Gran Turismo Sport Review
A lean, mean racing machine
The previous entry in the long running Gran Turismo franchise released 4 years ago on the PlayStation 3. This sim racing franchise has always been a PlayStation staple, but a decision was made somewhere along the way to choose the aging console on its way out, rather than the new and shiny PS4. Fans were probably understanding because GT6 featured so much content, a lot of it even carried over from PS2 era games. It would have been no easy feat to port all of that to the PS4. So the fans waited, and in the meantime the exclusive offerings such as Driveclub failed to fill the void. Now, a year after it was originally scheduled to release, Gran Turismo Sport has arrived on the PS4. Promising an experience rebuilt from the ground-up for the modern console, this simulation title offers stellar gameplay and impressive presentation, but it's also seriously lacking in a number of areas. It seems that dropping the number in the title had a more far reaching effect than anticipated.
Where the Gran Turismo franchise always held a strong position, regardless of other features, is in its racing. The core gameplay has been so fine-tuned and near perfected over the years that few dared to challenge it on console. But with the genre now being fairly well represented, GT Sport has some competition from the likes of Forza and Project Cars. And it meets that challenge in stride. The racing feels very smooth and realistic, definitely tipping more towards simulation than arcade, even with some assists turned on. Whether you’re driving a basic Mazda or a super powered Lamborghini, the basics of proper acceleration/breaking, turning, and other key techniques remain vital to success. Because of its realism focus, it may not be the flashiest or the most fun drive you’ll have this year, but it will get your heart pumping as you carefully and precisely steer through the bends. There’s still a very big focus on using drafting, momentum, and even tire and fuel management that helps the game stand out. Going off-road introduces a whole new set of challenges, as trying to keep the car from sliding around is difficult. GT Sport undoubtedly provides an authentic automotive driving experience. Playing with a controller is fine, but going for the best times will have you tweaking settings or even checking out the motion-control option.
But elsewhere, GT Sport is much less authentic. It's slim pickings when it comes to the car selection, though the variety is commendable. There are just over 160 cars total, representing over 30 manufactures. Cars are split into performance categories, but not into any classes/chassis types etc. As in the past, quite a few cars are the same models and years, just falling into different competition category - and while that was fine when the game featured over 1k vehicles, it stands out in a negative light in GT Sport. For example, Subaru has 6 cars, but five of them are just different takes on the 2014 Subaru WRX. Of the 11 Peugeots, 5 are 2015 Peugeot RCZ models. Further to that, over 30 cars are "Vision Gran Turismo" models, meaning they are concepts that probably don't appeal to fans looking for real offerings. So GT Sport no longer has the car collecting appeal of the past entries, but at least the reduced car count means that all of the vehicles have been meticulously recreated from scratch with high attention to detail, perhaps even more so than other sim racers (turn signals are used!), as the game looks very nice on the launch PS4 model, and there aren't any last-gen imports with reduced model quality. Still, the cosmetic damage model remains largely non-existent, and not all cars have interior views.
And, as with the cars, the track selection won't exactly blow you away with its number. There are a total of about 40 courses spanning 17 locations, which is a notably low number compared to the competition. While the staples like Brands Hatch, Suzuka Circuit and Nurburgring are present, other famous tracks like Spa, Côte d'Azur, Le Mans, and Laguna Seca are absent. Instead, more than half the tracks are fictional - and while they are well designed, it again rings a bit hollow for a game that's trying to focus on realism. Needless to say, GT Sport has some catching up to do. There's no dynamic time of day, instead each tracks offers a variety of static conditions selected before the race. This means the lighting effects look very good and quite detailed since they've been hand-crafted for each time of day scenario, but it does make the setting feel a bit stale especially if you're doing endurance. There's also no rain (apart from one special event in single player), and no snow. The only other weather effect is fog, which is at least possible on a few tracks. Only about three tracks feature night racing - but it does look rather fantastic. The tracks feature nice touches such as grand backdrops, and spectators not attending qualifying events but showing up for the races. But on the other hand the environments are quite static, not even featuring interactable tire walls.
Another big feature that's off the list for GT Sport is an involving single player career. There are still some single player offline activities to partake in, but they feel like a set of tutorials. The so-called Campaign Mode contains three activity areas: Driving School, Mission Challenge, and Circuit Experience. Fans who have played the previous GT games will remember License Tests - single challenges, usually under 30 seconds to complete, that tested your ability on a certain section of a course. These tests were meant to teach players specific driving techniques, and offered three reward levels (gold, silver, bronze) depending on your final time. This is pretty much the same case for Driving School and Circuit Experience modes. In Driving School, you're looking to set at least a bronze time in order to progress to the next lesson, of which there are 48. In Circuit Experience, you're tasked with tackling every corner of each track, one by one, and eventually trying to race a full lap within the time limit. Lastly, Mission Challenge mode tries to spice things up by featuring a variety of scenarios, such as passing challenges, knocking down cones, reaching certain speeds, and so on.
