Before last June's E3, Gran Turismo Mobile, the veritable unicorn of the PSP’s release list, had been something of a running joke in internet forum culture. Announced way back in 2005, it looked to join Devil May Cry as a killer-app turned vaporware; Sony wouldn't say it was canceled, but there hadn't been so much as a peep about the project in over three years. Usually that sort of nondescript acknowledgement indicates a game has been quietly canceled, but then, seemingly out of nowhere, Gran Turismo reemerged (sans “Mobile”) for PSP alongside Gran Turismo 5 at Sony's E3 press conference. Not only that, but it hadn't been handed down to a lower tier developer; it was coming straight from Kazunori Yamauchi and his main team at Polyphony Digital, and it was boasting eight hundred cars, over thirty tracks, and said to be locked at sixty frames per second? I couldn't recall the last time a game went from plausibly existing to potential second coming in such a short span of time. Still, the ever pressing question remained; could it deliver on the hype?
The Real (Streamlined) Driving Simulator
One of the first things to jump out at me was the change in the interface. I had pumped hundreds of hours in the series since the first title, but I always found the menus and navigation increasingly bewildering. I got used to it, but at first blush trying to find something as simple as manufacture’s race was nearly incomprehensible. This iteration of Gran Turismo, in a wise move given the more casual audience, has streamlined the menu down to the bare essentials. No arcade mode, no sim mode, no b spec, no sorting through specific manufactures, car washes, wheel shops, oil changes, basically, nothing extraneous. Just single player, multiplayer, buy-a-car, and driving challenges reside the top menu, with moderate stack tracking and other options below.
The bulk of your time spent racing has been streamlined as well. Structured races that impose limitations and contrived instances, otherwise known as a career mode, have been dropped in favor of total customization; you simply select a car, select a track, and go. Want to limit it to a specific manufacturer? That option is there. Feeling masochistic enough for a 90 lap endurance around Citta de Aria? Go for it (and the game even adjusts the credit payout to the number of laps set). Idiots may find fault with the lack of structure and absence of a traditional reward system, but the more open ended, do-it-yourself interface fairs far better on a mobile platform.
Difficulty is structured a bit differently as well. While all tracks (forward and reverse, including variants) are available from the outset, they all initially begin with a "D" AI rank. Win first place and you can bump it up to C, and the same follows suit for B. A and S grade AI only arrives after you've completed portions of the game's driving challenges, but, given the difficulty of higher level AI, locking the higher ranks until you know what you're doing comes with the best of intentions.
Technically speaking, you can probably complete the entire racing mode with just one car. The difficulty scales not only to the AI, but also adjusts to the make and model of what you'll be racing against. That’s not really a problem, however, as collecting and learning how to drive an excessive amount of cars is one of Gran Turismo’s calling cards. The daily rotation and rationing of manufactures and their vehicles to buy is a bit puzzling (must have been memory related), though. And, while you're not able to buy new parts or appearance modifications, you can still adjust the various suspension variables and, in some case, the weight and power of a car with the quick tune option. And, thankfully, the rumors turned out to be true, as there is an option to export your hard earned cars out to the upcoming full version of Gran Turismo 5.
If you need a change of pace time trial, rally racing, and a completely separate Drift Trial mode are present. I've always found drifting to be a mindboggling and inefficient practice in turn negotiation but, much like the rally courses, trying to successfully kick the rear end out and go sideways for half the race can be a good deal of fun. While finding success on the rally courses is a bit more forgiving (provided you use a rally car and not your NSX), I found the Drift Trial to especially cater toward more hardcore players. For maximum effect in Drift Mode the game recommends you turn off all driver assists, boost the power, and slap on less sticky tires which, in turn, makes rear wheel drive cars hard as hell to manage. Finding the sweet spot can be an exercise in trial and error, but once you nail it, drifting through the game’s two separate drift modes can be a blast.
Speaking of the driving challenges, it came as quite a surprise that they consumed the bulk of my time. I hated having to methodically clear the license tests of previous Turismo games and, while the new driving challenges are not all that different in terms of mechanics and instruction, the portable paradigm has somehow transformed them from necessary evil into and engaging challenge. Rather than blow through it, I found myself wanting to go for the gold ranks instead of settling for bronze. And my addiction becomes harder to deny once the challenges began to increase in difficulty and the margin of error closed. Negotiating corners was fine and playing around with different drivetrain layout seemed necessary, but learning how to overtake opponents and getting to play around with supercars I couldn't quite yet afford was a great deal of fun. Much to my surprise, once all challenges on the first page are completed, a robust assortment of bonus challenges opens up (and if my profanity laced outbursts were any indication, getting even bronze on most of those felt notable).
