Gran Turismo 5 Review

Unfocused, late and unfinished. One gets the impression and exasperated Sony Japan wandered into Yamauchi-san’s office and scooped up whatever was on his desk at the time and released that as Gran Turismo 5.

If videogames are ever going to truly be recognised as an art form it’s not just the games themselves that will have to improve. What sets art apart, in addition to its own content, is the context it exists within. For a medium to truly be an artform the manner in which it is discussed by its consumers must reach a certain level of sophistication, so too the professional critique of the works.

The launch of Gran Turismo 5 has perhaps proved we quite some way to go on those points. User discussion across the net has barely risen above the level of the playground. Critics of the game have been branded “xbots” and “forza fanboys”. Meanwhile supposed reputable videogames magazines and sites have rubber-stamped scores of nine or ten out of ten on a game that’s barely finished. To make matters worse many of the same outlets have published sycophantic fawning interviews with “the perfectionist” Emperor Kazunori Yamauchi where he is once again congratulated on the brilliance of his new clothes.

Perhaps those sites were sent a different one to the disk that SCEE sent us. Following the ridiculously long install we were met with a piece of software that’s barely even a game, let alone a brilliant example of this supposed art form. Some parts of the game are polished to perfection and hint at what could have been, others are shoddy to the point of being completely laughable (eg the Jeff Gordon zombie). One gets the impression and exasperated Sony Japan wandered into Yamauchi-san’s office and scooped up whatever was on his desk at the time and released that as Gran Turismo 5, whether it was finished or not.

The result is a game I predicted in my review of Gran Turismo 4 some six years ago. My career as a professional videogames writer began just after the release of the first Gran Turismo game. For several years this was the greatest game I’d ever played. It cost me a lot of money too. After reading a review of a Japanese import I decided it had to be mine. I had to travel across the Pennines to buy the game, paying over £60 for a Japanese version. But that wasn’t the end of the matter. I had to buy a chip to modify my PlayStation to be able to play the Japanese game – and a soldering kit so I could fit it. And then I had to buy a new TV that would accept the NTSC colour signals that my console was now pumping out.

Several years later I paid a fortune to import the US version of GT2 – a broken and unfinished game that’s all too similar to GT5 – and was stung by import taxes. GT3 saw me investing in a force feedback wheel and it was only with the release of GT4 things calmed down a little. Yes Gran Turismo as a franchise has been a constant companion in my gaming and professional life for a long time now and one of my favourite – if not my favourite – series. Yet in my review of Gran Turismo 4 I said that the game had stagnated too long. I said that if the focus remained on providing the prettiest and most numerous cars at the expense of collision physics, better courses and a complete overhaul of the game’s interface then the next game in the series would be an insult.

Six years later I’m very sorry to discover I was right. In some ways it may have already been too late – I’ve a new lover now in the form of Forza Motorsport 3. That game treats me with some respect. It doesn’t assume I don’t know my arse from my elbow and lets me choose the challenge ahead of me, allows me to play without the stabilising wheels on from the off. I’ve grown to love its handling, considered interface and even its slightly odd over-contrasting visuals. But Gran Turismo, I’d have left Forza like a shot if you’d changed, like you said you were going to. But you’re the same old rambling drunk, sometimes brilliant, other times a sad parody of yourself, you were six years ago. And in 2010 that’s really not good enough.

Take the interface for example. What a complete mess the menu system is. From the off the game appears to show that there was no-one properly producing the game and ensuring a strong user experience and consistency. Sometimes the circle button quits from a screen, other times it merely moves the cursor to a button where you can choose to leave a screen. The player is given almost no help at all – so getting the right car for an event is a trial in itself. Look at the karting events for example, any sensible game would allow you to take part with little fuss and automatically place you in the correct kind of vehicle. GT5 doesn’t, instead it tells you that your current vehicle is no good and you have to go searching in the garage for a kart.

Why a game needs to have a pop-up that says “Ok” to confirm your actions, which requires you to then click on “Ok” is totally beyond me. This is design of the very poorest quality. And you’ll see lots of this. Winning a car in an event doesn’t automatically place it in your garage. Instead you have to visit the Car Delivery menu, click on a ticket and “okay” to say you do want to use it. The car is then delivered, but you’ll have to tick a few more “okay” boxes before it arrives in the garage. Equally baffling is what happens when you buy a car part but choose not to fit it right away. You cannot fit this item later by going into the garage. Oh no, that would be too easy. You have to find a menu called “items” then apply this car part to your current car. I’m shaking my head while typing this – wondering how any of this awful interface got past Sony.

