There were screenshots. There was video. There was even a picture of the PSP 1000 sitting next to a UMD with 'Gran Turismo' on it. So why has it taken five years for the damn thing to finally appear on Sony's handheld?
We can only assume that this is what Polyphony has been doing to it in that time:
Above: So... you've taken the '4' off the title? Oh, and the UMD. Good work
May 11, 2004 we saw that PSP box art and swanky UMD that implied it was ready to go. TWO THOUSAND AND FOUR. We could go on but, for the sake of our blood pressure, let's just forget that the last five years ever happened and start again. So... what have we got?
The new game features 800 vehicle models and 45 tracks. Impressive figures, although some cars are only different in name (like 5 variations of the Hyundai Coupe/Tiberion) and some tracks mere alternative routes around the same course such as Suzuka's East and West variations. You can also drive them in reverse to get even more lifespan from the game. Duplicates or no, it's bewildering when you're actually presented with the choice.
Above: Aaargh! We can't decide
The game is almost identical to PS2 Gran Turismo titles in terms of style and sensation of movement and, as you'll probably know, that means quality. Few sims manage to make every car model feel unique, but GT pulls it off just as convincingly on PSP as it does on PS2 or PS3.
The depth of the simulation means that G-forces (no, not the guinea pigs) are shifting as you take the turns, apply the brakes or gun the throttle. You wouldn't think a handheld racer could truly convey that sensation of steering a superpowered car around race circuits or through narrow back-streets, but PSP handles it with aplomb. At 60fps, the simulation of driving is never compromised and the faster cars are simply a pleasure to drive.
Above: Laguna Seca's challenging corners are a real proving ground
Driving games may have been out of the spotlight in recent years, and while Colin McRae DiRT 2 may be enjoying UK chart success as we type, it's not really a serious racer like Gran Turismo. But this is the real deal - a racing fan's racer. The enjoyment here comes from careful braking, setting up your car for the turns ahead and practising until you're as close to perfection as your fingers allow.
To help you understand these fundaments of driving, the game features the usual license tests, here named 'challenges' which are no longer integral to progression in the game. Yes, that does mean driving 100m and stopping again before you can move on to harder challenges (like driving 400m and stopping. Yawn.)
Above: Surely we've outgrown the need for the go/stop test now...
The single-player mode has been greatly simplified. Shockingly, there is no championship or career to speak of – just all of the tracks available from the beginning with a D grade next to them. Racing well earns you 'AI points' which let you progress through the ranks until you're racing on S grade. Sadly, these points are pretty much invisible and you'll often win a race with no tangible advance in level, making the sense of progression hard to enjoy.
There are two more types of racing too. There's a drift challenge which sees you attempting to drift through marked zones on the same courses, attempting to fill a bar of flags and beat your best score. The game encourages you to tweak the car settings to unbalance it, such as putting soft tyres on the front and hard tyres on the rear, but it's not very exciting.
Above: The drift mode in full swing. Geddit?
Much more enjoyable is the time attack mode, which lets you save ghost cars onto your memory stick (or hard drive if you're a 'Go-er'). This is classic GT and exactly the sort of thing its hardcore fans want from the game. Shaving tenths off lap times and pushing braking points may sound dull to some, but to us it's petrol-head heaven.
A fairly big emphasis has been placed on the multiplayer aspect, which is good, as the single-player doesn't quite feel like the "fully-specced Gran Turismo" that producer Kazunori Yamauchi promised us. There's no infrastructure mode, but Ad-Hoc mode is in and plays well. There are even specific modes to balance out mismatched performance between your car and your mates'.
Above: One of these compensations is a head start for the slowpoke
Multiplay features standard races and a party mode to enjoy. The latter features a flashing message that announces 'Jackpot Race' halfway through, picking a player at random. If he or she wins, they get a prize money multiplier. We'll admit, we like it more because it kept choosing us. Woot!
