Gran Turismo 5, a game that was long speculated to be vaporware by many people within the gaming community, is finally here. Polyphony Digital’s follow up to 2005’s Gran Turismo 4, released on the PS2 was nearly six years in the making and has seen its fair share of publicity because of it. Expectations were understandably running high, given the series’ pedigree. The fifth iteration of Polyphony Digital’s self-proclaimed “Real Driving Simulator” is an unmistakable joy to drive but there are more than a few problems under the hood that might limit your full enjoyment of the game.
Driving in Gran Turismo 5 is a real pleasure due to its incredibly deep physics engine. Having no real world racing experience to speak of, I won’t presume that the physics engine is “realistic” because I lack the necessary point of reference but I will say that, of all the racing sims I’ve played, GT5’s physics feel the most believable. Driving an 860 horsepower race modified Corvette Z06 feels right to me. The experience is as appropriately visceral and raw as I’d imagine it would be in the real world. The car is hard to handle and unforgiving in its demeanor and makes for a very thrilling driving experience. Taking off in an all-wheel drive Lamborghini Gallardo feels just as believable as the pedestrian driving experience offered by the low end Daihatsu OFC-1 and my Lotus Elise is just as sprightly and nimble as its real world counterpart is hailed to be.
Gran Turismo 5 is the best simulation racing experience you’ll find on a console. It’s not worlds better than other sims and the differences are more subtle than overt but these slight improvements are enough to convince me of GT5’s superiority. This is the most uncompromising and believable driving experience I’ve had so far so fans of racing sims should probably find a lot to love about GT5.
GT5’s variety is also quite good, introducing you to a number of racing disciplines gradually and does a good job of keeping things interesting as you play more and more of the game. At the very beginning, go-karting events are opened up after completing your first racing event and are an absolute blast to play. Later, you gain access to NASCAR and Rally special events as well. These events are certainly entertaining but I feel as though they weren’t very well integrated into the game. Simply put, there aren’t enough of these events to really go around. Thus, the NASCAR and WRC licenses seem under-utilized to me.
The AI in GT5 is a huge disappointment to me, ranging in intelligence from “slightly mentally challenged” to borderline brain-dead. AI drivers don’t seem to be aware of your presence on the track most of the time. If you park on the racing line, they’ll typically avoid you without problems but other than that, it’s like you don’t exist. The AI has been characterized as “aggressive” but I don’t believe that. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been turning or slowing down for a turn or even be flat out on a straight and the AI would slam into my rear bumper or, even worse, hit one of my rear quarter panels and send me into a spin, inadvertently taking me out. I say “inadvertently” because I don’t believe this to be an intentional behavior and instead is more likely to be a result of the AI being blind to your presence and trying to drive through what they believe is empty space.
GT mode serves as a centralized hub in which you’re likely to spend most of your time with GT5 and is where the career mode lies. GT mode puts you in the shoes of a fresh face in the world of professional racing with 20,000 credits to buy yourself a car and start racing. The majority of the time you’ll spend in GT Mode will be in the A-Spec and B-Spec modes. A-Spec races are traditional racing events that you’ll actively participate in and B-Spec races are those in which you’ll delegate the driving responsibility to an AI driver. Each mode has an individual leveling system in which you and your AI drivers gain experience from completing each race, slowly leveling up and gaining access to higher event tiers and more challenging races and special events.
In the beginning, this is fine, and level progression is smooth as gaining credits to buy the cars you need is rather easy and you’ll quickly ascend through the levels. However, once you reach level 15 or so, leveling becomes rather tedious as none of the races or events seems to reward you with enough experience points and credits to keep you going at a smooth pace. The career seems to stagnate at this point and turns into a repetitive grind of replaying the same races over and over again to gain credits to buy a new car or the experience needed to unlock a new race series.
B-Spec mode allows you to choose a driver or a number of drivers depending on the race and operate behind the scenes, watching the race as it takes place and giving directions to the AI driver(s) as the situation calls for it. If this description doesn’t get your motor running, that’s good, because it shouldn’t. There is incentive to “playing” this mode in that it provides you with a relatively easy, if time consuming, method of gaining credits and some nice reward cars. Experience gained in this mode goes towards advancing your B-Spec level, and the class of your driver. As their driver class increases, they will be less likely to make mistakes and will be far more efficient in their driving.
