Gran Turismo's popularity is both undeniable and incredible. Its status as a member of the racing simulation genre nearly grants the price tag of an esoteric expense, one that, not unlike Operation Flashpoint or Apache: Air Assault, requires patience and dedication in order to gain a sense of appreciation. The difference is the subject matter; modern culture is intrinsically tied to automobiles. They're familiar and used regularly by a sizeable portion of both eastern and western society. Unlike a military helicopter, we automatically understand cars, and can find great satisfaction in cutting one lose on a virtual race track. In this regard Gran Turismo has more in common with Madden than Burnout; the gratification is not instant, and the proficiency needed to obtain it requires a serious investment of time. This is nothing new; the question is how well fifth proper entry is the series operates in the 2010 landscape.
Gran Turismo 5, as one would suspect from the first proper entry in the series since 2005, brings a lot to the table. The prerequisites are still well in place; a thousand different cars to drive through a variety of courses is practically a given, as are a tiered series of organized races with obtuse, fun limitations on which vehicles can and can’t be employed. Yes, there's all that and a whole lot more, but, as the perverse phrase goes, it's not about the size, it's how you use it.
Unfortunately the initial impression of Gran Turismo 5 is sort of a mess. An install that claims twenty minutes but takes an hour eventually gives way to an inane series of menus forged in the mind of a crazy person. After managing that I fell into standard Gran Turismo protocol; I entered GT Mode and used the meager amount of starter money to purchase my real-life vehicle; a used Toyota MR2 Spyder. Excited with the possibility of realistic cockpit views, I hopped in for a race and discovered...the car didn't have realistic cockpit view. It didn’t even have a cockpit view. Yes, of Gran Turismo 5's quadruple-digit selection of cars, only 200 are labeled "Premium" and have been built from the ground up for Gran Turismo 5. The rest are seemingly recycled from Gran Turismo 4 and, while they still look fantastic, don't quite stand up to their newer counterparts. They have no interior view, and they get a little fuzzy when examined up close. Bummer.
It's easy to get hung up on the Premium Cars debate (just visit any gaming forum), but I found it nothing more than a fleeting disappointment. Gran Turismo 5 is indeed a beautiful game, portions of Polyphony's handiwork have always been used to showcase Sony's hardware, but it's not at the heart of Gran Turismo. It's not about smashing cars, changing wheels, or worrying if a tree on the side of Nürburgring is dimensionally challenged, it's about racing a car in the most accurate manner current technology has allowed Polyphony to reproduce through a mass market product. That's either a terrible rationalization on the part of a reviewer who's head over heels for Gran Turismo, or the honest truth, and after spending most waking hours of the past week voraciously consuming Gran Turismo 5's content, well, I don't think it's just me.
My journey started in the aforementioned heart of the game, GT Mode. License tests and tiered races were now gated by a player level. Completing races and passing tests grants experience points that eventually give way to higher level races, license tests, and vehicles. Measurable progression in the form of points felt like a natural way to get a hold of advancement, especially considering the later third of Gran Turismo was usually a cash grind anyway. In the early portions of the game I was still able to power my way past poor driving skills with raw power, but, as one would expect, expert levels of racing still require a legitimate understanding of the game's mechanics.
The standard races and systems therein were expected, but the exploring the special events menu revealed absolute delight. Featuring events kart races, Rally races, Top Gear test track events and, yeah, NASCAR, they represent a divergent shift from Gran Turismo's more familiar platforms. I've always admired kart racing from afar; I've entered my real life car in SCCA Autocross events plenty of times, but lacked the capital necessary to invest in thousand dollar karts I always saw from afar. Turns out, they're every bit as fun to drive virtually as they seem when I watched them on the sidelines. Their light platform yields a surprising amount of control, but the power to weight ratio can be an equally cruel mistress if it gets out of hand. I also developed a newfound respect for NASCAR (no thanks to the unsettling CG representation of Jeff Gordon); my preconceptions about the difficulty of driving in a circle were drastically underdeveloped; those cars were tough to drive! In their totality, all of the special events could have been treated as afterthoughts and or a content-dump, but in actuality they’re one of the most surprising and memorable portions of Gran Turismo 5.
While the special events are entertaining, they're not at the center of Polyphony's goal. Their intentions, as maddening as they may seem to the casual observer, are far more ingrained in replicating the experience of driving a car through a variety of challenging circumstances. It's the crux of Gran Turismo, and its representation in the fifth entry is undoubtedly its best yet. Appreciation is gained through the standard slog to the top; start out slow and manageable and work your way up to fast and powerful. What the game does so well, and what's not so readily apparent until you’re deep in the system, is how well Gran Turismo 5 manages the transition. Meters aren't tweaked for arbitrary stats; each and every car, along with dozens of modifications that can be made to the cars, represents a different approach to driving. It's hard to imagine that throttling a 60's Volkswagen Bus down the Top Gear runway could create as many interactive jollies and piloting a McLaren F1 through Tokyo R246, but, with a proper grasp of Gran Turismo's concept, each yields a similar sense of satisfaction.
