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Official Review: Gran Turismo 5

Be sure to click images for high res versions, even this one!

Gran Turismo has always been considered the king of console-based simulation racing. For years, it’s had one of the most realistic physics engines in racing (although not perfect). Gran Turismo 5 was originally rumored back in 2005 at E3, with what was actually Gran Turismo 4 with more cars and rendered on a PC (the video was titled Vision Gran Turismo).

Inevitably, it was believed that GT5 was on its way, but as time passed, and with multiple delays and a general lack of information (until about last year), many had given up on the title, and the series, overall. Even a few weeks before the early November launch, the title had been delayed again, though it has released within the same month anyway.

So now that we have our hands on the long-awaited racer, the question, then, is whether or not the wait was worth the time. Keep in mind, I might come across as a bit harsh, and will have some negative things to say, but I still love the game and my score might seem out of place based on what my words make it out to be, so keep that in mind.

[tab:The Negatives]

I don’t know where to begin exactly, since this review has quite a bit to cover, I suppose I will start with the initial release problems. With the expected long full-install time, I finally got to the opening movie and,eventually, the menus. Since the game tracks you through the internet the whole time, the servers needed to have a good connection, so with the servers being overloaded initially, single player gameplay was also affected, making load times through the menus take a very long time at points.

Luckily, those issues haven’t come up since and everything loads pretty quickly, but with the huge number of connections being made at one time, Polyphony was, obviously, not prepared for it. As it stands now, though, the connection has been really strong for me, so gameplay hasn’t been affected nearly as much.

With those initial launch problems out of the way, let’s first focus on some of the bad things. For starters, the ‘Standard’ model cars. These are, essentially, recycled cars from past Gran Turismos. The models themselves aren’t bad, but they could have, at least, updated the head and tail lights from being skinned to being modeled. Race cars, with all the decals and logos, could have also been re-textured, since those look way too last gen.

It’s not a game killer by any means, as the exhaust notes and engine/transmission noise seem to have been updated (as well as the physics), but if you use exterior camera views while racing, it does kind of cheapen the experience (especially since other racing games, like DiRT, NFS, and even Forza have raised the bar of graphical expectations in this genre). As for me, I tend to use the nose view on the standard models and the cockpit view for Premium.

What I would love to see happen is, since we got GT5 out of the way, getting these standard models on par with the premium models. I’m hoping GT6 will be the result of that. Even GT3 (the first title on the PS2) had some fans turned off since it seemed to take a step backwards in a lot of aspects (compared to GT2), but more than made up for it in GT4 (in my opinion anyway). GT3 released a year after the PS2 launched, though, not 4. I just hope we won’t have to wait, yet, another 4 years for GT6 to come out.

Now, another negative would have to be the tracks. Variety is decent (a lot of past mainstays and other good tracks are missing, though, such as the Seattle circuit and the Grand Canyon rally), but the tracks look pretty bland. The crowds still aren’t very lively (and if you get a look at trackside onlookers, their graphical quality is about the same as GT4), and the textures and trees still seem to be a few years behind what we’ve seen in other, more recent, titles. In all honesty, I think Forza, a 360 exclusive, looks a bit better in the way tracks look.

The overall graphic quality of the game is still your standard Gran Turismo (as in you look at it and know it’s a GT game). The bad part is that other games have evolved in ways to look better than GT does. Look at DiRT 2 and 3, and compare the visuals of those, and past GT titles, to Gran Turismo 5 and it becomes quite evident that the look hasn’t improved all that much.

There are some obvious repeating textures on track walls and cliff sides, and I have also noticed some shadow problems, especially on standard model cars. One of the bigger graphical disappointments/issues, for me anyway, was the tire smoke. For some reason, it pixelates the car model if it passes over it, leaving for some ugly, blurry jaggies, and makes taking a burnout photo hard because it can, essentially, ruin the shot (it happens with the rain kicked up by the tires, too).

