Delays can sometimes be really good for a game. You get the fans wailing and gnashing their teeth. You get the rumour mill eating up freshly invented grist every couple of days. Fanboys speculate. PR moguls gesticulate. The game companies fall asleep every night seeing dollar signs. But sometimes it all goes wrong. Sometimes, they release a game like Gran Turismo for the PSP. And some people wish that the rumours had stayed rumours.
It's just a little bit better than average. There's no better word for it, and no worse word: Gran Turismo for the PSP is an average game. The question will be, is average good enough to get people buying? Let's talk specifics.
I think one of the missing ingredients here is the complex nature of a Gran Turismo title. It's a real danger of ports to handheld systems that some of a game's depth is lost and that's what we see in GT PSP. When it first appeared on the PlayStation, the range of options for customising vehicles and tweaking race conditions to fit your mood was one of the things that really god people talking. Here was a game where realism had been put ahead of the arcade sensibilities attached to many racers of the time. And that realism required a level of complexity that hasn't been moved across - despite the many follow up titles in which the format was improved still.
What does that mean? The game seems to have regressed, and the only excuse could ever be, well, it's only a handheld after all.
Precisely why the PSP suffers so is that gamers don't really believe they can get a quality gaming experience from it. Games like Gran Turismo are just polishing the mythology. Don't believe that a shallow, stripped back, lacklustre experience is where it stops either. Usually I'm not one to get up on my high horse about graphics - I truly don't believe they add a hell of a lot in most cases, and I want to be clear that excellent gameplay will trump flashy visuals every time - but the cars, tracks and environments in GT are badly done. The cars are probably the best put together, but it's not a long slip to the unexciting tracks and lumpy trees. The flicker of approaching objects is distracting and the flat yellow lines of sparking metal are an annoyance. Disappointing work.
You may have already heard that GT has no career mode. The main screen gives you single player (across three modes: time trial, single race or drift trial), Ad-hoc (the multiplayer mode) and your options, car dealership, etc. There are 35 tracks in the game, which can be raced in reverse as well, so you've really got 75 options, even if it's a simple case of left turns becoming rightys. Depending on how many laps you do, and the general difficulty of the track, you'll be awarded credits that can be used to purchase new cars in the dealerships.
Back to that complexity issue again - you can only buy whole new cars; you can't upgrade an existing machine. There are, however, over 800 vehicles, and all are true to life. That's always been something the Gran Turismo series has been exceptional at. Lusting after some of those $3m machines will allow some longevity, but having to race 99 laps to get some real coin flowing in might be too much. Especially when you consider the game's aforementioned weak graphics and the appalling sound (which I am mentioning now).
Despite an unlockable soundtrack customiser, the music and sound effects in this game are nearly as disappointing as how GT looks. The engine noise sounds like coupling cats getting hosed down inside a corrugated iron box. The music is only just good enough to keep the sound from being a dead loss. GT may have squeaked into the 'good' range if I could have scored it above 7 for sound - and the music is often where racers have a chance to shine. Alas. Alas.
Thankfully, the controls are responsive and logical and the cars achieve the right feeling of speed for their type. The actual driving mechanics are quite good, so that's one major plus. Those that go to the Portable version looking for roughly the same play experience as on the consoles (barring, of course, the lack of career mode, which pundits world over continue to lament) will at least get a little bit of down home. Although only four cars can appear in any one race, the AI drivers are sharp and smooth and there is some challenge in keeping those first place positions.
It's a simulator, and faithfully such, insofar only as it's not an arcade game. If you get my meaning. But never have I felt so aware that I just wanted to get to the end of the track so I could save and turn the console off. Every GT experience up until now has been more or less excellent, so the PSP version has really left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Worthless? Perhaps not, and I know that die-hard fans will go out and buy it despite what I or anyone else says about it, but I don't expect any of them to like it as much as they think they will.
I wanted more. I expected more. Should we be worrying about the franchise now that Microsoft have released the epic Forza 3? GT5 doesn't arrive til early next year, and that's a long time for fans to mull over the fact that the Portable version they've been dreaming about since 2004 actually turned out to be more of a nightmare. I think now more than ever the devs need to produce winner.