Gran Turismo 5 – The PS3 Attitude Review (part 1)
Gran Turismo has always been on a different plateau from its competition; that is not only other racers but just about any game, in any genre. It’s unique for its impressive sense of scale, polish, authenticity, depth and class. Yet, while that is its history, we’re in a different era now; so does this racing Tour de force still deserve to be revered, or is it time we sent Gran Turismo packing, to join Pong at our local gaming museum?
Lengthy install aside, a summary of our initial impressions would have the headline “awe-struck”, and that would be written as early as the opening video, where we see the birth of a car; starting from the mining of raw materials right through to adding the finishing touches. It follows the process with obsessive detail, demonstrating the necessary time, effort and skill needed when making a car, and we read parallels with the development of this game. The video evokes a love of cars, and that’s something that is never in doubt with regards to creator Kazunori Yamauchi and his team of 140 staff. The sequence ends with a racing montage that makes our hearts jump. Gran Turismo is most definitely back.
Before heading to the track, we have our first look at the dashboard. Seven icons are positioned at the bottom of the screen (GT Mode, Arcade Mode, Course Maker, Gran Turismo TV, Manual, Options and Save), and on the top right is the time, date and the latest news – fed straight to our dashboard from Polyphony. Sharp HD clips of drivers posing proudly in front of crowds, exotic locations, and beautiful cars are displayed across the background, and the jazz/lounge music (a series staple) is audible. This home screen is simple, elegant and very beautifully designed.
Nevertheless, it’s the racing that matters the most, not fancy menus or introduction sequences, so we went straight over to rip up some tarmac on Arcade Mode. Here we had the choice of Single Races, Time Trials, Drift Trials and Two-Player Split Screen. First up, we went for a single race on Autumn Ring, an old favourite, and we took to the track in a red Ferrari F40 ’92.
The Autumn Ring has been in Gran Turismo since the beginning, but it’s still as wonderful as we remember it to be in ’97, and it also looks better than ever. We had an unhealthy level of fun powering this Ferrari through the track. The car is fast, slick and we loved the roar of its engine. It had good grip, allowing us to take corners at high speeds, but it was loose enough to perform exciting drift around the bends. We pushed the car to its limits and our aggressive style got us into a few scrapes – the scars were visible on the F40’s body (it really does have damage after all!).
While a rear-view camera perspective is perfectly fine, we get the most pleasure from inside the car’s cockpit, and from here we can see the intricate details close up; we want to slide our hands across the textures on the steering wheel and the fabrics on the ceiling. Watching the driver shift his body as he changes gears is also satisfying because it confirms to us that he is working as hard as we expect him to be.
The gameplay also feels more visceral from this perspective: the sense of speed is heightened and it truly feels like you’re trying to master a fast and powerful car – this is especially noticeable when the rear-end starts to drift. The engine is also much fiercer sounding, and we know we’re in for a challenge when the snow and rain lands on the windscreen. We found this out to our peril on Special Stage Route 7.
As a racing spectacle, the city track doesn’t inspire; we drove along one very long straight road only to turn around and come all the way back. Yet, while it’s not for the racing purists, it is a great showcase of the game engine. It is played at night in the torrential rain with puddles forming all over the track, and the cars in front are blinding us with the spray from their tyres. The city buildings look stunning, as do the lighting effects, and we’re struggling to keep a grip of the surface.
Heavy rain is probably one of two occasions where we wouldn’t advise playing from the cockpit view (if you want to do well) because you can’t see a thing. However, the impossibility of the situation significantly raises the excitement levels.
The other situation where we wouldn’t advise using the cockpit view is when driving in a blizzard. Heading down the slopes of Chamonix Main in a Citroën C4 WRC ’08 is a completely thrilling experience that requires your full attention. There’s enough grip to hit high speeds, but the break pedal has to be pressed early when on this surface, otherwise you will find yourself sliding past the apex into the barriers. Because of the slipperiness of the surface, the slightest turn of the car will set you off into a drift.
Drifting is generally a lot of a fun, and rally races are something you’ll come back to regularly. However, it’s not simply mindless fun; it requires a lot of work on your part to the keep the car steady and to stick to the racing line. Breaking has to be done early and acceleration has to be carefully managed, but risks also have to be taken if you expect to win. It’s rewarding when you learn to master the conditions.
