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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…
Gran Turismo 5 is no looker. You're obviously going to call me crazy. I've seen the screenshots too. Photo mode is photo mode - it's meant to look amazing. On the track, and during the replays, it's a different story. A couple of races do look beautiful, as I say. But there are so many visual shortcomings, I can't believe we're talking about a GT game. Here's a brief, very geeky, list of eyesores that spoil the view:
Above: Even a technophobe would question that shadow's jaggedness. It's like MotorStorm. One
Above: You can see the cross-polygon tree on the right here. A graphical technique dating back to 1995
Above: Even Saturday morning cartoon artists would feel bad for duplicating that many trackside hedges
Above: Is the game better for having cars that look like this? Quantity over quality wasn't GT's old mantra
Above: The GTHD Eiger track returns with its old crowd. So what's with the elbow-tastic people elsewhere?
With any other game, I could rightly be accused of nit-picking. But let's be clear about this. It wasn't the realistic handling that built Gran Turismo's reputation in the eyes of Average Joe. It's the graphics. It's always been immaculate - at least in terms of the hardware it's running on. PSone had its breakthrough bodywork reflections and TV-cam replays. PS2 had environment mapping, particle effects and gorgeous heat haze. The Gran Turismo name is synonymous with the best graphics, so it's sad to see it so far off its game. And while it does admittedly push another boundary by supporting 3D TVs, it doesn't massively enhance the gameplay experience.
To its credit:
There are now 12 impeccably detailed cars on-track at once, which is a fine achievement. The day to night transitions are especially beautiful, which give an indication of how awesome this game could have been. The post-processed photos from replays are also rather sexy and the smoke effects are magnificent.
Above: The smoke hangs in the air for a good while, but even that causes ugly outline glitches around objects
I don't know what's gone wrong, but even the GT HD demo's depth of field effects are missing in the final game. And for every great-looking track (Madrid looks lovely and Suzuka is as great as always), there are three that look a bit duff. The go-kart races look like an XBLA indie game at times and are far too easy. Less really would have been more.
Sony made a point of directing our attention towards the online mode. I'm not sure why, though - the races I've tried were laggy and mismatched. At present, the traffic on the network is currently so bad, my offline game often refuses to load unless I disconnect from the internet. I'm not alone - Polyphony's news feed is currently recommending disconnecting from PSN when you play the game, which is obviously a pretty major problem.
Above: This will get better. But even without the connection issues, online GT5 is lacking major features
When you do get online, anybody can start the race, leaving the host with the wrong car or having to sit out in his own lobby, which is less than ideal. There are no leaderboards, no credits to win, no ranking system at all. With Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit's Autolog getting it all so right, GT's clearly getting most of it wrong.
B-spec mode is actually one of the most entertaining parts of the package. This is given just as much space on the Home screen as the drive-it-yourself A-spec mode, which implies it should be given a fair portion of your attention. It sees you raising an AI driver (who can't be named by you – we chose 'V Bosch from the list. The V stands for 'Very') and instructing him on what to do from the sidelines.
It's a lot like Chocobo Racing in Final Fantasy VII or Chao Racing in Sonic Adventure. When you're left to look at the pretty exterior car shots (running at a disappointing 30fps), cheering on your little blokey, it's exciting. A bit like putting a quid on a horse – that kind of exciting. The game can do its physics, the cars can look shiny… it's probably Yamauchi's favourite mode. Why spoil the simulation by driving it yourself?
Above: Obviously, Cloud Strife isn't in Gran Turismo 5. Neither are Chocobos
This is especially apparent when you look at the slowest special events. The first Top Gear Challenge looks just like an episode of Top Gear in the replays, especially with The Stig driving each van. Yet it probably would have been my 'I'm trading this in' moment if I'd bought the game as it's appallingly dull. Look at this video and try to explain why it's been put in the game. Oh, and I've left in the load times, which are with the data installed:
Of course, the level of detail in the driving itself is insane, whether at 20mph or 200mph. You can pore over your data from time trials to see whether your car's acceleration worked better with the sports air filter or the drivetrain upgrade. The little window running the replay itself looks great too, although exactly how much any of this will be of use to gamers is debatable.
