For devotees of the Gran Turismo series, this fifth instalment has been a ridiculously long time coming. For what feels like an eternity, Kazunori Yamauchi and his team at Polyphony Digital have been quietly tinkering and fettling, polishing and honing. One of the games industry’s most infamous perfectionists, Yamauchi has repeatedly delayed the release of GT5, apparently dragging it back into the garage again and again for yet another round of minute adjustment.
The wait may be finally over, but much has changed in the six years since Gran Turismo 4. In the intervening period, other developers have rolled out their own takes on the racing sim genre, each applying their own subtle spin – Race Driver: Grid, with its stunning damage modelling and innovative rewind system. Forza 3, and its realistic handling and vibrant courses. Placed against competition such as this, how will Gran Turismo 5 fare?
Very well, is the short answer, and Polyphony Digital has done little to upset the balance of its series’ time-honoured elements. The process of applying for your various licenses is as much of a grind as it ever was, while hurtling around a race track in, say, a Pagani Zonda S is, if anything, even more joyous.
If there’s one thing that has evolved noticeably over the course of the Gran Turismo series’ 13 year history, it’s the handling of its vehicles, and this element has reached its peak in GT5. Each car is invested with its own believable characteristics and minor quirks, from the understeer of front-wheel drive hatchbacks to the tail-happy frenzy of a Japanese muscle car. The series has always been prized for its attention to detail, particularly when it comes to handling, but none has felt as polished or just plain right as it does in GT5.
Buying upgrades for your treasured ride brings about immediate and tangible results on the track – as you’d expect, simply strapping huge turbos and sports exhausts to your car without upgrading tyres and suspension will result in some truly terrifying race experiences. It was a mistake I made early on with an RX-7 – purely for testing purposes, of course – and the result was a beast of a machine that hurtled, skittering from the starting grid like a tiger with its tail on fire, yet flatly refused to be coaxed around corners.
When you do get the balance right, racing is thrilling. Whether you’ve climbed the ranks in the A-Spec career mode, or simply jumped straight into an arcade race, the feeling that you’re at the helm of a genuinely powerful machine has never been more palpable – with practice, you can feel the car begin to lose grip through fast bends, or wriggle and squirm if you jump back on the gas as you emerge back onto a straight.
The new addition of go-karts is equally welcome – Polyphony has got the feel of these just right, with their petulant, fizzing little engines and rollerskate handling. The difference between a go-kart and a comparatively lumbering supercar couldn’t be more pronounced.
As you’d expect, Gran Turismo looks almost as good as it handles, though I should emphasise the word, ‘almost’. Polyphony’s quest for realism is such that, as you’re hurtling round tracks or looking over the collection of cars in your garage, you can’t help noticing odd little deficiencies here and there.
The cars themselves are frequently stunning, particularly the ‘premium’ range, which have been lavished with a level of detail that borders on the exquisite. With a squeeze of the right bumper, the headlights even pop up on your MX-5, an unnecessary, but charming touch. Some standard cars, however – which are old models imported from the low-def days of GT4 – are notably less detailed, even after a bit of HD spit and polish.
If you really wanted to be picky, you could also criticise GT5’s trackside furniture, with its toy-town trees and wooden spectators. While lavishing so much attention on their cars, it sometimes looks as though Polyphony ran out of imagination when it came to the game’s environments.
Such niggles pale into insignificance when you’re screaming round a track, however, and in fairness there are some courses – the Eiger Nordwand Track, or the Trial Mountain Circuit, perhaps – where you just about have time to appreciate the detail of the snow-capped ranges in the distance as you belt round a hairpin.
As well as the standard A-Spec career mode, GT5 has a variety of side attractions to bolster the main event. The first, and perhaps most mystifying, is the B-Spec mode, in which you give up your driving seat and allow an AI-controlled driver to race on your behalf. From a remote viewpoint, you issue orders – speed up, overtake – and hope your car crosses the finish line first. It’s mildly diverting, but odd that it’s taken such prominence on the main menu – it really is a side attraction, and far less interesting than the other modes on offer.
The Special Events are far more compelling, though inevitably, some more so than others. An early Top Gear challenge, in which you race around the show’s infamous test track in VW Camper vans, is far less amusing than it sounds, largely because you’re forced to retire if you so much as brush a cone – and when your AI-controlled opponents are as mindlessly intent on sticking to the racing line as they often are in GT5, you’re constantly being shoved out of contention.
Rally driving, on the other hand (in which you chase after a computerised and faintly sinister approximation of Sébastien Loeb) is an absolute riot, your car sliding and careening around the sands of Toscana or the snowy wastes of Chamonix.
Elsewhere, there’s Gran Turismo TV, where you can watch short programmes of petrol head interest, and even download them to your PSP.
The course maker is inarguably the best additional feature in GT5, and it’s quite possible to sink hours into building what is essentially a posh, digital Scalextric set. Using a basic track as starting point, you use slider bars to adjust track width, straight length and the sharpness of bends. You can’t build anything as creative or as outlandish as, say, Trackmania’s rollercoaster-ride of jumps and skid-pans, but then, this is a Gran Turismo game, after all.
Online racing, meanwhile, is fiddly. Before you can join a competition, you have to find a lounge. Polyphony has attempted to bring a social media aspect to GT5, where you can chat with friends, share images and cars, or search for lounges with an appropriate themes (“450bhp or under” competitions, for example). While this is a good idea in theory, it’s a pity there’s no quick race option in arcade mode – instead, finding and then entering a race is a lengthy, arduous process of sifting through lists to find a lounge suitable for your skills.
Racing itself is, in my experience, occasionally glitchy, with latency issues and stuttering framerates threatening to derail GT5’s slick aura at every turn. It’s likely that Polyphony will iron out these issues – and hopefully introduce some form of matchmaking system – in forthcoming updates, but for now, GT5’s online racing is perhaps the game’s weaker aspect.
Viewed as a complete package, GT5’s range of features and sheer scope is quite remarkable. No other game has a garage as expansive as this, with its 1000+ fleet of vehicles, ranging from low-end Hyundais, to seven-figure exotica.
You could argue that GT5 is a mere shuffle forward in the series’ growth, rather than the quantum leap a six-year development time may have implied, and it’s a pity, too, that Polyphony appear to be as reluctant to scratch its pristine cars as they ever were. Despite the promise of damage modelling, even the biggest high-speed collision will seldom produce more than a slight ripple in paintwork.
How much this bothers you will depend entirely on how devoted you are to the Gran Turismo series – for those who find these games a bit too sterile, a bit too clinical, there’s little in GT5 to change your mind, and those who expect crashes in their racing sims will probably find more to enjoy in Forza 3.
It’s a pity, therefore, that after such a long, long, wait, GT5 has emerged from the garage with a few defects under the bonnet. The issues currently present in its online mode – not least its lack of a matchmaking system – are disappointing, and there’s an overall feeling that little of has changed as a whole since GT4 all those years ago.
Such qualms dissolve into the ether while you’re racing, though, and it’s here, as ever, that GT5 lives up to expectations. Tearing round the Nurburgring in a Ferrari F40 – tyres barely clinging to the road, engine screaming and chattering – is now more thrilling, and more seductive than ever. And as you beat your own lap time by a few tenths of a second, and feel a flush of achievement and smugness, you can just about forgive GT5 for its weaker areas. Just.
Gran Turismo 5 is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.
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