Just over a month after its release I'm looking back at Gran Turismo 5 and trying to decide "Was it really worth the wait?"
To be honest I'm not so sure. Whilst it is great to finally get the full Gran Turismo experience in HD, even after 5 years in development the game still feels liked it was rushed out the door. You can't fault the game for lack of content though. You get over a 1000 cars, 71 tracks in 27 locations, 16 player online support, a basic course editor, 3DTV support and much, much more. The ingredients are there for this to be the best driving game on any system, but the game just doesn't quite hang together correctly.
First thing you will notice is the quite appalling load times which almost killed my enthusiasm for the game before it had even begun. It wouldn't be too bad if the long load times were restricted to starting a race, but you get a loading pause when jumping between nearly all the game's menus. What exacerbates this problem is the dreadful user interface the game employs, which is very similar to that used in Gran Turismo PSP. The main screen for the for the career mode (GT Life) is a mess of different size icons and just isn't intuitive to use at all. In fact you can see that developers Polyphony Digital have anticipated people having trouble with the menu as they've included an in game manual to explain what each menu icon does.
My main gripe with the user interface is that there is just too much of it to wade through. Far too many menu screens and dialogue boxes really spoil the flow of the game. Here is an example of what happens after you win one the career mode events and want to claim your prize car. On returning to the GT Life menu you get a dialogue box telling what car(s) you have won, click ok to continue. If you earned enough xp to level up you then get multiple dialogues boxes telling you what you have unlocked, click ok to close each box. To actually receive your prize car you have to click on the 'car delivery' icon and then on the icon of the car you want added to your garage. You are then treated to the car driving two yards towards you with it's headlights on, as if to give the vehicle a dramatic introduction! This pointless spectacle includes another loading pause and must be watched every time you win or buy a car. On returning to the GT Life menu you get one final dialogue box that says you can paint any car the same colour as the one you have just won/bought, click ok to continue. So ends an unnecessarily complicated process that could have been replaced with a single dialogue box telling you what goodies you had unlocked.
Another place where the poor user interface is to be found is in the archaic server browser used by the game's online mode. This is real throw back to early days of online PC games where you are presented with a basic list of what game servers are available. You'll be able to see how many people are playing, whether a race is in progress, any vehicle restrictions and quality of the connection to the server. If you are lucky the host will also have given the server an informative title telling potential players what type of race to expect. The main problem with the browser is you are very limited as to how you can filter the servers to find a game that suits you. If you just want to play with your mates then you can set up a friends only game or if they are already on a random server you can join them with the use of the numeric id code each server is given. Once you racing things run pretty smoothly, but not every host has the connection speed to accommodate a full 16 player race. The game does a pretty good job of advising you the of the maximum number of players you can host, but ignore this figure and you'll be in for a whole lot of lag.
So that's a dodgy user interface and a basic online mode. Not a very auspicious start for what most people (myself included) were expecting to be the showcase for what the PS3 is capable of. Surely the graphics will show where Polyphony's efforts have been focused these past 5 years. Here again the game comes up short. A lot of the screen shots issued before the release of GT5 highlighted the stunning cars models. What wasn't known at the time was only a couple of hundred of the 1031 cars included in the game were getting such special treatment. Identified in the game as premium models these are the best looking cars out there, with fully modeled interiors that look stunning when you use the in car view. Unfortunately the 800 remaining 'standard' cars seem very poor by comparison and has lead many to wonder whether they are just upscaled from Gran Turismo 4. It seems a bit pointless having so many cars in the game when the majority of them look so rough. Polyphony would have been much better limiting the car list to around 400 and making them all look top dollar. As for the visible car damage that so many fans have been asking for, all I can say is that Polyphony needn't have bothered.
Unfortunately the same inconsistent graphics can be found in the tracks too. I stated in the opening paragraph that I felt GT5 had been rushed out the door even after 5 years in development and from the state of some of the tracks you'll understand why. For every great looking track like La Sarthe or the Nürburgring you find a course, like the brand new Cape Ring, which is so bland as to look unfinished. All the city tracks look fantastic except Côte d'Azur (Monaco) which has boxy scenery and very flat textures. The graphics in GT5 swing from one extreme to another. The lighting is absolutely fantastic, especially on the races where you get full day/night cycle, however the shadows are very poor. They look blocky and the self shadows on the cars flicker constantly. Weather and particle effects are passable, but not the best seen in a racing game. It is obvious that Polyphony have made some big compromises in order to have 16 premium cars on track and maintain 60 fps, even at 1080p. The framerate does hold up fine, but there is some tearing when things get really busy on screen. At least the music is of the normal high standard for GT with a great selection of licensed tracks and that trademark lounge music for the menus. You've also got the option to use your own playlists if you don't like what is on offer.
If the presentation doesn't quite live up to expectations, what about the gameplay? Fortunately once you get down to the business of racing cars non of the old Gran Turismo magic has been lost. The car handling is superb and makes driving even the slowest cars a pleasure. What stands out for me is how Polyphony have managed to strike a balance between making the cars handle as realistic as possible without making the game too much of a challenge to be fun. There are the standard set of driving aids to help keep even the most cack-handed of gamer on the tarmac. Except for turning off the driving line I was never inclined to change these settings from the default. I even managed to enjoy racing rear wheel drive sports cars which are my pet hate in any driving game. I'm much more at home in the driving seat of a Honda Civic Type R! New to the GT5 is the inclusion of racing karts. These are massive fun to drive and are ideally suited for some multiplayer hilarity.
