Big Brother is watching you smash into other cars

GT_Sport_logoGran Turismo Sport (2017)

Circumstances dictated that I never got to race my first car, which is a crying shame. Of course, as an antiquated VW Polo with less than a 1-litre engine, it wasn’t really going to inspire on the straights. Come to think of it, its propensity to leak power steering fluid meant it wasn’t a dream cruiser around corners either.

But when you’ve got that special, fire-forged connection between man and machine over several years, where you can communicate fully with your motor, it’s beautiful. You and your car can come together in beautiful harmony, through your hands for steering and gears, your footsies for the pedals, and your bum getting rattled about by the nasty vibrations. And then something deep down under the bonnet (sorry, ‘the hood’) fails, and the car turns around and breaks your heart.

The Gran Turismo games boast quite a few vintage motors in their lineups, although sadly my car (Kylie) wasn’t to feature. I suppose the game must impose a minimum brake horsepower requirement of at least 10 BHP on any car in its roster, not to mention that the tyres can’t be baldy and the car must be at least taxed and roadworthy. Honestly, they’ll do anything to keep you from racing, those promoter bureaucrats.

Still, Gran Turismo Sport took an interesting and initially quite controversial approach as the latest entrant to the series, not quite having the audacity to call itself Gran Turismo 7 just yet. GT6 was little more than a padded update of the seminal GT5, and to be quite honest, 5 had more than enough content (a thousand cars, one for every scratch on my car) and had enough graphical prowess, customisation and challenge to keep me interested for an extremely long time. The only conspicuous disadvantage of sticking with GT5 is that the online service and its well-supported, constantly evolving range of online events had come to a close.

Online play? Who wants to waste their time on that? Seemingly every Gran Turismo fan in the eyes of Kazunori Yamauchi, the long-suffering front of the GT development team. When GT Sport was announced as the PS4 successor to the Gran Turismo lineage, there was quite a bit of will-they-won’t-they about it being a fully-fledged Gran Turismo 7.

What we did know was that GT Sport was set to place a huge emphasis on online play, so much so that you can’t even save your game without being online. So there is always that risk, however minute, that your internet may give out a bit and lose you some progress. Or if you’re in the back-end of nowhere, you won’t even know what an internet is.

This is the era we’ve headed into now unfortunately, where games can become nigh-worthless once the servers do a bunk. Initially the game launched with very little to it as well, severely lacking many tracks, notable cars and even weather systems and day-to-night time progression that previous titles had.

And obviously, any mention of putting a damage model into a Gran Turismo game brings frustrated murmurings every time it’s brought up in the Polyphony Digital boardrooms, and the luckless grad who mentioned it subsequently disappears.

GT Sport represents dangerous territory for the series and for gaming in general: the Games as a Service model. Of course, it’s well and good for me – even though I immediately registered no interest in the game on release thanks to its online emphasis, it could hardly fail to grab my attention when I walked into GameStop and it was €9.99, reduced from €59.99.

Yikes, could it really have been that bad? Was it a money-hungry leech of a game, €600 if you want all the cars and tracks kind of deal? My PS4 came with a really terrible affair called DriveClub that tried to extort me so badly it was like having a girlfriend. Had the exalted Gran Turismo fallen to this sort of depravity?

Not so. While all of the die-hard fans spent the first few months complaining about the always-online aspects, the highly reduced number of cars and the two tracks they had available, irritating pests like me can grab the game cheaply one year later and launch right into it, with quite a lot of content already added and surely more on the way.

What makes me happiest about the game is that there’s now a fairly robust 1-Player mode, with challenges similar to the infamous Licence Tests, as well as a Driving School. Added to that is a really great mode called Course Experience where you tackle the game’s tracks section by section and learn your way around them, striving for the fastest time. It has to be said that these single-player challenges are notably on the easy side: you may get a few sticklers here and there, but I’ve been getting all Golds quite easily and I’m hardly Graham Hill.

A later update to the game saw classic GT racing series like the Sunday Cup added to the game, making the whole thing a lot more like Spec-A mode in GT5. You don’t get as many gift cars, of course, but what you will get is a heap of credits to spend on new cars, as well as Mileage Points for tuning, Distance Driven for daily workout challenges, and Experience points for driver level.

