Gran Turismo 5
“GT5 is the best driving game ever made, but not the best racing game.”
- Amazing driving physics
- The cars look impressive
- Incredible amount of content
- Background grpahics don't match the cars
- Inconsistent AI
- A driving game wrapped int he shell of a racing game
Simply holding Gran Turismo 5 in my hands, I felt a sense of surprise. It was almost like a dream. After so, so, so, many delays, the game had actually been released. But could it live up to the hype? It is difficult to judge a title that has so much anticipation. Not everyone is in love with the Gran Turismo series and its incredibly complex options, but to those that are, it is a passionate love that demands perfection. So can GT5—or any game for that matter—live up to the hype that this game has created? Well, yes and no.
Gran Turismo 5 is competing against the expectations that only inched higher with every delay. The series isn’t for everyone, but no matter who you are, it is hard to see the games and not realize the care that goes into the series. You can rarely find a fault with the games in terms of technical acumen, and that is part of why the series has managed to retain its loyal following. Despite the grumblings that fans let loose out of frustration, no one was concerned for the finished product. With each delay, although it was frustrating, it simply meant that another level of polish was being added, and the longer the delays, the more the game would rock our faces clean off our heads.
I honestly cannot believe I am saying this, but ironically, GT5 could have used a bit more time in development.
It is hard not to play this game and overlook all the amazing features and details — and there are many — to then focus on the few problems that plague the game. They aren’t major problems, but they are consistent and notable. With the rest of the game being so amazing, the flaws show up like black smudges on a white wall. Still, for the most part, if you overlook the hype, the long delays, and just look at this game for what it is, you will be left with a stunningly complete and full driving game that will fill the hours for months, possibly years to come.
What’s in the garage?
If you have played the previous Gran Turismo titles, then you know what to expect, and I mean that in a good way. The previous games were all classics, and GT5 adds to that without compromising what worked. The game feels like the natural evolution of the series, retaining the best things and adding features that make sense to add. There are over 1,000 cars to choose from, 26 locations, and 71 tracks. There is also a track creator to keep the options going, and you can almost certainly expect to see more and more DLC packs that contain new maps and cars. If you were trapped on a desert island with only this game to play (assuming you have a TV, a PS3, power, etc… don’t think about it too much), odds are you will be stepping onto the rescue ship long before you manage to play and customize every car. The options are extreme, to say the least.
The customizable options are just as overwhelming as they have ever been, and you can spend hours looking at ways to improve your rides. The thing that really sets the Gran Turismo series apart is the detail in the cars, and that includes the balance you need to find with the customization options. Simply buying the most expensive upgrades may not be the best option for a car, and it will definitely not be the best strategy on certain tracks. You won’t want to build a car for speed when it is a curvy track, nor would you want certain types of suspensions on certain types of terrain. This is what has always been the best, and at the same time, most alienating feature of the Gran Turismo series. If you are a fan of racing, if you have enjoyed the series, or if you just want something that will make you think, the upgrade options are a massive selling point for this game. If you are the type of gamer who thinks the amount of plays you can choose in Madden is overwhelming, this clearly is not going to be the game for you.
A new addition to the series is experience. As you complete events, you earn credits that can be spent on cars and upgrades, but you also earn experience that helps you level up. As your level increases, you unlock the option to compete in new events and buy cars that are unlocked by reaching predetermined levels. It feels like a natural progression for the series, and should keep people pushing through races in order to improve and unlock the car of their dreams. In many ways, it is a similar setup to Call of Duty: Black Ops’ multiplayer leveling, where you purchase perks and weapons once you have hit the necessary level to unlock them. As with Black Ops, the experience system combined with credits makes sure that you always have plenty of options on what you want to use, while it also keeps you striving for more.
License tests make a return as well, and these are essentially mini-games that earn you experience and credits, but they can also act as a teaching aide to understand the physics of the game. Most of the early license tests are easy to pass, but difficult to dominate, so you might find yourself almost ignoring the campaign at times to participate in the license tests, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Events also play a part in making the Gran Turismo experience ridiculously deep, and each of these special races offers something totally different and unexpected. Some are just races you won’t see anywhere else, but there is usually a catch. The first event you unlock is a go-kart race, while the second is a Nascar driving school taught by Jeff Gordon. As you reach higher levels, you can return to these events to try out the higher level challenges in the same category, as well as unlock new events that all have a hook of their own. One of these is the “Top Gear” test track, which fans of the UK motoring show will love — especially when you begin the first race and find yourself behind the wheel of a classic VW bus, racing against other buses. It is fittingly bizarre. These events act almost as a palette cleanser before returning to the actual campaign.
