Developer: Polyphony Digital
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Players: 1-2, 16 (online)
ESRB Rating: E (Everyone)
Hours Played: 60
Progress: Completed all A-spec events aside from the endurance races
Gran Turismo 5 has been out for over three months, yet sometimes waiting a while to post your review is a good thing. You see, there have been a number of patches to tweak the game since its initial launch that are very telling about the latest installment of this venerable racing franchise. Having played the game for many hours spread over several weeks has given us great perspective on this important PS3 release and, hey…considering Gran Turismo 5 was first announced in 2006 and has been in development for over four years you’ll have to forgive us for taking a few months in finalizing our opinion on it.
As would appear painfully obvious, Gran Turismo 5 is all about cars and as such gamers will be pleased to hear that the vehicle models look stunning. The level of detail in the cars is currently unrivaled by any other racing game and the way the light reflects off the body panels, highlights the excellent texture work…as long as we’re not talking about vehicles covered in decals, like the rally cars, which lack the gloss and sheen found on other vehicles. The attention to detail, which is a definite theme in Polyphony’s approach to this game, is further seen in the reaction of the drivers inside the vehicles to the way the car is handled on the track. They will sway and swerve according to the turns the car is taking and shift in accordance to gear changes on your HUD. It is also impressive to see the suspension of the cars sag and extend as the weight of a vehicle is distributed from one side to another. As has become standard fare in today’s racing games the replay mode truly shows off the gorgeous vehicle models and in-game physics as the cars make their way around the tracks. Although advertising for the game mentions “realistic damage modelling” the truth is that it is virtually non-existent. Crash your Toyota Minolta GT race car head-on into the boards at 300 km/hr and marvel as there is nary a wrinkle in the front fender. For some bizarre reason rally cars adhere to a different standard of physics as they display a much higher degree of damage modelling than other vehicles. Inconsistent and disappointing, Gran Turismo definitely does not deliver on the promise of realistic damage modelling.
It is however the look of the tracks that we find fault with, standing in stark contrast to the excellent looking vehicle models, the tracks are straddled by basic looking structures and models. Their textures are particularly questionable as they appear flat and basic, this becomes especially apparent in the replay mode when, during certain camera angles, the camera is down at ground level and you get to see how basic and ugly the grass and track textures are. Bump mapping was fully featured during the first Halo on the original Xbox for crying out loud and Gran Turismo 5 would have been well served including it in its texture work. For such a high profile release with great looking car models this is a big disappointment and perhaps indicative of some of the issues pertaining to titles that have been in development for such a long time.
I also missed the implementation of ambient effects that would normally increase the realism of the visuals. Aside from occasional lens flare and dust springing up when vehicles go off the track there really wasn’t anything in the way of ambient effects, further highlighting the bare and sterile look of the tracks. Things like dust floating around the course or heat effects rippling above the tarmac, would have gone a long way towards continuing the realism from the cars to the environments.
A real head-scratcher is the hard drive install, which puts a whopping 6.4 GB of the game onto your PlayStation 3 hard drive, allegedly to speed up loading times and performance. The irony is that virtually anything you do in the game while not in a race, confronts the player with horrendous loading times, even jumping between menus. Jump into your garage, highlight a car and wait while the game loads the car model, jump back to the GT Mode menu and wait for the menu to load, it is all terribly frustrating, especially if you just spent half an hour trying to place 1st in a tough race and are confronted with pervasive loading times while trying to make your way to the tuning shop to upgrade your car. Thankfully the races themselves run well with a silky smooth frame rate regardless of the number of competitors or the speed of the vehicles.
Split Second was definitely a pleasant surprise as far as the soundtrack for a racing game is concerned, usually developers focus on the sound effects, centered around engine noise, often ignoring in-game music altogether. Unfortunately Gran Turismo 5 does not do much to change this trend, the menus are laden with a horrible blend of easy listening and elevator music while the in-game soundtrack consists of nauseating j-pop and j-rock. I recommend shutting down the music altogether in favor of the sound effects, which are very solid.
The engine noise is as life-like as it’s going to get and its subtleties do not become apparent until you select cars from your garage and your newly chosen vehicle starts. Variations in RPMs and throttle control are intricately represented in the engine sounds you’ll hear and the beefier the car, the more satisfying the experience. Aside from that there’s not much in the way of sound effects, the sound of tires squealing as they dig into the tarmac is a bit underrepresented but altogether Gran Turismo 5‘s sound effects can be considered a much bigger success than its music.