You can also trade and share your cars with your friends, so your garage will soon fill up (unless your mates are buying the same cars as you). The multiplayer mode caters for four players, with any unused slots available for AI cars. It's an acceptable number, but this is where we really start to query that 'fully specced Gran Turismo'.
You see, it's not just multiplayer. There are only four cars on the track at any point in the game. Let's be honest, that's the bare minimum any circuit racer can get away with. As a result, the races feel quite lonely.
This is amplified by the surprisingly easy difficulty level in the single-player mode. Challenge mode is as hard as nails, sure, but the meat of the game is too easy to chew, if you catch our drift. A and S grade races are OK, but none of it is very taxing once you can afford a decent car (which is soon, as the game is liberal with its credits).
That's not all that's wrong. Our biggest concern is the wildy varying degrees of quality throughout the game. It's quite remarkable how one moment you can be slack-jawed as you watch your PSP perform AAA-grade miracles. It's impossibly smooth, the cars look fantastic and they're kicking up dust as you slide with those showcase physics into a breathtaking view of the road ahead. For a second, it's more like a miniature PS3 than a PSP, which is as remarkable as it sounds.
A single race later and you're looking at a scene that's practically devoid of detail, with low-res trees around a grey track that's full of jagged polygons and hairline glimpses of white between the polygons that make up the scenery. You feel like you're doing 15mph, you're stuck in C class on this track and your fingers are hurting from the PSP's wholly non-ergonomic design. That's hard to recommend.
Above: Sure, it's 'only' PSP, but the tracks can look decidedly flaky
Then there's the missing special effects that used to be trademarks of the series, like the OTT heat haze or the strip lights reflecting off your car's bodywork through the tunnel in Trial Mountain. There's even a most unwelcome return for Sega Saturn-style chequerboard transparency effects on the ghost car. For a series that prides itself on visual quality, it's a bit of a comedown:
Above: After five years of delay, we expected a bit better than this
If only the quality control had been tighter, both in the graphics and the content of the game itself, this would have been utterly essential. There is so much to play with here, it's unreal – and all coming in at a mere 1GB too. But why cram it all into that small space when selective cherry-picking would have been more convincing?
In all honesty, Polyphony could have presented us with that gorgeous Seattle circuit, the Castrol-liveried Honda NSX and a ghost mode and we would have happily paid for the pleasure. So the fact it's got 799 more cars and 44 more tracks makes criticism hard to justify. Gift horses and all that.
Thankfully, no. Once the game gets into its stride, the Gran Turismo we once knew and loved shines through. The games have always had their dull moments and the trick is in finding the setup that's right for you.
You may feel disappointed when you first start to play because it does feel cut down and it does look a bit rough and it is very slow. But 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.
TOCA Race Driver 2?
No. Amazingly, this PSP launch game is superior in almost every respect. It may lack the 60fps screen update for the most-part, but it features full, rip-the-entire-corner-off-the-car realistic damage, more vehicle types, 36 similarly-rendered tracks and a grid of 21 detailed cars, not to mention a proper career mode with characterised rivals that you actually care about beating. GT is better at the core driving, mind.
Juiced 2: Hot Import Nights?
Yes. Juiced 2 is an excellent game with a great atmosphere and good car physics. However, the track design is way less interesting than GT's efforts and where GT gets more fun and more compelling as you play, Juiced 2 shoots its bolt too early and fades away after extended play. It works particularly well as a pick-up-and play handheld experience which is why we liked it so much, but GT's far classier.
Ridge Racer 2? Yes. Ridge Racer is another racing franchise with its roots in the PSone era, but while the gloss on Namco's baby is consistently high, the racing is very one-note and, in terms of depth, Ridge is a puddle to GT's ocean. Still, the tracks are just as memorable and it's instantly gratifying.
Gran Turismo on PSP is not quite as slick as its PS2 or PS3 brothers and the lack of a career mode is surprising. It's clumsy at times and the quality varies immensely, but it's still a class act.
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