Above: Check out that amazing throttle control using the right stick. Reminiscent of Ayrton Senna, eh?
There is one final note of consternation – the damage modelling. I'm amazed I have to say this, but I still haven't unlocked it. Yes, you read that right. Damage modelling in Gran Turismo 5 is locked away, buried so deep in the game I've not seen it after playing it all week. It might be amazing. But internet videos suggest otherwise. Either way, it's limited to the 'Premium' cars, unlocked progressively (reportedly at levels 10, 20 and properly at level 40). I'm at level 19 and I've seen a scuff on a car door… does that count? It's a ludicrous situation. And even if it is to stop beginners spending all their early cash on repairs, why the hell isn't it an on/off option in arcade mode?
As you can see from the score, GT5 is nowhere near the worst racing game ever made. The driving itself is still of incredibly high quality, whether played on a racing wheel (where the force feedback even simulates G-force loading on the front wheels – amazing) or on a DualShock 3, which I used for a good three or four hours during this review. Both let you feed in power progressively to beat wheelspin, settle a car before a turn and control a perfectly-executed powerslide. And after ten hours' play, you will have a car that feels fast and is fun to drive – even if it is way faster than the rest of the field offline.
The real fun comes from taking the fast cars onto the proper race tracks and enjoying the impeccable simulation of grip and weight distribution you'd get in a real racing car, which is still good enough to pull it out of the increasingly big hole it's dug itself. But only just. When you realise you're having fun driving because you're essentially in Time Attack mode some 20 seconds ahead of the actual race, there's something wrong. And it needs to change.
Above: This is me playing GT5. On my GT wheel. You don't need a wheel to enjoy it, but it certainly helps
I firmly believe Gran Turismo 3 is the best racing sim ever made, so seeing its grandson wearing such tatty clothes but still acting like a snob is a major disappointment. After a compare and contrast exercise between GT3 and GT5 (which shocked me with the difference now between HD and standard def), I've fallen in love with the PS2 game all over again. Every frame still screams 'I'M AWESOME!' and the soundtrack is superb. The force feedback is just as good in GT3… it's only let down by the screen resolution and lack of damage. Those things are technically both addressed in the new game, but it's undeniably lost its magic along the way, while improving very little. Observe:
In the end, the game's reputation makes its failings all the harder to swallow. Back in 2001, GT was so far ahead of the pack, it was embarrassing. Now, it's so far behind, I can't see it ever catching up.
Forza Motorsport 3? No. Forza may look more sterile, but it gives the user so much input, both in deciding what they want to do and what they want their car to be like, GT suddenly looks restrictive. Both feature roll-overs and crazily-realistic physics simulation in their latest builds, but Forza's class system for upgrades ensures you're never over/underpowered in races. Oh, and every car has a cockpit view. Sterile though it is, Forza has far less faffing around when you don't want to faff and just as much when you do. You can even paint the Mona Lisa on your car, which is something GT5 simply doesn't allow.
F1 2010? No. Regardless of how much you like the sport itself, F1 2010 is super-fast, super-exciting and utterly spectacular compared to GT5's sedate and cumbersome experience. F1 may not be creaking under the weight of a million extra game modes, but it gives you a phenomenal, reality-based racing sim with GRID's videogame sensibilities intact. I reviewed F1 2010 and gave it 9/10, so if you're wondering what wondrous kind of racing game is so much better than GT5, check that out. You'll see where I'm coming from.
Need For Speed: Shift? No. I would never have imagined I'd be saying that, but NFS is just a better game. The driving itself is nowhere near as good, mind, as the car's all over the place, to give a heightened sensation of speed. But you always know what you should be doing next, always have something to do thanks to 'mastering the corner' challenges, and the spills are more visceral. We gave that game a 9 at review (it'd likely get an 8 if reviewed today) and at current second-hand prices it's not a purchase you'll rue if it doesn't float your boat.
Gran Turismo has lost its mojo and become a dinosaur among modern racing games. It still drives brilliantly, but it's also bloated, scrappy, unbalanced and majorly dull for prolonged periods of play.