Gran Turismo 5 Review
After years of delays and a wait that almost put Polyphony Digital's latest racing game, Gran Turismo 5, solidly into vaporware contention, it's finally here. The PS3 now has a true flagship racing game, one that goes beyond Polyphony's two previous (and highly disappointing) false starts. With a feature list that seems to go on for miles, it seems like this is going to be the quintessential console racing sim. But does that actually hold true?
The first Gran Turismo that I really enjoyed, believe it or not, was the PSP version released in 2009. Before that, if I knew I was stuck with a gamepadís analog stick, I always preferred arcade-style racing. But with GT5, I sat through the big, well-hyped launch and waited until I could use a real steering wheel - specifically, I'm using Logitech's G25 for this review - before I could ever get serious with a game like this.
I'm glad I did, too, because GT5 and this wheel work together like they'd been designed for each other right from the start (something that can't possibly actually be true, since the G25 has been out for years). The feel of every bump, the pull on the wheel when you're in a slide and your car's ass is swinging out, and the feedback of driving feels very realistic. Sadly, this game is a very uneven experience. At times it comes off as one of the deepest and most most legit racing games ever made, and at other times itís a petulant, spoiled brat spawned from developer Polyphony Digital, yanking the fun away from the player and making the whole thing an exercise in frustration - something that shouldnít be happening in a racing game where you have access to some of the world's hottest cars.
It starts with the difference between Premium and Standard cars. Of the 1000+ cars that have been included in GT5, you'll see a pretty heavy preference for Japanese models, which isn't terribly surprising because it's a Japanese developer that made the game. Between those, most of the cars are Standard versions, with slightly lower detail in the polygon count and texture quality, but most importantly, they donít have distinctly modeled interiors and you cannot drive them in the in-cockpit camera view. All you get is a hood cam, bumper cam, and a third-person view from above and behind the car.
And guess what cars you'll be starting out with, for the most part? Yep, Standard ones. As you move on, there are admittedly a lot of of great cars towards the end that are modeled fully as Premium cars, but the problem is that the car world is a very opinionated one, and if you read the blogs, watch shows like Top Gear or even do some amateur racing yourself, you're bound to find a car you love (or at least are very interested in) that's been left behind as a Standard version in GT5. To me, this is a problem that the developers should have immediately started to work on, with weekly Rock Band-style DLC updates, online or in-game polling to find out which cars the community wanted Premium-ized first, and an eventual goal of making every car they bothered to put on their roster a Premium car - especially considering just about every other AAA racing developer now considers cockpit views as, well, a ďstandardĒ feature. Anyway, PD has been silent on this matter, and there are no published plans to upgrade Standard cars to Premium versions.
While the downgraded looks of Standard cars is one thing, being stuck in one can also be a pretty big gameplay disadvantage if you heavily prefer the in-cockpit mode. This is doubly true because the engine sounds are so weak whenever the camera is outside the car - more on that later in the review. The point here is that if you like the simulation style of being in the cockpit and need to hear the engine properly in order to drive, you're going to hate being in Standard cars - and thatís the majority of the cars available to you.
The AI in Gran Turismo 5 isn't awful, nor does it depend on heavy "rubber-banding" in order to smooth out the challenge. Hell, it even looks good when you're not involved, as cars will occasionally trade paint and will pull some interesting moves (and sometimes make serious mistakes in the process) to try and get past other racers, although you mostly see this in the hands-off B-spec mode rather than when youíre racing. The issue here, simply, is that the AI has no direct difficulty settings to fiddle with, and itís especially mean to the player. If a faster comes up behind you in order to pass you, trying to block them will often lead to the AI purposely pulling a PIT maneuver on you, spinning you out and likely putting you in last place by the time you can get up to speed again.
The AI will specifically try to bully you and only you because it works like a hive mind. Iíve heard it described by more than one annoyed player as Zombie AI, and it does feel like an apt description, as the opposition will ignore you, doing their own thing, until you get in their way. Combine this with zero damage modeling at the beginning of the game and no rewind system, and players are forced to fight dirty and really start slamming into other cars, something that is disallowed in the license tests but winds up being almost totally necessary in many races in the full game.
