Game: Gran Turismo 5
Developer: Polyphony Digital
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Available On: PlayStation 3 only
In business, they have a rule. It’s called the 80/20 rule. It’s more of a guideline than an ironclad law of business, but the 80/20 rule states that eighty percent of the results on a project come from the first twenty percent of the effort. The last twenty percent of quality, edging up towards true perfection, takes eighty percent of the effort.
Kazunori Yamauchi and his team are people with their eyes on perfection, what else explains a five year development cycle and more delays than London’s train network under six foot of snow and ice? However, that strive for perfection can be draining and, with most modern driving games so full and feature rich, have the team at Polyphony bitten off more than they can chew?
It is hard to think that they have. For two generations of consoles Gran Turismo was a byword for technical achievement and encyclopaedic detail. Polyphony’s track record suggests that we should expect only technical excellence. Their history also suggests that they are not keen to make any game other than the exact game that they want to make. What else can explain the five year development cycle, various high definition demonstrations and Yamauchi’s somewhat premature talk of Gran Turismo 6. Was the last 80% of effort all worth it? Read on to find out.
STORY: It might seem strange to talk about story in a pure driving simulator, not with Gran Turismo 5. This is a game devoted to the narrative and history of automotive technology/motor sport
From the opening cutscene, a hugely serious and somewhat self-indulgent journey of a car from iron ore mine to circuit, it is clear that as well as play the game Kazunori Yamauchi wants the player to understand cars and his passion for them. The inclusion of everything from F1 cars, race cars and day-to-day hatch backs right through to second world war German amphibious vehicles shows a passion for the subject matter that we could only wish exists in every development studio.
What’s more, with the prototypes, concepts and vaunted Red Bull X1 all lurking in the games massive library, Gran Turismo 5 gives us clues to the future as well. Just don’t say that this game doesn’t have a story and don’t say this game doesn’t have a heart. The passion runs through it like fuel.
SOUND: It is unusual when the first thing that leaps out at you about a game is the audio. Gran Turismo’s introduction is soundtracked with the piano jazz that will become your constant partner through your travels in its menus. It is the first indicator that this game is very much an expression of Yamauchi’s tastes and objectives; the wacky-acid-electro jazz is so out of step with the rock and rap that dominates other driving games that it is almost startling. In itself, it adds nothing and takes nothing from the game. However, this distinct choice, almost deliberately swimming into the tide of contemporary game design, is the first of a number of signs that Polyphony are developing the game that they want to make, without any concession to gamers’ preference. It is a theme that will be discussed in detail later.
I’m sure that the engine sounds are note-for-note perfect on every car because this is, of course, Gran Turismo. They all sound great and, when racing in a tight pack, the surround sound is superb as you bump and slide across the track.
There is flexibility to alter playlists and get a bit of a rockier vibe to the main screens if that’s your thing but, in many ways, that’s like going to nightclub and asking the DJ to switch off his excruciating northern brass band CD so you can put on an X-Factor Live tribute album. Either way, you ain’t buying the music they played at the club.
GRAPHICS: When Gran Turismo looks good, my goodness, does the game look good. Photo mode pulls every ounce of detail out of those splendid car renders. Tires, brake discs, alloys, the bolts on the alloys, the indentations on the bolts on the alloys; it’s a towering achievement in near molecular detail from a diligent and talented team working to satisfy one man’s mission. However, this detail is largely lost in races. To be clear, the detail is still there, but you just can’t see it. Cars are moving too fast and the player is so focussed on just driving the car that it is impossible to really appreciate the engine housing on the F430 Ferrari.
Worse, there are a few flaws in the visuals that actually detract from the experience. Frames tear in an incredibly noticeable manner, shadows are jerky and anytime your car churns up dust or smokes the pixellation in the cloud is terrible. Therefore, the unparalleled graphical detail, and the effort that went into producing it, is wasted. It is another vital clue that too much effort went into areas that, when all is said and done, benefit the core experience very little.
With that said, not all the effort poured into the graphics was wasted. The city tracks (London, Rome and Madrid in particular) are note perfect copies of the cities they are based on. Tearing past St Martin-in-the-Fields, powering around Trafalgar Square and up Haymarket towards Piccadilly on the London course feels, to someone who walks there everyday for work, like a perfect tribute to a dynamic city. Crashing past the Roman Forum and down towards the Rome’s Coliseum in a classic Ferrari is like driving a photograph, so evocative a thrill that few games can provide an emotion anything like it. These are the moments where frustration at Polyphony’s fetish for detail turn into pure respect for what the developers achieved. The courses, and the sightseeing tours they take on, are real highlights and, when combined with Gran Turismo’s wonderful Special Events, take driving games to a level that has never been achieved. In its best moments, Gran Turismo 5 appears graphically superior to almost any other game on any other system, but there are moments, for instance the dropped frames and horrendous shadows, that break the incredible illusion and it is that contrast between what Polyphony perfected and what they didn’t polish that tarnishes the visuals so unforgivably.