Depending on how well you do (and how many times you want to grind to shave milliseconds off your time), the rewards for silver and gold times give more credits over bronze. It can certainly be addicting to chase your own car ghost and try to improve your time, and you'll probably learn some valuable driving techniques, but after a while you'll realize this is just a grind, and not exactly thrilling campaign content. It would have been greatly beneficial if you could load the ghosts of other drivers and see their methods, or even those on your friends leaderboard.
The rest of the single player content is filed under Arcade Mode. Here, you can create and race on the track and car of your choosing, as a basic freeplay or custom event. You can pick the skill of the AI opponents, choose the time of day, and set other custom race conditions. You can also do other activities, such as time trials and drift events. If you've got a friend over, you can race in two-player split screen, and if you have a PS VR unit, there's a VR mode where you race against a single AI opponent. For the scope of this review, we didn't test the VR segment. In a bid to catch up with other franchises, GT Sport introduces a nice livery customization mode, letting you create a unique look of your cars, and share them with others. You can also customize your driver helmet and outfit colors. Last but not least, aspiring photographers can jump into the Scapes mode. In this photo mode, players can choose from a variety of real life photographs, and place their car within the specific allotted space in the shot. You can then adjust the position of the car, lens setting, special effects, and so on. With a little practice you can create some amazing life-like shots, and share them with others. On a similar note, you can view cars in a dynamic setting, such as driving down a road or pulling out of the garage; in these car showcases, the vehicle is rendered overtop of a real background photo, and the results range from "obviously poor CGI" to highly photorealistic.
Even with what little single player content there is, GT Sport makes more poor design choices. Namely, you can only use the cars you own in Arcade Mode events, so you can't just pick a supercar and go for a cruise at will. And secondly, the tracks you can race on are locked by your driver experience level, so it will be quite a while before you're able to take to the Nurburgring in freeplay. It's a needlessly limiting approach that prevents casual players from experiencing the already limited content until you grind experience. But to completely eliminate any doubts about GT Sport's disaffection for offline play, the game features an always-online design quite similar to Street Fighter V. If you're offline, or PSN is down, or the game's servers are down / in maintenance (as they have been multiple times already during launch week), the only thing you have access to is the Arcade mode. And while you can still do the races and time trials, etc, your XP, income, and other progress is not saved. The rest of the game becomes unavailable - you can't access any Campaign Mode events, and shockingly, you can't even use the Scapes mode to mess around with some photos. Much as it was with SFV, the always online requirement is frustrating and poorly executed.
The abovementioned driver experience level is increased with every race, but it's slow going. The biggest boost to your level will come from completing game-tracked achievements such as overall distance driven, fuel spent, cars owned, victories earned, and so on. Alongside driver experience, you'll be earning credits and mileage points. Credits are the self-explanatory cash system in the game which lets you purchase cars. The balance of the economy seems decent; the game is fairly generous about giving you prize cars from completing Driving School and other single player events, as well as putting in some driving every day. The Mileage Points system is a little more interesting - you spend these points on special customization items and livery components. So far, so good. But crucially, these points are also used to unlock special cars, and class performance upgrades. Players can no longer upgrade cars with individual parts (but you can still tweak specific aspects like transmission, etc), and instead you can unlock 3 or 4 levels of Power and Weight using the Mileage Points. This allows your cars to perform worse/better and potentially race in lower/higher performance categories. Not only is it questionable to lock gameplay-affecting features to the currency used for cosmetics, it introduces a new tier of balancing issues that are undoubtedly going to affect your competitiveness.
This brings us to Sport Mode, the multiplayer section of GT Sport. As has been alluded to, GTS presents itself as a game that wants to focus on online play and real competition, seeing as its online play is apparently sanctioned by the governing body of international motorsports, the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile). So before you can even jump in, players need to watch a couple of brief videos that focus on sportsmanship. It's a decent touch to get players in the right mindset, though the video frequently uses strange language about "looking bad", which is perhaps something that was lost in translation. Once ready to go, players can participate in official races, or jump into player made custom lobbies.