To be specific, what youíll have to do is brake late when going into corners and crash into (and careen off of the sides of) AI cars, knocking them off their line and putting you one or two places ahead. I donít know about you, but if I was in a real-life race between quarter-million-dollar supercars, I donít think Iíd be purposely colliding into cars like the go karts down at Malibu Speedway just to try and win. As simulation-like as this gameís driving is, the aggressive hive-mind AI and lack of damage modeling ruins any realism that is built through physics modeling or high-level car tuning. Even this would be excusable if the whole thing was balanced for fun at least, but for most of the time, thatís simply not the case.
You'll find that traction and steering control features won't do everything to keep you from spinning out all on your own in this game, either, and it's unfortunate that the developers didn't feel the need to implement a true difficulty system. Yes, you can toggle things like the racing line, traction control, and the like, but if you make a mistake and wind up in last place because of it, all you can do is restart the whole race (which isn't an option in a series, and that's much of what the game's main A-spec career mode is - in that case, your only option is to quit the series entirely) or simply limp across the finish line in whatever place you can pick up at the end.
This is a hugely unforgiving game, one that doesn't care to help you get better at driving. For that, all youíve got is the chance to start over and maybe youíll be better, or maybe youíll get lucky. For those that are used to the Gran Turismo way of doing things and hail it as the best racing game franchise around, this is probably not an issue. They consider finding success in a game like this to serve as a badge of honor, but it is important to point out that for anyone jumping into GT for the first time, theyíll find it to be user-unfriendly, unforgiving, and unrepentantly difficult. You either endure and keep bashing your head against this game, figuring out how to fix mistakes by repetition and avoid the aggressive AI, or you fail. In many races, youíll find yourself either in the top 3 or in last place.
The main mode, the career-styled GT mode, gets you off on the wrong foot right from the start. As we've seen with past GT games, you have to start with license tests before you can do the main races, and these are stuffy and boring pretty much the whole way through. Even when you finish the first battery of 10 of them, you can only enter B-spec races, which is where you're yelling at an AI racer to pick up the pace or cool off - and you get to to helplessly watch as he sheepishly ekes out something like fifth or sixth place out of eight most of the damn time. There is an RPG-like system for improving your AI driver's skills, and it does get better eventually, but when it serves as the first "true" race events you can do in your career mode, you'll find the B-spec mode to alternate between being either boring and frustrating.
The lack of excitement in B-spec mode has at least something to do with how little your AI driver actually connects with you, as you pick a name from randomly generated ones and only choose from a few starting base sets of statistics. You donít fine-tune anything yourself and donít choose a look or beyond a very vague gender-neutral racing outfit. If this is intended to be an RPG, thatís a pretty weak character creation mode. The driver youíre directing has a total of four options you can use during the race (pick up the pace, keep pace steady, slow down the pace, and overtake an opponent) and you get very little feedback on your driverís actual condition in the race, beyond a couple of little meters at the bottom of the screen, until itís too late and a huge mistake is made. This mode was interesting and unique at least in theory, but the execution was lackluster and dull.
So, you go through the next set of 10 licenses, and you can finally get into A-spec races where you are the actual driver. One of the earliest events I could even participate in put me, in my awful Mazda MX-5, against a bunch of faster cars. At least unlike Forza 3 I wasn't always starting out in last place, but I quickly found that that might have been better, as trying to block any AI racer who almost immediately passed me would result in getting pitted and spun out. It was the most frustrating, rage-inducing time I had in this game, as over fifteen tries always got me the same result. When I let it go and tried to win the old fashioned way, an hour-long session of trying this short race netted me very few results beyond fourth place out of eight. I can deal with hard difficulty AI in Forza 3 with most assists turned off and only a few rewinds - even on the inferior Microsoft wheel - but here I simply quit trying to actually do that race because the game does nothing to help players improve. Being that this was in the first couple hours of playing, that seemed entirely unacceptable.
Some of the features, like the track creator, are great additions that should add extra months and even years to the life of GT5. Unfortunately, there are quite a few features that a good chunk of gamers are going to find extraneous, like the go-karts and B-spec AI-driven racing. And for those of us who find stock car races boring, well, that's not a feature we really care for. It's weird that Polyphony Digital focused much more on something like NASCAR over, say, the World Rally Championship, but I suspect it's because NASCAR only requires a few big oval tracks and some pretty basic car modeling and tuning - "real" rally events would require miles of winding paths instead of easier closed tracks, and there'd need to be some solid special effects as well as tons of new physics for dirt and mud handling. Yeah, there are some dirt-based races here, but they donít really capture rally in the way that even more arcadey games like the DIRT series has done.