And one other weird problem I noticed. For some reason, when starting the game on controller slot 2 and then switching it to 1, half of the button inputs don’t work. I had to use the analog sticks for throttle and brake instead of the R2 and L2 I switched it to when I bought the game. If this happens, quit the game and make sure you’re on controller 1 before you go back into it, as switching it to slot 1 while in game does not resolve it.

Oh, and one quick tidbit, there is a face tracking option using the eye, but it’s hit or miss. I have a beard, and it will track my face every once in a while, but, mostly, doesn’t work right for me (might work better for others).
[tab:The Positives]

With the main problems out of the way, I’m now going to focus more on what makes the game good. To start, the premium models look amazingly good. It’s unfortunate that not all car models are premium, because these things look amazing. I did see some jagged shadows on interior views (the whole shadowing system, I think, needs reworked), but the overall quality was through the roof.

Once you start racing at 200MPH, the screen will shake, which is more realistic than the blurring effect in other games, to give you a sense of speed. One of the improvements I would like to have seen would have been what happens when you wreck a car. Out of all the racing games I’ve played, I think Need for Speed SHIFT has the most impacting interior view when you wreck. You black out and the screen gets blurry. It disorientates you, and is quite effective at it, and it looks cool, too (and with the added “oomph” of the driver, it adds to the effect).

Speaking of wrecks, this is also the first time the GT series has had damage. What’s nice about it is that it is definitely dynamic. Even in a pic I took, I didn’t notice any damage until I looked at the reflections on the shiny surface, and where there was some obvious damage. Given that fact, if you do wreck at 200MPH, not too much damage takes place (though, if you hit something just right, you can flip the car, even multiple times).

I think this is mainly because the damage you accumulate stays between races, and you have to go to the GT Auto shop to have the fenders and chassis fixed, which takes up a LOT of your credits (my Challenger, which doesn’t look damaged much at all, will set me back 80,000 credits to have it fixed). Imagine, now, if the damage system was more realistic and the price to fix a car up stayed the same. That’s why I think that was more of a design choice aimed more at playability than realism.

Weather effects in this game look really good. Rain and snow do a very good job of enhancing your driving experience. Wet roads and snow, of course, change your car’s handling (and some cars take a lot of finesse to get under control, especially front engine, rear drive vehicles). The windshield wipers can clear your view for a second or so after they pass by during the storms, so you won’t have full view of what’s ahead of you (and when it rains, especially, it can get very hard to see what’s in front of you, so you always have to be careful).

The only thing I would have liked to have seen was more freedom/choice in making rain or snow permanent on a track instead of dynamic. I believe you can in arcade mode, but not from what I can see in GT mode. It’s not an issue, it just would have been nice to have that option.

Photo mode is back as well. In fact, every picture used in this review was taken by me in the game. You still have a lot of professional options for the photos, and a few more filters than what was in GT4 (I don’t know if prologue had a photo mode or not, since I never played that one). If you have standard model cars, you can’t use those in Photo Travel unfortunately, but can still take pictures of standard models in races.

With premium models, on the other hand, you can take some really amazing and beautiful shots; and with the freedom to move the camera and car around the set (more-so than in GT4), you can get some near-perfect ones to boot. I love the fact that you can, essentially, “walk” around the ‘set’ and look for the perfect spot to take the shot from, and then move the car over to that said spot. If you can place the car just right, it looks really good. The variety in locations is pretty lacking (and are highly detailed), but more unlock as you play, usually when you complete an entire race series.

Exportation of images is a little drawn out, though (it works similar to other games). You export the photo to the XMB, and then load them up onto a flash drive or memory card, and download them onto a PC, then upload online. It would have been nice if GT had a more integrated online component that allowed users to upload their photos directly from the game to their online profiles to download later (like what Forza does). That, and being able to upload replays to You Tube would have been awesome, but nothing.

One of the coolest new additions is the addition of a Course Creator. You can set the number of sections (up to 7), location, complexity and width of the track and sections. You don’t have total control over it (such as number of turns or complete freedom over the actual layout), but if you don’t like the layout they give you, you can press a button, which shows you other layout options. The ones I make are pretty complicated, and even one of my 3-section tracks is over 5 miles long. The only thing I don’t understand is why you can’t race your tracks online (even though you can share them with friends).

