Talk about Sony exclusives and a handful of titles always appear at the top of the list. The Gran Turismo series is one of them and after five years in development, numerous crushed hopes due delay announcements and painful teases ranging from a full on “prologue” game to announcements of 3D compatibility, it is finally, at long last here. And it is a great game. But not a game for everyone, and certainly not a perfect game.
A Lot Of Old, A Lot Of New
Gran Turismo 5 has always been about one thing; driving a variety of cars with a startling level of reality and accuracy. As such there’s no plot here to carry you through, except for perhaps the very loose, self-constructed narrative of your own rise in expertise from amateur “Sunday Cup” races to the big leagues of full on Rally and NASCAR races. This is a series that has always been one of the flagships on consoles for simulating the driving experience, and mostly, at least presentation-wise, the game delivers.
The graphics of the GT series are what have always distinguished it from console competitors, and some of the time, Gran Turismo 5 lives up to that reputation. The tracks themselves are still done with the gorgeous, clean (some would say sterile) look that is characteristic of a GT game. Old favourites such as the Nurburgring in Germany make a new, high-def return, while new tracks, such as Rome, add some beautiful new variety to the series. They are all lovingly crafted with that particular obsession to detail that is generally Japanese and especially Polyphony Digital-esque, and some of these new tracks also include night and day changes, and weather effects like rain and snow. All of this adds up to—at GT5’s best—some breathtaking driving experiences with sunset on the horizon and dirt being kicked up around your car, or rain drops hitting the windshield in cockpit view with uncanny realism.
Where GT5 falters is in a lack of consistency. The mix of premium cars (essentially PS3 cars with all the HD bells and whistles graphically) and standard cars (PS2 era cars that have been ported over with slightly higher resolution) can make for a noticeable difference in visual quality during replays. The graphics engine also, surprisingly, struggles at times, varying between 60 and 50+ frames per second with some occasional small screen tearing. The shadows in the environments also stick out due to aliasing, something made even more noticeable by the anti-aliasing in the rest of the environment. At its best, Gran Turismo 5 is a phenomenal looking game, but it occasionally hiccups with quality and technical issues. Sound is still impeccable, with accurately recorded engine effects that vary wildly in distance and intensity depending on your chosen point of view while driving. There’s also a huge mix of music from rock to bossa nova to cater to a wide variety of musical tastes. Failing that, custom soundtracks have finally made it into the game so drivers can set up the perfect playlist for their Rally session. In the audio department, there’s very little to complain about.
Everything Including The Kitchen Sink
Gran Turismo 5 is a huge game. An intimidating one. It asks a lot of its players, though this call to go the distance isn’t mandatory. There’s an arcade mode for people that just want to hop in a car and mess around, but the real star of the show is GT Mode which includes A and B Spec modes, special events, a tuning shop, and the online features. All of this is wrapped up in the masterful driving physics that the series is known for, something that comes into its own when a driving wheel with proper force feedback is used, although even with a Dualshock controller, it’s easy to see the difference in handling from one vehicle to the next. A-Spec is the traditional, tiered mode where players compete in various races of escalating difficulty, while B-Spec is management/RPG style game where players guide a driver on his rise to racing stardom, issuing orders during the race. In each mode, players are limited to accessible cars not just by money on hand, but a new levelling system, where experience accrued in A-Spec, B-Spec or special events allows access to more exotic, powerful vehicles. Special Events themselves add a lot of variety to the mix with Kart racing, NASCAR and Rally modes, as well as access to the infamous Top Gear test track.
The problems come in with how the game itself is organized. While there’s a wealth of content, it’s unlocked slowly, and this includes improvements to the game that players have been clamouring for, such as damage modelling and more aggressive driver AI are barricaded behind higher level requirements. For the impatient gamer, this means the opening hours of Gran Turismo 5 feel like no improvements other than graphics have been implemented. It’s a design decision that obviously tries to match itself to growing driving skill, but for players already familiar with the series, it feels limiting. And then there are the vehicles themselves. Of the 1000+ vehicles available, only about 200 are “premium” cars, including high levels of detail, cockpit views and more accurate damage modelling. The remaining “standard” cars are carry overs from Gran Turismo 4 and don’t have the same amount of loving detail, an obvious necessity to keep the game from taking another year to release. It divides the game, inadvertently giving a sense of quantity over quality, and its likely that many players will cry foul over their favourite car not being amongst the “elite” 200 that were given premium status.
The multi-player side is, unfortunately, a work in progress at the time of this writing. The network itself is unstable, making it difficult to connect reliably to other players. But most disappointing of all is the archaic system in place. No match-making, and a tiny handful of inadequate “racing regulations” ensure that most races driven online will be a ridiculous mix of Honda Civics going up against Lamborghinis and Corvettes. These are all criticisms that are already acknowledged and being addressed in future patches, but right just now, Gran Turismo 5’s online presence has a good community sense going for it with its Lounges and friend connections, but suffers in the actual multi-player department.
Gran Turismo 5 is not a game for everyone, but for people that love simulations, love cars, or just want to tinker around with vehicles they could never possibly afford in real-life, it’s one of the best games of the year. For people that have criticized GT’s conventions in the past, those criticisms stubbornly remain in varying degrees. The online has the potential be a great experience, but not in its current form, though future patches have already been announced. However, the enormous amount of content, superb physics and clear love of automobiles should be enough to convince anyone with the remotest interest in cars that this is a game worth owning.