Gran Turismo 5
- November 24, 2010 00:01 AM PT
After an extremely long gestation period and seemingly endless delays, Gran Turismo 5 is finally here. Was it worth the wait? Here's where you can find out!
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I've been a huge, huge fan of the Gran Turismo racing series ever since it debuted back in 1997. I remember seeing the game a little earlier that year when I was working at IGN.com (before it was even called IGN.com), and I was absolutely blown away by its incredible graphics, large number of real cars, and the amazing racing experience it delivered. It was streets ahead of every other racing game I'd played, and I just had to have it. Knowing that it was coming out in late December in Japan, and that it probably wasn't going to appear in the States for months (indeed, not until May of the following year), I went out and bought a Japanese PlayStation just so I could play the import version. It was a great Christmas vacation for me: I played the game morning, noon, and night -- and loved every minute of it.
Ever since then I've greeted every new Gran Turismo, even the Concept games, with the same level of enthusiasm and anticipation, either booking time off work or just "being sick" so I can spend at least a few days at launch playing it as much as humanly possible. So it was with incredible excitement I received Gran Turismo 5 last week. My calendar was already clear; I'd been waiting for this moment for a long time. I even rode my motorcycle into work so I could get home as fast as possible and start playing.
So, how is it?
Well, I'm torn about GT5 in a way that I've never been torn about a game. On the one hand, GT5 is a magnificent game, one that I've been playing nonstop for days now and is really delivering a fantastic racing experience. But, and I absolutely hate to say it, while it hits some incredible highs, GT5 also hits some lows. The more I play it, the more I realize it's not without its flaws -- some of them quite notable.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we get to the experience of GT5, let's quickly just talk about what the game brings to the table.
On the face of it, GT5 is without a doubt the most complex and complete commercial-racing experience available. It features over 1,000 real-world cars, a huge roster of real-world tracks (many that are familiar to GT veterans, and a bunch of new ones, too), and a vast number of racing options. These vary from straight-up races (often themed by specific types of cars) to special objective-driven Gran Turismo missions (some of which include NASCAR and World Rally Championship-based challenges). There are License Tests to help you improve your skills and a variety of practice modes, including free and timed runs, and even a drift mode.
GT5 also features a Photo Mode (you can take pictures of in-game cars within beautifully rendered backdrops and export them as JPEGs), a new-to-GT5 Track Editor where you can build your own tracks (very cool, indeed), a Replay Theatre, and an Arcade Mode that offers a more straightforward and accessible driving experience for those who don't want to deal with the almost overwhelming complexity of GT Mode. The game also boasts a very comprehensive, and nicely designed, Online Racing mode, which I think is one of the most significant features of this generation of the Gran Turismo series.
The gameplay handles the racing in one of two ways: Either slip behind the wheel and drive yourself in A-Spec mode, or create an A.I, driver and have it drive a car for you in B-Spec mode. This is more of a management mode where you issue instructions to your driver during the race (pace up/pace down/maintain pace/overtake) and help him "learn" to race better. A- and B-Specs have an identical roster of races, and you can earn cash and win prize cars in both, but both modes are discrete: Winning a race in one mode does not mean credit in another. Being successful at any race yields money and cars, and -- new to GT5 -- experience. The better your performance, the more experience you earn. And the more experience you earn, the higher level you become. Much of the game's content -- cars included -- is gated by level, so you have to level up to access them. It's a pretty good idea that adds a new element to the otherwise traditional Gran Turismo construct.
So. Now we're back to the burning question: How is it?
Well, at its heart, GT5 is the Gran Turismo series we all know and love. It follows the same tried and tested formula of its predecessors, and I found myself slipping into my comfortable GT groove as I began to play it: complete the "B" License Tests with all Gold Medals so I can win a few decent cars to start with, compete in the Sunday Cup... then the FF Challenge. Yep. It's like I'm back with an old friend. The racing is fun. The handling is definitely improved -- it's more finessed and complex and feels more realistic than ever before. But then I start doing my old Gran Turismo tricks: I bash cars out of the way on the first corner, I take creative short cuts around the same old familiar tracks. And I realize I'm pretty much playing the same game I've played before. Sure, the visuals are better, the audio is improved, and the general tactility of the game is better, but yet I'm playing it the same way as I've done before.
