It didn't even register at first. I put my review copy of Gran Turismo 5 into my PS3 and started it up, watched a lovely cutscene and then began playing. No fanfare. No parade. No banners hanging from the ceiling. Here I was, in a slow car and on some standard track, going in a circle, rounding corners at a snail's pace. It didn't really register that I was actually playing the finished version of Gran Turismo 5, after all this time.
It really didn't hit me until a bit later that I was playing six years' worth of work from Polyphony Digital. I was playing something that is attempting to be the end-all racing simulator. I was playing the game that PS3 owners have been talking about since the system's release.
Hundreds of virtual miles and a few sleepless nights later, I still haven't had my fill of Gran Turismo 5. Although this is something racing fans have been waiting on for so long, slipping back into Gran Turismo was completely natural. It just happened, and it just felt right. Nothing had to be explained. No hand-holding was required. I just jumped in like the last six years never even happened.
Gran Turismo 5 (PlayStation 3)
Only after finally stopping to write a review after countless hours of play did I realize how massive Gran Turismo 5 is. The numbers that Sony and Polyphony Digital have been throwing at us (1,000+ cars, 70 track variations, several modes) don't even begin to cover how vast the game is. The game's GT (career) Mode has so many menus and sub-menus that it took me a full workday to completely go through them all, and that's not even counting a separate arcade mode, a track maker, a video collection and much more. It's every bit of the racing world all in one place, on one disc. The word "comprehensive" doesn't even feel big enough.
While GT5's size may sound daunting, it's all presented in a way that begs you to explore it. The GT Mode also does a nice job of slowly guiding you through its various parts as you progress. You'll start out with a small bit of money (credits) to buy an inexpensive car, and you'll take it to the track in some low-level, non-restricted races. Much like in the previous Gran Turismo games, in the A-Spec mode, you'll race and then use your earnings to purchase newer, faster cars. In B-Spec mode, you'll create and guide an AI racer through events by giving them in-race commands. With these new cars and your increased experience level, you'll take on more varied events and work your way up the ranks in both A-Spec and B-Spec, from a beginner all the way up to an expert.
The game's leveling system restricts the kind of cars you can own and the kind of races you can take part in. No worries, though; your level increases quickly with only a few races, and it works out that the cars that gradually become more affordable as you progress are just the ones you'll need for the higher-level races. Also, as you reach certain level milestones, one or more of the GT Mode's "Special" race types will become available. The first you'll have access to is kart racing, which is a blast. Later on, you'll race on Top Gear's test track, learn NASCAR basics with voiced tutorials from Jeff Gordon, and even slide through snow and gravel in rally races. It's all paced quite nicely, with new options opening up just as your skill level permits.
Before you can do any of that, you have to have a car. Thankfully, Gran Turismo 5 doesn't really hold back on what it offers players in car types. Of course, you'll unlock more vehicles as you progress, but you'll be able to browse the manufacturers' virtual show floors right off the bat. You'll find yourself building up a garage of cars in no time at all with your winnings, and you'll nab even more as gifts by winning races with top honors. As before, cars can be tuned and upgraded, or sold off to fund your next purchase. But this time, there are two different classes of vehicles: standard and premium.
Standard cars are the cars you might have seen in previous Gran Turismo games. They look great on the track, but it turns out that they actually have a lower level of detail than the premium vehicles. Premium cars are new to GT5, and they come with very highly detailed models that support damage modeling. They also have fully modeled interiors, so you'll get a cockpit view as one of the view options in races. In your garage, the two types are separated, though you'll be able to use qualifying cars from either class in races. Again, both types look fantastic, but the premium cars do look a bit better, and I've come to love the cockpit view.
When you're finally on the track, Gran Turismo 5 feels so familiar that it's surprising at first. We waited this long for something that feels just like an old game? Fans of the series will be able to pick up a controller and know exactly what to expect when driving. For me, there was absolutely no learning curve as far as control and feel is concerned -- this game controls exactly like Gran Turismo 4. That isn't a bad thing, mind you. There was absolutely nothing wrong with GT4's control. If you think back, it was the physics engine that needed a few touch-ups.
