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Polyphony Digital and Gran Turismo’s Fall from Grace

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Disclaimer: As of this writing, I have not played Gran Turismo 6 but I did order it a couple of days ago and it’s on the way. Everything written from here on is based on the impression I have gotten from reviewers and people who have played the game. So, grain of salt and all that.

UPDATE: It’s here.

The fall of Polyphony Digital and its Gran Turismo franchise, one beloved by a huge community of racing fans the world over, hasn’t been an easy one to watch. To look at their efforts this generation, compared to those past, it’s hard to imagine what went wrong. Gran Turismo, a household name, a name held by many as the king of racing franchises has seen its crown snatched from it by an upstart in Turn 10.

One argument I see hurled around far too often in Gran Turismo’s defense is that Gran Turismo is all about exacting simulation of the subtleties of driving, something Forza Motorsport can’t match because it’s “arcadey”. Nonsense.

Gran Turismo fans, please stop trying to perpetuate this myth. Forza Motorsport is not at all arcadey. It never has been. Now, complaints were rightfully levied at Turn 10 for including a hidden active steering assist that couldn’t be disabled in Forza Motorsport 3, but the hidden aid has since been made an option in subsequent Forza titles, allowing sim fans to disable it by simply selecting “simulation” steering from the difficulty menu. But even with the hidden aid, Forza Motorsport 3 is still far from the type of “simcade” handling seen in games like GRID and Project Gotham Racing.

Now sim racing fans are right to say that neither Forza nor Gran Turismo are “true” simulators in comparison to PC simulation luminaries like iRacing, rFactor and NetKar Pro. But when I see Gran Turismo fans dismissing Forza Motorsport as an arcade racer while holding Gran Turismo up as a bastion of realism and simulation excellence, I’m truly baffled.

There are a lot of things I will give the Gran Turismo series credit for when it comes to its physics model. Gran Turismo 5 does a great job of communicating the feeling of weight transfer in vehicles and cars have an appropriately weighty feel about them but there are many areas of Gran Turismo’s physics model that, from what I’ve heard, haven’t been fixed in Gran Turismo 6.

For example, its tire physics are still lacking. Grip progression, the way tires lose grip gradually under stress just doesn’t exist in Gran Turismo. This leads to its simulation of tire mechanics and grip being more of a binary switch in that you either have grip or you don’t, which isn’t realistic at all.

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The lacking tire physics contribute to another deficiency in Gran Turismo’s physics model in its near total inability to properly simulate torque steer. This is an easy problem to recreate for anyone with copies of Gran Turismo 5 and 6. Take a Ford Focus or one of many other FWD cars onto a level track and gun it from a standstill without touching the wheel.  In both of those games, the car will launch perfectly straight, with no effect of the torque on the steering wheel, which is wildly unrealistic. In real life (and Forza for that matter), the steering wheel will jerk to one side due to the torque generated at the front wheels.

But I understand that there are plenty of people who will disagree for whatever reason and I’ve seen solid arguments for both sides of the Forza versus Gran Turismo debate. This is just my opinion on the matter based on my experience with the series up to Gran Turismo 5. If this all turns out to be unfounded in relation to Gran Turismo 6, I’ll be sure to note as much in my upcoming review.

I have no doubt that Gran Turismo 6 will go on to sell millions, despite early reports that its opening weekend in the UK saw it move only a fifth of the amount of copies as its predecessor. Gran Turismo has long been a huge seller and a big name in the racing community and is one of the highest selling videogame franchises of all time. Its pedigree will continue to make it a high seller and it will sell, if nothing else, on name alone.

And that’s the problem.

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I’ve seen Polyphony Digital referred to by its head, Kazunori Yamauchi, as “perfectionists” and much of the reviewing and gaming community has allowed to ride on that self-imposed reputation of assumed “perfectionism”.  In the PS2 era, I would’ve agreed with Gran Turismo fans that Polyphony Digital is comprised of exacting perfectionists, passionate both about cars and racing. But this generation, they’ve done nothing but half-ass the Gran Turismo series at nearly every turn. They seem to believe that simply throwing as many features as they can at us will make us overlook the inconsistent quality across the board. To me, this seems a pure marketing move on their part, to have more boxes to check on the back of the package, for its fanbase to hold up in its defense. Yes, Gran Turismo has rally racing, day and night cycles and variable weather but none of those are executed particularly well, save for the day and night cycles, which are absolutely stunning on the right tracks.