Or, at least, that’s how it should work. Unfortunately, levels don’t seem to make much of a difference in their aptitude and they still seem mind-numbingly stupid at times. During heated races, your driver will automatically become more aggressive. This added aggression leads to recklessness which, in turn, leads to frustration for the player as the AI driver spins out and manages to blow a perfectly good lead on the final lap of a particularly lengthy race. To counteract this, it’s often quite easy to put your driver in a car that vastly outclasses the rest of the field, for example, bringing a race-modified Corvette Z06 into a race for much lower end vehicles and then going to grab a snack while the game literally plays itself.
Tuning and customization aspects also leave something to be desired. GT5 allows for very little in the way of visual customization aside from changing rims and adding a carbon fiber hood (only on premium cars) adding wing and lip spoilers but doesn’t allow you to go crazy with adding custom body kits and doesn’t have a full livery editor. You can change paint jobs but what’s strange about this is that all of the paint colors have to be “unlocked” first in order to be used and can only be used once. You can even perform full racing modifications on certain cars which sets them up with a good deal of upgrades for a hefty fee.
Upgrading your car is pretty much standard fare, allowing for upgrades to the engine, drivetrain, transmission suspension and chassis that you’d expect but, for some reason, does not offer an ability to upgrade your car’s brakes. More advanced modifications such as aspiration conversion or full drivetrain or engine swaps are absent as well. What you can do in terms of tuning once you have these upgrades, though, is rather shallow. There’s no option to change tire pressure or brake pressure and many of the metrics used to tune vehicles are often highly simplified. The most egregious omission is the ability to tune individual gear ratios, even after purchasing the “fully customizable” transmission upgrade which only allows you to adjust the final drive.
What is likely to be the first thing you’ll notice is that the premium cars look stunning. Polyphony Digital clearly loves cars and it shows in the meticulous detail that has gone into recreating so many of the game’s vehicles, both inside and out. At first glance and, heck, at the second and third glance, you might actually think some of these vehicles are real. What helps the game accomplish this almost photorealistic look is the lighting, which is among the best I’ve seen in any game, period. It just looks right. No matter the situation, it looks realistic. Most of the tracks, particularly the city environments are alive with detail and are beautifully realized within GT5. In terms of real world tracks, as always, Suzuka is gorgeous and the famed Nurburgring is also quite pretty. GT5 also has a phenomenal sense of speed in any of the first person perspectives (especially the cockpit view) which is aided by great (almost excessive) use of camera bob when hitting bumps and the like which goes a long way to present the feeling of actually being in a car.
Most of the flaws in GT5’s visual presentation can be attributed to the standard cars, some of which look like they were ripped straight out of previous iterations of Gran Turismo and, sadly, they were and weren’t given any special treatment to bring them up to par visually with the premium vehicles. The result of this are car models that range from almost good enough to pass for premium to last gen levels of detail with most of the standard cars (at least those that I’ve seen) falling somewhere in between and generally closer to the latter than the former. Considering the amount of love and care that went into the premium models, it’s very disappointing to see that 80% of the game’s cars were so sloppily integrated into GT5. Trust me, the first time you see a vehicle with jagged, painted on textures around wheel wells, windows and doors, you’ll understand.
Aside from issues raised by the standard cars, there are some other graphical problems and glitches that tend to pop up rather frequently. Among these is screen tearing. Now, I can forgive screen tearing as long as it doesn’t occur too frequently but in GT5, it’s a constant annoyance that most often appears during races on the many city courses and tracks populated with a great deal of greenery. Speaking of the greenery, Polyphony Digital has gone back to the nineties with their use of cross section 2D sprites for many of the trees, shrubs and the like which are often copied and pasted throughout a track which really hurts the visual appeal of certain tracks like the Circuit de la Sarthe. Another, particularly ugly graphical flaw are the blocky, pixelated shadows that wouldn’t look out of place on the PS2. It’s a shame these issues are as prevalent as they are because GT5 could really be an exceptional showpiece but these visual foibles are the impossible to ignore spots of chipped paint on an otherwise immaculately presented vehicle.
