Gran Turismo 5 has been a long time coming. In development for five years, and famously delayed several times, the newest and shiniest addition in the ostentatious Gran Turismo line-up is one of the few games, along side its predecessor, to have a demo version of itself actually released as a full retail game. Expectations sky-rocketed for the first full-fledged PlayStation 3 instalment of the franchise, and with the developers constantly working towards bringing the game closer to racing perfection, it was inevitable that it would never live up to the hype. Now finally released, we are finally left with Gran Turismo 5: The Game, not 'The Vision'. So how is the game itself, and how well does it live up to that vision?
First, you have to start up the game to get the answer to that question. We'll try to get this out of the way quickly, because Gran Turismo 5 certainly doesn't. You'll either learn to hate or accept the shining GT logo that makes up the game's loading screen, because it appears an awful lot. You have the option of installing data to your hard drive to hasten the process, but even then loading remains lengthy, and the game still installs data in smaller chunks frequently (if you choose not to proceed with installing the game initially, the game will also do it anyway in the background). A lengthy intro that, while skippable, doesn't help matters when half its content could have probably been a video extra. Often, the main menu will also take a while to respond, although this is apparently due to the strain being put on the network servers. Polyphony's current solution is to sign out of the PSN if this is a problem for you, although the game's latest update seems to have alleviated the problem slightly.
As always, there is a career mode and an arcade mode on offer. Arcade is great to get a taste of what's on offer in the game, with a selection of GT5's 'premium' cars (more on them later), three levels of difficulty and access to all of the game's 70+ tracks (including reverse courses and changed weather conditions). However, if you're wanting to get the most out of the game, you pretty much have to dedicate your time to the GT Life mode. In this, you'll be asked to create your own racer, although customisation is pretty much limited to what gaudy colours you're wearing, and set out on your quest to be the very best racer there ever was.
Progression in GT Life is measured by levelling up in two different modes. In 'A-Spec', you'll gain experience through competing in racing events, increasing your level to gain access to more difficult events and gaining reward cars as well as credits to spend on even more cars, or tuning up your existing ones. Success in early A-Spec events usually leans on you having the best machine for the job, with the races usually being decided within the first ten seconds, but as you progress your victory often depends just as much on skill. 'B-Spec' basically makes you a backseat driver, as it sees you create a team of drivers with different skills and personalities, and set them out to race in the same events as in 'A-Spec', except you give them directions during the race, such as when to speed up and slow down. B-Spec is given equal billing on the GT Life page as a major mode in the game, but by taking away the best part of the Gran Turismo experience, actually racing these cars for yourself, it seems like it will only appeal to extremely dedicated racing fans who've dreamed of managing a team. It certainly seemed a little tiresome to us. AI in both modes is decent, although usually content to stay within some pre-determined position in the race. You won't often see other AI racers battling to overtake each other, just you.
Licenses are entirely optional this time around, although they are necessary to newcomers to develop crucial driving skills, and they provide worthy contributions to your A-Spec driving level. It's easy to cruise by getting bronze in most of the challenges they provide, but getting gold is a challenge that could take dozens of hours on their own. Players can also compete in Special Events, which provide some of the best variety on offer in any racing game, and showcase how Gran Turismo aims to provide a comprehensive driving experience. Within our first few hours of the game, we'd competed in the standard Sunday Cup, before taking to the gravel in a kart race, learned the basics of NASCAR and topped it all off with a couple of licenses. The variety of experiences is sensational, and these extras provide a much-needed break from the grind of the regular racing. However, utter perfection is often required in some of these events, and the rules for disqualification sometimes can seem inconsistent. Graze a car in one way, and you'll be disqualified, do it in another, and you'll be fine. Knock over one cone on the Top Gear track, and that's alright, knock over a different one and you'll have to restart. This can lead to frustration, although there's always another event to try if you're getting fed up with one in particular.
Speaking of comprehensive options, the game has a simply insane amount of cars to drive - over 1,000. The number is staggering and there is pretty much something for everyone, with cars from nearly every decade of driving, along with the top-of-the-line, high performance vehicles of recent memory. And yes, before you ask, yes, Holden are in the game with a Commodore SS '04 and a Monaro CV8 '04. Although we're not sure how many Toyta Vitzs really needed to be included in the game. However, the best part is all of them handle jaw-droppingly realistically. Using a controller, the weight of the cars becomes immediately clear, and subtle variations even between different editions of the same model of car are plain to feel and fundamentally alter how you drive. Using a steering wheel, the experience takes off, with the force feedback allowing you to feel every dent in the road and every change in traction. For less experienced racers, there are all manner of driving assists to help you get started, making this a bit more accessible than past entries. If you're looking for a near-perfect simulation of how these cars perform, get yourself a wheel and prepare to be dazzled.
What may not be so dazzling is the visual presentation of the game. We know, we know, in all of the screenshots and trailers the game looks good. Nay, sublime. But pictures don't always tell the truth. Most of the photos in this article were taken with Gran Turismo 5's photo mode, which adds post-processing and effects to the images, and even the replays have some processing to make them impress. And don't get us wrong, the replays look truly impressive. And we don't want to rag on the visuals too much, because as an overall package, it looks good. But in-game is something of a different story. While the game runs at a great frame-rate, tracks are subject to pixellation and some horrible texture pop-in, not to mention object pop-in. Rally tracks in the snow and dirt fail to leave significant marks. Low resolution shadows also abound, depending on the lighting on the track of course, but they can utterly spoil the gorgeous cockpit views of the premium cars, as can some disappointingly pixellated and blocky rain effects.