Even with all of those features thrown in, you'd think that a huge flagship racing game this important to Sony would have better online functionality, the ability to fiddle with replays more (including doing basic things like rewinding), damage modeling that doesn't take dozens of hours of gameplay just to start using, a slicker interface without the long load times, or more time spent driving and less time sitting in menus and loading screens.
One of my favorite things about GT5 is that it effortlessly supplies 1080p visuals at 60fps, delivering a crisp picture that really does make a difference over the years of 720p console gaming we've gotten so used to. Here, the lines are sharp, the textures are well-defined (especially those Premium car models!), and the action is silky smooth. You can drop down to 720p and get 3D if you've got the correct TV and shutter glasses setup, but let's face it: considering the weak proliferation of this hardware, I think it's safe to call this a gimmick feature.
GT5 also has the first console-based instance I've seen of dynamic hard drive installation. If you don't want to do the excruciating 45-minute installation to start, what the game essentially can do is start from the disc, load up tracks and menus as you play through them, and install this data to the hard drive on the fly, slowly increasing the game's footprint on your PS3 hard drive as you play it. What sucks about it is that the load times are awful even after a bunch of the game has been cached to the hard drive, and you'll often find yourself sitting impatiently for nearly a minute waiting for some races to load. It may not seem like much, but when every race (even the ones that are 5 minutes long or less) all come with load times like this, it adds up over the course of even a two- or three-hour session with the game. GT5 looks pretty damn good, but Iím not sure the load times are really worth the increase in visual quality.
One of the things that impressed me most about Forza 3 was just how much fun it made simply jumping into a car and driving it around a track. Sure, it seems a little behind on the physics and realism department compared to GT5 - although I suspect it's more because most people, including me, turn on at least one or two of the driving assists - but I almost didn't need to be racing with other cars to have fun, and having them on the track still didnít ruin the experience like it often does in GT5. Forza funnels you towards racing, spending as little time as possible in menu screens and keeping load times short. Hell, even Gran Turismo on PSP did a better job of maintaining the fun of racing than GT5 has accomplished.
Here, the fun can be found, but it's buried under piles of menus, stupid-long load times, and frustrating AI. If it's not a general lack of enthusiasm for racing that I'm noticing from Polyphony Digital, then it seems at the very least to be a lack of excitement for people actually trying to enjoy their game.
Any racing game fan loves the sound of a powerful race car's engine rumbling, growling, and roaring, but the developers seemed to not care about working on it much in GT5. It's nice to go into the garage, switch to any car, and hear the sound of the engine starting, but once you get in-game, it's weak as hell. The only half-decent engine sounds you get are in the in-cockpit view and that only comes with Premium cars (so all Standard cars sound awful pretty much by default), and while it's possible there's a problem with my home theater, all engine sounds would only primarily come through one front speaker - depending on which side was the driver's side. Environmental sounds and screeching tires are also pretty lackluster, making the sound design a real disappointment in GT5. Both Forza and Need for Speed: SHIFT have done a better job of this in the last couple of years, and itís a shame that the biggest driving simulation of them all is so far behind.
The music covers a huge range, from classical to lounge jazz, alternative and dance, but I found most of it to be pretty ho-hum and very disconnected from the actual racing. Gran Turismo 5 does support custom soundtracks, but the feature is buried in an obscure secondary menu (separate from the song selection menu or the XMB), where I suspect many players who don't read GT forums all day will never find it.
From a technical standpoint, Gran Turismo 5 may not stack up to the extremely meticulous racing games on the PC, but its production values and huge stable of cars give it a balance that no other game has really struck. It's more technical and probably a better pure driving simulation than Forza 3 is on the 360, but the fun is also more rear-loaded and overall it's much less of a joy to play than I was hoping for, especially after having so much on the PSP. Some gamers see this gameís unforgiving and rigid style to be a plus, but I feel that there should be a range of difficulties and more ways to enjoy such a huge, ambitious, sprawling racing game like this, and GT5 lacks that.
I suspect that only the most hardcore of GT5 owners will ever see the majority of the cars, events, and tracks offered, and that's really a shame for those who donít, because so much effort went into making much of this content so great. It'll probably be years again before Polyphony Digital delivers another Gran Turismo, but I think it's pretty clear what they need to work on: treat all the cars with equal love, give players more options to fine-tune the AI, make driving something to be enjoyed rather than endured, improve all aspects of the online functionality, and re-prioritize all those features into something more focused on fun than a back-of-the-box list.