Arcade Mode in Gran Turismo 5 is just like it was in previous Gran Turismo games: it’s a place for gamers who want to get straight to the track in their favourite cars. The races are competitive, especially on the higher difficulty settings (where AI intelligence is greatly improved), so it is a good place to start. The customisable options are limited and so are the track and car choices; however more tracks and cars can be unlocked through playing career mode.
Inevitably, we had to move on from Arcade Mode because the interesting areas where elsewhere, in GT Mode. This is the career section of the game, where you begin as a lowly driver who picks up his first car, learns how to drive and wins small-time races before going on to be a superstar – along the way you’ll manage a team of B-Spec drivers, take part in Special Events and fill up a massive garage with all sorts of cars from the last 100 years.
When you enter GT Mode for the first time you will be prompted to set up your profile. That is: choose your avatar, wallpaper and set up personalised messages etc. While playing through the game you can take photos and upload them as your profile picture, and you can keep hold of your favourite replays. You have ample opportunities to personalise your GT Life experience.
We’re pleased to see the driving licenses back. They work in the same format as in previous Gran Turismo games. You learn how to break, overtake, turn and take on S bends etc. We’ve heard people complain about these being dull or that they sap the fun out of the game, but we consider them to be an integral part of the Gran Turismo experience. It is not an arcade racer after all; Polyphony has created a true-to-life driving simulator; so licenses play an important role in teaching you how to drive.
The early licenses are a doddle, but they get more challenging and complex later on. Most gamers should find it easy enough to pick up bronze rewards but only the best drivers will get all gold. There are essential skills being taught in these tests, such as learning to master breaking points and understanding weight displacement. They generally teach you about the limitations of your car, and how to get around them.
It has to be said, Gran Turismo always had impressive driving physics, but this is the best yet. It’s the closest thing you will find on a console to match the thrill of real-life racing. Every car feels unique, and their sense of weight, speed and stability is spot on. Some are a joy to handle while others are a nightmare, but they never feel the same, and it’s for this reason that you will want to collect every car going. You’ll want to give them all a try, and see what surprises they give you.
Your expectations at the beginning of your career will have to be tempered because you have to work for your garage. There may be over 1000 cars in the game but the car options are limited at first because of your low level and lack of money. Our first car was a second-hand Honda Accord Coupe ’88 with 90942km on the clock, and boy is it ugly. (I later gifted it to Del, because I’m nice like that.)
It’s one of the Standard Cars, and it hasn’t had anywhere near the same level of polish as the Premium Cars, and it shows, but don’t worry, this doesn’t apply to all Standard Cars; some of which scrub up quite nicely. Nevertheless, we would always choose a Premium Car over a Standard Car, without question. The lack of cockpit view in Standard Cars seals the deal, but with over 200 of the vastly superior Premium models to choose from, it’s hard to find reasons to choose a Standard model over a Premium, unless the race restrictions require you to use one.
So the next task is to get enough money to buy all of the Mercedes and Ferraris that you dream of, so off you go to A-Spec. A-Spec is where the competitions are. The mode plays in a similar fashion to previous Gran Turismo games. Even the entry-level tournament is the Sunday Cup (it’s good to see some traditions never change). Most of the competitions are themed; for example, some only allow American Muscle Cars from the ‘80s while others might only accept Minis. This set up forces gamers to try different cars, and experience different styles.
Sadly, some of A-Spec’s old problems are still present; it’s still far too easy for a player to buy their way to victory in many of the races. There may be restrictions on what cars you can use but it’s normally easy to find a car that can demolish every other car on the track, or, if you don’t buy one, you can tune-up one until it’s a beast. This is a shallow way to win so we advise gamers to choose sensible, competitive cars instead. You’re only ruining your own enjoyment.
The A-Spec is split into five stages: Beginner Series, Amateur Series, Professional Series, Expert Series and Extreme Series, and the higher the level the more difficult it gets – even if you have overpowered cars. The competing AIs get more aggressive and fly through the tracks; you have to bring your A game.
