Gran Turismo 5 Review
After a lengthy time in development, Polyphony Digital's latest sim racer is finally here
The Gran Turismo franchise has always been a staple of the PlayStation brand, delivering great gameplay and fantastic visuals on every console the company has produced. Gran Turismo 5 marks the arrival of the franchise on the current generation of systems, the PlayStation 3. Though originally promoted as one of the launch titles on the platform, it has taken several more years than anticipated for the game to finally hit the store shelves. After so many years in development, the expectations reached unreasonable levels amongst fans. And while it’s true that Gran Turismo 5 is not the revolution of the sim racing genre, it’s still a very solid title with enough content to last a very, very long time. Apart from a few nagging annoyances, the game delivers the trademark sim racing to the modern audiences, and it is now more accessible to newcomers than ever before.
At the outset, players are presented with the option to install the game’s files to the hard drive. This is highly recommended, since it will improve the game’s already lengthy loading times, but more on that later. The install takes around 30-45 minutes, and takes over 8GB of space – so ample hard drive capacity is required. After the installation, the game will actually continue to install files when the player reaches a new menu area or loads a track for the first time. This doesn’t present too many issues, but one has to wonder why, if the player already opted to install the game, there are still files that need to be copied in almost all areas of the game. It would have made more sense to make the installation process a bit longer, so that these install-as-you-go sections can be avoided down the road. As it is, the game is very heavy on loading screens – not the ones when you enter a race, mind you. It’s all the in-between menu loading that gets to be bothersome. Changing menu screens often takes a noticeable amount of time, and it’s simply frustratingly long for a modern game.
Once the game is ready, the player is presented with the main menu. From here, choices are GT Mode, Arcade Mode, GT TV, and Course Maker. The Gran Turismo TV section presents the players with a viewing theatre where players can see content from various providers such as BBC, as well as the developer team at Polyphony Digital. Some of the content is free, while a few items are considered premium and require payment to view. The content also varies in quality and regional restrictions, so it’s difficult to believe that many players will be spending a lot of their time here.
The game’s Course Maker is a rather robust tool that’s easy to use, but it doesn’t have the complexity of something like Modnation Racers. The tool lets players pick a setting to start with, and then creates a sample track. Sliders are provided, that dictate the length of the track and the number of sections in it. Once the length is set, the players can then again navigate various settings such as complexity and length of each section, sharpness of turns, etc. The game then continues to auto-generate the track’s sections based on the attributes the player provides. At any time, you’re able to jump in and test the track with some AI opponents. The tracks can then be saved, shared and played with friends. It’s a neat tool that eliminates any complexities that the average player may have ran into, but it also means that nobody will be able to express any creativity when designing the tracks.
The Arcade Mode is a great way to get racing right away. Players can choose from a few modes, such as a time trial, drift trial, or a single race. A majority of the game’s tracks and cars are available for selection right from the start, so it’s a great way to jump in and play. All of the cars here are stock, so one does not need to worry if a car is properly suited for the race track selection. Players are also presented with a difficulty level, so this could be a great way for new players to practice their skills and learn a specific car’s handling or track. It’s a pickup-and-play mode that’s quick to get started and to enjoy.
The core of the game’s experience lies with the GT Mode. This is where most players will spend a very long time as they progress through their careers, unlocking new cars, tracks, and events over time. The two basic modes of play are A-Spec and B-Spec. In A-Spec, players get behind the wheel and try to win as many races as possible. With each win, players earn experience and cash. Experience is used to unlock new events and progress your career, while cash helps develop your garage offerings. There are a number of race tiers in the game, from Beginner to Extreme, that offer events with varying amount of races each. Each tier and race are locked behind a level restriction, so the player must first reach a certain level (via experience) before they can race in later events.
All of the events in the A-Spec mode are races, with the player starting in a grid formation and going head to head with AI drivers in hopes of a first place finish. Apart from cash and experience, winning race events also unlocks new vehicles for purchase, and even awards prize cars. The first few levels of a career are fairly easy to get through, but later on the XP grind becomes rather noticeable – though fans shouldn’t worry. There are always a ton of things to do at each level, and there is never a need to play a race that you’ve won more than once. The money progression is also fairly balanced, if you save up you will be able to purchase some very nice cars and upgrades for yourself in a short while.
The car selection in the game is quite mind-blowing. There are over 1000 cars in the game, and while in itself that is a very impressive number, players should take note that the variety Is actually somewhat lacking. The game offers cars from all makes and models, from BMW to Chevrolet, Ford to Honda, Mazda to Nissan, and more. The cars also come from a variety of different eras, from pre-1960s all the way to the modern vehicles. An issue is that a lot of the cars are extremely similar – such as over 10 different Subaru Imprezas varying only mildly in release year and model specs, over 20 Nissan Skylines with similarly close characteristics. While this may be a collector’s dream for some players, many will be disappointed that the selection didn’t instead include some new models from other brands and eras.
