Each year, normally around Christmas, thereâ€™s typically a handful of blockbusters released. This is true in most media industries to a certain extent, but never quite so much as in videogames. Even then, itâ€™s still pretty rare for a title as anticipated at this one to come along: a title that is so significant it almost cements the current version of the PlayStation itself as having truly arrived as a platform. Polyphony Digital, after all, are the developer that somehow always manages to squeeze just that little bit extra out of Sonyâ€™s hardware. Sure, it always takes them ages but itâ€™s always been worth the wait.
The last release in the series, Gran Turismo for the PSP, is arguably the most valid direct comparison to GT5. Itâ€™s recent, it was announced 5 years before its release, it experienced numerous delays and... ultimately it was disappointing. Thatâ€™s not to say that GT5 is either bad, per se, or as disappointing as its baby brother, but thatâ€™s itâ€™s disappointing is (unfortunately) in no doubt.
Whatâ€™s not disappointing is the sheer depth of the content on offer. In addition to the vast array of vehicles, tracks and other "box ticking" content (we could burn our word count just listing the stuff, so we wonâ€™t), there are a few notable new inclusions. Primarily, the new B-Spec management mode (hire and fire drivers, do everything but actually race) brings a whole new experience to the simulation.
There are also go-karts to drive (fun and quite a different play style to other car types), a TV mode where you can download video content (some free, some paid), a course creator and (up to) 16-player online modes. If youâ€™ve got a 3D TV you can enjoy stereoscopic racing action and you can do neat stuff online like give cars to your mates, etc. When it comes to sheer volume of features, there are no complaints - GT5 is packed to the brim.
The Gran Turismo and Arcade modes are, of course, still there - both packed full of content. In GT mode, you level up (in addition to earning cash to spend on cars), bringing a new and actually quite compelling facet to the experience. Thereâ€™s loads of unlockable content based on your level, license and cash accumulated too. Cool (and not so cool) things include the ability to tackle Nascar with Geoff Gordon or a race around the Top Gear track in VW Combi vans (a truly painful experience - whereâ€™s the "get out and push" option?!).
The cars, of course, look unbelievably good. The attention to detail here is off the hook - with few exceptions (things like license plate textures), the cars typically look photo realistic. The detail really delivers on the promise of those oh-so-nice screenshots Sony has been teasing us with prior to the release of the game and it ensures that, when you finally get that car youâ€™ve been working towards, the payoff is worth the time invested.
The tracks often look gorgeous, particularly during the day. The day-time lighting model is excellent, with effects for glare and transitioning between light and shade being particularly impressive. Nighttime is less successful, with unrealistic light volumes and unusual light colours completely throwing out the "realistic" visuals that the title so clearly strives for.
The photo mode is preposterously gorgeous to behold and, as usual, is a strong point for the title. You can adore your car from every angle, creating completely impossible but utterly fantastic glory shots to drool over at your leisure.
Online mode, however, is utterly broken. No doubt a result of the servers suddenly being hammered by an impossible to simulate millions upon millions of players at once, the entire experience suffers from weird hiccups. You canâ€™t, for example, leave a race once youâ€™re signed in if all of the players havenâ€™t chosen to "start race", without disconnecting from PSN. Itâ€™s easy to grief other players by exploiting issues with the service and some players have even reported that modes which are entirely unrelated to online suffer from huge performance issues while theyâ€™re connected to PSN (we didnâ€™t experience anything like that). While the online is quite poor at the time of writing, the building blocks for a compelling experience seem to be in place and we have every faith that Sony will burn the midnight oil until the teething issues are resolved. Until then, online is likely best avoided.
