Gran Turismo 5 Review
Gran Turismo 5’s long awaited release is finally upon us, and though Sony’s hype machine would have you believe otherwise, it is not the event it has been hailed as. Upon starting the “cutting edge” sequel, you’ll immediately be greeted to an optional installation screen which explains that nearly everything in the game will have extended loading times and performance issues if you don’t, but that the install will require 8GB of space and “may take some time” -- some time meaning upwards of an hour. That’s an hour that you have to sit and watch the game install before you can press start on the title screen.
Once you’ve overcome the game’s first major hurdle, you’re on to making sense of the lackluster menus. Whereas Codemasters has paved the way for sleek, intuitive, multi-tiered user interfaces with DiRT and F1 2010, Gran Turismo 5 is a collage of C-grade projects from an amateur Photoshop class. Aside from the vehicle selection it’s not particularly cumbersome, it just doesn't do Polyphony’s alleged “best of the best” image any favors.
Anyone who has played a previous Gran Turismo will feel right at home. Too much at home, really, as despite a handful of new features, this is typical GT fare as it has been for nearly a decade. You start out taking your National B license test, a series of brief challenges assessing your ability to stop after a straightaway, draft behind rival cars, overtaking, and turning. Once you’ve completed all 10 you’ll earn your first license and be able to enter Amateur events.
Screen: It's difficult to find an "official" screenshot that looks anything like the game I actually played.
As you complete events you’ll gain money and experience, the latter of which allows you to access new events and features, eventually working your way up to the Extreme category. You can buy cars from the dealership new, or scour the used lot, but the best rewards come from earning medals (usually all gold) in events and license tests. In World of Warcraft, you might receive a belt or new sword for completing a quest, but the coolest thing about Gran Turismo has always been receiving a brand new car for your efforts.
Yet, this is where Gran Turismo 5 really begins to show its true colors. Sony has long highlighted the 1,000+ catalog of vehicles, as well as new features such as damage modeling, but the reality is that much of what this game promises only applies to about 20% of the content, if that. Standard cars, which make up the majority of the game’s roster, have very limited damage models and completely lack the detailed interior views (or interior views of any kind) found in Premium cars. It’s like if only 20% of the fighters in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 had special moves; it just feels incredibly disingenuous, similar to promising the ability to upload replays from YouTube and then quietly removing that feature right before launch.
Another technical shortcoming is, surprisingly, the visuals. Although certain elements occasionally border on photo-realism, as a whole it’s very obvious that you’re playing a game: trees resemble cheap cardboard cutouts and banners and signs look like untextured blocks. The entire lighting and reflection engine in general is woefully archaic, and while Gran Turismo 5 may recreate a virtual Honda Civic like no other, many other racing games have long surpassed this overall quality of aesthetics. Weather effects are particularly unrealistic, reminiscent more of a Tom & Jerry cartoon than an intense rally race. And again, these features only apply to a small portion of the total stages to begin with.
Though Polyphony may be proud of their vehicle models (deserved or not), their characters are laughably bad. Without warning, a virtual Jeff Gordon pops up on your screen and starts talking about RPMs while the terrible lip-sync attempts to catch up to what he’s actually saying. If you weren’t pulled out of the immersion by everything else that’s going wrong, this off-putting and mildly creepy encounter will certainly do the trick. Were these characters modeled by the same person who picked the soundtrack? Is a member of the development team having a laugh? If so, no one else at Polyphony seems to have caught on.
As far as gameplay is concerned, the AI is downright atrocious, an unacceptable flaw that has lingered unaddressed since the franchise’s inception. Opponents will bump and rub into you as if you don’t exist, unexpectedly spinning you out for no reason. In many races you’ll be able to use the brain-dead AI to your advantage, forcing your way to the front of the pack early on with nefarious methods (T-boning the pack leaders instead of properly cornering, for example), then blocking them from overpassing you for the rest of the race.
Special events are a bit more difficult as you’re forced to use specific vehicles and hitting cones, opponents, or driving slightly off the course will all get you disqualified. The AI is, annoyingly, immune to disqualification, though they will often do things the game would otherwise deem illegal had you done it. One event had a bunch of VW wagons driving a figure-8 course and no matter what I did, I could never close the distance between myself and the top six drivers. Yet, in other events I was almost lapping opponents before the finish line.
After countless iterations and research, Gran Turismo still fails to “simulate” the actual experience of driving. The speed and intensity and feeling of high performance vehicles is simply lost upon Polyphony. Other games do certain tricks to capture what I'm referring to, such as camera shaking or superb sound design. I may not have driven in a real NASCAR event, but I have taken various Corvettes and tuners for spins on test tracks. I’ve also completed Gran Turismos 1-3 to 100 percent completion, and at the very least, I’d expect some sort of evolution in the game’s handling. It was far from perfect to begin with, and it’s not gotten any closer over time; you can still bounce off the rubber walls of the track like bumpers on a bowling lane, all while the game's new damage system sleeps on the job.
Despite all of the game’s flaws, of which there are many, I have to say the most blatant offense is the B-Spec Mode. In A-Spec, you are in control and race every event yourself (as is to be expected). In B-Spec, you’re merely a passenger, managing a virtual driver through all of the races and events featured in A-Spec. The potential for an intriguing, highly technically experience is here, but to witness the AI first-hand reveals how utterly broken and lazy the game truly is. No matter what you tell your drivers to do (pace up, pace down, keep pace, overtake), they always drive horribly. They don’t block other drivers, they never overtake anyone, and they slam on their brakes with even the slightest indication that a turn is coming or the person in front of them might be slowing down.
To see everything the game has to offer (and especially to collect all the trophies), you’ll need to get a gold in every B-Spec race, which is hard enough when you were actually doing competent driving yourself. But, to slowly level up your mongoloid AI driver so that he’ll stop making mistakes that no real person ever would, and start taking at least third place, is the complete opposite of fun. I barely even want to play the game myself; I sure as hell don’t want to sit here and watch the game suck at playing itself. And, to kick you after all your hard work, once your driver reaches a certain experience level he will be considered over the hill and begin to lose stats, at which point you'll be forced to retire him and start all over again with a new one. No. Thanks.
There is a great deal of content here; undoubtedly the most ever found in a racing game. But, Polyphony has clearly opted for quantity over quality, and no matter how hyperbolic the back of the box comes off I find it extremely telling that a game that’s been in development for at least five years would ship so unbalanced and so lacking in polish. The developers seemingly reside within a bubble where no other recent simulation racing games have been released (including, apparently, Gran Turismo 4). Thanks to studios like Codemasters and Turn 10, a revolution may be occurring within the genre, but it has nothing to do with this obsolete franchise.