Speaking of AI, we are seeing some big improvements on that front. They no longer drive like robots, rigidly sticking to the racing line. They won’t deviate too far (that would be poor driving after all) but they show more signs that they can react to situations. It’s not uncommon to see AI competing against other AI rather than just you, as has been the case previously. Also, the higher the level we got to the smarter the AIs appeared to become. A very satisfying touch.
Gran Turismo 5 is essentially a racing role-playing game (RRPG?). You start with nothing – you have no cars and you’re not allowed to play on the vast majority of tracks – so you have to prove yourself by winning licenses and racing in the smaller competitions and Special Events, and, like all good RPGs, your development is measured by levels. We hope this doesn’t sound daunting because it really isn’t. The levelling up is as addictive as it is in any traditional RPGs, and knowing that we’ll be rewarded along the way with new cars and tracks keeps us hanging around. You’ll find yourself racing in many of the locked competitions and riding in the high level cars in no time – we guess they don’t trust noobs with super cars.
They don’t trust them with damage either. Polyphony Digital has implemented a progressive damage model that becomes more sensitive as you increase in levels. At the beginning you can ram a wall at 200mph and you won’t see a blemish, but once you get to higher levels the stabilisers start to come off and you’ll start to notice cosmetic damage, and at even higher levels you’ll see significant structural damage (but only on the Premium Models). We’ve been told that once you get to the higher levels the damage reaches simulation levels, and your cars can be left looking like write-offs. We’ve yet to reach these levels, so we cannot verify this, but we’re looking forward to finding out for ourselves, and once we do we’ll report back to you with our findings.
We admire Polyphony’s decision to leave damage for high level players for a few reasons: it rewards gamers for their hours of play, making them want to stick around for longer. It’s also a sensible decision; the damage you take has to be repaired and you don’t have the credits to do so early in the game.
Yet, we can’t help but wonder why a hardcore mode wasn’t included for those who want to experience damage early on. and we wonder why it isn’t made clearer to the user that damage will increase on higher levels. Everyone we have spoken to has been confused by the supposed “damage modelling” – the general response is “why am I bouncing off the walls unscathed as if they’re made of rubber? I though the game had damage? I saw it on teh box”. Lastly, why is there not an option to turn on damage in Arcade Mode? Where’s the harm in having it there? In fact, it would be a great place to go to relieve stress at the end of a hard day’s work. Not all players have forty hours to sink into the game to get to level 40.
One thing that Gran Turismo 5 has over its predecessors is variety. There is something for all racing fans here: grand touring, karting, NASCAR and rally. It also has snow, dirt, gravel and tarmac races, and it’s in Special Events mode that we get introduced to many of these racing types.
We get our first experience of karting here. These karts are extremely fast, lightweight vehicles that zip around the track – they’re not for kiddies. Breaking and turning at the same time can cause a massive spin so technique is important; these are very competitive events. While the trademark Gran Turismo seriousness is ever present in karting, it still feels silly, in a good way. The karts are a great addition to the series.
Another great addition is the surprisingly awesome NASCAR races. Driving around a circular track in single file sounds dull and unchallenging, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Real-life NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon takes us through some early lesson, and he teaches us how to slipstream and we learn why slipstreaming as part of a team works best for all.
The races feel fast and we love the turbulence and the unstable feeling we get when we stop drafting. You certainly feel like you’re in a battle of power. Yet, for all the focus on power, NASCAR racing is actually all about fine, subtle touches. We were pleasantly surprised to see how technical these races can be.
Having the Top Gear Test Track in the game is a dream come true for fans of the series. Now they can finally follow in the footsteps of Lewis Hamilton and Michael Gambon and take a car for a spin around the Dunsfold Aerodrome. After watching a video which takes us through the various sections of the track, we get to tackle it for ourselves. Funnily enough, we don’t race in a reasonably priced car but in a VW Camper Van, as part of a long convoy. The race is taken at a sedentary pace. It’s very surreal but extremely captivating all the same. Don’t worry you’ll also get the opportunity to fly through the track with more powerful cars.
However, can anything beat taking on the Nurburgring in a Mercedes Benz SLS AMG ’10 (the game’s cover star)? This car is a delight to handle; it’s powerful and it has incredible control. It’s also very elegant. Through the AMG Academy we learn how to master each stage of the Nurburgring, showing us how to tackle each section one by one before attempt a full lap on the legendary track.