Now there is no point in having great car handling if you haven't got the quality race tracks to take advantage of it. This is where I feel GT5 beats every other driving game hands down with the huge number of tracks it has on offer. The ten real world locations (such as Suzuka, Laguna Seca, Nürburgring and Monza) are pretty standard affair for most driving games, though you can now be the Stig and test your mettle on the Top Gear Test Track. Where GT5 excels is with the original courses designed by Polyphony, as they provide the opportunity for some top quality racing. Deep Forest, High Speed Ring, Trial Mountain and Grand Valley Speedway are all classics from the GT series. New for GT5 is Cape Ring which maintains the high standard of racing, despite being visually bland.Add to this the 9 city courses, 8 rally stages, variable weather/time of day on selected tracks and you have the most wide ranging driving experience on the market today.
If you somehow get bored of all this racing goodness on offer, or just fancy a different challenge, then the course maker should be your next port of call. While this isn't an in depth editor with which you could make exact replicas of real world tracks, what you do get is the tools to create hundreds of unique courses to extend your GT5 experience. The course maker is very simple to use and involves only adjusting various sliders. First you pick a theme for your track which determines whether you are making a race circuit, an off road course on gravel or snow, a road course or a track just for karts. You are then given a starting template from which you begin to craft your track. Don't like the template you are given then with one click you cycle through the dozens on offer. Each track is divided up into sections (to a maximum of seven) which can be altered individually. You can add corners by making the section more complex, alter the road width and increase cornering difficulty by making the turns sharper. You can also vary the time of day and the weather to produce a more challenging experience. At any time you can take a spin round your creation to see if things are shaping up just how you want them to. Once you have finished creating your track you can use it offline in the arcade mode and share it online with any of your PSN friends. You'll even find the game itself taking advantage of the course maker to randomly create tracks for some point to point events in the career mode. Overall this is a fantastic addition to the GT franchise and something that extends the life of the game immeasurably.
The bulk of the gameplay in GT5 is taken up by the career mode. This is the usual affair of numerous championships that have to be won so you can obtain the xp to unlock the more difficult races and the cash to buy the cars you need to race them. On top of this there are special events where you are taking on WRC World Champion Sebastian Loeb, NASCAR star Jeff Gordon or visit the Top Gear Test Track to take on the Stig. There are also some specific karting events and point to point rally challenges. License tests also return, but are no longer compulsory for progressing your career. However they are very addictive and have that one more go appeal where you know you can shave a second off your time to grab that gold trophy. In the end I found, just like all the previous GT games, the career mode does becomes a bit of a grind and I much prefer setting up my own races in the arcade mode.
The career mode isn't helped by some strange design decisions like only having access to a limited number of cars in the used car dealership (which is the only place you can buy the 800+ standard models). This bizarre feature is taken from the PSP version of GT and means if the specific used car you are after is not for sale you have to take part in some form of career race just to move on the games internal clock. This changes the used cars available to buy and hopefully the model you want will be listed. Polyphony actually realised how stupid an idea this was and introduce a special used car dealership by way of a patch, which gave access to those used cars of most use for career events. Returning from GT4 is the B-Spec mode where you take charge of the career of an ai driver. This is basically watching the ai drive through the same events you do in the career mode all the while issuing him with commands like slow down, speed up and overtake. For me it is like watching paint dry, but if you are after a platinum trophy then you'll have to endure it.
Speaking of the ai this has always been the area where Gran Turismo is weak. In GT5 things are much improved with the ai drivers actually taking different racing lines and battling for position amongst each other. They are much more aware of your car too and are less inclined to run into the back of you! The ai still has a tendency to brake too early for corners, but at the higher difficult levels they can provide a serious challenge. The only part of GT5 left to mention is the social aspect of the game. If you are online then Polyphony has created it's own GT based social network. Here you can post messages on your wall and share photos, created tracks and B-Spec drivers. You can also gift any car in your garage, or car upgrade, to a friend and check on their progress through the career mode. In the community mode you can also see if any of your friends are playing online and join them without having to negotiate the unwieldy server browser. Online players also have access to Gran Turismo TV where you can download various car related videos. There is also a Gran Turismo museum where you can view pictures of classic cars which you unlock in the career mode. Photo mode also makes an appearance too, for those of you who like to take pictures of virtual cars. It certainly shows off the stunning premium car models, but isn't really my cup of tea.
Overall Gran Turismo 5 is a hard game to rate. The gameplay is spot on, the track design superb, there is mountains of content to unlock, it includes an easy to use course designer and yet it still feels like a bit of a let down. The user interface is appalling and it isn't helped by the long load times. The graphics are a mixed bag, which at their best are stunning and the rest of the time are well below what you would expect of a PS3 game. The online mode is similarly split too. Polyphony have built an excellent social experience for the game where it easy to share content and keep up with your online friends. However the online racing options are far too limited and are coupled with an outdated server browser that makes finding the right online match a chore. For a game nearly 5 years in development these flaws are a bitter pill to swallow for those of us expecting GT5 to be the completer package. Despite all of this I still think Gran Turismo 5 has what matters the most and that is superb gameplay. There is plenty here for fans of the genre to enjoy and I'd recommend the game to any PS3 owner.