Review by Vamphaery

"True to the longstanding Gran Turismo formula, GT5 lives up to its title: The Real Driving Simulator."

DISCLAIMER: This review is the subjective opinion of one person. The most important review is your own.

INTRODUCTION:

Gran Turismo 5 has been a long time coming. After six years and possibly as much as $100 million USD (although $60 million was the last publicly avowed budget, nearly a year before its release,) Kaz Yamauchi's magnum opus driving simulator is finally here. It arrives with no small amount of controversy.

Many reviewers and gamers have lamented the lack of visual homogeneity between its “premium” and “standard” car models, the two-dimensional trees and other peripheral details of its tracks, its lack of extensive livery customization in the vein of games like Forza Motorsport 3 (arguably its closest competitor,) and its initially minimal damage modeling. These are all valid criticisms of the product, particularly if what you're looking for is a simulation-oriented videogame. However, in my opinion, that isn't what Gran Turismo is or sets out to be.

Gran Turismo 5 is a full on, no holds barred driving simulation. While you can race in it, and the racing is often challenging and extremely competitive, even that is almost secondary to the simulation of driving and the encyclopedic love of all things automotive on display here. It remains true to what Gran Turismo has always been: a driving simulation with immaculate attention to detail and visually impressive cars. It is not a crash simulator (although there is damage modeling,) a tree simulator, or a tech demo for the PS3‘s graphical capabilities. It is Gran Turismo as you've always known it, with perfected and utterly faithful driving and handling physics.

In short, Gran Turismo 5 is what it says it is: The Real Driving Simulator. Nothing more, and nothing less. If you want or expect something more (or less) than that, then prepare to be disappointed. This is not a videogame. It is a true simulation. It doesn't care whether you think its trees look three dimensional or real, or whether you think your ability to drive should be destroyed by mechanical deformation (although this does eventually happen late in the mode.) It just wants you to experience real driving in its 1,000+ cars, and to feel the real differences - sometimes subtle, and sometimes vast - between them. And you will.

GAMEPLAY: 9/10

This is Gran Turismo through and through. If you've ever played any iteration of the series before now, then you know what to expect.

You begin with 20,000 credits. Enough to purchase a starting car of your choice, depending on availability, price, and - new to the series - your XP level. You begin at level 0, so your options are limited. Nevertheless, you can still make an informed choice to get off on the right foot. If you know you prefer AWD cars, you can find one. If you know you like a certain brand, provided you can afford it, you can get one. It won't be the most glamorous ride, but it will get your foot in the door.
From there begins the longstanding Gran Turismo trademark grind. You play beginner races, earn money and XP to access better cars (or upgrades for your initial clunker, should you be so inclined,) and gradually learn how to feel out, drive, and tune your cars. Dealerships offer premium cars that are always available if you have the cash and sufficient XP to access them, and the used dealership rotates inventory after every race, ensuring that you never know what might show up. And as usual, the variety and amount of content on hand is enormous.

45 events - arranged in difficulty tiers (beginner, amateur, professional, expert, and extreme) - each with up to six races. Multiple unlockable special events, including NASCAR and kart racing. Road races, dirt rallies, snow rallies, night races, tracks and events where day becomes night and vice-versa, and tracks featuring rain storms. 70+ real world, city, and fictional tracks. 1,031 cars. Endurance races, at least two of which last 24 hours. In real time.

Yeah. There is a hell of a lot to do in Gran Turismo 5. And because you have to level up now to access many of its events, you will be playing for a long, long time. Even longer if you plan to master a large variety of its faithfully recreated (and handling) cars. And ultimately, that is where Gran Turismo 5 is at its strongest: its cars.

This is as close as you will ever get to perfection in handling and physics on a console. Every single car in the simulation handles like the real thing (or as close to it as humanly possible,) The tracks - regardless of visual fidelity - are as detailed and true to reality as you will ever find in terms of their feel and driving challenge. When you consider the fact that this simulation features well over 1,000 cars and that they all handle differently, as well as the physics involved in every minor tuning tweak you make being faithfully represented in the handling and power of the car - its weight distribution, its oversteer or understeer, its grip, etc. - this is a truly remarkable achievement in software development.

The challenge level ranges from “you'll probably consistently win if your car is anywhere near sufficient” to “you better have a wheel and even then you will lose regularly unless you're picture perfect with you're cornering, no matter what kind of car you have or how souped up it is.” Fortunately, for those somewhat automotively challenged, for every ounce of realism and challenge present here, there is also - if you want it - a gradual, careful learning curve to help you master this deep and for some overwhelming simulation experience.

The suitable for all levels of skill license tests are back, but this time around they aren't mandatory. They are invaluable for teaching you basic driving techniques such as the “out - in - out” cornering, “slow in, fast out” turns, and braking timing. You can get by with bronze, challenge yourself with silver times, or try to perfect your driving in these tests by going for the gold trophy. To get gold in these tests, you have to be perfect to an almost superhuman (or at least professional driving) degree.