We can easily see why this is Kazunori Yamauchi’s favourite track; it’s a test of endurance, concentration and skill due to the high speed corning, the several S bends and the subtle rises and dips in the track that cause the car’s body weight to shift, making it harder to adjust for the next turn. There are few things more satisfying than finishing a perfect lap with a great time, knowing that somehow you survived the devastating horizontal Gs.
As great as the AMG Academy is, it is outdone by the Grand Tour Special Event. This is a five stage tour through Italy. The first stage is a time trial, drifting through the Eigar in an Alfa Romero. Next up is a high speed race through Monza in a white Ferrari 430 Scuderia ‘07, against a pack of red Ferraris. Then, in a flame-orange Lamborghini, we powered through the gorgeous Tuscan fields at night – we could barely see anything but the fireworks in the distance. We remained in the Tuscan fields for the next stage, but this time we were on dirt tracks and driving a Ford Focus RS WRC 07 ’08. Lastly, we dropped back into a Lamborghini, this time in a Miura, to race through the historic city of Rome.
The words epic gets bandied around a lot by gaming journalism, but this is truly an epic journey. Each stage offers a completely different setting, and requires you to bring different skill-sets. All the stages are stunningly beautiful and a complete pleasure to drive through.
The word epic is also entirely appropriate when discussing Gran Turismo 5. The game continues to throw out memorable gaming experiences one after the other. Racing in the wet at Suzuka in Calsonic in 3D is easily one of the best racing experiences we’ve ever had in virtual life.
We’ve sunk hours into this game already, and we still feel like we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface. There’s simply too much to cover, and that’s why we will be returning later with part two of this review. That’s not all, we plan to return later next month with a thorough look at the latter stages of the campaign and have a detailed look at the online mode. A game of this size and scale simply cannot be rushed.
However, at this stage, we can safely say several things: it is a stunningly beautiful game, the cars are a dream to drive and there is enough here to keep us satisfied for months (potentially years). We love many of the new racing types (NASCAR, karting) and the improved physics are the stuff of dreams. The RPG-style levelling system has been a complete revelation as well.
There are only some niggling problems that limit our enjoyment. Loading times have been excessive and our consoles have frozen on a few occasions. This has improved the more we have played – the game continues to install while playing – and turning off our internet connect did help matters. Sadly, the servers have been congested causing numerous problems, but hopefully the new patches will have resolved many of these issues.
Graphically there are some issues as well. The game is simply stunning most of the time but it’s not uncommon to see the engine creaking under the stress; we have seen a lot of screen tearing and noticeable dips in the frame rate. Some of the older tracks haven’t received as much care either, they still have 2D sprites in the crowd and the level of polish is below that of what we see in the likes of Madrid and Rome.
We’ve yet to come across mechanical damage, but Yamauchi has indicated that this will come later, but we can’t tell if he means at a higher level or whether it is to be released as part of a patch. One thing we do know that is coming is online leaderboards, hopefully they arrive soon because it’s been a mystery to us why they weren’t available from the start. We’ve barely touched the Time Trial mode because it feels worthless if you can’t share your times with your mates.
The silver lining is that most of these issues can be resolved by updates, and Yamauchi has been making noises to suggest that this will be the case. He’s also hinted that more features will arrive in the future. We’re delighted to know that Yamauchi still isn’t finished with the game, even after five years of development, and we’re confident that this game will be a lot more feature heavy (yes, it is possible) by this time next year. It already puts most games to shame.
We started this review by asking if Gran Turismo still deserved to carry as much reverence as it does, and after a thorough play-through of Gran Turismo 5, we can safely say that it does. It is not just a triumph for driving games, it is a landmark moment in gaming. The level of ambition and aspiration that Yamauchi and his team had for this game is staggering;it’s actually inspirational. It’s classic Gran Turismo brought to the new generation with a much sexier presentation, many more features and superior gameplay. Was it worth the wait? Without a doubt, yes.
Don’t forget to check back to PS3 Attitude for part two of this review, where we will be looking at just about everything that wasn’t covered in this review. Yes there is a lot more to discuss. Amazing, eh?