Premium (left) vs. The Real Thing (right)
These standard cars also look very simplistic compared to the 200 higher brow cars, with flatter surfaces, jagged texture edges and none of the damage and environmental effects the premium models can receive. You can't even swap their wheels for something aftermarket. This is the most glaring example of something that feels rather unfinished in GT5, though there are many more to come.
But the 200 premium cars – wow. They do look phenomenal. The many and varied vents, fins and gills on the '67 Lamborghini Miura are represented perfectly. Every switch, dial and screen inside Nissan's latest GT-R is there to admire. The luscious, swelling fenders on a '54 Mercedes-Benz 300SL curve gracefully. This is digital automotive porn at its finest, each ready for you to drive. It's just a shame they couldn't all look so good.
The story is much the same on the circuits. Some, like the new fictional Cape Ring circuit, the Circuit de la Sarthe at Le Mans, and of course the epic Nürburgring Nordschleife (below) all look amazing and, in the case of the real tracks, look near-identical to their dirt and rock counterparts. Others look decidedly rougher. The textures and surfaces at Laguna Seca are dull and blotchy and everything is unusually verdant at a circuit known more for its browns than its greens.
Other tracks have been oddly infiltrated by Jersey barriers where none exist in real life. The chicanes at Monza are now littered with the things, so, too, the frightening turn one at the Daytona road course. The Grand-Am runners at the 24 Hours of Daytona thankfully have a lot more run-off room than you've been given here. The final chicanes at Le Mans, meanwhile, remain free of the things – and you're free to cut them.
GT5 offers a somewhat different progression structure than previous titles. There are still tedious license challenges to slog through and higher levels of prestige to achieve through each, but just as important is a new level feature. You earn in-game experience for completing challenges, bumping you up to higher levels and unlocking new challenges, races and gameplay modes.
The majority of these races and offline series are much the same as they ever were: a bunch of random yet familiar challenges with random yet familiar cars. Ferrari-only series? Check. Tire-shredding American muscle races? They're here. Hot hatch championship? You know it.
These are usually fun, but unfortunately the series doesn't take a cue from Forza Motorsport by scaling the competition based on what you bring to the grid. In GT5, it is far easier to bring a hugely overpowered car to any given race than it is to find one that leaves you on level footing with the competition. You'll constantly find yourself being outgunned and hung out to dry by opposing cars or, conversely, competing in a car that's far too fast compared to the others.
Yes, the game does tell you what cars your opponents are likely to show up in, but there's no guarantee those cars haven't been modified and, unless you happen to have one of those exact autos, it's still a guessing game. Unless you want to waste time showing up with a knife to a gun fight, it's a lot easier to just build a bazooka and bring that along.
Far more entertaining are the special events, a series of challenges that have an apparently zombified Jeff Gordon show you the fast way to turn left or Sebastien Loeb teach you how to handle a Citroën C4 rally car. Ultimately, there's not much actual teaching to be found, but the challenges are fun and, most importantly, many are legitimately challenging.
Unfortunately, the short nature of many of these challenges exacerbates the most frustrating aspect of Gran Turismo 5: the load times.
When you first load up GT5 on your PS3, itching to kick tires, light fires and various other euphemisms for actually driving something, you're presented with an option to install 8GB of system files onto your PS3. As it turns out, this is not actually an option, it's a requirement, because if you choose "No" you'll be throwing the disc across the room after the second or third excruciatingly long wait for a track to load.
The install process is painful, taking up to an hour (despite a hugely inaccurate timer promising much less) and leaving you with nothing to do but wait. Load times are much improved after this install completes, but they're still frustratingly slow. You'll often be waiting for 30 to 45 seconds for a single challenge or test to load, a challenge that may very well be completed in 15 or 20 seconds. Only in the later races does the playing to waiting ratio begin to approach something respectable.
Still, there are many other frustrations lurking, waiting for you to find them. The head tracking mode that promised to provide greater immersion by allowing you to look around in the cockpit just by turning your head? Bizarrely, it only works in Arcade mode, and even then only works well if the PlayStation Eye camera is positioned no more than a few feet from your mug.
The game promises the full racing modification option that hasn't been seen since Gran Turismo 2, but this is available on such a limited number of cars it might as well be absent here, as well. There is no way to upgrade a car's brakes, the 20,000 credit "fully customizable" gearbox doesn't let you specify individual gear ratios (effectively only final drive), the top-shelf suspension doesn't allow asymmetrical setups and, crucially for oval racing, doesn't allow positive camber. Finally, and perhaps most annoying about car setup, you can't save and load your favorites. Jumping between gravel and asphalt rallies a lot? Prepare to spend a lot of time fiddling with ride heights and spring rates between events...
Thankfully, it's certainly not all so bad, so let's dive a little deeper into some key aspects of the game.
We're very, very happy to report that the physics in GT5 feel great; they're a big step up from those seen in previous games. No, the realism here is still a far cry from things like rFactor, netKar Pro and iRacing, games that put the hard in hardcore sim racing. But still, this is easily the most realistic feeling Gran Turismo yet, including finally offering some amount of collision physics. Yes, you can still bounce off of your AI opponents to get around a turn if you like, but now if you do it too hard you might actually cause them to spin. Or yourself.
Still, things aren't perfect. Unmodified cars feel oddly loose when braking, as if the brake balance was set too far to the rear by default. And the proper race tires in the game are far too forgiving, not giving up their grip even when you're pushing a Formula car to Formula D-style drift angles. But, that's all to make things more fun, and driving here certainly is fun.
