It was supposed to be perfect. After five years in development, over a decade's worth of superlative numbered iterations before it and PS3 now way past the flaky games that plagued its early life, there is no reason Gran Turismo 5 should be anything less than Sony's flagship racer. We've deliberately taken our time over this review to bring you the definitive verdict... but it's not good news. Not a disaster, but way off what we were expecting.
When I reviewed the PSP version earlier this year, I said: "Persevere in your search for that classic Polyphony magic and it does come in time. And when it does, you'll be able to forgive almost everything else. If only for those fleeting moments where it's right up there with the best things you've ever seen."
In GT5, that magic is almost completely absent. I've driven over 1,000 virtual miles over the past week (many at 50mph) and I have been properly impressed twice. Once was during the Tuscan night race when the fireworks are going off and your headlights are illuminating the countryside as you cannon over ridges in a Lamborghini. Awesome. The other was the first time I raced in the snow at Chamonix. These moments are genuinely like driving the intro movie and are exactly what the game should have been all the way through.
This video shows the bits I liked enough to save to replay (you'll notice it's rather short). The rest of the time has been quite a slog and certainly not worthy of a highlights reel.
The first problem is the constant feeling that the game is teasing you with glimpses of the exceptional over the merely decent. Like you're going to really get into the game in a minute and it will suddenly let you loose to have boundless fun. But the reigns pull up again and stop you, either by giving you a rally track that simply goes 'left' for a mile or so, or by making you restart an entire event because you knocked over a small red cone when the AI barged into you.
Which it does a lot. Polyphony has taken on board the criticism of CPU drivers' fear of venturing off the racing line, and gone too far the other way. The AI drivers in GT5 are complete bastards and think nothing of knocking into your rear side door on the straights and putting you into a spin. I'm used to this sort of behavior online in other games, but offline in GT? Check this out:
At least they make mistakes now, often sliding off-track in a flurry of dirt and tyre smoke. However, you'll seldom see it because the AI speed is even more unbalanced than in previous games. The first few races are easy, as you'd expect. But then you'll enter a race where your car simply can't keep up. That 'go left' rally event asks you for a sub-245bhp car, so I bought a 203bhp Lancia Delta. It's a well-known rally stalwart, but it just wasn't quick enough to compete. I know this because you don't lift the throttle from start to finish on the first stage, so there's little you can do to go significantly faster, yet I still lost by several seconds. The only answer is to spend money on upgrades.
This is all a moot point when you get further into the game, however, when you discover the other end of the problem. Take, for instance, the Tuning Car Grand Prix cup on Expert. I bought a Ferrari 599 '06 and tuned it up to a snarling 820bhp to enter the event at Professional level (one off the final, Extreme tier). There was no competition. I drove past everyone on the first straight, had time to crash twice and still won by a country mile. I know I've criticised Oblivion for having a proportional levelling system, but Gran Turismo is in dire need of one.
Most of the game is locked when you begin. You can hit arcade mode straight away and drive some fast cars, and I was able to import my garage from the PSP version immediately (sadly no F1 car – my 6,000,000 credits won't buy the Ferrari F1, even though it's finally appeared in the dealership). But just as I was thinking playing the PSP version had finally paid off, I saw that none of those cars can be used in career mode. You have to start from the bottom. Again.
Events are locked behind level targets. As you race, you gain XP which takes you up driver levels. Fortunately, expert drivers will be able to accelerate this process by acing the licence tests. Yup, they're back again, still asking you to drive 200m in a straight line and stop. I beat them all in a day and got my S licence, but was disappointed to see that the F1 car wasn't involved in the final tier. As it is, the S license is all overtaking challenges, which is a far cry from GT1 and GT3's mega-hardcore final lap time challenges.
In fact, the licence tests gave me the most satisfaction out of all the game modes. They appeal to the high score challenge school of gamers (like me) while testing your skills to breaking point. I got all the gold licences on GT3 back in the day and did the same with the PSP version recently – and I can see myself coming back to this to get the whole set gleaming with the shiny yellow stuff. The game makes more sense, too – Yamauchi is testing your understanding of automotive theory in short, concise practical application. It's so anal, it's practically disappeared up itself, but at least it makes sense.
Above: I cleared all of the licenses, on GT1, GT3 and GT PSP, and now GT5. This stuff is brilliantly hardcore
What doesn't make sense is the optimisation – or lack of it. By now, you've probably heard about the 50 minute optional data install. But it doesn't stop there. Everything seems to be preceded by a loading bar. Creating settings for GT TV, loading every track even with the install (which is hardly any quicker, in all honesty), connecting to online lobbies… none of these are cardinal sins on their own, but they're everywhere and it starts to grate.
Above: Even with the data installed, you can find yourself waiting for thumbnails and 3D previews to appear
This is amplified by the cumbersome user interface. Is it too much to ask that career events have a direct link to the dealership so you can buy a car that you need to enter a specific event? You can't. Want to switch off the driving line assist and change to manual transmission mid-race? You can't. Want to quit a series after the first race has ended? You can't – you have to load the next race and quit out from there, resulting in more loading bars.
We're used to games like this having long load times, of course. Forza 3 is famous for it, but at least Forza gets a lot of other things right. It does have comparitively plastic-looking cars, of course. But GT's bound to get that right, isn't it? It is, after all, a series that's always been so far ahead of the curve, traditionally they've been unmatched until the next generation of hardware has come around. Well, there are some blemishes that no amount of Turtle Wax can hide…