The new physics engine in GT5 is everything I had hoped it would be. While the buttons and sticks that you're moving with your fingers haven't changed, their feel and response have improved greatly. Turning and braking feel incredibly natural. You get a real sense of how slamming on the brakes throws the car's weight forward. Handling actually feels like car handling, and not some once-removed, through-a-game-controller attempt. In one rally race, I remember braking too late on a snowy track. I slid into a snowbank, turned sharply, and then came back down off the bank. The car seemed to plop back down onto the the road so realistically that it gave me flashbacks of driving in winter. Somehow this game manages to feel both accurate and exciting at the same time.
Opponent AI feels like it has greatly improved since the last game. It appears that a lot of care went into realism this time around. I got the sense that I was in races with drivers of different types for the first time in the series. Some seemed aggressive and others careful. All seemed to put on the heat in the last leg of the last lap. This made for some tense finishes that felt closer to what you might experience in a race with real opponents. There were many times where I was fully immersed in competition and had to remind myself that I wasn't actually in a live race.
One of the most noted additions to GT5 is damage modeling. It's too bad that this feature isn't really notable in the full scheme of things. Cars can show wear, and premium vehicles can actually show damage from collisions, but it turns out that neither are as dramatic (or realistic) as you'd expect. You'd actually have to go out of your way to impose damage in a race, and then you'd have to follow up and actually check for it afterwards. But to go this far, you'd likely be getting away from racing. And while damage can affect car performance, those racing to win aren't likely to receive enough damage to see this effect. The addition of damage modeling doesn't really seem to serve the game in any way. Instead, it feels like a bullet point for the back of the box.
On the other hand, the new weather, lighting and particle effect additions are welcome and greatly appreciated. Some of Gran Turismo 5's biggest "wow" moments come from these new visual tweaks. Watching snow blow onto and over my windshield was so lovely that it was almost distracting. The way a nighttime fog soaks up headlights looked impossibly realistic. Streetlights shine on a glossy, wet road, and later, raindrops streak by as you hit 200 mph. In the desert, dust kicks up in a rally race. High beams catch the dust, with the tops of the surrounding trees barely lit by the setting sun. The work Polyphony Digital put into the small details goes a long way toward making you feel like you're really driving in these locales. Realism can sometimes be sterile, but these accents on top of already realistic locales and cars makes Gran Turismo 5 one of the most visually pleasing games ever released.
Polyphony Digital added some new racing types to their Special mode, with one of the most surprising being kart racing. Kart racing is a lot of fun in GT5, and serves as a bit of an escape from the standard car racing action. Those expecting something like Mario Kart will be disappointed, as the game's realism carries over here. There's actually a bit of a learning curve to the karts; steering and braking are quite a bit different from standard cars. While the controls and view are the same, the feel is completely different. For example, braking into a sharp turn is going to cause you to spin out easily. Once you get the hang of the differences in acceleration and braking, the sense of speed is incredible, and kart racing turns out to be very rewarding.
In an attempt to cover as many types of racing as possible, NASCAR racing was also added to the special modes. Unlike the kart and rally modes, which feel like separate sub-game types, NASCAR is more of a lesson on a racing style. This mode is narrated by famed NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, who appears in virtual form to show you the ropes. Gordon narrates for a bit, and then you get to practice the basics of NASCAR racing, like drafting and passing. These lessons take place on NASCAR tracks such as the Daytona 500.
Other special events include the Top Gear test track, where you'll cruise the famous television show's track; the AMG Driving Academy, where you'll tackle the insane Nurburgring course; and the Rally segment, where you'll plow through gravel, snow and rain with the guidance of a navigator. There's also a Touring mode that you'll see the world in. Each of these events provides a nice change of pace from the GT Mode's standard racing, and many of them feel like a game within a game.