The bafflement continues elsewhere – while trying to wrangle the terrible interface and its terrible soft jazz soundtrack. In game options are minimal – you can’t even enter photo mode in an event, instead having to wait for a replay. There’s no easy access to telemetry either – there’s a data logger as part of the replay theatre, a fairly obscure thing, compared to being able to overlay telemetry at any point by a tap of the Dpad.

Once we’re actually on the track some of these annoyances are forgotten for a while. When the game clicks it is really good. Take those first Nurburgring Special Events for example. Tasked with setting times on the famous Nordschleife in a Mercedes Benz SL300 the game comes alive. The handling is sublime and the challenge exciting. If only the rest of the game was this good. But at every turn you’re hampered in some way. Pad control is pretty poor – the physics model may be strong – but there’s no sympathy for those playing with the pad. I’ve played plenty of events where I’ve felt the pad isn’t giving me full throttle travel and the result is I’m slower in a straight line than AI cars in exactly the same vehicles.

In terms of challenges there’s a real mix. The traditional free modes are there as are the GT license tests. The main competitive elements of the game are the A-Spec, B-Spec and Special Events sections. The latter are very odd indeed – varying from brilliant in the Nurburgring tests to the baffling in the Top Gear events and downright cruel in terms of the NASCAR tests.

I’m sure I’m not alone in being excited by the inclusion of the Top Gear track. Yet Polyphony has taken the very odd step of completely ruining your first experience of the course. The first TG challenge is a terrible race with VW camper vans which is tough to the point of torture, due to the awful handling of the vans and the completely unfair instant disqualification for bumping an AI van, cone or just breathing. The second test on the course is little better – offering a Lotus Elise but somehow breaking the physics engine so the car behaves as though it’s on an ice rink.

Then there’s the NASCAR events, many of which are almost impossible if you’re using a pad. Polyphony assumes everyone is using a wheel and sets the challenge accordingly. I nearly smashed a controller playing one of these cruel stupid tests. To make matters worse the NASCAR section is introduced by a virtual Jeff Gordon of such poor quality .I burst out laughing when I saw the fish-lipped low-poly thunderbird puppet-like model. Seemingly much better is The Grand Tour – a trip from Bern all the way to Rome, with events along the way. Most of this challenge involves watching loading screens, with a few cut scenes and only occasionally getting to do an event. One of the events is a night race that nearly had me give up on the game completely.

The Special Events menu features some rally events too. Leave them alone. They are nasty and will only make you cross and very sad. Instead lets turn to the A-Spec mode where the regular Gran Turismo events take place. These are as you expect – some events completely open, others restricted by car types. The quality is more even here. Compared to Turn 10’s elephant in the room tough – Forza 3 – there really aren’t many events on offer and your progress is artificially slowed by the requirement to reach certain levels before opening these. Progress is also hindered by the meanness of car prize unlocks and race prize money – we aren’t showered with goodies in the way we expect from a modern game.

If the number of events is a disappointment the track selection isn’t. Here’s one of the very few places that GT5 trumps FM3. The city courses are beautiful and I’m very fond of the new Cape Ring circuit with its undulating roads and dramatic changes in elevation. There’s a – pretty crappy – circuit generator too, for some infinite variety. Most of the returning tracks look very good – but there are exceptions. Laguna Seca looks like something from PlayStation 2 and Special Route 5 actually has fewer trackside objects than it did in Gran Turismo 4. Some track variants even have weather effects, crap weather effects, but at least it has them. Despite these various problems the track selection is pretty good.

So too is the game’s big sell – the number of cars on offer. Sadly the number of 1031 is merely a marketing gimmick. One of the biggest problems with GT5 is that it only features 200 so-called premium cars. What’s a premium car? That’s one with a modern high-res model, detailed cockpit, detailed physics model, damage. You may know these from other games – they are called “cars”. Along with these premium models we get 800 other models of varying quality. Some are dreadful beyond words, old low-resolution splodges from GT4, others are pretty decent having had a little work done on them before being shown in HD glory. What was Polyphony thinking though? Many of my fellow gamers are choosing to only use the decent models which limits the game to 200 cars. While that sounds a lot we’re then left with a situation with many dealerships featuring one or two cars. There’s only one premium Aston Martin for example. The cupboard is really bare – and development time has been wasted on such premium oddities as WW2 era Volkswagens at the expense of modern vehicles. The very low number of 2009 and 2010 models also hints at a content set that was created for release two years ago. The subsequent delay has done no favours for the car roster.

