What GT5 should have been
Have you ever hopped into your car just to drive? Driving to enjoy being behind the wheel, I mean. I'm talking no destination, no time constraints -- just being in a car to connect with a machine and the road it's on.
Racing games are great for going fast, and you can certainly do that in a Gran Turismo game. But Gran Turismo 6 is also a driving game. Sometimes it's less about the race and more about the thrill of the automotive experience. Sometimes it's less about being first and more about being in the zone.
If you're the type of person that enjoys driving around, you'll understand what I'm saying.
Gran Turismo 6 (PS3)
Polyphony Digital stays the course with Gran Turismo 6, continuing to push forward to bring us the biggest and best driving simulator out there. While its gameplay has you racing at all times, GT6's design encourages you to explore the full spectrum of automotive delights, from tuning and customization to the hoarding of the virtual versions of all the cars you wished you really owned. Again, while racing is what you'll do in GT6, at its core it's an automotive toybox, filled with all the toys a car lover could want.
While an arcade and online mode exist, the heart of GT6 is its career mode. As with the previous games in the franchise, you'll work your way up the ranks, starting out as a novice in a miserable little compact car, doing your best to make it around the track fast enough to place and earn credits to buy bigger and better vehicles. Car acquisition is the underlying motivator as you work your way up through the six ranks, with each successive rank's events paying out more credits for top placement, letting you ditch the dud and buy the cars you really want.
There's more freedom to explore events and race types in GT6's career mode with its new star system, which has you earning up to three stars depending on your placement in races. Accruing enough stars will let you unlock License Tests that you can take to increase your player rank, which in turn unlocks new race events. The star requirement is fairly low, and there are plenty of events to choose from, so you're free to pick what kind of events you'd like to take on to work towards the next unlock.
I've never cared for the License Tests in Gran Turismo games, so I'm glad that the testing process is much lighter and quicker in GT6. Each rank has you running through only five or six tests to move onto the next rank, and with their full descriptions and relaxed time requirements, they don't take that long to clear.
Earning stars also unlocks bonus events as you progress through the ranks. Coffee Breaks are racing mini-games that let you take a breather between races. They have you doing things like seeing how quickly you can knock over 300 cones on a course. Mission races put you in driving situations with a specific objective, like overtaking cars. And one-make races put you against your own car type. Each of these modes are fully separate from your career, and make for a nice break.
Bigger events unlock as well as you continue through career mode. The Goodwill Festival of Speed had me taking classic cars through a narrow uphill race. And the rumors are true: you really do get to hop in a space module to explore the lunar surface in three different moon missions.
You have to love the variety offered up in Gran Turismo 6. It's not just an endless string of race tracks, and you're never stuck in one vehicle doing one kind of race type. There are cart races, dirt races, weather changes, fuel-limited challenges, rare vehicle events, and much more. The Vision Gran Turismo section, which will add concepts from auto manufactures to the game, is sure to keep things exciting on its own.
Each event has its own requirements, which usually boil down to minimum or maximum performance point rating. Every car in Gran Turismo 6 has a set PP rating where faster, more powerful cars get a higher number. Taking your car in for tuning or upgrades can increase its PP rating, letting you tweak it to the highest possible eligible rating if you'd like. The tuning mode gives you the full works to play with, featuring a full sheet of options that lets you tweak everything from tire type to exhaust. Three customizable settings slots for each car can be named and saved.
Sorting by PP is the best way to work your way through Gran Turismo 6's massive car list, which tops over 1,200 total. Over 120 cars have been added to GT5's line-up to make for this massive selection, which ranges from carts to supercars.
You're free to immediately hop into the dealership menu to window shop and buy, though you'll find that the most desirable cars will take a lot of prize earnings to add to your garage. Early gold trophy winnings might give you 3,000 credits or so. The fast and sexy cars are 300,000 credits. There's so much to pick from that it feels like you'll never get it all. It's overwhelming in the best possible way.
Players do have the option of purchasing in-game credits to speed up the process, letting them jump over having to compete in races and events to earn them. 500,000 credits ($4.99) or more can be bought at the PlayStation Store to let players get right to buying. While I think this option completely defeats the purpose of the game, I suppose it's nice for those that want to be able to have instant access to the best cars. Thankfully, Gran Turismo 6 is completely free of microtransaction prompts during regular play.
Gran Turismo 6's track count is healthy. There are 37 locations and 100 layouts, with new tracks like Brands Hatch and the outstanding Willow Springs raceway added to the mix. With the variety of tracks, running backwards and forwards, and the varied weather and lighting conditions of the GT6 engine, you’re never stuck feeling like you’re seeing the same thing over and over.
All the cars and tracks in the world won't matter if the driving isn't good. I'm glad to say that Gran Turismo 6 feels fantastic. It's more responsive and natural than ever, thanks to a new physics engine. Polyphony Digital has talked a lot about what went into their new model, with a focus on tires and suspension, but technical details are the last thing you'd think of while in the heat of a race. Chances are that you'll be thinking about how great the car handling is. I was immediately taken with how natural driving felt, with its real sense of weight and movement. In my mind, Gran Turismo has always been the undisputed king of driving feel in racing games. It's even better this time out.
What's not that much better is the opponent AI. It's not terrible, and it is better than its predecessors, but not by much. Cars seem to bring more heat to the race, and there's definitely more variance in their race path, but you're still mostly just weaving your way up to the front of the line in GT6. It's nice to see the rare car take a wide turn, but it doesn't happen often enough. Expect nearly perfect single-file racers that get aggressive in the last stretch of your last lap. Still, we’ve come a long way from the AI of previous series games that had racers almost magically appearing in your rear-view mirror when you touch the slightest bit of dirt or grass. Let's hope that the next entry in the series can improve on opponent AI.