The biggest draw for the game will always be the physics and the realism of the driving. If you turn off all the assists, it’s definitely got a highly realistic feel to it. Banked turns still allow you to go into them at speed, and maintain them. Slamming on the brakes will spin you out of control (especially if you try to turn the steering wheel while doing so; sometimes you don’t even have to do anything), and flooring the throttle in the lower gears will spin your tires (especially in high-horsepower applications).

Of course, with a racing wheel, everything has, yet, an even more realistic feel (I reviewed that wheel stand last week, which I use with a Logitech Driving Force GT). I have a handful of high powered cars and a couple of them take a lot to get under control or a lot of skill to drive properly. I still have to work with the suspension to get them to handle just right, though (speaking of which, tuning parts is pretty much the same as in past games, but there are some mini-tutorials on the settings that better help you understand what a change will do to a car). I’ve yet to manage a flip-over, but they can happen.

One of the best physics aspects in the game is drafting. I think this game, to me, was the first to actually make it essential. I will say I have a new respect for NASCAR, since drafting is absolutely needed in those races. Get out of the pack and it becomes evident that you won’t be able to keep up with the other cars (since they’re all the same because of strict guidelines in engines, body style and weight). Even in regular evenly-matched races, you need to master the technique in order to win. Another thing to add is that it also affects your aerodynamic downforce, which could make you lose control when turning or not have enough, depending on the car.

If you’re more into managing racers, you can create up to 6 of them and build up their driving levels by telling them what to do in the races (you can give them a random name and also select the racing outfit (which are similar to the ones you choose for yourself when you first start the game), too). Since this mode doesn’t have as much of a hands-on approach, I haven’t spent too much time on it, but from what I have played, it does seem pretty responsive to commands given, but if you push your driver too hard, especially in the lower levels, he or she will make a mistake. Until your drivers have higher driving levels, though, try to stay away from giving them overpowered cars. I learned that the hard way.

Now, the AI seems to have been improved vastly, but I’ve still noticed some predictable and/or stupid behavior here and there, namely in the Special Events, where the main goal is to accomplish a specific task with specific cars (namely overtaking goals). Every time you start one of those events, the other cars follow the same patterns every time, so mastering them is more about recognizing those patterns than it is anything else. The biggest problem with that is sometimes the other vehicles will still try to follow their patterns and run into you, causing you to wreck or get disqualified, which means you will, then, have to restart.

Gran Turismo TV makes a big appearance this year, offering a collection of videos relating to cars, and some even from specific shows and/or events. For now, there are mostly free videos, but the prices seem to be about $2.99 for a few of the show videos. One thing I noticed is that a few of them seem to have been installed on the HDD, probably from when you do the full installation at the beginning (or they might have been played off the disc, I couldn’t tell). The video quality is decent, and is a pretty cool feature for those into such shows or car culture.

As for the soundtrack, some of the songs fit, others don’t. I don’t really pay attention to the music all that much, but it still seems like your standard GT fare. The nice thing is, though, you can also use your own custom music off of the HDD. Pop on some good old classic rock and driving music, you’re set. You just can’t play it while you’re playing online (which will be covered next).

The online component is about the newest addition, and there are a lot of features packed into it, too. To start off, you can easily gift cars, car parts, and museum items (the museum allows you to look at car history, mostly from different specific manufacturers; you unlock these by logging in daily) to friends. You can also share cars, photos and created race tracks with friends, too (but, for some reason, as I mentioned earlier, you can’t race your friends on your tracks).

Currently, it looks like not too many of my friends are sharing anything, but I have about 4 courses and a handful of photos (most shown in this review; I will try to update them periodically with new shots). Sharing cars doesn’t allow you to use them in single player races (except for arcade mode), and they only show up in your friends’ races on occasion (according to the in-depth manual in the game).