As for the full race events, the series brings back the A-Spec and B-Spec races. A-Spec puts you behind the wheel to race, while the B-Spec has you act as a crew chief for your driver. As the chief you issue simple commands such as “overtake”, increase the pace”, and the like. As your racer gains experience, they become better, but their temperament also plays a part. If they are hot headed, that might benefit them when they need to be aggressive, but hurt them when they are in heated situations. Both the A and B Spec races earn you credits, but the experience you earn is specific to that gametype.
The A-Spec is the bread and butter of GT5, and where you will be spending the majority of your time. It is the true heart of the game, and it is immense. As you begin you are offered the choice of what level you want to play, ranging from beginner on up. There are five difficulty levels in total, each with their own types of races. All levels will have a set number of races that are just about winning, but once you polish those off you will be treated to a huge selection of races that require specific conditions, including certain types of cars, cars of a certain year, particular steering setups, and many more. To complete all of them will require you to purchase several cars just to enter, so you will likely bounce between difficulty settings throughout the game.
If you are tired of racing the AI, it is an easy matter to jump online and find a race to either join or watch. The online selection is going to be interesting to see mature. If you want to simply bring out your best car and race, then you will easily find a game. But the deeper you look, the more you will find online. This online model is straightforward enough — find a lobby and join a race to win — but it is also something that will keep this game fresh and compelling when the AI begins to frustrate you (more on that in a bit). The online is streamlined and easy to use, and it is only going to improve as players get used to the racing and begin to customize cars for certain tracks and races. Be warned though, the longer the online thrives, the more difficult it will be to just jump in, as the learning curve will grow increasingly steeper.
GT5 also offers an arcade mode, which is an easy way to just race, and it also gives you an opportunity to play with cars that you might not unlock for a long time. You can play one or two players, and these are typically races that are unrelated to the campaign.
One of the more interesting, although perhaps less important things you will find on the main menu is “Gran Turismo TV”. This is a collection of real videos that range from car shows, to clips of actual races. It isn’t a major part of the game, and you could play through forever without ever clicking on the icon, but the important thing is what it represents. Gran Turismo 5 is a complete package for driving fans. It is immersive in a way that is hard to explain, and the little touches like the video clips just project a sense of class and care that you won’t find in many games. This game is made to impress, and it truly does. Most of the time.
Under the hood
From almost every standpoint, GT5 is an amazing game, with a few notable exceptions, all stemming from the technical side.
The graphics are what you would expect from Polyphony Digital. Basically, they are mostly spectacular. The cars look incredible, and the tracks are at times distractingly beautiful. The shadows and reflections on cars are a bit weird though—both will sometimes take on a heavily pixilated look that stands out against the rest of the graphics. This is a minor complaint though, and the only reason it is even apparent is because of the contrast to the rest of the graphics.
The sound is also spot on, and as with previous GT titles, there was a great deal of care taken to select the music. The selection ranges from rock and alternative that features several well-known bands, as well as classical, dance, electronic, and many more, including the Japanese Bossanova, lounge music, and soft jazz that are, well, very Japanese, and somewhat endearing because of it. Of course, the music is generally just something you will listen to as the game is loading or while you are at menus. The sounds of the cars are handled with an amazing level of care, and even gamers who are not gearheads will soon find themselves listening to the sounds of the engine to help gauge how the car is running. It is simply one more thing to add to the immersion of the game.
If you read only one sections of this review, hopefully it is this one. The driving physics in GT5 are awesome. This is what the game is all about, and GT5 delivers in a big, big way. Each car has its own feel to it, and they all follow the same logic. With over 1,000 to choose from, giving each vehicles its own feel is a massive technological feat, and allows you to overlook any of the minor glitches that pop up.
Rubbin’ is racin’
As much as I love this game, there are certain factors that mar it from being perfect. In fact, some deeply mar it.
The first thing you will need to do when you put this game into your PS3 (following the inevitable updates that plague all major releases, GT5 being no exception) is to take the game up on its offer to install itself to the hard drive. It will require 8GB, and although you have the option to skip the install, the loading times are so horrendous that it renders the game nearly unplayable. To give you an idea, once you are set up and have a car, you could know exactly which race you want, and what buttons to hit to get there, but with the loading, six button taps could take three to five minutes, and that is something you will have to do each and every race. It is painful.