Thankfully, Polyphony Digital's outstanding track work gives you plenty to focus on after you've weaved past all of the other cars. Just hope that an AI car doesn't come up from behind and tap you, as you'll go spinning off the track in the most ridiculous fashion. The result of a tap or bump by another car feels unnecessarily exaggerated. I lost count at how many times I ended up in the dirt in the final stretch of a race. This ends up being incredibly frustrating in some of the longer races. While the control physics are great, Polyphony Digital needs to further develop their collision model.
This time around, all of the cars sport the same visual quality for their exteriors, so there's no longer a premium/standard division. They look great -- better than they've ever looked on the PS3. The car models are sharp and clean, with a showroom shine that seems to last through the race. Their overall shape is nice, though they seem to lack fine details. These details come back in replays -- the cars look so nice in the replays that you can't help but feel cheated in the races.
A lot of the courses look really great too. City-based tracks like Madrid and London have lots of trackside detail, and the way the desert sun blasts the asphalt in Willow Springs looks photorealistic at times. We're already spoiled by next-gen racers, but the lighting and reflections are still pretty good in GT6.
And you can take pictures of it all! Replays give you the option to snap shots and save them for sharing later. GT6's Photo Tour mode lets you play around with placing your car in some real-world settings to snap a picture or two. The camera emulation is surprisingly full-featured, with options for everything from ISO to focal length. Fellow photo nuts will have fun with this feature.
But it's not all pretty. Car shadows are weird sometimes, as are some of the on-car reflections. The car damage model is weak and sometimes cheap looking; what should be dents look like off-color wrinkles in the paint job at best. The asphalt always looks great, but the details on the side of the tracks are surprisingly low-res, with post-race views showing crunchy textures. Screen tearing is surprising to see as well. Worst of all, an odd screen-door effect shows up in trees and other background details, looking like some kind of graphical error. None of these visual niggles hurt gameplay, but they are distracting at times.
The sound of GT6 is also distracting. Cars sound muffled and dull. Supercars that should have exciting roars sound more like household appliances whirring under an blanket. Sonically, car sounds do a nice job of staying out of the way of the music, which is great for music lovers. But, if you like to hear car noises, you're out of luck here. The terrible car collision noise is the worst of all. A full-on smack sounds exactly the same as a little love tap, and both sound like someone kicking a trashcan.
But the soundtrack is killer! Polyphony Digital packed in a huge variety of licensed and original tracks, covering everything from dubstep to hard rock. The tracklist is fresh and exciting, with only a couple of tracks that I'd opt to skip given the option. Even the menu music is really great. After days of play I continue to hear new selections. I adore the funky music in the car modification section.
The user interface has improved greatly over Gran Turismo 5. The messy board of various-sized tiles has been replaced with a dash that uses uniform-sized tiles, divided by mode type. Online, arcade, career, car shopping, tuning, special events, and tools, each have their own section divisions, with horizontal scrolling letting you jump between them.
Polyphony Digital claims that load times have improved. They probably have on a technical level, but with pre-race loading times of half a minute or more, it certainly doesn't feel like it. The PS3 disc drive always seems to be working, so you know they put some effort into improving load times. It seems better in the menus, but there's always a wait before races.
Online play has you jumping into a lobby to pick from existing games, or creating your own by picking from various modes, race types, courses, regions, and more. For existing rooms, you can choose to spectate, practice, or enter the match when you're read. You'll be prompted if your car doesn't meet the set race regulations, as I was when I tried to enter a drift contest with the wrong tires. A quick access bar found at the bottom of the room lobby gives you instant access to your garage, car and event settings, and driving options, as well as a chat function. You can also initiate a vote for the track you'd like to race on.
You can go nuts in the event settings in your created rooms, picking everything from track type to how often it might rain or snow. You can even set how often you'd like the weather to change. Settings can get as specific as you'd like with your own race requirements, letting you set one particular make of car or one set performance type. You can ask that traction control and skid recovery are off, for example. You are given three settings slots to save your favorite race loads for later use, too.
Seasonal Events let you jump into limited-time events to race for a prize. Each has an availability window that you need to meet to be rewarded. I tried taking a spin in the newly released Vision Gran Turismo Mercedes-Benz AMG VGT in a time attack-type match. You're free to keep going around the track to log your best time during the eligible times, with the system instantly updating your rankings as you play. We'll see how I fared later this month!
Winning any of the races from both the lobby and Season Events online sections will earn you credits, of course.
Unlike Gran Turismo 5, navigating through the online race menus is fast and easy in GT6. So far, connection to the servers and joining rooms seems nice and quick, though I suspect this will change a bit when the floodgates are open for the public.
I'm pleased to say that everything from matchmaking to play was snappy and responsive in the handful of online matches I played. I see myself spending a lot of time in GT6's online world.
Gran Turismo 6 isn't perfect, but it's still the best videogame out there for driving enthusiasts. It's what Gran Turismo 5 should have been. It needs work in the AI and damage modeling departments, and that next-gen visual upgrade can't come soon enough. Still, GT6 is a game that I expect I'll happily play for years to come, or at least until Polyphony Digital brings the next one out. Its charms run so deep that I’m just as happy chugging around the track at 86 MPH in a family van as I would be in the most expensive exotic racer.
For me, it's a racing world I can get lost in. Again, it's less about racing and more about driving; it's less about spectacle and more about substance. It's the driving authenticity, superior car handling and physics, wide variety of cars and races, and reverence for all things automotive that have me hooked and will keep me coming back.
THE VERDICT - Gran Turismo 6
Reviewed by Dale North