Do racing simulators like Gran Turismo 5 need crashes?

Gran Turismo 5 may be a driving sim rather than a demolition derby, but does its lack of spectacular crashes make it less realistic? Here’s Ryan’s view…

Gran Turismo 5 damage

If you’ve ever been in a car accident, you’ll know just how horrifying they can be. I – clumsy clod that I am – have been in several. In one, I lost the back end of a moderately powerful Japanese coupe in pouring rain, sending the vehicle spinning a sickening dervish into a waiting lamppost. The force of the impact twisted the car almost in two, rotating the lamppost through 180 degrees and extinguishing the light at the top.

I was showered with glass, and the passenger seat struck me on the side of the head. Incredibly, I walked away with a few minor cuts and bruises.

A year or so later, a friend and I cobbled together a few hundred quid, bought an ancient, crumbling BMW E30 (complete with a leaking roof and mushrooms in the boot), and took it to Silverstone for a track day. (The looks from all the rich petrol heads in their brand new Porsches was priceless.)

After a few skittish laps (again, in pouring rain) where we pushed our rusting car to the inch of its mechanical abilities, my co-driver completely lost control of the vehicle on a sweeping bend, and we ended up hurtling backwards at 85mph into a sign on the edge of the track.

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Fortunately for us, the sign was made of polystyrene, so it was only our egos that were seriously injured, though it’s surprising just how damaging polystyrene can be if you reverse into it fast enough – plus we spent the next six months picking out tiny pieces of expanded foam from the car’s air vents.

The point of all this rambling? Driving’s just as much about crashing – or at least, the ceaseless fear of crashing – as it is about racing lines and mechanics. Once you’ve been in a crash – even a minor one – and felt that horrible metallic tang in your mouth, you’ll never forget it. The unmistakeable feeling as you enter a corner too fast and know, in your sinking heart and churning stomach, that you’ve made a mistake, and that it’s too late to go back and correct it.

Polyphony Digital’s continued reluctance to introduce proper damage modelling and proper crashes to Gran Turismo 5 is, therefore, more than a little disappointing. While I accept the oft-repeated argument that the GT series is a “driving simulator, not a crashing simulator”, when you remove the negative effects of making a mistake from the racing equation, you’re losing a vital element of what makes driving like a lunatic so thrilling in the first place.

Sure, there’s a half-hearted attempt at damage modelling in GT5, but it’s so minimal as to be non-existent. You can hurtle down a straight at 120mph and broadside an AI vehicle travelling 30mph into a hairpin, and neither car will trundle away from the incident with more than a scuff and a mild dent, or perhaps a bumper dangling from its mountings a little bit.

Careening into an opponent at the wildest speeds triggers almost the same sound as hitting them at a fraction of the velocity – and it’s the feeble sound of a child kicking a recycling bin.

By contrast, the sound of a crash from inside a stricken vehicle is the loudest thing in the world – a thunderclap in a confined space, like a hand grenade the size of God going off.

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As you’ll already know if you’ve read our review, GT5 is, in almost every area, a fantastic game (its online mode is currently a bit of a let-down, but Polyphony has every opportunity to fix this in future updates). Few other racing sims can match the high-speed thrills it delivers, and its knack of making you feel as though you really are fighting against a wave of torque in a high-powered super car is almost peerless.

It’s a shame, then, that Polyphony has once again seen fit to have its cars so impervious to damage. The crash damage you do see is a minor progression from earlier GT games, but it is, for the most part, so cosmetic as to be non-existent. And while there are videos on YouTube that show vehicles rolling over onto their roof (most often in off-road races) such dramatic incidents are comparatively rare.

From this perspective, rival racing sims, such as Forza III, the DiRT series, Race Driver: Grid, and even relative sim newcomer Need For Speed: Shift, all replicate this aspect of aggressive driving more successfully.

For while driving is indeed about the thrill of travelling fast, the visceral thrill of beating opponents, and the deafening backwash of engines and tyres screeching at their limit, it’s also about dicing with the looming spectre of death, or its impish side-kick, serious injury.

And although videogames are unlikely to replicate the dreadful sensation of crashing a car any time soon – the terrible jarring sensation in the spine,  the grim feeling of being showered with tiny cubes of glass – it’s nevertheless the terrible destruction that occurs when mistakes are made that forms a smaller, yet vital part of racing.

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