In the five years that have passed since Gran Turismo 4 arrived on PlayStation 2, PSU Towers has experienced all sorts of life changing moments, from births and marriages to deaths and divorces. It really has been that long, hasn’t it? Inevitably, the long gap between GT4 and GT5, a life-time in the fast-moving world of videogames, breeds expectation, and as the release date drew near in the lead up to this latest iteration we couldn't help but wonder, along with many others, what exactly Polyphony Digital has done with its time and whether it has managed to create the ultimate racing sim that the fans demand. Well, the wait is over, almost. After an excruciating 45-minute install - they really do like to make us wait - we don't have to speculate any longer. Take that look of disbelief of your face for one second, because Gran Turismo 5 is a reality.
Over the years, many racing games have rather nonchalantly used the words ‘simulation’ and ‘customization’ to describe a realistic driving style on the tracks and the plethora of options at your fingertips, but most haven't delivered on either of those fronts in the same way that the Gran Turismo series has. Gran Turismo 5 is further proof of Polyphony Digital’s ambition to create an in-depth, technically astute, serious racing sim for those who love everything about cars. And though the extensive roster of 1000+ cars and the wealth of options available (not to mention the difficulty of trying to steer a car perfectly around a track) may be overwhelming for some - particularly those who usually get their kicks from arcade racers like Need For Speed - it will be unadulterated car porn for others.
The technological leap from PS2 to PS3 is a big one for Polyphony Digital but it's had a little bit of practice. Showcased in Gran Turismo 5 Prologue a couple of years ago, we've already seen how things have improved on the track, with sublime physics and realistic car handling, but the developer has now had even more time to polish things up and utilize the power of the PS3. Predictably - and reassuringly - the polygon count has been upped considerably and now the cars shine and shimmer in glorious HD. There’s now a track editor, a photo mode and plenty of familiar and new stuff to enjoy, including the 16 player-enabled online multiplayer mode. Though there are some aspects of GT5 that aren’t quite as fantastic as we hoped, such was our expectation, there's no doubt that Polyphony Digital has set a new standard among racing sims that’s going to take some beating.
Whether you’re flicking through the myriad of menus and sub-menus, or trawling through the used car market, visiting dealerships, or tweaking and tuning your vehicle, customizing your ride is part and parcel of the whole GT experience; and it's richer for it. You get a real kick from grinding through the career mode, earning credits and exp and improving your vehicles before taking the race online, but equally there's satisfaction to be had from unlocking various items and modes. Because you’re always reaching out to get to the next milestone or striving to get the next unlockable - whether it be a new special event to enter or whether you’re trying to earn just enough credits to purchase the car of your dream - it’s an addictive mechanic. And the further you throw yourself into GT5 the more rewarding it becomes as you get to learn the strengths and weaknesses of your cars and how to push them to their limits on their various courses.
The first thing that will strike you as soon as you start your first race is the quality of the graphics. Having already played on a few tracks at a Gran Turismo 5 preview event on a Sony Bravia 3D compatible T.V., it's clear that this could really be the game to help propel 3D gaming forward for Sony. Sadly we don’t own a 3D T.V., but we have reviewed GT5 on the beautiful Sony Bravia 37" Full HD 1080p LCD T.V. and it does look fabulous, mostly, thanks to the photo realistic backdrops and painstakingly created car models.
However, with such a huge car roster on show (1000+), it’s inevitable that some cars do look better than others, particularly when you see them close up. Polyphony Digital chose to take a few hundred cars and label them as 'premium,' giving them extra special treatment in the graphics department. You can really see which cars they are – they’re the ones with finely detailed interiors and stunning bodywork. These ‘premium’ cars also come with an advanced damage modeling system that causes them to buckle and break apart on course. It's quite a subtle damage modelling system, especially if you compare it to the likes of DiRT 2, but it does add more authenticity to the races. It's just a shame it doesn’t apply to all cars.