Even when you do install the game, the loading times are still frequently upwards of 30 seconds or more, and the menu system will send you to a load screen between each button press. This might seem like a minor detail, and for the most part it is, but these loading times add up and can grow old very quickly. For a game that badly wants you to experience every nook and cranny it has to offer, these frequent loads somewhat discourage that.
They may take a bit longer than you would expect with a game that is installed on the hard drive, but that is a minor gripe, and one you will quickly forget. On any other game you might not thing much of it, but again, this is GT5, and it deserves the best. After a few days the loading will be second nature, and you will get used to it.
The second problem that will quickly become apparent is the damage system, which is mostly non-existent. You will occasionally see some dings and scratches on your ride, but for the most part you could literally slide out and scrape the wall for 50 meters without a problem at all.
If you aren’t a fan of realistic damage, then hooray! For racing enthusiasts, it is a glaring omission, and one that slightly cheapens the experience.
Sony has already promised a patch for this, so when it comes, we will update this post to include that.
[Update: The damage patch has been released, but bizarrely it does not patch the campaign. Perhaps this will be patched in future downloads.]
Like a monkey behind the wheel
Of all the flaws in GT5, there is only one that is serious, but it is a fairly big one. The AI is bad, and can make competitive races seem dull and lifeless.
If you race the same track five different times, you will almost always see the exact same results from the AI. The order of the cars might be different at the finish line, but they seem to all be operating on a pre-determined trajectory. To test this, I played a track where I was able to gain an early lead. As I raced ahead, I decided to stop at a narrow, but easily visible corner that the AI had been taking very conservatively. When the AI cars caught up, rather than see me and simply take a wider turn to avoid me, they ran right into me. Every single one of them. Thanks to the lack of damage, the AI actually ended up pushing me rather than just wrecking me or moving around me, at least until the next area where their paths and mine diverged.
Because of this, all it takes to win a race is to find one corner where the AI will take a predictably slow turn and power through it. Odds are you will never look back.
At one point, I wrecked just before the end of a lap on the medium difficulty. When I crossed the line to begin the final lap, I was 14 seconds behind the leader, and yet thanks to two gnarly turns and the lack of damage which allowed me to use the opponent cars to slow my momentum and prevent me from hitting a wall, I still managed to win by over five seconds. That is simply unbalanced AI.
As the races grow more advanced, the AI will as well, but even as you hit the harder settings, you will find that the AI is simply faster, not better. You will begin to lose races, but the cars will always follow a similar pattern, and rather than narrowly speeding by, you can generally find a trick to win. If a certain car keeps beating you, just watch where they take a wide turn and nudge them off the track. It may not be the most sporting of methods, but they will generally always give you the opening.
The later races are generally competitive enough to make winning seem rewarding, but again, GT5 has had years to improve on what was the best racing experience out there, and instead of upgrading the AI, they seem to have simply brought it over from the last game. On another game this would be a very minor complaint, but on GT5 it is a shame.
The best way to look at it is that you are not actually driving against your opponents, you are driving against your own time and just happen to be sharing the track with others. If you race the track perfectly, you will win. If you wreck, you will lose. It really is as simple as that. That may seem obvious, but it does take away a bit of the thrill of defeating the AI, and close races where you narrowly win will largely have less to do with your strategy, and more to do with a coincidence that the AI happened to be close when you crossed the finish line.
Having said all of that, the game is still excellent, and none of the problems are much of an issue.
GT5 is the best driving game ever made, but not the best racing game. The distinction is subtle, but important. If your focus is the thrill of the race, then GT5 is still a great game, but you will find flaws. Polyphony Digital is all about the driving, and the racing, while generally compelling, is more of a means to an end than a huge part of the experience. That isn’t necessarily a negative though, because the driving physics are simply amazing.
The loading is also a bit annoying, and the damage, or lack thereof, is bizarre.
Ok, now that the faults are out of the way, GT5 is a beautiful game that makes you feel like you are seeing something special. The presentation is amazing, the cars are impressive, and the driving physics are the new bar that all other games claiming realism will need to hit. You can’t help notice the tiny things like the poor shadows and reflections, but generally that will be because you can easily spend days and even weeks obsessed with this game.
For the PS3, there is no better driving game on the market. The racing suffers a bit, but only a tiny bit, and it won’t truly affect your enjoyment of what is generally a fantastic game.
If you have any love of cars, if you enjoy driving them in video games, or if you are looking for a title that you can spend months committed to while still finding new things to enjoy, then Gran Turismo 5 is highly recommended.
Score: 9 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by Sony Computer Entertainment)
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