The button lay-out in Gran Turismo 5 has the “X” button designated for acceleration, not, as in some games, the R2 button. This is OK though as the “Square” button, the breaks, is located right by the “X” button for fluid acceleration control. Analog stick responsiveness feels right and mimics handling characteristics and tuning adjustments very well. I must say that the rumble implementation is a bit understated though. I remember playing Sega GT many years ago on the original Xbox, it used rumble feedback in a great way to represent hitting curb stones and wheel reverberation. The Dualshock 3 controller however tends to purr more than roar, disengaging the player a bit from the driving experience instead of providing further immersion.
There are good and bad things about the gameplay of Gran Turismo 5, mostly divided into the racing and… everything else. Let’s start with the racing, it will come as little surprise that Polyphony continued its excellent track record of providing the gamer with realistic handing and driving physics. What impresses most is the depth that is presented in tuning your vehicles. I did not even know what the “camber angle” was, let alone what it would do if I changed it on my car! Do not be fooled though, it is not just lip service, altering the many different tuning options available to you has a real impact on the handling of your vehicle. Figuring out the effects of the deep customization and piecing together different factors like vehicle characteristics, track layout and handling preferences is a lot of fun and belays an incredible depth in the many facets to racing cars.
There wouldn’t be much depth if there wasn’t a large selection of different types of vehicles to choose from, luckily this isn’t the case. Boasting a 1,000 different vehicles, Gran Turismo 5 includes everything from your dad’s Mazda 6 to prototypes of exotic race cars. Nascar vehicles and tracks were introduced and while the tracks offer a great opportunity to take your Formula One car and bury the needle, the Nascar vehicles are a pain to drive and the Nascar challenges are no fun. Although there is still a good bit of repetition (how many versions of the Skyline or NSX does a person need?!) the variety of cars is great fun. In addition to many exotic super cars, formula one, touring cars there are vehicles you would see in every day life like the Ford Taurus or Hyundai Tiburon. It gives you the opportunity to take a vehicle you might drive yourself and tune and upgrade the heck out of it, letting you experiment with your cars in a way you would never be able to do in real life. A major annoyance with Gran Turismo 5‘s vehicle selection is that most cars are not available at all times. The car dealership that is open to purchase vehicles from at any time, has a relatively small selection, the remainder are purchased from the used car dealer or the online store, both of which have a rotating vehicle selection that changes over time. This means that if you do not pay attention to these to outlets, you will miss out on many of the cars Gran Turismo 5 has available until the vehicle rotation eventually brings them back again.
Where things go South is in the interface the game uses. Rarely have I seen such an utter mess of poorly laid out menus and the way they are supposed to be navigated. The best example of this is the way in which multiplayer in accessed. The main menu displays four different icons, GT Mode, Arcade Mode, Course Maker and Gran Turismo TV but no multiplayer, this is instead accessed by going into GT Mode and clicking on “open lobby”, one of 29 interactive icons on the main GT Mode menu! From there the player can join or search for a variety of race lobbies. Unbelievably unintuitive, upon going back to Gran Turismo 5 after having been distracted with other games and responsibilities for a few days, I had actually forgotten how to access multiplayer because it is so buried amongst a messy interface. Further frustration is caused by the annoying layering of menus, to get into a race you have to select it from the “A-Spec” race menus, then you choose the “series” (the higher the series the bigger the difficulty), then you pick the league and finally the race you wish to compete in. If you want to go back to the main GT Mode menu from there, you have to hit the back button 3 times, having to deal with excruciating load times each time you do so. It was just recently, while writing this review, that Polyphony, through a downloadable patch, finally remedied this by adding a “My Home” button, taking you back to the main GT Mode menu, it only took them three months to come up with this earth shattering innovation!
