Gran Turismo 5 (2010)
Oh, how I love racing games. I see them as one of gaming’s purest tests of skill; when done right they are a wonderful mixture of patience, focus and control. Game series like F-Zero, Wipeout, Formula One games and the less item-infested editions of Mario Kart can serve up a choice of well-handling racing, or frantic crash-heavy rampages. Taking risks, keeping concentration, and outfoxing challenging opponents to get across the line first is an attractive design for a video game and always has been, at least for me.
But those are futuristic racers, kart racers or heavily specialised racers. What about Gran Turismo 5? What about this more realistic effort (or “The Real Driving Simulator” if we’re going to be official)? The Gran Turismo series has always earned great praise for its realism, graphically and in its gameplay. Of course, the PlayStation 1 and 2 entries are going to have less appeal these days; impressive though they once were, they were always going to be shown up by the constant forward march of technology, rendering their respective consoles obsolete. Such is the folly of a game series that tries to emulate reality. Even if graphical improvements in games will provide diminishing returns eventually, we will take a look at the latest entry to the Gran Turismo series in absolute terms, just short of two years since its release. We will see how it stands today and whether it can leave a lasting legacy.
If you aren’t aware, Gran Turismo 5 is a racing game with an emphasis on realism, where you attempt to win races against cars of a similar type (typically 8, 12 or 16 cars per race). There are no grands prix or indeed any structured one-player mode based on points – instead you are given several categories of racing competitions with certain car requirements. Examples include events for early 90s Japanese cars, 1960s supercars, or European rally cars. The variety is such that you’ll be swapping through cars often, and buying in new additions to your Garage that fit the bill.
More accurately, you will fancy the look of one of the categories and decide you want to enter, only to find that none of the motors currently in your possession are eligible. No problem. You’ll head to the dealerships, either the official manufacturers or the second-hand one (disappointingly not represented by a Cockney villain in a sheepskin coat). With the remarkable amount of choice available to you, you’ll quickly find and buy from Arthur Daley a cheap car that you can use.
Having endured the gross and multiple loading times, you’ll then probably enter the race with your new wheels, and find it to be decent but not quite good enough for the rigours of serious competition i.e. finishing first or even second – no matter how good a player you are. So you’ll go to tune your car up for that extra edge. You will discover that, for absolute peanuts, you can bolt all kinds of turbochargers and gear shifting systems onto any one of the games formidable tally of 1,000+ vehicles. You might not know what each upgrade does, you might not have even heard of a drivetrain (I sure hadn’t) but so long as the brake horsepower and the Performance Points of your car increases, that’s all you’ll need to keep up with.
Anoraks may delve further into the car’s performance, adjusting the aerodynamics of the car, fine-tuning the gears or fiddling with the brakes, all without getting one’s hands dirty. Having driven one car in my life for about forty minutes I couldn’t confidently tell you if these minute changes throw up a realistic if subtle effect but what’s important is that an impressive degree of customisation is available, even if most players need not concern themselves with any detail beyond how quickly the car runs. In this game, all money spent is good money, so long as the numbers go up. Even a change of the oil can transform your car from a laboured, clapped-out wagon to a dream-mobile.
Once you and your souped-up, high speed deathmachine have returned to the track from which you retired in ignominy minutes previously, you’ll most likely blister past the competition by the first turn. This is where the game’s difficulty becomes skewed, and the game becomes hampered somewhat. Of course, if you’re going to ram your car full of all sorts of modifications, the standardised AI cars will quickly become also-rans. So to instil a bit of difficulty in the game requires some discipline on the part of the player. Tune up your car a bit, but not too much, and the challenge returns. The trouble is that you’ll be swapping out your car of choice so often as per the one-player mode’s requirements that you’ll not want to waste the time making your car a fair contender. Far quicker to just buy a second-hand car on the cheap, boost its BHP by a hundred for a spit in the bucket, tear up the competition with some smart driving, and move on to the next series of races. For this reason the game can become a bit tiresome and repetitive after extended periods of play.
Of course, it is not strictly fair to attack the game for challenge if a player decides to buy every advantage they can, but micromanaging each car to be fair to the faceless AI competitors is far more trouble than it’s worth. The AI in the game isn’t great. Sure, they get around the track alright, and on harder difficulty settings they will leave you for dead if their car holds a decent advantage. But they seem seldom aware of your presence, which you can use to good advantage by thrillingly crashing off them to aid your turning as you attempt to smoke them on the first bend. Every cloud. The AI cars are never fitted with any modifications to match changes you have made to your own car either, which is a shame. It is, after all, a racing simulator and only that – therefore if Gran Turismo 5 is to excel it will have to provide innumerable variety and customisation to constantly renew the experience and keep it fresh.