In terms of the audio presentation, engine sounds are great aside from the all too loud transmission whine that makes almost every car sound the same once it’s installed, and vehicles do a great job of imitating their real life counterparts. Tire squeals are improved over past Gran Turismo games but still aren’t great but what really disappointed me were collision sound effects. When you hit a barrier or another car, you don’t hear the appropriate crunch of metal or plastic, instead, you get what sounds like a plastic bin being slammed up against a wall. The soundtrack itself is filled to the brim with jazz and classical music, which you’ll hear most often in the menus but the alternative and electronic tracks aren’t exactly conducive to racing either. This is something that many racing games struggle with so I don’t fault GT5 too heavily for this and I am glad they give you the option to listen to your own music stored on your PS3 hard drive.
Weather changes and day and night cycles are features that were given a great deal of hype throughout GT5’s development and these features are implemented rather well into GT5. While it is a bit disappointing that you can’t race at night or with dynamic weather on all tracks, on those that you can, it makes for an exciting change of pace. Snow or rain covered driving surfaces, demonstrated aptly during rally races, force you to rethink how you’d tackle a particular track and make you adjust your driving accordingly which is quite a welcome addition to the game.
In terms of GT5’s implementation of damage, I honestly don’t know what to make of it. On face value, the way in which Polyphony Digital has implemented damage seems rather half-assed. On a technical level, I applaud them for trying to create an entirely physics based damage calculation system that dynamically deforms the car in real time based on several factors, from the angle of impact, speed, the type of obstacle and more, a system that differs greatly from the “pre-baked” damage modeling systems that have been used in other games. Gran Turismo 5 may be one of the first big name games to implement such a system but when looking at the extent in which I can damage my car now and the total lack of mechanical damage throughout much of the game and this supposed tiered damage system that only allows you to fully damage vehicles after having played dozens and dozens of hours of the game instead of allowing you to simply turn it on and off or even at varying degrees, it seems very poorly implemented.
The user interface, when you begin the game, may initially impress you with its rather pleasing aesthetic but once you start to use it for any measurable length of time, you realize just how clunky and poorly designed it really is. Even small things, like the inability to simply press the circle button to exit to the main menu in sub menus, instead having the cursor merely jump to the “My Home” button, requiring you to hit the X button once more, seem poorly designed. To add insult to injury, navigating the menus is especially annoying because of the sheer sluggishness behind everything that you do. The loading times in this game, even with the full, optional install, are painfully long. Nothing feels snappy because of this. Practically every transition has a few seconds worth of loading times attached to it and while they may not seem like much on their own, these small, incremental stoppages compound over time to become bothersome.
I can’t get over the feeling that this game was rushed. I know that sounds strange, given that the game was nearly 6 years in development, but the more I played GT5, the more I felt like it was unfinished. As I’ve said numerous times before, the driving physics are fantastic and serves as a solid foundation for the rest of the experience but what is built on that foundation is decidedly lackluster in many ways. From the rather dull career mode to the slapdash implementation of damage to the underuse of WRC and NASCAR licenses, there’s so much about this game that just screams “average”. Much like I said in my GT PSP review, there is a good game here that’s buried underneath a series of poor design decisions. As a driving simulator, it’s the best you’ll find on any console (albeit not by much) but as a game, there are better choices. I want to love Gran Turismo 5, I really do, but every time I begin to think that it is a truly excellent experience, one of those aforementioned poor design decisions brings be back down to Earth.
Driving is a joy in Gran Turismo 5 that few games can even come close to but it’s a joy that’s interrupted by the fact that so much of the game itself is so uninspired. Without a doubt, Polyphony Digital has crafted an amazing driving simulator in GT5 but that’s really all GT5 truly excels at and in this day and age, a racing sim needs more than just that to appeal to gamers in a market that has no shortage of great racing games. This is a game that should’ve and could’ve been better, a game that doesn’t seem to want to conform to modern standards and suffers because of it. Hopefully, Polyphony Digital will be more mindful of those standards going forward.