Online racing makes its series debut with GT5. There's a good bit of community features to be explored within the online mode beyond the 16-player races it provides. Creating or joining online rooms is easy, as is jumping into a race. Rooms feature full chat, and you can do this while watching as a spectator. Feel free to jump into a room's track at any time to do time trials; the game will let you know when there's a race starting. When the race does begin, you'll automatically be whisked away to the starting line from your time trials. While the selection of online opponents was limited in pre-release sessions, every match I was in worked beautifully. Polyphony Digital has put together a really polished, attractive online experience, and it comes complete with mail, messaging, and even your own lounge. There's plenty of room for online play to flourish once the game gets in the hands of racing fans.
Outside the main GT Mode, there are three other main game functions. Arcade Mode lets you pick a track and a car and go at it without all of the leveling and experience hassles. You can try out the drifting trials or any of the other courses or cars you have yet to acquire in GT Mode. There's also split-screen two-player support in Arcade Mode.
Gran Turismo TV is a sort of portal for video content. It offers clips about cars, tracks and even content from the Top Gear television show. There's a shopping cart in the menu, so I assume that paid content will be available at some time in this mode.
Finally, there's a Course Maker mode that lets you build a track to your liking. It isn't as complex as you'd imagine from the name, mind you. You start off by picking a base locale from a number of images. From there you'll decide how many segments your track will have. Menus let you control track options, like how complex these segments will be, or what time of day it will be. It only takes a couple of minutes to generate a new course, which can be saved and used for a test drive at any time. You can then share your track or save it to play in Arcade Mode.
A slightly less useful photo mode lets you photograph your cars on tracks from replays and save the images to share or even use as your XMB wallpaper. Photo buffs will enjoy the option to use full manual camera settings to control aperture and shutter speed to get the best shot. The Photo Travel mode takes you and your car to real-world locales, where you're free to position your vehicle and camera to get the best shot. The nighttime Kyoto location was particularly lovely, and I got some nice shots, though I didn't see much of a point in taking pictures of my virtual car. It did make for a nice wallpaper, however.
Gran Turismo 5 is very customizable. You can opt to install game data (about 8 GB, 30 minutes) to cut back on load times. All of the controls can be remapped to your liking as well. I dove into the hundreds of (great!) music tracks to make a custom collection of tunes that I liked to race to, only to finish and find that you can also use playlists from your PS3's hard drive to listen to your own music while driving. Everything from the sound balance to the screen size can be tweaked.
While GT5 worked perfectly fine with the DualShock3 controller, playing with the Logitech Driving Force GT racing wheel is an absolute thrill. Now that I've tried it, I don't think I can go back. It did take a couple of races to get a feel for it, but when I finally got it down, my driving and my course times improved greatly. The level of control you have over your turns is so much greater with the wheel, and that's not to mention how much better and more realistic acceleration and braking feel it provides. The force feedback in the wheel brings the realism over the top. Gran Turismo 5 feels like it was made for this wheel, and the game offers full support for it and many of the other racing wheels out there. I can't recommend the Driving Force GT wheel enough. It really takes GT5 to an even higher level.
With Gran Turismo 5, I found myself doing something I've never done with a racing game before: driving simply for the joy of it. Just as with a great car, Gran Turismo 5 feels so great that it begs to be driven. You can't put it down. I found myself cruising the 8.5 miles of Circuit de la Sarthe this week just to enjoy the drive. When you get in the zone and really get in tune with the controls, this game really does let you tap into the pleasures of driving and racing. I'd like to imagine that Polyphony Digital has spent all this time fine-tuning this game for this very feeling.
Even beyond the 1,000 cars, dozens of track variations, countless modes, gorgeous visuals and mountains of options, Gran Turismo 5 has something more that speaks to the world's car lovers and racing fans. The level of care taken by the people at Polyphony Digital shines in every aspect of this title, and this makes for a racing game that truly has no parallel. Gran Turismo 5 is a massive love letter to those that love cars. This is their dream videogame.
THE VERDICT - Gran Turismo 5
Reviewed by Dale North