All of the cars are also split into two categories, Premium and Standard. Premium cars are the cream of the crop, they are incredibly detailed, include a fully rendered and realistic driver panel view, can be damaged during races, and can be used in the game’s photo mode. These vehicles do look utterly fantastic and are a joy to drive, especially from the driver’s seat. Unfortunately, there are only around 200 such cars in the game – the rest are Standard. These Standard cars don’t have visual damage, can’t be used in photo mode, don’t offer a driver’s seat camera view and often have very poor textures. So unfortunately, for a lot of the gameplay, players will be using cars that don’t look very good and lack a damage model. This is rather disappointing, since it makes the game look fairly poor at times, and give the impression that the developers were aiming for quantity over quality. The lack of even a generic driver panel for the Standard cars is also unfortunate, as it would have at least given the players an option to still use the in-car view throughout the game.
Players can acquire cars from either the dealerships, which are always in stock and offer a wide range of new and older models, or on the used market. Dealerships offer new cars for a premium price and are a great option for those rare vehicles you won’t find used. The used market, however, offers cars with great discounts because of their high mileage. Unless you’re looking for a specific car, it always seems like the best option is to buy used. The car’s mileage seems to offer no real impact on the performance, and only thing that may be required is an oil change, a wash, and maybe an engine rebuild, all of which are relatively cheap tasks at the mechanical shop. The mechanical shop also offers the players a chance to apply a new paint to the car, the wheels, or even apply a full sports body kit that improves the power of the vehicle (but it cannot be undone). Players can also sell their cars if they need extra cash, but the return is often a fraction of the initial purchase price, even if you’ve installed upgrades.
All of the cars in the game come with a variety of stats, and they all can be tweaked by purchasing hardware upgrades. Players can buy and tune the engine, tyres, transmission, air intake, exhaust, and much more. All of the upgrades are described for easy understanding of their effects, and also provide players with the immediate Horse Power increase preview, so you know which parts will provide the best boost. There is a lot of room for tinkering with the upgrades for your primary vehicles, and it’s important because much of the winning will depend on the power of your car rather than driving skill. A great touch is that all the upgrades actually make your car feel and sound noticeably different.
The game also features a ton of great tracks, but again these also vary in quality of their realization. The locales such as Madrid, London and Tokyo are expertly designed and very true to life. They are a blast to drive and you may even forget you’re playing a game when a Premium Ferrari speeds by the realistic buildings and landmarks. On the other hand, a lot of the tracks feature less than stellar background visuals (or in fact none at all) that take you out of the experience.
Now let’s finally get down to the racing. The driving model behind GT5 is very solid, and provides a simulation racing experience that fans will enjoy. There is nothing revolutionary about it, and it still takes the effects of gravel and grass a bit too far, but overall it excels where it needs to. The controls are steady, and both the controller and a racing wheel can be used – though the game only supports a limited number of wheels at this time The cars and tires behave as you would expect from a sim racer, and the physics engine is solid for the most part. The only real problem with on-the-track experience is physical contact. The contact with AI is described later on, so more specifically the crashes and bumps into railings are what feels generic and unrealistic. Driving a car into a railing from high speeds should cause devastating effects, as other games have already shown us (NFS Shift, Dirt 2, GRiD). In GT5 however, the cars simply bounce off the obstacle in an awkward way like you’ve hit the car’s model bubble. There are no area-specific effects depending on what part of the car makes contact, which makes it feel very basic and arcade-like.
When your car does crash, there should be damage. Don’t let anyone fool you that a Lamborghini hitting a concrete barrier at 200km/h is only going to get a scratch. With other developers such as Codemasters leading the damage model innovation, GT5’s crumbling of metal looks and feels very basic and uninspired. Heck, the recent Need for Speed Hot Pursuit didn’t feature very detailed damage – but it was at least obscured by an overload of flying bits and superior crash momentum. Given that only Premium cars in GT5 can show defects, players will also be disappointed to know that it takes a very long time to unlock full damage in career mode – around A-Spec level 40. That’s a lot of gameplay hours. Until then, even the most high-speed collisions will result in nothing more than a few scrapes, perhaps a loose bumper or a broken headlight. If you wish to see the full damage model right from the outset, players can do so by using Arcade Mode. But even then, the damage model is simply not accurate or impressive enough. Given that there is no mechanical damage (which is promised in a later patch), the visual damage is all we have to go by, and things don’t look all that great.
Another big problem on the track in GT5 is the AI. The enemy drivers are set to follow the racing line no matter what gets in their way, including the player’s car. They never make mistakes, so unless your vehicle matches theirs click for click and you’re able to perfectly stick to the racing line, you won’t win many races. The AI in the game has a very heavy feel, so you won’t be able to force them off the road or interact with them much at all. And don’t dare cut in front of them – at every opportunity, the AI will bump the rear side of your car (ala the police pit maneuver) as they send you into a tailspin and continue on. This will lead to many race-ending crashes, because again as mentioned, unless you possess a significantly faster vehicle, it’s impossible to catch up. The only way to negate the AI is to drive a much faster vehicle, but then it just feels like cheating somewhat.
Outside of the career mode racing, the game also has Special Events. These events are a series of unique races that put your skills to a test. The special events vary from the simple and fun go-kart racing to the brutally challenging NASCAR trials. All of the events are locked to certain XP Levels, but beyond that are not connected to the progression of the A-spec campaign. The special events vary in duration and difficulty, and also fun factor. They don’t bring a significant amount of XP or cash, so completing them is purely for a diversion.