A rather unexpected and appreciated feature of the driving challenges was the presence of narrator. Jay Leno, of Popular Mechanics (and that whole Tonight Show thing) fame narrates the whole game, but the text he's assigned to read over videos of challenge demonstrations provides tremendous insight. For example, with the slalom test on 4-E, Jay's tips concerning using momentum to your advantage exchanged knowledge in ways simple text or watching a plane-Jane video couldn't otherwise convey. It may seem like a needless detail, but even the slightest bit of input was sometimes all it took to lift me out of bronze.
Multiplayer, which is unfortunately restricted to ad-hoc, unfolds in a fairly straightforward manner, though I admit to not being able to play anyone due to the pre-release nature of this review. From a purely observational standpoint (and with help from this developer diary), a standard head on challenge is present, but it's joined by party mode, where slower cars get a head start, and shuffle race mode, which presents each player with "slower or faster cars to even the playing field." Again, none of this was tested, but it doesn't seem too far outside the realm of possibility.
While the content is safely intact (in a controlled sort of way), a portable Gran Turismo's other big question mark lied with its control. The precision of analog is typically preferred to an all-or-nothing dpad, and I wasn't quite sure if the PSP's overly stiff and short-ranged nub would get the job done. And after two dozen hours invested, I don't think it can. On driving challenges like H-2, where a slow, precise maneuver had to be completed, the twitchy analog nub came off as feeling incomplete. I simply could not make a slow, deliberate turn of the wheel at such a high speed, and I found the dpad far better tailored to the game's needs. Far worse of a translation was made to the manual shift mechanic, which was mapped to the up and down portions of the dpad. If you use the dpad to drive, and you have Shaq hands like me, shifting is almost a lost cause. In any other game this wouldn't matter, but Gran Turismo is a driving game first and a racing game second; precision is its calling card. The game still works and I managed to get used to the dpad and an automatic transmission, but the PSP's inherently poor input methods leave much to be desired (Note: I was playing on a PSP-2000, the Go's smaller analog nub may travel better).
While input is unabashedly flawed, the breadth of the presentation takes strides to make up for it. Gran Turismo, even on a mobile platform, is one of the deepest simulations in the realm of interactive entertainment. Overtly, this is best conveyed via the modest in-cockpit view, which, with its mirrors and faux dashboard, does well (though obviously not as well as its console counterparts) to create a sense of place and perception of inertia. On a personal level, I have participated in SCCA Solo II autocross events for a number of years and, while our speeds rarely reach 40mph and my vehicle is an entry level car, the lessons I have learned in real life racing (and at yearly accompanying driving school) remain consistent in a videogame. The back end of my MR2 got away from me in the game in a manner consistent with actual racing, and Polyphony Digital's ability to recreate that experience on a portable platform was quite impressive, to say that least.
And while some will still prefer the instant gratification of more arcade racers like Burnout, the time and dedication placed into learning the ins and outs of even a single car in Gran Turismo is far more gratifying. It's checkers to chess; both are fun, and both appeal to distinct, if not slightly overlapping, crowds.
Said crowds might be easily swayed toward the simulation end of the genre based in visual prowess alone. The backgrounds and rather sparse and the textures get muddy if you stop and look around, but the car models look incredible and the frame rate never once dropped or shuttered. Opera Paris is a standout track, but New York, El Capitan, and the perpetually dusk Seattle Circuit looked great too. The visual splendor, however, is most evident on the rally courses; getting buried in an eruption of tire-kicked dirt at Cathedral Rocks or a flurry of snow at Chamonix impressed as well. The soundtrack conforms the jazzy music the Gran Turismo series has become known for, but a few licensed tracks (including Fist of God by MSTRKRFT, a remix of Phoenix's Lisztomania, a cool chiptune song from a band I couldn't recognize, and a considerable number of other tracks I couldn't identify) round out the mix. If those aren't your thing, custom soundtracks can be unlocked after completing the first two rounds of challenges.