Mechanically, racing the cars is extremely sound. Things like drafting, grip and cornering mechanics all feel realistic - so much so that my virtual car loses grip about the same time and way as my real car. In theory. No idea what youâ€™re talking about, Officer. Cars each behave in a noticeably different way and, after spending serious time behind the wheel of various vehicles, youâ€™ll fall in love with the peculiarities of a particular model and refuse to upgrade from it - even if there are better (on paper, at least) options available. The various track surfaces all realistically affect your grip as you change between them and each track will require that you learn the optimal line if youâ€™re to attain maximum speed in your chosen vehicle. You can tweak the driving model, too, altering numerous aspects of the way the car handles. In particular, the option to disable the various assistants that keep newbies on the road is particularly useful for advanced players that really want to feel the road beneath them.
Itâ€™s not all as successful, however. Continuing with the driving mechanics, the driving model of the AI competitors is once again deeply disappointing. Never a strong element of the series, itâ€™s nonetheless a let down to see an extremely crude implementation of driver AI in a game that, at the end of the day, is all about driving intelligently. Computer drivers still drive like moronic automatons, following extremely obvious lines religiously - even if you currently occupy the space they want to be in. You can, finally, shunt them off their line but the effect of doing so is marginal at best - even the super arcadey and ten-years-old Burnout had a more cohesive computer-controlled opponent than this. The net effect is that you basically ignore them, concentrating instead on how you handle your car on this track to the conditions, treating them as moving obstacles - and nothing more. In that itâ€™s still kinda fun but you canâ€™t help but wonder why they bother having the cars there in the first place if their control algorithms are going to be so rudimentary.
Visually the racing is, believe it or not, somewhat disappointing as well. Yes, it runs at 60 frames per second and yes, thatâ€™s at 1080P - something which should be, according to some theorycrafting around the specs of the chips in the PS3, impossible. But when you look at how clinically various elements of the environment are portrayed, with simplistic textures used in places, material (like plastic fences, etc) that resolutely refuse to move, oddly flicking light levels and numerous other visual artifacts that notably affect the visual package, etc, itâ€™s hard to remain 100% enthusiastic about the the way the game looks.
Another visual presentation issue (again, something the series is typically poor at) is the interface: specifically, the layout and usability of that interface. Itâ€™s rubbish. The in-game UI stuff is fine, if a bit staid (itâ€™s 2010, people, not 2001 - itâ€™s OK to do something interesting with your in-game UI). But the menus... itâ€™s as if every possible interface mechanic was ranked in terms of usability and the developers accidentally chose the one at the bottom of the pile. Everything you want to use, at the time you want to use it, seems to be the greatest possible distance from your currently selected menu widget. The GT mode is laid out like a web page, complete with a virtual mouse cursor, despite the fact that no GT gamer is likely to ever hook up a mouse (if thatâ€™s even possible, which it probably isnâ€™t). Itâ€™s awful to navigate with a steering wheel, too, despite the fact that GT players are the most likely people on the planet to be playing games with one. Itâ€™s unintuitive in a way that only games from the 1980â€™s could have gotten away with (and then, only barely).
It takes ages to load, too, even if you opt-in for the 8GB / FIFTY MINUTE (it claims 30 but it took 50 on my "fat" PS3) installation option. One bright side here, however, is that there is no load required to restart a race / challenge; this is a huge boon as itâ€™s something youâ€™ll need to do from time to time and, as the load times are quite long, not having to go through them when youâ€™re frustrated you failed is a very good thing indeed.
Animation, too, is bizarrely inconsistent. The few in-game people that appear (outside of the spectators, which are fine) are low resolution, awkward looking puppets that move eerily similar to Thunderbirds characters. Digital Polyphony seem to have avoided the uncanny valley problem by taking their character tech straight out of the 1990â€™s. In isolation, itâ€™s bad enough but when viewed alongside the gorgeous cars and (mostly) impressive track vistas, itâ€™s puzzling that they didnâ€™t end up on the cutting room floor.