The final area of the visuals that needs to be discussed is the difference between the premium and standard models of car. It is well documented that Polyphony gave the handful of “premium” cars a more detailed render than they did the “standard” versions. That’s probably true. However, this difference has no meaningful effect on the game at all. Photo mode might look different, the cars might not look so wonderful while they are being washed or re-sprayed but on the track, where a driving game lives or dies, driving a “standard” or “premium” car at high speed looks about the same.
So if the benefit to the player of premium models is, at best, slight, does this mis-directed effort hamper other parts of the game?
GAMEPLAY: Firing up Gran Turismo 5 and diving straight into “arcade mode” is exciting. Selecting the Subaru Impreza WRX ’10 in a sharp blue and taking the rally-inspired monster out on Trial Mountain unbelievably so. The very instant you start driving it is crystal clear what Gran Turismo is all about. The driving model is sublime; the feedback from the car so tactile and the flexibility presented to the player just remarkable. Lapping the classic Trial Mountain course, chasing the fastest time set only a couple of laps earlier it is easy to while away minutes and even hours. The cars just want you to experiment with them, whether driving point to point like it was an F1 car or powersliding with grace and precision if you so prefer. The options presented to the player, all in one driving model, are truly astonishing. Every car has its own feel, oversteer attacks rear wheel cars when the player is too zealous on the throttle and understeer kills the cornering speed of the front wheel drive cars. Everything is so tactile, there is never a time when the game feels like it is being unfair, every mistake is the players and every success equally so. In this way, playing the game is its own reward.
The magic moments keep on coming. Some cars just feel built for certain circuits: Trial Mountain in the Impreza, London in the Golf GTI, the brand new Cape Ring Inside Route and mm-R cup Car ’01. They just slide from apex to apex so perfectly, searching for these combinations is easily as satisfying as searching for lost loves or finding your car keys after hours of digging under the sofa cushions.
No game reaches the highs as Gran Turismo 5 when the player is driving just on the edge of control. If gaming had its own version of the ‘Seven Wonders’, its own Hall of Fame, then driving a perfect lap on Gran Turismo would be in there. The Special Events pile more quality onto this podium of racing perfection. The events themselves all look at different aspects of motoring from NASCAR to rally to karting. All are challenging and lovingly balanced, all totally distinct. Karting is like real-life Mario Kart, sliding these crazy machines around miniaturised courses, controlling slide and speed and turning all with the throttle. It’s exhilarating, mouth-hanging-open, laughing-to-yourself fun and another genuine highlight. NASCAR promotes unique skills and Grand Tour is a great idea, somehow portraying the glamour associated with taking stunning super cars down an incredible stretch of road. The Mercedes Nurburgring School is a terrific introduction to an otherwise intimidating course. The best driving engine in gaming combined with expertly balanced driving events showing the full breadth of the experience available. Tricky, pad-grabbingly addictive, the pinnacle of the game and, sadly, over all too quickly.
They are just the champagne sprayed on top. The bulk of Gran Turismo remains in the licenses and then the races that make up GT Home. The structure is almost exactly the same as we have seen in previous Gran Turismo games. Complete license tests, buy cars, win available events, buy better cars, complete license tests, win harder races and so on. The new wrinkle is the introduction of experience, again unlocked by winning races. You have to be a certain level to unlock the Special Events and the higher grades of races. Once you get into the normal races the feeling of familiarity returns. It is very hard to discern whether you are winning because you have the fastest car or because you are a better driver. Your opposition is never tailored to the car you bring to the track, they would be the same regardless. Worse, it isn’t clear exactly what they are driving; their tyres, the weight of the car, the gearbox, all vital information in the world of Gran Turismo and all absent. Make, model and horsepower are the only bits of information provided. In many of the events, the onus for organising a balanced race is put on the player, but the game is too opaque to let that be easy to do. Many races quickly become a grind, necessary evils needed to build the cash and experience required for the Special Events or single car races where balance can be (almost) assured. The license tests too, with the new experience system, feel increasingly pointless and out of touch with the rest of the game, often treading on the toes of lessons learned in the Special Events. It becomes perilously hard to tell whether these things are included to make the player feel nostalgic, because Polyphony feel this is the best way to structure a driving game or because too much energy went elsewhere and there was no time to really restructure the career. Whatever the reason the structure of the game feels as though it is hanging like a busted shell around the roaring, grunting 1000 horse power V12 engine that runs the game; that amazing driving model. If just a few of the weeks of labour that went into crafting the perfect texture for the brake discs on the Ferrari F40 went into re-tooling the career, expanding the Special Events and modernising the ways the player is rewarded then Gran Turismo would be a better all around game.