Then I start watching the other cars, and it looks to me like I'm not the only one doing the same thing as before: the A.I. is behaving the way I remember it in previous versions of the series. Opponents seem to be trundling around on rails, even to the point of sometimes barging me out of the way to stay on their predetermined course. This has happened on numerous occasions now, and it's frankly annoying. It's really apparent on high-speed circuits where the opponents draft you and almost seem to be deliberately trying to perform a PIT maneuver on you because they can't seem to figure out a way to get past you. I've watched their behavior on replays to see what the problem is, and it really doesn't seem to be anything other than that the cars want to maintain a set course, regardless of what is happening around them.
I also notice that cars often behave very predictably -- doing the same thing, lap after lap. Sure, I understand that racing is about finding an optimal route and being consistent, but at the same time, this consistency creates a situation where races can be won simply by learning which corners the A.I. gets wrong every lap. Sure, this is a very subtle observation, but it does shift the focus away from feeling like you're really racing, particularly in contests that are very close, to playing a pattern-recognition game.
And in that sense, I'm back to my original point -- this feels the same as previous GT games. I don't know how much time Polyphony spent tweaking the A.I. from earlier GT games, but whether they spent a lot of time on it, or a little, the end result doesn't look or feel much different to me from previous games. And considering the importance of A.I. and the amount of time Polyphony had to develop the game, I find that disappointing.
Another area where I experienced some disappointment is in the cosmetics. Most of the time, GT5's graphics are amazing, but some areas are weak. Sometimes the shadows are glitchy and don't look right. The crowd graphics look decent from a distance, but sometimes when they're too close to the track, they look like something from a PS2 game. Most tracks look gorgeous, but occasionally some areas look like they're just not quite polished -- a little too artificial. Like I said, most of the time things look amazing, but it's not consistent. And that lack of consistency is also evident in the car models.
GT5 features an incredible array of cars, which are split into two ranks: Premium and Standard. The Premium cars are rendered in amazing definition and look absolutely gorgeous. But most of the cars in the game are Standard, and their quality ranges from great to pretty poor. Some of the cars feel almost like PS2 ports: Look closely and you can see non-aliased edges, jagged lines and, on some of the racecars, some very blocky decals. I've been quite shocked at how poor some cars look. Sure, on the one hand it's wonderful to have 1,000 cars (even if like 25 of them are Mazda Miatas and the combined number of Impreza, Lancer Evo, and Skyline variants represent almost 10 percent of the total car list), and I understand that these kinds of shortcuts had to be made to get so many cars in the game, but at the same time, this has created a huge and highly noticeable gulf in quality between the worst of the Standard cars and the best of the Premium cars. Sometimes less is more.
And speaking of less is more, less loading time would help make the game more enjoyable. My biggest complaint about GT5 is its presentation layer and general usability: It's clunky and not very thoughtfully designed. Firstly, it's slow. If you don't have 8GB of space to pre-install the game data, you are in for a frankly horrible experience. The first night I played the game, I was impatient and didn't install the data and instead ran the game off the disc, which was a frustratingly slow and tedious experience. So the following night I spent an hour installing the game, but I was dismayed to find even with the game data on my hard drive, it still takes 15 to 30 seconds to load certain tracks. That doesn't seem like much on the face of it, but when you experience that wait for every track and every race -- including for License Tests -- and when every menu seems to take a few seconds to spool up, this creates a large amount of aggregated time where I'm sitting around looking at a loading bar.
Even if I can forgive the slow loading times, some of the general presentation and menu screens don't seem to have been particularly well thought-out. Navigating around the game is often slow and repetitive. In this day and age, when there are many examples of best-practice interfaces, and when a developer has had 13 years of iteration to finesse the way their game works, I am very disappointed to be clicking around screens that seem like they came out of the last century. I understand that having things set up a certain way can create a feeling of occasion and involvement while the user clicks through screens to, for example, tune their car. But when that experience is slow and clumsy, I do call it into question.
You experience a really good example of GT5's ponderous usability every time you win a new car. In earlier games, the experience was exciting: Win a race and boom! Here's your new car presented to you in an exciting fashion. This time around it works like this:
You win a race series. You don't actually know you've won a car until you get back to the home screen, whereupon a message pops up telling you that you've won a car. So you click OK and you see a notification appear on your Car Delivery icon. Then you click on your Car Delivery item, and a ticket pops up to tell you what car you won. Click on the ticket and a message pops up asking you whether you want to use this car or not. So you click Yes, and the game pauses for a few seconds, saving data, and then the screen fades to black and your car slowly creeps out of the darkness and appears -- front view only -- and another message pops up asking whether or not you want to use this car, Yes or No? Click on that, and then another message pops up telling you that the paint on this car has been added to your paint collection and can be used to paint another one of the cars in your collection. You click OK and then the game pauses again, saving data, and then fades to black while it loads the main home screen again.