Of the game's 1000-strong car list, only about 200 or so have been given the premium treatment. These are the only cars with the cockpit option available, but are also easily distinguishable between the 'standard' cars which make up the majority of the game. The detail on the premium cars is immaculate, although the choice of what constitutes a premium car can seem strange. A small hatchback car may receive the premium treatment, while a top of the line Jag will be left alone. Obviously Polyphony wanted to deliver a cross-section of cars in the premium format, but it seems unnecessary for the lower end cars, as if it's only present for the benefit of their inclusion in the licence tests. Standard cars suffer from blurry textures, and jaggier models. They don't look bad per se, but contribute to an inconsistent presentation. And don't think Polphopny don't know this. In the photo mode during replays, you're prevented from getting too close to standard cars to take photos, but not with premium cars.
Customisation on your vehicles is more about what's under the hood, rather than their appearance. You can only apply paint jobs you've collected through purchasing other cars, and even then you can't apply custom decals like in Forza. As for the actual parts inside the car, the option to change breaks has disappeared, but there is still a pretty healthy amount of upgrades to be purchased, all of which have noticeable impacts on your vehicle thanks to the excellent driving model. Sometimes the realism can get a little too high for us, as often we'll purchase an affordable standard car from the Used Car Dealership (premium cars are available only from official dealers), and take it into a race, forgetting that usually they actually need to have an oil change. Nevertheless, the options are present for those who can understand them, while more casual players may be a little baffled.
Damage also makes its first appearance in the Gran Turismo series, and unfortunately it's something of a mixed bag. Beginners in GT Life eager to smash up their cars Burnout style will walk away disappointed, as a 200 km/h run into a wall may only produce a slightly darkened texture on the car. Greater damage modelling unlocks as you proceed further into the lengthy career mode, at least it seemed to us, but if you're after instant gratification, the arcade mode actually allows you to smash the cars up to your heart's content. Normally, the visual damage results in some crumpling and warping, and occasionally seeing bumpers come away and drag along the road, and doors swing open, depending on the car you're driving. Essentially, it takes a fair bit of work to get these cars banged up good. Indeed, the argument can be made that there's no need for damage as this isn't a destruction derby, since you're supposed to be avoiding other vehicles, and the repercussions for failing to can be harsh. In the Online mode, the status of your car as well as mechanical damage can be monitored on-screen thanks to a helpful display on the bottom-left, and if you bust something in your car, you're darn well going to be paying for it the rest of the race.
Online, Gran Turismo 5 uses an aging lobby system to get you into a race. Players can enter a room, communicate via voice or text chat, and do some laps while waiting for a race to begin. Races can hold up to sixteen opponents, and the customisation options for creating races are pretty decent. Right now, the service seems to be a little shakey, while the frame-rate holds up sometimes cars can jitter around the track in a way we haven't experienced with other racing games. This could be a connection issue on our end, or on others, but it can sometimes cost you a race if you find yourself slammed off track by another driver who thought you were somewhere else, taking you both out of the running. You can also keep an online GT5 profile in-game, and keep track of other friends, in a Facebook-lite approach that is quite pleasing.
Beyond all this, players can also create their own courses using an in-game Course Maker, that is sadly too rigid, only allowing you to choose from a set theme and alter the shape of a track through pre-selected 'complexity' values, rather than anything more intuitive like ModNation Racers. A photo mode allows you to take photos during replays, or to travel to exotic set-pieces to photograph car-porn 'till your heart's content. Gran Turismo TV has a wealth of video content to download from several providers, including many videos of races, although some of this content is currently priced at around $5 a pop. PlayStation Eye functionality has been tacked on to provide head tracking in the game's cockpit view, allowing you to look around by literally turning your head. We couldn't get the feature working even with several lighting set-ups, but perhaps others will have better luck. Finally, the game's music tracklist is expansive, ranging from classical piano to jazz and rock, but only a handful of tracks make an impression. Luckily, custom soundtracks can be enabled.
It was George Lucas who said, "A movie is never finished, only abandoned." The same could be said for almost any creative endeavour. At some point, the developers of Gran Turismo 5 had to stop adding features, tweaking physics and optimising the graphics and release the product after five years of hard work, with the knowledge that barring DLC down the track, that this was it, and it was now down to the gaming audience to decide how the game holds up. And perhaps Gran Turismo 5 could have been abandoned a little earlier. While GT5 was in the cooker, rival franchises have appeared, evolved and added their own spins and additions to the genre. And as Gran Turismo 5 stands now, it's the definitive racing experience, albeit perhaps not the definitive racing game. Underneath the hood lies an extensive array of cars, tracks, racing modifications, game modes and events for gamers to get their teeth stuck into, but while the physics and handling remain true throughout, overall the package feels inconsistent. Whether it's in the visuals, the challenges, the overall presentation, or the areas where Polyphony have chosen to place detail, inconsistency is the word that pops up more than it should. In the end, Gran Turismo 5 is not the perfect racing game many were hoping for. It is merely a very good one, which to be honest, is good enough for us, and should be good enough for any racing fan out there too.