The game achieves this, with a selection of over 1,000 cars, 70 tracks (some of these are simply night-time versions of other tracks, a bit of a con) and several game modes. To the game’s great credit, there is huge diversity in the racing choices: you can choose to go kart racing, supercar racing, mini racing, NASCAR racing, Formula One racing and so many more. To cater to these cars are courses from all racing disciplines, including many of the classics such as Monza, Monte Carlo, the Nürburgring Nordschleife, Circuit de la Sarthe, NASCAR ovals and original Gran Turismo tracks like the Autumn Ring. If those tracks lose their appea, then you’ll be kept happy with one of the best features of the game, the Course Maker. The Maker does not allow full control over the track’s layout, which is unfortunate, but you can at least control the complexity and angle of turns over the track’s separate segments. Somewhat limited though the Course Maker is, it is fun to see and test what shapes the game throws out.
Pick a car out of any released over the last 20-30 years or beyond and there’s a good chance that it’s in this game, or at least a very close variation of it – with the exception of Porsche cars, conspicuous by their absence due to licensing issues. Rather predictably, it is Electronic Arts who have the stranglehold on the Porsche sublicense. I have not yet driven one thousand cars, in real life or in this game, but I am informed that the sound of each car’s engine is absolutely accurate and recorded directly. At least the 200 or so premium cars are, premium cars being those vehicles chosen to be modelled as realistically as possible, whereas the other 800 standard cars are updated versions of existing models from Gran Turismo 4 and Gran Turismo 5 Prologue (a sort of holdover game released cheaply as the full Gran Turismo 5 was being worked on, useful as the full game took over five years of development). In particular, the interior, chassis and upholstery of the standard cars are not quite as fully detailed as those selected as premium cars, which might trouble those who like to use the behind-the-wheel camera angle during the game.
Though that might seem disappointing, personally I’m not very bothered – the cars all look fabulous to me. They presumably handle with state-of-the-art physics, reminiscent of the real thing. The game certainly does reward real life racing techniques. Not only that, but such is the attention to detail that apparently each car’s ignition sound is the genuine article. Intense attention to detail I think stands greatly to a game and always should be admired. Detail is the bread and butter of simulation games and, happily, Gran Turismo 5 is chock full of that.
Let’s take a look at the game modes. The main one-player career, entitled GT LIFE, can be divided into two distinct modes: A-Spec and B-Spec. Simply put, A-Spec is the bulk of the game. You are given 20,000 Credits (the game’s currency) and told to buy your first car. From there you will race in the Beginner series of racing competitions before moving up to the Extreme and Endurance categories. Placing well in races earns you additional Credits as well as Experience Points, which contribute to the player’s Level. Better cars and tougher races are only available to players with correspondingly high Levels, ensuring a natural progression in the game. Of course, like any game with RPG elements, the system can be grinded if one can withstand the tedium long enough. It’s a compelling way to keep going, as even if you swiftly earn enough Credits for the likes of the Pagani Zonda R or the McLaren F1, you’ll need the Level to match. Unfortunately, as mentioned previously, the ease in gaming the system by tuning up any car to near monstrous levels reduces much of the challenge and reward, but racing fans will immensely enjoy the A-Spec events for a time, even if cars must be constantly changed to meet the individual competition’s requirements.
In comparison to the bulk of the A-Spec mode, the B-Spec mode is simply laughable. In this mode, you “manage a racing team”. By this the game really means “watch your AI representative win”. Who wants to do that? It is not team management proper, management like Football Manager or NHL Manager, but rather you looking at somebody else race around the track as you try and fail miserably to derive enjoyment from it. Throughout the race you can “manage” them to victory, which literally entails telling the hollow shell behind your car’s wheels to drive faster; imbeciles or more sporting players can instead tell the driver to go slower. Of course, as you’ve already been sneaky and applied all manner of modifications to your rocketcar, the race becomes a whitewash anyway, even if the clown you’ve put behind the wheel spins out frequently. In fact, the driver starts off even worse than you probably were upon first playing the game, or any racing game for the matter of that. More RPG elements come into play here, with your driver improving their skills after each race provided they did well. But those aren’t enough to entice you into simply watching the game play out. You might just as well invite a friend over and watch them win races and improve their skills, while you self-consciously murmur encouragement. Don’t you buy games to play them?
Elsewhere there are Special Events, which put the player in a variety of challenging situations, such as racing Volkswagen Samba Vans around the Top Gear Test Track or beating out others in a spot of go-karting. Most of these Special Events are exercises in frustration, with disqualifications common for slight crashes into opponents (at least most of the time; sometimes cataclysmic smashes go unnoticed by the game) but become necessary to those brave few willing to unlock every car in the game. The infamous Licence Tests also return, putting players in mini-scenarios such as turning a wet corner in as quick a time as possible, also with the view of unlocking more cars. As is to be expected, these events are also sadistic in nature. Other than that there are the usual time trial and arcade modes (i.e. free run mode, where you can race any track with any car against suitable opposition, once you’ve unlocked the car in GT LIFE and taken the strangely necessary step of adding it to ‘Favorites’).