Sadly, when you buy a car in the dealership (and more sadly, you can only buy new and not run oil changes on old bangers etc.) you’re given the chance to pay for it with real cash, though this can be turned off. The use of microtransactions here at least isn’t as cynical as other games, notably that DriveClub guff I mentioned. Still, best of luck getting together the 20 million credits for the Jaguar XJ13 through honest graft alone.

Let’s get to the supposed selling point, the online racing. Really, you’ll be waiting around for several minutes as the next event gets started, so you’re not constantly behind the wheel here which is a shame. If you’ve arrived in good time, you can set a qualifying lap. Your laptime there stands for as long as the event is running. You get a warm-up, which curiously is not long enough to complete even one lap, and then the free-for-all begins

Now I should mention two things here: firstly, pretty much my only experience with online racing is via the PS3 and PS4 Formula One games, where there is an almost guaranteed Srebrenica massacre on Turn 1. Assuming you’ve come out of this awful conflict with all four wheels intact and your neck where God intended, you’ll start to see cars lagging, flitting in and out of existence and going back to the future.

Even if you smash an opponent’s priceless F1 car to bits, you’ll probably only land yourself a 1-second penalty. Maybe 5 seconds, which is usually debilitating in real-life F1, but when the standard of driving online is reminiscent of kids charging about in those red-and-yellow Fisher Price cars, five seconds is easily managed. It leaves very little incentive to drive cleanly, so long as you don’t smash up your front wing in the process.

This brings me to my second point; GT Sport’s attempt to redress this online doctrine of mutually assured destruction by attaching an etiquette rating to each player’s profile. You’ll start off with a B grade for online behaviour, which is constantly monitored as you drive online. Every sector you drive through, every corner really, and any entanglement with fellow drivers, it’s all scored by the great computer and put as a mark for or against your name.

To be honest, I get a bit intimidated racing online. What if I’m the almighty pilchard that ruins everyone’s race? I decry other F1 players, but I’ve smashed the place to bits on Turn 1 as well, and although I’ll never see or even hear these people (thank God for mute) I’m left suitably embarrassed. Now I’m being watched every second? What if the GT Sport developers find out? Could they come to my house and stomp on me? Revoke my licence?

Of course, strictly speaking I’m nowhere near qualified enough to critique games like GT Sport or its competitors like Project Cars 2 or Assetto Corsa. After all, I play exclusively with a controller, the only steering wheel I ever owned having been a cheap cast-off that had its left gear paddle broken off and also a brake pedal that didn’t work – great for NASCAR, good for naff all else.

I’m also not currently insured to drive any vehicle and my own vehicle is moreorless off the road. Although crucially, I do have a full licence which means I can do whatever I want on the roads as long as I haven’t sniffed a barmaid’s apron in the last 6 weeks.

The driving mechanics and physics have been refined, and I don’t mean in the same way that FIFA or Madden get “refined” over the course of a year. The cars here feel far less rigid than in GT5 and their characteristics, especially around corners, are more prominent. There are no ‘standard’ cars in the game which means that although the car count is far lower, you can do proper cockpit views rather than staring at black shapes. And of course, the more soaky anoraks can really get in there and fine-tune the car, saving their setups as they please.

Added to the mix and in keeping with the series’ love of grandiose details are editors for race gear, helmets and car liveries (although no course editor as yet), and an interesting Museum feature that offers a dual timeline of motoring history twinned with advancements in other aspects of human science and pop culture.

There’s also the usual heaps of information about the several manufacturers in the game, which includes the long-awaited arrival of Porschuh. Not forgetting a very well-received VR function, which I haven’t tested myself as VR is more gimmicky than the Wii. But players agree that, especially in combination with a good driving seat and wheel setup, the experience is as close as you can get in your home.

For those initially put off by the seeming lack of content and the apparent over-emphasis on the online aspects, don’t be. There’s never been a better time to buy the game, and with improved AI, plus a two-player split-screen mode, there’s plenty of cars to race against before you even tussle with the Nigels and Clives that win every race online.

And quite naturally, the graphics and sounds are even better than before with no screen tearing either. It almost makes me want to get out there and race my Polo around the streets of Dublin. But no way would I actually do it, not unless the constantly watching Big Brother of online etiquette can keep an eye on the fools clogging up our roads.

9 November 2018

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