I mean, seriously. Who thought that was a good idea? I can understand the building of anticipation for a prize car, but firstly, you know what you're getting, so there's no mystery, and then the presentation of the car itself is really anticlimactic because you can't really see it until you get to your garage. It's just poor design, and to me this really showcases that while many of Gran Turismo's aspects are great, there are also important areas of the game that seem to have been overlooked. Ultimately, it feels like the developers spent too much time obsessing over some of the more minute aspects of the game -- adding incredible detail to some of the Premium cars, adding amazing weather effects, and creating an incredible set of features -- but overlooked one of the most important fundamentals of a game designed to be played over a very long period of time: its overall user experience.
At this point it really feels like I'm ripping on the game, but I'm not really. The truth is that I love this game, but I do need to point out that while GT5 mostly delivers an amazing and unparalleled experience that hits the highest of the highs, it unfortunately also hits some lows, and I feel it's important to talk about them.
In terms of those highs, some of the new GT5 challenges are really enjoyable and fun. When they're at their best, GT5's visuals are absolutely stunning, especially some of the new details, such as the weather, atmospheric, and lighting effects, which conspire to deliver some jaw-dropping replays. Despite their varied quality, I do love the sheer volume of cars. For the most part, the racing is great fun, despite the A.I. problems and that you have to exercise a lot of self-restraint not to cheat, because most of the time the game makes it easy to do so. The track editor is also a great addition. The photography mode is ridiculously over-engineered, but I cannot deny that it is seriously impressive.
And GT5's big standout feature -- the Online Mode -- will doubtlessly help establish a pretty much permanent GT online racing community. With options for users to create their own racing area where they can set up their own races based on their own preferences, and with a large amount of customization options, I think GT5's Online Mode gives the game an almost MMO-like replay value. And that is absolutely at the core of what makes GT5 a must-have game for hardcore racing fans.
And I do say hardcore racing fans. One of the things I didn’t mention is that while GT5's handling is vastly improved and incredibly realistic, its realism also makes the game quite challenging to play. When you first start racing with low-powered cars, everything seems pretty straightforward and not particularly difficult. But as you begin to drive more powerful cars, the margin for error decreases significantly, to the point where if you misjudge a corner and power on too early, brake too hard, or hit a bump or curb at high speed, you can very easily lose control and crash. Because of this, at times the game can feel very unforgiving--more so if you’re using a joypad, less so with a steering wheel, which enables much more precise control of your car.
Fortunately, the game does have a variety of driving assist options that can help players keep their car pointing in the right direction. But even with that assistance, GT5's higher-level driving challenges are still tough--particularly the really punishing ones where tapping another car, going off the course slightly or hitting a fence results in immediate disqualification. While many GT fans relish this kind of advanced technical driving challenge, it does set the bar quite high in terms of how much you need to put into the game to get the most out of it. For those hardcore fans--myself included--it's exactly what we want. But for those who want more immediately rewarding and accessible driving fun, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is a much better prospect.
But then, Gran Turismo has always been a real driving fan's game, and I'm very happy that this latest evolution of the series has stayed true to itself. Ultimately, it's pretty easy to see why GT5 is the way it is: Polyphony Digital were too ambitious and bit off way more than they could chew. They set the bar high, unnecessarily high, and in doing so made the development of this game ridiculously hard for themselves. They overreached and couldn’t quite make everything perfect. There’s no denying that GT5 is absolutely incredible, but due to its immense size and complexity, not all its facets are of the same standard, and as a result it's brilliant, but imperfect. For the most part it delivers a 5-star experience. But I do feel compelled to ding it half a star, simply because of the parts of the game that don't. That makes me feel horribly nitpicky and churlish, because despite my criticism I know I love GT5, and I’ll be playing it for months, and maybe even years. But deep down, I know that while it’s the best racing game out there, with just a bit more focus in some key areas it could have been even better.
PROS: An amazingly deep racing game that offers an almost mind-boggling amount of racing challenges, cars, tracks and features. Superb Online Mode that gives the game incredible longevity.
CONS: Inconsistent graphic quality. Slow and sometimes frustrating user experience. Its sheer size and complexity means GT5 is not a particularly accessible driving game for more casual players.