It's also a pity that the high level of detail only applies to those 'premium cars.' On the track you'll hardly notice the difference, but close up you can see the lack of detail in some motors compared to others. It’s not that they look a lot worse; it’s just that ‘premium’ bunch look fantastic and ‘standard’ models look merely good. Environments on the other hand mostly look fantastic. One of our favourite moments has been racing at nighttime across the stunning Tuscan countryside and watching the fireworks explode in the distant night sky. Further highlights are sprinkled across the other 26 locations on offer, including snow-capped mountains that stretch as far as the eye can see, while impressive work has gone into creating the detailed city scenes, such as Rome and London.
Other effects, such as dust blowing up from the track, skid marks left behind as you tear around a corner, or snow driving at your windscreen, further help to create this photo-realistic look. It's not entirely good news though. If you do manage to take time to look around rather than concentrate on the race, you'll occasionally see scenery popping up in the background, some screen tearing and other graphical problems, such as jagged edges protruding from the shadows of cars. In the grand scheme of things, however, when you take into account the overall production and design quality, these are minor irritations. You only have to take a look at other racing games to conclude that Gran Turismo 5 is the most realistic looking outing in the genre you'll have ever played.
In the career mode, you have two main options, one of which is a lot more fun than the other. Firstly, there's A-Spec mode, which sees you gaining experience points with each race you take on as you systematically progress through the tracks, unlocking cars and earning credits along the way. The one-more-race mentality sinks in as you strive to pick up credits, knowing that you'll be able to improve and fine-tune your cars with your winnings. The driving force throughout the career is the lure of unlocking more stuff and the real feeling that you're progressing, getting to know your cars and getting ever closer to affording the top motors and tunings.
Things are broken up nicely with the inclusion of special events, which you can unlock giving you a new focus on away from the main career. These events are really something to look forward to and are more fast-paced, and in some cases more exciting, than the standard races as you get to grips with rally racing and get to take the likes of a VW van onto the Top Gear test track. Karting is a new addition too, which is lightening quick and lots of fun, especially when you switch the camera to first person view. It provides a nice change of pace to the more measured races in career mode.
Meanwhile, the B-spec mode offers something that we've never experienced before in a videogame - the chance to be the director of your racing team. You don't actually drive at all; instead, you initiate orders from the side-lines changing your tactics depending on how the race is playing out, trying to keep your driver mentally focused without over-loading him with requests. The interface is superb. The race plays out on the center screen and you can switch camera angles easily, while the right side shows other rider positions and lap times. The bottom of the screen shows the driver's morale and current car condition, while the left hand side houses information about your position in the race, how many laps you've done and details on your front and rear tyres. It's intuitive to use and well designed, and you can even choose and customize your driver, picking from a range of specific traits. However, telling the driver to overtake, or slow down, isn't half as much fun as driving yourself – as such, we felt quite detached from the action at times. Nevertheless, the driver responds well to your commands and there’s some enjoyment to be had out of having to adapt your strategies on the fly.
Inside and outside of the main game mode, you'll find yourself flicking through the menus trying to bring your cars up to the scratch, while making sure you have the right cars for the right races. You can purchase new parts, perhaps trying to increase the horsepower of your car, and its’ something you’ll need to do if you hope to get through some tricky challenges and fierce competition. While the fine-tuning options aren't incredibly in-depth, you can spend money on everything from exhaust system parts to reducing the weight of your chassis. With Polyphony Digital focusing so hard on creating a realistic racing game, we're surprised that it hasn't really pushed the boat out and made more visual upgrades, such as body mods, decals and vinyls. However, what there is available should satisfy most and the fine-tuning interface is impeccably designed making things as simple as possible to navigate. And when you do upgrade and tweak you'll really see the difference in your car's performance on the track.
GT fans will be used to the way that the cars handle, but the frustrations of having to deal with applied physics and the need to control cars with the precision of their real-world counterparts will kick in if: a) You've not played a Gran Turismo game before, or b) You're coming at it fresh from playing an arcade racer. Though car handling feels slightly less forgiving than Gran Turismo 4, this is still a tough game to master, but incredibly satisfying when you nail it. Remarkably, every car that we've tested out seems to handle slightly differently due to their various weights, tyre treads and engine systems. It's clear to see the difference on the track whenever you tweak or upgrade any aspect of your vehicle, and part of the fun of Gran Turismo 5 is spending the time adjusting your car to maximize its power.