But even though it's so focused on online play, you'll quickly realize that GT Sport's multiplayer offerings need more variety. There are structured competitions set to take place next month, but otherwise the only racing you're able to do is through 3 different events. These events, chosen by developers Polyphony Digital, are single races that take place every 5-10 minutes and can have up to 24 participants. You sign up for an event, and while waiting for the start you put in the best laps you can to get a good qualifying time, which determines your starting grid position. Then you get matched with players that have similar best-lap times and profile ratings, which we'll touch on later. You complete the race (a typical 3-5 lap affair), and that's it - back to menu, choose one of the 3 available events again, and wait for the timer to countdown. Once you feel you've set the best time that you can, there's no reason to run qualification laps anymore because the game will keep your best time for the track. So you're just stuck waiting, sometimes as long as 10 minutes, for the next race to actually start. Despite being marked as “daily”, the three events remained the same for a week, only switching over on the weekend. It becomes rather boring to compete on the same three tracks over and over, and online desperately needs more races to be available, or more frequent updates to what’s available.
Custom player lobbies are designed to provide some variety, as players can choose different car classes, race conditions, to race for fun or "for real", and so on. But with no matchmaking, you're going to see a ton of lonely one-player lobbies, and a few fuller ones that may kick you as soon as you join because it's for friends only. The custom lobby implementation is par for the course, and GT Sport doesn't do it any better or worse than other games, but because the actual developer-sanctioned content is so thin and refreshes at just weekly intervals, you'll be turning to lobbies much more frequently.
There are some qualms about balance - with so much focus on serious completion, the game would have benefitted from a super stringent system like the homologation that Forza 7 used. While there is a "Balance of Power" requirement for cars, it only brings them within similar specs, and not exactly the same, so you'll see the same car dominate the field and be used for setting record lap times. Plus with the Mileage Points upgrade system, it's never clear if someone has an advantage, unless you're all using the same car, and those races tend to be the most competitive and fun.
Players have two ratings - a Driver Rating and a Sportsmanship Rating. The former is a representation of your skill level, which is derived from your best lap times, average finishing position, and so on. The latter is a feature that aims to put players of the same behavior into similar races; those with a higher Sportsmanship Rating likely never cut the track, or crash into anyone or anything. Those with a lower rating are likely speed demons that care little about the rules or collisions. It's a great system, in theory. Unfortunately, the SR rating still needs much balancing; race after race, you'll see your rating drop because some other reckless driver crashes into you, at no fault of your own. The system still needs a lot of tweaking, though at least your SR rating is adjusted multiple times a race so it's possible to recover it even after getting slammed into and unfairly penalized. Perhaps there's another reason that player collisions aren't recommended - while bumping with AI in offline play is fine, physics in online crashes are quite over exaggerated and sends both drivers flying off the course even at low speeds. Further, in the case of a crash the players' cars are ghosted to avoid big pileups. This is a fine system, but it acts erratically in GT Sport, with cars entering/exiting ghost form at the most strange and inopportune moments. It's almost easier to forcefully let yourself trail the pack, sacrificing the podium just so you can build up your SR rating and start getting matchmade with more considerate drivers. If you manage to make it to the higher tiers of SR, online racing becomes quite pleasant and competitive, something that is rarely seen in the genre.
Outside the racing, the menu UI takes a little while to get used to, so perhaps not everything has changed in GT Sport. The game holds a steady 60fps throughout, and the loading times are rather quick. It's also neat that in some cases, such as consecutive Driving School missions, when the events take place on the same track there is no need for a loading screen at all. The audio design has been improved, and car engines sound quite profound, though it's still not quite best-in-class. The soundtrack is yet another mashup of good classical, rock and techno music that GT fans have come to expect.
Casual fans need not apply. That may seem harsh but that's exactly how GT Sport has positioned itself. There is always a place for games that cater to certain audiences, but you just don’t usually expect that with a racing game – a genre that, alongside sports and shooters, has one of the widest appeals. While it offers enjoyable racing, great simulation, and very nicely detailed cars, the content in this release is simply lacking. Even the hardcore fans, despite their mantra of gameplay above all else, will surely be disappointed with GT Sport's lack of cars, tracks, and things to do online. And if you're not a hardcore racer that has his wheel setup dusted off and ready to go, you may easily pass on this release. There's just too little here for a full price release, and with questionable design choices like locking away cars and tracks in Arcade mode, and being forced to be always-online, you'll find little redeeming value. Gran Turismo Sport strongly reminds of Street Fighter V's design philosophy, and we all know how well that turned out for Capcom. Hopefully, there is time for Polyphony Digital to expand on the content of this racer and bring in the fans, but at launch, it's a tough sell.