Polyphony is clearly embarrassed about the inclusion of these 800 models from the previous generation. You aren’t allowed to take these cars into the special Photo Travel mode. Even more amusing/heart-breaking is what happens if you try to take a picture of them in regular replay photo mode. Zoom the camera in too close and the game won’t let you take the picture, actually asking you to move back. No I’m not making that up.

At least when we’re playing on a gorgeous track with one of those premium models with a detailed interior the game is pretty good. Actually it’s very good at times, just as good as any other GT game, which is what makes all the other problems so much worse. There’s a brilliant game struggling to get out past the terrible design decisions and disastrous project management.

Take another of the game’s headline features – the 1080p60 display. The game doesn’t remotely live up to 1920×1080 at 60fps. Instead 1080p mode is 1280×1080 with lots of tearing and a frame rate than can dip as low as 20 at times. Don’t get me wrong, those 1080 lines do make a heck of a difference and can make GT5 look very pretty indeed on a big screen. But the performance hit isn’t worth it. Better to set your PS3 for 720p and enjoy a better frame rate and no tearing. And that way some of the terrible textures won’t be as apparent, though unfortunately the bloody awful car shadows will be.

Actual racing is mostly better than previous Gran Turismo games and this is one area where progress has been made. AI cars aren’t as good as anything you’d see in a Codemasters game, but there are far from the stupid automatons of GT games past. Leave your car on the grid and when the AI cars come back round they will make an effort to avoid you. You’ll also see them racing each other and jostling for position. They aren’t perfect though – they brake too early, and the game commits a cardinal sin for a sim racer – there’s rubberbanding in some events.

Car handling for the player is very good indeed apart from a few strange exceptions. GT4 was good in this regard too except problems with differentials. These seem mostly fixed – though the karts don’t work properly. Most cars handle very well and its a joy to be blasting around famous circuits with a sense of weight, grip and strength. There are a few occasions where the grip seems to vanish and things become very slippery – this has always been a problem for GT – but thankfully it doesn’t happen very often. I wish more care was given to the pad though – making it work better for the player and not assuming we’re all using wheels. Car tuning remains – though the icon to enable tinkering has even eluded some well known sites. The tuning works pretty well and I’ve managed to use differential, toe and camber settings to offset some of the odd behaviour under braking some of the models display.

If I was to compare the feel of the handling I would say it’s a hair better than Forza Motorsport on the open road. What is lacking though is the collision physics. I’ve heard the whole chestnut from fanboys “it doesn’t matter as I never crash”, but you know, that’s just bollocks. Handling isn’t just about what happens when you’re all alone with four wheels on the track. In racing there will always be some contact and there’s been no advance here since GT4. Cars still come together with all the force and physical complexity of two cereal boxes, with a sound effect to match. Any time cars make contact the illusion of realism disappears. Yes GT5 adds realistic car damage but you’re going to have to play the game solidly for over a week before you’re allowed to use it – why should we have to earn a basic aspect of gameplay? Car damage, no matter how well implemented, is pretty useless if we can’t choose it from the off rather than wait until we’ve finished most of the events. For most people buying this game there may as well be no car damage at all. Equally poor and old fashioned are the invisible trackside walls, none-interactive circuit objects and infinite strength small fences – this really is a game that steps back to a previous generation.

Gran Turismo 5 is a game full of odd contradictions and omissions. For every good thing there seems to be something that takes away from it. For example; the online racing actually works quite well – but the actual way of setting up races is very poor with few options. The premium car cockpit views are excellent – but hampered by an ugly HUD that you can neither alter or remove. This is the story of GT5. It’s a game that has a solid core, super driving physics coupled with some very good tracks and some fabulous graphics yet is let down in so many ways by being unfinished or suffering from design anachronisms. I wanted this to be a completely different review but have found myself writing the review I feared would come when I wrote my critique of GT4 all those years ago.

Gran Turismo 5 is a failure of game design and in some ways shows how Japanese development lags a long way behind the west these days. Can you imagine what Dan Greenwalt and his Turn 10 team would have done with six years and this kind of budget? Released two years ago without the horrible standard cars GT5 may have appeared much better. I’m sure many of us would have taken quality over quantity. One hopes that Sony will build on the mess that is GT5 – giving us updates that allow us to change the HUD, switch on the damage from the beginning, navigate menus easier, create a better online experience, update the poor tracks with better textures and the like. I really hope so. In a good car on a nice stretch of road GT is a ten out of ten experience. Alas for much of the time, I’m really very sad to say, Gran Turismo 5 is barely even a videogame.