The Rally Mode
Rallying returns, one of the more enjoyable if not least realistic aspects of the game. Realism here is not really improved over previous games, if only because the majority of the rally tracks and stages are hugely wide, hugely flat and bare little resemblance to the rutted logging roads and rocky hillclimbs that make up a typical WRC event.
New to this game is the so-called Gran Turismo Rally feature, which randomly generates a series of stages to compete through. The idea is genius, but, like many other things here, the implementation leaves much to be desired. Stages are again comprised of uniformly too-wide roads that are generally too easy and too short – the latter problem again bringing out the worst of those load times.
The handmade rally tracks, like those at Eiger Nordwand, are much more fun. But, rally racing on a circuit just feels a little wrong.
A taste of karting in an early version of the game left us feeling a little queasy, so we were quite pleasantly surprised to find that karting in GT5 is good. This is, of course, a subject we know a good bit about, and driving a kart here is actually not all that far off from the real thing, particularly in the feel of the higher-speed sections and corners, with the kart even seeming to hop a bit when it has too much grip on the front end.
It's in the slower turns, and any attempt to fix that hop, where the missing aspects are found. One of the trickiest bits of karting is dealing with the rear brakes and, in a real kart, if you lock the rear axle in a slow turn, you'll find yourself facing the wrong way before you know what went wrong. That simply doesn't happen here. Also, while karts are hugely tunable, you can't make a single camber or tire pressure adjustment here. Gearing is the only thing you can change.
The Online Play
Finally, we have a GT game with proper online play, but it feels a bit dated in many regards. Here you create a room, give it a name and hope up to 15 others stop by. It's a bit like gaming was back when Gran Turismo 5 started development, but it works well enough. While you're waiting you can at least go out and lap the track, getting some practice in before the race begins.
You can put some restrictions on the cars that others can bring to the grid, but they're a little loose. As is usually the case with online gaming, you're better off finding some friends and racing with them, then creating unofficial rules and restrictions about what cars can be included and what should be left in the garage. You also might have a chance of getting through the first turn without catastrophe. And it'll be hard to tell who's who.
Unfortunately, there aren't enough car and driver customization options to really make your mark visually. You can paint cars other colors, colors which oddly must be earned, but there's no way to apply custom graphics here. You also can't even change the color of your driver's suit or helmet, being given only a choice from a handful of set combinations.
The Photo Mode
In Photo Mode, you can take your cars and drop them into one of many hand-crafted environments, placing them just so before you fiddle with aperture and exposure settings to get the perfect shot. And, since there are no game physics to worry about, all the horsepower of the PS3 can be used to create stunning photographic results, which can then be exported as JPEGs, like the ones peppered through this post.
This is far and away the most polished aspect of this game, and if that makes you feel a little uncomfortable given the lack of refinement seen in other, seemingly more important aspects...
Sound effects in GT5, as a whole, have more in common with the chaotic nature of an orchestra tuning prior to a concert than the blissful harmony they can achieve during the performance. Every now and again you'll hear the wonderful tune of a properly-rendered engine note, but just as often you'll be droning along in something that sounds like a Hoover.
Volume levels are also a bit off. The engine note of the car coming up behind you often seems louder than the engine within your own car, while crashes and other unexpected-yet-frequent events seem rather too quiet.
The music, meanwhile, is a complete mess. You'll have light jazz transitioning into cowpunk then techno before easy listening jams and a little ragtime to cap it off. There isn't a hint of continuity to be found, but thankfully you can disable any song you like – or just shut them all off.
Through here you can watch videos of cars, some for free and some, like Super GT races, costing $2.99 a pop. Humorously, many of the free videos shot and provided by Polyphony Digital for inclusion in Gran Turismo 5, including coverage of the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, were filmed in 2008.
Damage modeling is one of the more eagerly awaited features in GT5, yet on many cars there's little if any noticeable damage, like the ones you can see above. Only the full racing cars have what you might consider to be proper damage. This is the amount of damage applied to a poor, unsuspecting Maserati GranTurismo S after we spent five minutes doing nothing but alternately reversing and driving into barriers. Note that the car still drives perfectly after all that abuse.
Indeed series producer Kazunori Yamauchi has confirmed that there is absolutely no mechanical damage in the game at all, that it's coming in an update "probably" for "early December." This is yet another frustrating missing piece and an odd choice – making damaged cars something of a reward for putting hours and hours and hours into the game. It should be there from the beginning, but it should also be another driver aid that can be disabled.
Escape from Trial Mountain
It's hard to put a summary at the end of all this, because after the closing credits rolled on Gran Turismo 5 we weren't quite sure how we felt. Yes, this is arguably the most fun entry in the franchise, with physics that are closer to reality then ever before while still taking enough liberties to keep things entertaining.
But, for every smile we were also shaking our heads at some bit of frustration. It often feels like an incomplete title, a feeling that the two 100+ megabyte patches released within days of the game finally shipping really hammered home. It is still a very good game, however, and if you own a PS3 and you like racers you'd be remiss to skip this one.
That said, if you were looking for a single excuse to buy a new video game console and racing wheel and spend the entirety of this holiday season in pure gaming bliss, we're sorry to report that the long awaited Gran Turismo 5 isn't it.
Update: The review has been updated with Kazunori Yamauchi's confirmation that there is no mechanical damage in the current version of the game, and that there is no "unlocking" of damage.