Ultimately, much of this sensation is derived from the fidelity of the experience. Either through an expensive racing wheel or Dual Shock 3, Gran Turismo relays a sense of precision that grants the player an unprecedented amount of control (though, admittedly, a Driving Force Pro was far better suited to the challenge). Complete perception of inertia hasn’t quite been achieved, but the physics model has been refined to a point where it's pretty damn close. For example, barreling down Grand Valley at 180MPH in a Lamborghini Murcielgao before realizing there's a 90 degree turn shortly ahead results in slamming the brakes, which, combined with the slightest miscalculation of the steering wheel, made for a truly terrifying loss of control. Watching the car shake back in forth as it dealt with the futility of slowing down sent a sense of panic down my spine, or at least it did until I learned how to handle it. In terms of winning a race, that's bad for business, but, as a learning experience, the manner in which my out-of-control supercar performed provided a far greater lesson in driving than a license test or race line. Gran Turismo 5 spends plenty of time teaching theory, but learning by example, as evident in the event I demonstrated, brings "simulation" to a whole new level.
Contention lies with the license tests. There since Gran Turismo's inception, the test’s place in interactive entertainment is gradually slipping. On paper they sound like a great idea; a tiered system of challenges meant to improve player skill through player demonstration of advanced driving techniques. The problem is that arbitrary ancillary challenges often get in the way. Bumping into other cars and going off-course are often grounds for failure, but not in a manner that is consistent. In IB-10, for example, whether or not ramming the back of a Countach was means for disqualification was seemingly up to a coin toss. Inconsistent failure states came off as overly punitive and endemic of an archaic approach to game design. I understand that Gran Turismo is a sim and collision is antithetical to its purpose, but when the difference between success and failure is left to random AI judgment, then I'm not learning how to drive, I'm awaiting the results of an infuriating dice roll.
The license tests suggest the idea that Polyphony didn't have a firm handle on some of the extraneous portions of Gran Turismo 5. I still don't understand the attraction of B-Spec mode, which has you playing crew chief over a racer. It's remarkably deep and some players will differently find appeal in management, but its set on equal footing with the A-spec races, and I'm not sure if the allure matches the emphasis. Equally anemic is the track editor and online functionality. The former is more of a director than an editor, while the later is an oddity. On one hand there's a ton of room for community and player interactivity, but on the other there's virtually no means of progression or persistence. That's fine, again it seems like Polyphony was focused on making a simulator first and a game second, but it feels a bit antiquated in the 2010 landscape. Still, the net code was free of hiccups when I played, which is certainly nothing to complain about. Lastly, should you not want to sign into PSN, Gran Turismo 5 will ask you to sign in three times before you can actually race a car, not to mention the prompt to let you know your internal clock is wrong. It all points to an absence of direction in the auxiliary portions of Gran Turismo 5, and the lack of attention in those sections is magnified in light of how perfect the driving portions seem.
Gran Turismo's AI drivers have taken a lot of flak over the years. Polished to perfection and bound to their racing line, they had about as much personality as catalytic converter. This rationale was sound, (why would they operate in a manner that goes against the smooth-racing-lines mantra the game beats into your head?), but it made for a fairly bland experience. Gran Turismo 5, thankfully, takes AI a little more seriously this time around. The displayed names of drivers adds a humanistic touch, but their occasionally sinister motivations make them worth remembering. I can't tell you how many times I had to drive-by-rearview and try and block them out from an oncoming approach. Better yet were the instances where they deliberately went off course and cut a corner out from under me. They're still susceptible to being used as walls on tight turns, but the lack of rubber-banding means they always play for keeps when it’s close.
The tracks are also worth a mention. At this point Gran Turismo's more classic tracks feel like proving grounds for the new physics model. How's an NSX going to take the last turn at Trial Mountain? How fast can I get around High Speed Ring in the new DB9? I know those courses like I know my way to work, and revisiting their challenges under an updated set of rules was a joy. There are a few disappointing omissions, I'll miss Seattle Circuit dearly, but a handful of new courses ease the loss. Cape Ring, with its giant elevated circle in the middle of the course, was always a blast, as was overcoming Circuit de la Sarthe's grudge against high powered vehicles. Other challenges manifest when paired with a specific vehicle; trying to slide a front loaded, rear wheel drive Alfa Romeo through the perilous downhill backside of Eiger Norwood requires an entirely different skill set than blasting a Ferrari 430 Scuderia across Autodromo Nazionale Monza's deceptive straightaways.
The only department where I was surprised to see Gran Turismo 5 fall short was on the presentation end, but with so many options and features perhaps it was inevitable a few areas would come up short. 3D support (for those who can afford it) and head tracking are available for those who wish to use it, as is a truly wonderful photography mode, but I wonder at what cost these features came. Certain tracks are gorgeous, London and Rome in particular are incredible, and provide the sort of experience where a casual observer might walk by and question if the images on television are real or a videogame. But, at the same time, we have other courses that look hastily constructed, (like the Top Gear track), maddening shadows, cloned crowds, and disappointing weather effects. One could argue you're not supposed to stop and smell the roses when flying down Nürburgring at 150MPH, but for a racer of Gran Turismo's pedigree, the fact that it isn't the best looking game on the system is a rather curious (though ultimately silly to complain about) topic.
Not that any of that really bothered me, Gran Turismo 5's problems turned from niggling issues to casual observations once I was significantly absorbed in GT Mode. Investing ones time in a simulation is a hard sell, especially for those with only a casual interest in the genre, but the benefits reaped from developing a legitimate understanding of the game's mechanics brings a sense of gratification that exceeds shallow arcade racers. It's a hard sell (usually sweetened by Gran Turismo's formerly invincible presentation), but at the end of the day I wasn't thinking about the polygon count on my MR2 or Elise; I just wanted to get in a car, any car, and use it to devour Gran Turismo 5's wealth of content.