Let’s talk about expectations. Because lord knows there were more than enough swirling around Gran Turismo 5 to create a galactic-sized black hole in Sony’s end-of-year financials if the game didn’t finally find its retail gear before Christmas 2010.
With Sony’s marketing machine continuing to clock up the millage as the game’s development cycle coasted past a reported five years and $60m, the anticipation was that GT5 would turn out to be the definitive driving game. In the end though, the fact that it isn’t, (and that it doesn’t even come close to capturing that title), should not detract from the greatness Kazunori Yamauchi and his team at Polyphony Digital have managed to achieve in so many areas, or the width of the margin by which they’ve missed it in a handful of others.
Initial impressions of this new Gran Turismo are ones of slightly disappointing over-familiarity. Back once again is the ‘Now That’s What I Call A Luxury Car Showroom! Volume 1’ menu music; back is the Arcade Mode, allowing instant access and thrills for one or two players via a wide range of cars and courses, and back is the voluminous GT Mode, which, despite giving even greater prominence to RPG-style experience points and levelling-up, also appears largely untouched since the last time it was seen.
As you embark on your trek up the GT Mode’s driving ranks, acquiring new cars and unlocking new events as you climb, you’ll encounter the good old licence tests – although these are now semi-optional assessments of cornering, braking and overtaking, rather than mandatory examinations of competence they use to be. The new and second-hand car dealerships also return, and when you’ve parted with your hard won cash on a practical purchase needed to compete in a specific event or an unnecessary, but irresistible, object of desire, you can then run it straight over to the tuning shop, where the experts tinker to get the absolute maximum out of their vehicles and the ignorant just attach the biggest turbo their money can buy.
GT Mode’s standard, A-Spec races continue to offer an eclectic mix of events, some completely non-discriminatory over their entrants, others restricted to cars of specific eras, models and manufacturing locations. The game’s plethora of racing venues now stretches from classic GT circuits such as Autumn Ring and Grand Valley Speedway, through the imposing architecture and tight turns of city courses in London, Madrid and Rome, to the gritty uncertainty and undulations of off-road snow and dirt tracks, with even those devoid of almost any interesting features still a sight to behold.
Despite a lack of uniformity in visual quality, caused by the odd sub-standard art asset jarring against the near photo-realism of the rest, GT5’s looks are genre-leading. From the panoramic vistas to the tyre-scuffed rumble strips, the attention to detail is consistently staggering, and extends to the cars themselves – well the Premium ones at least.
In almost any other driving game, the presence of 200 cars, recreated as perfectly internally as they are externally – right down to ever nut in the wheels, bolt in the bodywork, knot in the wood and stitch in the leather – would be an incredible feat. In GT5 however, the fact that Polyphony have added to these another 800 cars from previous GT games that have received nothing more than a coat of HD Turtle Wax is, sadly, sure to capture the headlines. Their rougher, unrefined polygonal edges do them no favours and the lack of any cockpit view seems to be the developers’ way of saying, “Oh no, you don’t want to go in there. It’s old and threadbare and there’s a strange smell you really don’t want to investigate further.”
One thing that does stand up to as much scrutiny as anyone can subject it to however, is GT5’s game engine. It would be easy to go into pages of superlatives about how great this is, but suffice to say that there is nothing else currently available that gets as close to capturing the distinct personalities of so many individual cars or connecting you so closely with them or the road.
The engine is also an astonishing versatile instrument; somehow able to turn its talents to accurately recreating almost any discipline across the entire spectrum of motor sports. It’s something that’s demonstrated nowhere better than in GT5’s Special Events, where it transitions effortlessly from nimble karting contests to the drafting and rubbing of heavily-set NASCARs without even appearing to break a sweat – although an event where you race a chugging snake of VW Camper Vans around the Top Gear Test Track is virtually ruined by the game going out of its way to be as officious and contradictory to the spirit of the TV show as it can.
If there’s one major criticism against GT5 though, it’s that the things it’s outstanding at are those that the series has always done extremely well, while the additions it introduces are much less successful. The series calls itself ‘The Real Driving Simulator’, not ‘The Real Racing Simulator’ and it’s an important semantic distinction as Polyphony’s preference for the simple joys of collecting and driving cars over competing in them is plain to see.
Although the game’s A.I. drivers have been shaken out of the processional monotony of past games, they’re still seriously risk adverse for hardened drivers and much better at racing each other than racing you. And while GT5 does include visible car damage for the first time in series history, it’s a strangely random and peculiar mechanic that does little to detract from the way vehicles still react unrealistically to contact with bumper cars-style physics and a quiet, embarrassed thud.
The new B-Spec portion of the GT Mode, where, instead of racing, you build a team of drivers, nurturing their abilities and instructing them tactically during races, could have been an intriguing strategic alternative to the other options available. Unfortunately, a woeful lack of options make it mind-numbingly dull, and it’s a similar story with the new Course Maker, where your only control is over a selection of variables such as road surface and corner difficulty, which the game then uses to build a track for you.
In the end, the improved A.I., the car damage, the B-Spec events and the Course Maker all feel like half-realised ideas; and while GT5 can’t hold a candle to Modnation Racers in the track creation stakes, one area in which it does share an unwelcome similarity is its frequent, snooze-inducing loading times – and this after a gargantuan install when you first load up the game.
As a grand final manoeuvre before the chequered flag, GT5 also throws the series into the world of online racing for the first time. The absence of such a feature would obviously have put the game at a great disadvantage, but while what’s here is functional – with a handful of entertaining modes that include one where drivers are randomly assigned cars from a pool of vehicles – it’s distinctly disappointing that a franchise on the cutting edge in so many areas is here only a speck in the rear view mirror of competitors such as Forza, Burnout, Need for Speed and Blur.
What Gran Turismo 5 really needed was a strict Executive Producer to stand, unblinking over Kazunori Yamauchi 24 hours a day, constantly saying, No, we’re not doing that, or that, we’re focussing on this, this and this.”
In their absence, GT5 is a bit like an opus constructed under exam conditions. Finally, Sony said stop writing and this is Polyphony’s offering at the automotive altar. A glorious, surprising and frustrating motoring haberdashery that’s prevented from being flawlessly stunning only by the moments it’s stunningly flawed. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but like any epic there are touches of genius here you just won’t find anywhere else…Well, possible Gran Turismo 6….anyone want to bet when that one will be out?
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 3 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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