You can also send messages to friends through the game as well, and even write comments on their profile, kind of like commenting on someone’s wall on Facebook (except it has a character limit like Twitter). The logs are also on there, which shows off you and your friends’ single player racing achievements (such as winning an event, unlocking a trophy or attaining a license). The community aspect within the game is pretty strong, but more people need to get into using it to use it to its full potential.

There is also something called My Lounge, which lets you basically run your own private server between you and your friends. My Lounge will be what we will use for Race Nights. Though I haven’t found anyone to use it with, the options and everything are the same as a public server (I was able to join by myself to check it out).

The game automatically tests your bandwidth, too, giving you the best settings for the network environment. For me, my optimum settings are 12 players, very high voice quality, and high race quality. Voice chat in the very high settings is crystal clear, too, but if you don’t have a head set, there is also text chat (but I wouldn’t recommend using it during an actual race :P).

The server options are pretty straightforward, as well as in-depth. You have the option to limit the race to specific makes, limit the use of driving aids, limit horsepower and minimum weight (something new from a recent update) and change the tracks. Although you can’t choose any car from your garage, you are able to select up to 10 as your favorites so you can both easily find them in single player and use them online.

Once you have all the options set up, you can either jump into a race right away, or you can just drive around the track until the race actually starts (if you want, you can even spectate races). While in the race, the game seems to have a collision system (with other cars) that is dependent on the speed of the impact. If you’re going to rear end someone and are going way too fast, you will pass right through them. If you simply bump into another racer at similar speeds, the game registers the impact, since it won’t necessarily make your crash (in other words, the dicks on the track won’t/shouldn’t be able to force you to wreck).

For me, the online experience has been pretty solid and is definitely a strong point with the game (from the looks of it, international races work, too, but server quality might suffer). Even if you aren’t running your own server, when you go into the Open Lobby, it gives you a server list and the quality of the voice and race and how many people it can hold. If you join a server with a race already in progress, you can choose to spectate it then, too, and wait until the next race. When we do tournament race nights, I will be spectating those and adding up points for different places. This will make it easier for me to spot cheaters and unsportsmanlike conduct.

2 payer, head to head split screen is also supported for those who like to play with people in the same household. From what I can tell, though, a LAN setup like the PS2 and GT4 had is not supported, but with being able to play online, you should just be able to join up on the same server anyway.

Gran Turismo 5 undoubtedly has some problems to sort before we can get to GT6, but even with those problems in the way, the game, overall, is still a great experience and is still one of the best options for if you want realism. Even though most of the game’s models are standard (premium models are the best in any game, though) and the tracks seem rather bland, the racing is still among the best I’ve played.

Could I see things that need improvement? Of course I can. In fact, most people can find flaws in any game on the market. Given that, even with my love for many other racing series out there, Gran Turismo has something about it that keeps me coming back for more, and I don’t know what it is. I’m not complaining, though. With the new community features in the game as well, I will likely be spending even more time with this one.

Until Gran Turismo 6 comes out, this is definitely the best simulation racing game you can get on the PS3. Hopefully GT6 will learn from other franchises and include things like a custom livery system (I mean, doing a race modification gives your car a racing livery, but you can’t change anything but the number and paint color), high-impact wrecks, better shadow and particle effects; stuff that made the other simulation (and simulation-esque) racing games great. Add those in with the simulation and precision of the GT series, you will have yourself the perfect racing experience.

With that said, I still recommend this game.

[review pros=”Physics are nearly spot-on
Improved AI
Weather effects look good
Premium models are excellently detailed
Improved sense of speed
Dynamic damage modeling
Able to ‘walk around’ in photo mode
Course creator is a nice addition
Ability to race mod a car
Online play is excellent
Strong community features” cons=”Standard cars should have been worked on at least a little
Obvious repeating textures in some tracks
Track selection missing a few classics (Seattle Circuit, etc)
Some tracks are bland
Some particle effects make car models look weird
Can’t give your B-Spec drivers custom names
Race Modded cars are very limited and expensive
Only 8 photos can be shared with friends
Can’t use custom tracks online
Can’t choose from entire garage online” score=86]

This review is based on a retail copy of the PS3 version of Gran Turismo 5 provided by Polyphony Digital.