Races are medium paced, unless of course you're playing one of the special events where they’re much faster, and therefore it’s not always full of the thrills and tussles that you might get if you were playing an arcade racing game; GT5 is a game for the patient. However, that doesn't mean that races aren't fun - far from it. Opposition A.I. has improved since Gran Turismo 4, and will aggressively pursue you to get to the front of the pack and move across your field of vision to block you off. This competitive A.I. becomes more apparent the further you get into career mode where drivers as well as their cars appear to perform much better. For the first few hours, opposition seems fairly easy to beat and can irritatingly get in the way (a problem that was brought up in GT4,) but largely A.I performs well and there's some exciting and challenging races to enjoy, as well as the immensely enjoyable special events. What really makes Gran Turismo really stand out on the track is the realistic driving physics, which makes car handling rewarding and challenging.
Though there’s plenty of challenge to be had offline, you can't beat playing a racing game against human opposition, where the action is totally unpredictable. At the time of writing, it's clear that the 16 player multiplayer mode needs a patch. We've struggled to connect to lobbies and spent more time fighting with the multiplayer system than enjoying it. However, series creator Kazunori Yamauchi has assured fans that there will be patch out very shortly to rectify the situation, so hopefully we'll get to enjoy the streamlined, social hub that Polyphony Digital has created. The multiplayer model is clearly aimed at creating a vibrant community. You can enter a community section where you can see whom on your friends list is playing and then post messages or gifts, such as cars. You can also jump in a lobby and chat away, or open your own room and have full control over customizing the entire race. We've played a handful of 16 player races and they've been completely lag-free and full of excitement. We have full trust in Polyphony Digital to fix the connection issues and when that happens, the GT5 multiplayer community is undoubtedly going to thrive over the coming years - and with 1000+ cars on the roster there’s plenty to sink your teeth in to.
Those familiar with the series will know that the action doesn't quite end there. Not content with just providing a robust, deep and enjoyable career mode, you can also jump into arcade mode, where you get the option to take part in a Single Race, Time Trial, or Drift match. There's also the return of the License Test, which allows you to get to grips with car handling while taking part in specific tasks. These are all modes that will be overly familiar to fans of Gran Turismo and supplement the game’s content very nicely, providing plenty of variety, while helping you to rack up those much sought after credits.
Then there's the course editor. Here you can create new circuits by choosing a template and then build on it with scenery, choosing where to place track sections and determining track length, and even the sharpness of corners; then going on to add weather conditions. New courses will add to the already massive roster of tracks (71 in total,) so there's no reason why GT5 should get stale, even a couple of years down the line. The interface for track editing is well-designed and intuitive to use thanks to use of sliders, but it is fairly basic. It isn't as in-depth as the likes of ModNation Racers, but there's no doubt that we'll see this track editor grow in future iterations of the series and what you've got here should be more than enough to keep you busy – that is, when you’re not already occupied with tweaking, tuning, customizing, and driving your cars.
Our expectations of Gran Turismo 5 were huge, and yes, there are some areas where we're not completely happy, most notably the inconsistency of car model design and some of the visual hiccups. There are also features that could be better, such as the course editor, which could have been a little more comprehensive. Nevertheless, GT5 deserves to be judged mainly on what it does on the track and it's here where it really shines. Yes, you'll spin out frequently on corners and initially struggle to get to grips with the demands of the realistic handling, but Gran Turismo 5 will sit pretty at the top of its genre for some time, thanks to the almost-complete racing simulator experience. Though we’re a little way off in terms of absolute perfection, any racing fan would be mad to miss it.
-The Final Word-
While GT5 could have done with more time, incredibly, to iron out a few of the kinks, there's so much quality on the track and so much to do off it that you'll easily forgive its shortcomings and revel in its successes -- of which there are many.