Even more agonising is the fact that the game is full of ideas, however, they just aren’t developed enough. B-Spec, Photo, Course Creator and drift time trials are all present, but not really filled out in a way that makes them anything more than toys. Just fluff to be tinkered with and then discarded.
Online, also, feels underdeveloped. There is no other way to say it. Starting races is slow and matchmaking non-existent. There is the framework of a community structure in place, but it just has not been expanded on to a point where online is enjoyable. It feels no more social or alive than the single player events and when compared to the razor-sharp matchmaking and pulse pounding racing of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, Gran Turismo 5 just shrivels. It is an incredible shame. The driving engine is there for some of the most hard fought, compelling races of any game on any console. That Polyphony couldn’t find a way to translate this to online is one of the games great disappointments.
To the developers’ credit, they have shown a willingness to update and expand the game. Mechanical damage was recently added via a patch and this adds further feedback, realism and an incentive for players to drive properly. Hopefully they will continue to add content to the game but, for now, it is only possible to review what is on the screen.
There is so much to do and so much to try in Gran Turismo 5 that, inevitably, it will be hard to love everything that is on offer. However, with that impeccable driving engine, which is truly one of the great achievements in the history of programming computer games, it is surprising what a frustrating experience playing the game can be. This is all due to the structure, outdated and clunky, that is really more just a toolbox than a game. The seeds have been sown with the Special Events but, for now, we have a quite unique situation; a driving model hampered by a shoddy game.
LONGEVITY: As mentioned, there is a lot of content crammed into Gran Turismo 5 and, with the Special Events, plenty of variety stuffed in the boot. There is probably a very pleasant couple of weeks to be had just driving time trials around all the circuits in a variety of different cars. If you are a car nut or just a compulsive digital collector there is lots to keep you happy. It is damn near impossible to argue that, in terms of sheer quantity of content, Gran Turismo 5 is as worthy of your money as any driving game, heck, any game this year.
However, not all the content is that great. Many races are a grind in unappealing cars in races that are barely balanced. Progress up the levels and through the tournaments is uneven with many competitions offering cars as prizes that were neither the premium variety nor particularly useful in other tournaments. Online is a very acquired taste and lots of the tools (like the course creator) will be little more than light fun, even in the hands of an avid car or racing game fan.
Never forget that there is a lot here and, whilst you might not love everything, with the sublime driving underpinning the game, most people will find something about Gran Turismo 5 that they love and that will keep the game going for some time.
VERDICT: Reviewing Gran Turismo wasn’t easy. The first impression, getting a fast car out on a track and driving it until the rubber was totally stripped from the tyres, is such a profoundly positive one that all you expect from the rest of the game is excellence. Genre defining, power-to-the-auteur, excellence. In many ways you expect what Gran Turismo games have always provided. However, Gran Turismo 5 does not achieve this.
Don’t be mistaken, this is not a game that is a prisoner of its own history, nor is it a game on which judgement is easily distorted by the mirror of a five year development. This is simply a game where man hours and effort have been misallocated and the faults feel all too familiar. There is a feeling that, once the sublime driving engine was in place Polyphony spent the next few years polishing their favourite cars until they blurred the line between fantasy and reality, but forgot that they were designing a game. A game with moving parts that had to fit and mesh together. The realism of the cars, so perfect in the garage, is instantly broken by a totally insubstantial damage model (where it is present). The career mode, full of the complete and varied history of the automobile, that barely motivates you to traipse around overlong races in a Toyota Yaris for little discernible reward.
There is scant evidence that the developers have listened and learned from past games or past mistakes. In fact, it wouldn’t be remiss to say that Kazunori Yamauchi made only the game he wanted to make, fulfilling his own desires and priorities. Playing Gran Turismo 5 is very much like walking around a stranger’s beautiful house, only this stranger has incredibly eclectic, almost oddball, taste. You will either admire the stranger’s passion to adhere to his own values and produce exactly what he wanted or be shocked and disappointed that he has ruined his wonderful mansion by sticking so stubbornly to his own goals and ideals.
Kazunori Yamauchi and Polyphony Digital understand the 80/20 rule. In so many ways Gran Turismo 5 reflects that massive eighty percent of effort required to reach perfection. However, this was in areas like rendering the vehicles, where the developer clearly feels completely assured, and none of the effort seems to take Gran Turismo 5 out of its comfort zone and into the areas where improvement really needed to be made. Whilst there is no one, correct way to design a game and despite being the greatest driving engine in the history of gaming, when judged as a package against its contemporaries Gran Turismo can no longer be considered the outright leader on the track.