The multiplayer was a much anticipated feature of this iteration of Gran Turismo. Locally, you are restricted to two-player split-screen, a limitation which I always abhor. The online fares far better though, with 16-player races available and an online community which still thrives and probably will for some time. In my limited foray online, I found there to be no lag at all and that races, based on the player’s level, were quite even – so long as the player’s car was up to it.
Also worthy of comment is Gran Turismo TV, a high quality video delivery service which displays original videos and programming regarding cars and circuits around the world, as well as commercial programmes such as Top Gear. It may be overlooked by most players, particularly with the Internet and YouTube as a whole available, but it can perhaps provide interesting content to some, and it is a fascinating idea.
The game’s graphics have been considered a bit of a mixed bag by those who demand a lifelike look at all times. Certainly the cars all look fantastic, inside and outside, or at least the premium models do. Lighting effects, shadows, weather and night and day aspects, they all look beautiful and never distractingly gamelike, which is no mean feat. The game can sometimes drop frames with the smoke effects from skidding, crashes and large pile-ups but things generally run very smoothly. The road, grass, gravel, tires and turn apexes all look fantastic, especially with the sun bearing down upon them.
In a racing game, I think it best to look at the graphics in two ways: when you’re stopped, and when you’re whizzing past them at 200 miles per hour. Upon slowing down and scrutinising the graphics, you’ll find that some of them may not be so impressive, in particular the buildings. But nothing ever jumps out as being a lazy effort, and it all looks great in motion. You can stop the car in Monte Carlo and take a look round the buildings, perhaps finding them to be a bit below par. But zoom out of the track’s famous tunnel in an Aston Martin DB9 and tell me that the game doesn’t look seriously impressive. By today’s standards the graphics still look very well, especially among other home console games.
MUSIC AND SOUND
Gran Turismo 5 is one of those games which allows the player to play their own tunes instead of the game’s selections, which is a great plus. It’s a wonderful feeling hearing Duran Duran belt out as you slam modern supercars through the city of Rome.
Even with that option, the game doesn’t relent or rest on its laurels musically, with a wide range of licensed music from the likes of The Hives and Queens of the Stone Age present, alongside some snazzy jazz music for the menus, my favourite being “The Power of GT”. Music that plays during the races is a little limited, so maybe it will prove best to add a few numbers of your own, once you figure out the convoluted method.
As previously mentioned, the sound effects of the cars as they drive, collide, brake and skid all sound magnificent, with suitable alterations if the engines are turbocharged, if the cars are being driven through a tunnel or through the rain. Many stops were pulled out in the development of this game, and the sound effects were certainly not neglected.
PLUSES AND MINUSES
+ The luxurious attention to detail, underappreciated but certainly not unnoticed by oafs like myself. Car aficionados or even just car owners will feel fuzzy as they hear the familiar noise of their favoured car’s engine in-game. Notwithstanding the difference between standard and premium cars, every car and track is diligently reproduced with great care.
+ Though a tad limited, Course Makers really make a huge difference to the lasting appeal of a racing game. With various selectable themes, times of day and weather effects, the Course Maker present in Gran Turismo 5 will throw up more prime tracks than you might think possible.
+ Each and every car is not just crowbarred into the game as a basic model but instead can be painted hundreds of different colours and modified in varying ways. And not only that, but all cars are given a detailed history and biography, and many more real-life pictures and articles regarding cars are viewable besides, by way of unlockable Museum Card items.
– The loading times tend to be fairly obnoxious. If you have a massive 8-10 Gigabytes free on your PS3 you can install many parts of the game onto the hard drive, which takes something ridiculous like forty minutes. Even after doing that, I found there to be a negligible difference – you’ll still be staring at the letters ‘GT’ for a nauseating amount of time.
– The Special Events are not particularly fun, often hamstrung by how easy it is to be disqualified from them. Indeed, to unlock many cars in the game requires the player to excel in the Special Events or the Licence Tests, two feats not dissimilar to climbing Kilimanjaro or becoming a chess grandmaster.
Gran Turismo 5 is very much the type of game that can be turned on on a whim one day and suck your afternoon up, as you gleefully explore the game’s terrific variety. Then, rather quickly, you will grow weary of the futility of it all and shelve it, before the hankering to play the game returns a few months later.
It is a game that ultimately does achieve what it sets out to do, and that is to imitate the real life experience of racing (or does it? How can fools like I, or even most people know this unless they believe the “experts”?). Of course you won’t forget that you’re playing a game, not with the bog-standard AI and the distinct lack of personal risk to one’s head and limbs. But the cars, the engines, the scenery, it’s all really good. Once Polyphony Digital equally develop the actual game aspect of the package, in particular the one-player modes, only then will we have a masterpiece on our hands.