GT Mode, the equivalent of most racing games’ career mode, is divided into the “A-Spec Events” and “B-Spec Events’. The former putting the player in a variety of different class-based races, which range from Mazda Miata-only races to events that are open to any vehicle. Fun and varied, this is the backbone of the the Gran Turismo 5 experience, B-Spec Events however, well they basically boil down to an excruciating exercise of patience. The idea is that you assume the role of team manager and give commands to a driver who participates in the races for you. Although it sounds interesting as a concept, you could think of it as a real-time-strategy-racing game, in reality the player is only able to issue four different types of commands: pace down, maintain pace, pace up and overtake. With some championship events taking over an hour to complete, the player is forced to sit there and just watch the race unfold instead of participating in it. There is no magic formula here, grind your driver to level up and always ensure you put him in the fastest available car for that particular event and you won’t even need to issue any commands, he will do the rest. B-Spec mode is such a pointless pursuit that I have actually read threads on message boards about ingenious mechanisms people had created so that the X button would automatically be pressed at fixed intervals, allowing the player to go about his day while the button presses would allow the game to go through the appropriate prompts to start and finishes races, slowly leveling up the driver. You know you have a poor concept when gamers come up with ways to go through it without actually being present.
Further game options include a “track creator” that has absolutely no business being called that as it includes an abysmally small set of options that boil down to a handful of edit options for existing tracks and a Gran Turismo TV mode, which requires players to pay to watch a variety of (often old) races and related car shows.
Gran Turismo 5 has a great community, whether it is on the forums or online lobbies, there are tons of people passionate about the game. Because of the massive variety in vehicles, lobbies often cater after a specific category of cars, a search bar with different filter options allows the player to sort through the many different lobbies available for participation. Polyphony’s poor execution of making a user friendly gaming experience, mainly because of its terrible interface, rears its ugly head again though. Instead of having access to all the vehicles you collected while playing GT mode, you can only choose the cars you flagged as your “favorites”, up to a certain limit. You can include your cars in the “favorites” section by going into your garage in GT mode and highlighting it in the vehicle options, well good luck figuring this out as a newcomer to the game, because it does little to explain this to you.
Some features, which are missing from the single player experience, are available in multiplayer. This includes a feature that was glaringly absent at launch but later added through patches, mechanical damage (more about this in the next section) and penalties for cutting corners or leaving the track. The actual racing online is fine and before the race starts, while you are waiting for the lobby to fill up, the player is able to take test runs on the track until there is a sufficient number of players to commence the race.
Gran Turismo 5 has been in development for a long time and it shows. Although the car models look great, the tracks pale in comparison. The latest cars in the game are 2010 models, of which there aren’t that many, Polyphony did not have enough time to include the latest 2011 vehicles as the game had advanced too far in the development cycle.
What is more nagging however is the contradictions we find the game when you consider that the developer positions this game as a driving simulator. I am referring to the lack of realistic damage modelling, the lack of mechanical damage (meaning that if you crash your car, the performance is affected according to the damage) and the absence of consequences for cutting corners and deviating from the track. Some of these features are available in multiplayer mode (like the penalties for cutting corners), while others were added through downloadable patches (mechanical damage) while yet others were always present but never properly implemented (damage modelling). For a game billing itself as “the ultimate driving simulator” this seems like a huge contradiction and it simply takes away from the experience as well as the credibility of the franchise.
For those amongst you who are crazy about cars there is just so much content to sink your teeth into, the last of the six available series in GT mode (single player) is the endurance series, which culminates in a simulation of the full 24 hours of Le Mans. There are so many races to compete in and cars to collect without even talking about multiplayer, that you could easily sink 100 hours into this game and still not have done it all. The problem is that although Gran Turismo 5 shows its passion for cars in spades, as a game it is not always that much fun to play. The issues with the interface, terrible load times and contradicting gameplay omissions make me appreciate Gran Turismo 5 more as a car encyclopedia and less as a racing game.
Gran Turismo 5, considering its pedigree, can only be considered a disappointment. Yes it has a lot of cars and yes the handling and tuning implementation are top notch but a clunky interface, terrible load times and a pointless “B-Spec” mode hurt the enjoyment of Gran Turismo 5 as a racing game. As an ode to the car it holds more merit but I doubt most people would invest in the game because of that. Its not a terrible experience by any means, the game still benefits from the solid hardware it runs on and the experience Polyphony has crafting realistic racing games however the fun factor certainly seems diminished.
+ Great looking car models
- Overly basic course textures
- Terrible loading times despite massive hard drive install
+ Satisfying engine sounds
- Horrible soundtrack
+ Good analog stick responsiveness
- Weak rumble implementation
+ Solid vehicle variety
+ Tuning customization is expertly implemented
- Confusing and clunky interface
- B-Spec mode is beyond pointless
- Track creator is a joke
+ Lots of race customization options
- Unintuitive way to select vehicles
+ Many dozens of hours of gameplay
- Annoying gameplay quirks tend to kill the fun