Content for content’s sake is not always a good thing. On one hand, we have around 400 vehicles that have seen slavish attention to detail in their recreation within Gran Turismo and on the other, we have a slew of more than eight hundred cars that have literally been pulled from Gran Turismo 4, a title from nearly a decade and an entire generation ago. In some respects, I understand that having the cars in the game may be better than not but given the gulf in quality between the “Standard” and “Premium” cars (which has admittedly been lessened in Gran Turismo 6), one has to imagine how a company that prides itself on a reputation for “perfectionism” could allow such a thing to be present in their game. A true perfectionist would not have the two tiers of quality. A true perfectionist would strive to ensure that every car has the same level of detail and attention put into it to keep a consistent standard of quality across its entire stable of vehicles.

Turn 10 is passionate about cars. They are the ones who take the time to meticulously model each and every one of their cars inside and out, rather than settling for 800+ slightly versions of cars from a nearly decade old game. They’re the ones who have taken the time to record proper engine and tire squeal sounds rather than relying on audio from the PS1 era. They’re the ones who realize that quality is more important than quantity, which is why all of Forza’s tracks are so beautifully detailed whereas many tracks in Gran Turismo seem so stale and bland by comparison.

It is Turn 10’s own standard of quality that resulted in Forza Motorsport 5 featuring literally half the cars and tracks as its predecessor. They saw that some tracks and cars were not up to the standard they wanted to deliver with the Xbox One launch title and cut them until they could bring them up to the new standard. Turn 10 realized that some of their real world circuits were inaccurately rendered in previous games and were forced to cut them because they simply didn’t have the time to laser scan them and add them to Forza Motorsport 5 in order for it to be ready for the Xbox One’s launch.

It may sound like I’m making excuses for Turn 10 and Forza Motorsport 5’s lack of content. I’m not. The game should’ve been delayed until all of the content was ready to go and it was rightfully penalized for lacking it by many reviewers.

But here’s the point. Turn 10 delivered a consistent level of quality throughout the game nonetheless. Forza Motorsport 5 lacks content, but what is there is apparently excellent. From the exacting detail in all of the game’s 200+ cars to the high level of detail and accuracy in the tracks, Turn 10 has chosen to put quality ahead of quantity, for better or worse. As I said, I wish this game had been delayed in order to incorporate more content but seeing that the passion for the series hasn’t waned is reassuring.

Kazunori Yamauchi, CEO of Polyphony Digital

This level of passion and attention to detail has been missing from Gran Turismo since Gran Turismo 4 on the PlayStation 2. For years, Polyphony Digital has been given a free pass for essentially sitting on their hands for an entire generation, content to just cram as much “stuff” into its games as possible rather than listen to its critics and attempt to address its flaws.

I’ll make no attempts to obfuscate the fact that Forza is my preferred racing simulator franchise on consoles but that, by no means, precludes Gran Turismo from ever taking that crown. We’ll see how Gran Turismo 6 does when I get it in the coming days but I will say that it will be hard pressed to beat Forza Motorsport 4 as my favorite racing game of all time.

As I said, my copy of Gran Turismo 6 is in the mail, on its way to my doorstep as I type this. I knew I’d eventually succumb to its Siren song eventually and since it was on sale, I figured I might as well give in sooner than later. I like the Gran Turismo series. I’ve liked it since my first taste in the form of Gran Turismo 3 and I’ve bought every entry since, including Gran Turismo 5: Prologue. But just because I like it, doesn’t mean I’m going to go easy on it. It does Polyphony Digital no favors for anyone to make excuses for them, especially with the inevitable Gran Turismo 7 on the horizon. I thought having a rival in Turn 10 and the Forza Motorsport series would’ve been enough to get them to bring it but I was wrong. The motivation is going to have to come from elsewhere. Whether it is through criticism from the fanbase or within, wherever it has to come from, it has to come from somewhere.

About Justin McBride

My name is Justin McBride and I’m a guy who enjoys writing, playing games and writing about playing games. Sound lame enough yet? Well, I have other interests as well such as hanging out with friends, watching TV, going to the movies from time to time, surfing the internet, listen to good music, drive at speeds I shouldn’t be driving at and so on. The problem is, that’s all stuff everyone likes to do, so why write about it? Oh wait, seems I just did. Oops.

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