Just like with GT5 itself, it is expected that the game's developer will continue to tweak and tinker with the online service until it gets it just right. So far? It's not bad. Those looking for open online multiplayer can access it through the Open Lobby icon in GT Mode. The icon is on the small size — and with multiplayer being such an appealing and important feature, the game's developer might consider making the icon more prominent. Via the Open Lobby feature, players can join open "rooms" created by others.
So you enter other people's rooms? There isn't matchmaking? Not yet. And yes, entering these rooms can feel, at times, like dropping into a stranger's birthday. Part of the appeal of the Open Lobby is that these are not private rooms. But since the game just launched, not all players seem aware of this — in one room, I joined, the other two dudes already in there were very surprised to see me. When the race started, one of the guys just started ramming me with his Aston Martin. New regulations and restrictions regarding things like car weight were added in a recent update, leveling the online playing field. Polyphony is apparently planning features like match-making in the future, something that will only benefit online play. Good news, because GT5's artificial intelligence-controlled drivers aren't very good.
Just how not very good is that AI? It doesn't stink, necessarily; It's just clunky. Sometimes it feels like you aren't racing other cars, but racing a train that is on a set course. And if players step in front of that train, they just might be pushed through the streets of London (like I was). Since the A.I. doesn't vary much, it is possible to note how other cars start out of the gates and then use that to one's advantage when trying to bag a silver or gold metal. For a "real driving simulator", this isn't very realistic. Other drivers don't react to situations, and often, cars get bunched together simply because they are on the same trajectory. View the single player as a proving ground for online.
How are the menus? GT Mode's landing page with its cluster of boxes is generally pleasant enough to look at. But there's a lot of clicking around to get where you want to go. The rest of the interface is reminiscent of Microsoft's old operating systems. There is always an extra step, another window to open, another button to select. It's not exactly streamlined.
How is it different from other Gran Turismo games? Much of GT5 feels similar to previous titles. There are old favorite tracks like Trial Mountain, and if you've ever played an early GT, you'll be right at home. What really separates GT5 is that the series is finally getting a robust online system as well as new features like karting (zippy fun) and NASCAR (a lumbering, taxing challenge). Gran Turismo 5 doesn't feel like one racing game, it feels like several. This is an immense title that is bound to keep players (me including) busy for a very long time. The most marked difference is that GT5 doesn't feel like it's over now that it is out. Instead, the game feels like it is just beginning, much like an MMO feels when it launches. Where it goes is up to the players and the developers.
But what about damage? One thing that Gran Turismo always does well is delivering attention to detail. The series is sometimes called "cold" and "clinical" — something I disagree with very much, because there is passion and love in this game. There is so much love here that even with the addition of damage, Polyphony still feels like it's not interested in wrecking its virtual autos. When players hit other cars, there is an empty, dull thud — not the sound of metal hitting metal. While more realistic damage is unlocked later in the game, Gran Turismo is not about wrecking cars. In fact, many of the game's challenges and tutorials are geared to teach players not to hit other cars (or orange cones). A basic principle of driving is not getting into a wreck, and that's something that Gran Turismo takes to heart. Arcade racers may be all about the crash — and that's fine — but GT is about not getting into crashes, going slow into the corners and coming out fast.
For the past five years, Polyphony Digital strove to create the perfect racing sim. It's that, to quote a car ad, relentless pursuit of perfect that drives the Gran Turismo series. GT5 is not perfect. It is a flawed game — utterly brilliant and compelling, but flawed.
Gran Turismo 5 was developed by Polyphony Digital and published by Sony Computer Entertainment on November 24 in North America and Europe and on November 25 in Japan and in Australia. Retails for US$59.99 and ¥7,180 (US$85). A retail copy was purchased by Kotaku. Played through 20 percent of the game, acquiring four premium cars including a Civic Type R (EX), a Ferrari 512 BB and a Lancia Delta HF Integrale Evoluzione. Will be playing GT well on into 2011 and beyond.