The sound, again, is somehow lacking something magical. Engine sounds are mostly good but never feel particularly grandiose. Maybe itâ€™s realistic but then again, when I gun my Mini, it sounds a lot more frotty than the pathetically generic noise on offer here (although maybe Iâ€™ve got an exhaust leak...). The music, too, is all over the place - the best possible example is the music for the intro. In itself, this is a great piece of music. Is it appropriate for the title? Categorically, the answer is no. Itâ€™s free-jazz twangs stand out like a pair of old running shoes nailed the the forehead of a gorgeous woman - it just. doesnâ€™t. belong. there. Sure, it may well be an homage to Francis Ford Copollaâ€™s Koyaansisqatsi (music by Phillip Glass) but it still doesnâ€™t work.
Throughout the title, too, music is randomly bang-on or completely bizarre, changing randomly between sounding like youâ€™re at a club or at a lounge bar in Vegas. When itâ€™s good, itâ€™s great, but even then youâ€™ll here particular bits of music over and over again, with the repetition bordering on criminal torture (earboarding?). That said, this wonâ€™t come as news to GT fans, who have been reaching for the "music: off" setting in GT games since the first one.
If you slam into a car at high speed, something that Iâ€™ve (thankfully) never done in real life, chances are pretty good that it will sound almost exactly not like this. Here, instead of the expected screechy / crumply / smashy sound of plastic, metal and glass deforming with urgency, weâ€™re met with something that sounds almost exactly like someone farting underwater (donâ€™t ask). At what point did the designers decide that a good sphincter expulsion, somewhat deadened by a large volume of liquid, was exactly the auditory exclamation they were looking for? It would almost sound better if some dead-pan guy said "bang" into a microphone, rather than the sad whimper on offer here.
One of the features we didnâ€™t mention earlier is the alleged damage model. While it is in here, itâ€™s so limited it may as well not be. For a start, very few cars support it - you could play through most of the game without seeing it at all. When itâ€™s there, itâ€™s such a let down compared to almost any other racer, you can help but wonder whatâ€™s the point. The collision damage system in Carmageddon, for example, a thirteen year old game, felt more realistically connected to the onscreen action.
Customization of your vehicles is technically present, albeit in the wake of the Forza series, itâ€™s woefully inadequate. You can change the colour or tweak a small performance aspect of the vehicle but, for the most part, itâ€™s like building a car out of Lego - compared to Forzaâ€™s rearranging of atoms via the electron microscope.
It may sound like Iâ€™ve taken this game to task. In a way, I guess, I have - but the game really isnâ€™t awful. What it is, is disappointingly average. Where it does shine (and it does shine quite brightly) is the "CarPG" aspect of the career mode. Sure, the mechanics are merely average but the desire to move through the copious volumes of content is stronger than ever before. Thereâ€™s just so much to do, so many tracks, so many modes, so many cars - thereâ€™s a lot of hours of entertainment here, and itâ€™s as addictive as any MMO. But, like an MMO, the core gameplay is frequently pedestrian (although it does definitely take skill to advance, something which is typically not the case for an MMORPG). Itâ€™s also a blast to just go for a drive, ignoring the idiosyncrasies of everything outside of the game and the moronic AI and just pushing yourself and your car to the limit on some back-country road. Itâ€™s here, perhaps, in the titualar "driving simulation", that GT holds its own best of all - which is why, at the end of the day, that it manages to score as highly as it does.
With all this hype, generated as a result of the repeated brilliance demonstrated by the developers themselves in the first place, we were expecting something... more. A lot of its flaws are skin deep - and they wonâ€™t stop people from enjoying the rich experience that the Gran Turismo mode represents. But ultimately, this seems to underline the impression that Gran Turismo on the PSP gave us - Polyphony Digital and Gran Turismo itself have peaked, and that peak was not in these particular iterations.
When determining whether to recommend the game or not, itâ€™s obvious that I need to split my recommendation into two core audiences: GT fans and racing game fans. GT fans will love it; theyâ€™ll forgive it for its (numerous) faults, as they are (for the most part) skin-deep. Theyâ€™ll disappear into the GT mode and not emerge for months, completely oblivious to the issues which plague the title. Racing game fans, however, will have a rockier relationship with the title - a driving simulation this may well be but racing simulation is something it is much less successful at.