In tradition with the series, the game also features a full set of License Tests, which are also optional and unrelated to the career progression (though again locked away by XP levels). These tests are set to test your driving ability in some very specific situations, such as undertaking a corner or learning to brake in time. The tests are all set against the clock, so completing these is a true skill challenge that’s unhindered by AI issues. All of the licenses are relatively easy to pass, but if you want the silver or gold awards, you’ll have to try significantly harder. There’s nothing more addicting than missing the gold trophy by just a few milliseconds and trying just one more time. Chasing your own shadow from the best-set trial time has never been more addicting.
The other version of the A-Spec career is the B-Spec mode. The two modes share a lot in common, such as the experience system, the cars that are available, and the race events. The twist is that the player is not in control – your job instead is to create a driver (or a team of drivers) and take them through their racing careers. Your driver starts off on a low level, racing the same basic tracks as you did in a car that you’ve selected for them. The player is able to provide basic commands, such as to speed up or slow down, or overtake their opponent. Upon winning, he gains experience and his skills improve, and overtime he is ready to take on bigger races and faster cars.
The mode is simply not fun to play however. The commands that you give to your driver only seem to deteriorate his calmness level, and have little effect on his actions. Players can only watch in agony as their driver makes a crucial mistake on the final lap and finishes in last place, even if you’ve given him perfect instructions and a well-tuned car. Unlike all the other AI drivers, your particular driver is apparently very prone to mistakes, and unlike a human, he’s often unable to recover or make the correct decisions in a situation. The fact that the races in B-Spec mode are double the length of their A-Spec counterparts doesn’t help things. It also doesn’t help that there is no way to fast forward the race, so you must sit there and watch for literally 10-20 minutes at a time as your driver gets through just two race events, hopefully not finishing near the bottom. All B-Spec mode does is make you wish you could just take over the wheel from your apparent rookie. So then you go and play more A-Spec.
If you need a break from earning XP offline, the game features a full set of online modes. To kick things off, there is split screen local multiplayer for up to two players that can be accessed from the Arcade Mode right away. All your PSN friends who own the game are automatically added to your community feed, where you can access their profile stats and any cars/tracks/items they’ve decided to share. The game places an emphasis on player sharing, as any car and track can be instantly uploaded for your friends to see. Interestingly enough, any cars you tag as shared will not be usable in your career offline races until you take them offline again. So you won’t see your friends post their favorite cars, because they use them too often in the game. Each player has their own message wall (like Facebook) where others can leave notes. There is also a message system (though it seems redundant to PSN), as well as the ability to gift cars and other items to your friends.
Once you’re ready for some competition, the game offers standard public lobbies and matchmaking where players can gather and discuss things before the race. The game offers Lounges, which act like enhanced lobbies where players can chat, tweak their cars, and go on the race track for some free driving before the race begins. Players can rack up various bonuses by winning online races and improving their global ranking. The players online are mixed, unless the host places restrictions everyone will use the fastest car they can find. Unable to control it, watch for the opponents on your radar to crash on the first corner and be sure you’re not mixed up in that. The connectivity seems fine, with the occasional lag that doesn’t hinder the race too much.
Presentation in Gran Turismo 5 is a mixed bag. As mentioned, the Premium cars look fantastic in comparison to the poorly textured Standards. The reflections on the cars are great, but the game also suffers from some very blocky shadows, even on the premium cars. The water and snow effects on the tires and cars look good, but the driver view of the rain on a windshield is rather odd and the water simply looks scripted. So overall, there are some great visuals, but also some very sub-par ones, and the game can’t decide which direction it wants to go. Crowds is another example – some tracks have fully 3d-rendered fans, while others feature measly pixelated sprites. It’s also rather odd that crowds make absolutely no sound during races, so the experience is again undermined by this small but crucial immersion factor.
The audio at least is great. It has to be said that some fans won’t appreciate the musical mix found in the game, yet it is still very good. All of the menus in the game have accompanying tunes that range from smooth jazz to classic piano. Once in the race though, the soundtrack kicks up some fast moving rock and dance tracks that mostly work well with the sounds of the engine. For those who don’t appreciate the vast amount of music that’s available in the game, there is the option to import your own music to complete the experience.
Gran Turismo 5 is a really huge game in terms of content. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably still keen on taking the plunge and just wanted to know a few more details. We could go on, and write about the Museum, which offers a history of the car franchises featured in the game, or the great-looking 3D Visuals and Head-tracking features. Or the fact that the game sadly lacks any basic replay controls (except for pause), and that some menus are completely redundant (do you really want to accept your prize car?). But they are minor details in an overwhelming package of pure content. Gran Turismo 5 is a game of moments – some of brilliance, some of frustration. It’s fantastic to see a Premium car race down the track and win you gold by a fraction of a second. It’s a completely different experience as you’re ready to hurl your controller at the frustrating AI driving around an uninspired track in Standard cars. At the end of the day, sim fans will get a ton of racing for their money, so Gran Turismo 5 comes recommended.