Gran Turismo set the world alight when it was released in 1998 by offering unprecedentedly realistic graphics attached to the most comprehensive and complete driving simulation the world had ever seen. Ever since, the series has been a staple of the PlayStation library and delighted racing fans all over the world.
The PLAYSTATION 3 entry, Gran Turismo 5, might not be available until 2009, but gamers will be able to tide themselves over until then with Gran Turismo 5: Prologue. Or should that be Gran Turismo 5: Prologue Spec II. Indeed, as soon as the lengthy install process is completed, an update will download that converts Prologue into Prologue Spec II.
Spec II offers some extra content not available in the Japanese release of Prologue. Along with more than 70 cars, five tracks with alternate layouts and, for the first time in the history of the series, online competition, Spec II also offers the drift mode found in Gran Turismo HD, the ability to tune cars, and a two-player split-screen mode for offline multiplayer.
The most striking feature of Spec II is its lush presentation. Showing off some amazing integration with the PLAYSTATION Network, Spec II always begins with a feature known as My Garage. Here players are able to access the many modes and features of Spec II, including recent news and the new GT-TV feature.
My Garage will also display various information, some useful – such as who is currently online in certain parts of the world – and some not – such as the weather in Fiji. In addition, My Garage also displays a beautiful rendition of the player’s current vehicle in a variety of stunning environments, with a subdued Kyoto suburb being a particular standout. It’s all very slick and is a salient example of just how far video games have come.
Another striking feature of Spec II is just how amazing it looks. Photorealism is a word that gets thrown around often when talking about video games, but Spec II is definitely worthy of the term. Delivering perhaps the best visuals seen yet, all in stunning 1080p and at 60 frames a second, Spec II is a testament to the power of the PLAYSTATION 3.
Spec II also brings in-car views to the series. While this feature has been seen in many next-generation racing games, it has never been implemented this well. The interiors of each car have been beautifully crafted and each is obviously unique. Polyphonic Digital has even gone so far to render the entire interior of the car, meaning that turning the camera will even allow players to view the backseats – a real treat for car enthusiasts. Best of all, the in-car view never hinders the player and only increases the sense of immersion and realism.
Of course, graphics are nothing without gameplay, and fortunately Spec II delivers it in spades. Gone are the obnoxious license tests of yore, with players instead being required to purchase a vehicle and engage in races for which they are eligible. Winning races rewards players with credits that can be used for purchasing new cars, as well as unlocking more racing classes. Merely completing all the races will take seasoned racers at least ten hours, and that doesn’t include obtaining first place in every event or perfecting the drift events.
Once the main races have been completed, Spec II opens up a tuning mode that allows players to tinker with their rides and obtain optimum performance. Players can save three set-ups per car, and can even make minor adjustments while racing. Simply trying to find the optimum settings for each vehicle can provide hours of replay value, especially when trying to climb the online leaderboards for fastest lap times.
One of the best things about Spec II is how it captures a sense of speed that is often lacking in racing games. Wisely realising that up-tempo music that gets the adrenaline pumping is an excellent way to install a sense of pace and urgency, Polyphonic Digital has included a range of tunes that play during races. Combined with subtle vibrations in the in-car view and, with a Dual Shock 3 or force-feedback steering wheel, the player’s palms, Spec II really captures the essence of racing.
Spec II definitely offers plenty for the hardcore car enthusiast, and thanks to a new and improved physics engine, turning off all the driving aids allows for an experience that is as close to driving as one can get without stepping behind the wheel of a car. Using the brake button is definitely not an option. However, Spec II also offers enough support that new players should not feel intimidated. Even the most inexperienced of players will be able to find themselves able to achieve respectable finishing positions.
Unfortunately, it’s not all positive. Spec II doesn’t include any support for the motion sensing aspects of the Sixaxis controller, which is disappointing given how naturally the controller lends itself to the racing genre. The game also requires players to complete races with the stock cars before allowing them to customise settings, meaning that in some races players are instantly at a disadvantage due to the speeds at which these vehicles plateau.
Spec II is also void of any damage modelling, which is a shame as it is the one blemish on an otherwise perfect simulation. The reasons for this are clear – a totalled Ferrari is hardly a good advertisement – and it’s not a deal breaker (if it is, Motorstorm or Burnout are much more likely to be the order of the day), but it’s still a shame, given the power of the PLAYSTATION 3.
The online features are also slightly lacking at the moment. While matches are found quickly and even accommodate for players with low-bandwidth connections, there is still no way to create a room and invite players from your friends list.
Additionally, recent parties are always disbanded, meaning that players must always search again for new matches. GT-TV is also devoid of content at the moment, and while episodes of hit TV show Top Gear are promised, the current product offers nothing but potential.
It’s tempting to dismiss these faults on virtue of them being fixed in Gran Turismo 5, but Spec II is not a demo or a beta, it’s a full retail game and must be treated as such. Hopefully, given the online-heavy focus and the release day patch, these issues will be fixed with a future update.
However, for all its faults, Gran Turismo 5: Prologue Spec II still offers the best racing simulation available on the market. With its gorgeous graphics, finely crafted gameplay, and plenty of content, Spec II is definitely a winner for fans of racing simulations.
Indeed, Spec II is a resuscitating breath into the series and will even capture those whose attention had begun to wane. The only downside isn’t really a downside at all: Spec II is so good that the release of the full game seems even further away. In the meantime, Spec II serves as an excellent appetiser for gamers until Gran Turismo 5 hits next year.