There is a driving line which can be turned on or off, which shows you the ideal line to follow, when and how long to break, and helps you know when to floor it or gently work the throttle around hairpin curves. In addition, there is a healthy supply of driving aids - everything from active steering and traction control to anti-lock braking - that you can turn on or off, and even adjust the severity of. Between this and the license tests, anyone with enough determination and time can learn to drive in Gran Turismo 5.

The dichotomy between so-called A-spec and B-spec modes returns in this iteration of the series. A-spec is where you conduct your “career” for lack of a better term. You buy cars, upgrade them, and go through the various tiers and events. B-spec mode, as in previous iterations, is where you manage a driver (or drivers) through races as they gain XP and become better drivers.

There isn't much to B-spec mode, but it is a fun and diverting (and at times challenging!) experience if you are willing to put some time into it. Managing your driver's mental status (stress level) as you direct him to speed up, slow down, maintain, or overtake, is a fun challenge that you will be fascinated by if it's your cup of tea. Even if it isn't though, B-spec mode does have one invaluable benefit.

You can use your A-spec mode cars (complete with any tuning changes you make) in B-spec mode, and see a remarkably - surprisingly, to be honest - array of telemetry as they drive. To the observant player, this can reveal a wealth of information about your car's performance and handling, and what impact your tuning alterations have on it. You can learn a lot here, and use that information to improve your car for A-spec mode. It's just another example of how this sim gives you more the more you put into it.

Weather can and does affect the handling of your cars. Snow, rain, and dry conditions all feel decidedly different, and having the right tires has a huge impact on your ability to drive. Having rain tires on a wet track means you'll be able to handle at least somewhat similarly to sports tires on a dry road. But if you use the wrong set of tires for the wrong conditions, your handling will accordingly suffer, sometimes severely depending on the car and track.

Lastly, but critically, a word about the opponent AI. Many have said that the cars simply follow a line, crashing into anything in their way, the consequences be damned. This is not at all true in my experience. Cars strategically draft, choose the best line they think they can get away with, and aggressively try to pass you and block you from passing them. Granted, if they are choosing an optimal line for themselves and you intrude upon it, they will make contact with you. Why anyone would expect anything different though, I don't know. The AI is not designed to simply let you get away with prohibiting them from taking an optimal line that can give them an advantage. And if you get in their way, they are going to make you suffer the consequences. While it is certainly debatable as to whether or not this is what real drivers would do, it is not in question - at least in my mind - that this makes GT5 more challenging and satisfying. (At least to this driver.)

GRAPHICS: 8/10

This is one area where GT5 is something of a mixed bag. At some point in GT5‘s development, it was decided that there would not be sufficient time to model every single of its 1,031 cars as “premium” (the hyper-detailed, almost photo-realistic cars with full interiors.) The majority of the cars are “standard,” which means they lack a true interior view, and have a lower polygon count than their premium counterparts. What's amazing is how great these “standard” cars actually look. If all of the cars looked like the “standard” cars, I would have actually been more than satisfied. They look excellent by my standards. The “premium” cars on the other hand - of which there are just over 200 - look immaculate. These cars are so detailed, inside and out, that at times you feel as though you're watching footage of real cars driving on the Nurburgring.

As mentioned in the introduction, the peripheral adornments on the tracks are not the most spectacular examples of graphics you've ever seen this gen. Trees are flat, two-dimensional sprites. Some tracks themselves are blurry and splotchy. But the attention to detail, and more importantly, the personality and feel of the tracks - especially when weather is present - are intact and as true as anything ever seen on a console.

The tracks come to life under varying weather conditions. Rain makes the roads shine as the sun emerges from behind the clouds, while during storms your windshield wipers will be necessary to see at all. And at high speeds they still might not save you from horrible visibility. Snow kicked up from cars in front of you will obscure your view in anything but third person, but if you want the challenge of realism the interior view is where it's at in my opinion.

Visual damage is somewhat limited, at least initially. It has been widely debated as to whether more extensive damage opens up when you reach a high level, or just at higher difficulty tiers. What is for certain though, is that early on, damage modeling will be limited to minor deformations and scratches, and later expand to much more pronounced fender benders and mechanical damage. Invisible, simulation-related damage does occur however. Your engine gets damaged and worn out over time. Eventually your car will begin to smoke, at which time you must rebuild the engine. Likewise, body deformation, which affects rigidity and eventually handling, is gradually incurred over the course of the experience. The cost to repair this is always the same, regardless of degree, so even minor deformation will carry a high cost. Accordingly, it's best (and only necessary really) to wait until your handling is suffering a great deal before spending the credits on this expense.

GT5 is not visually homogenous, but it does what Gran Turismo has always set out to do: provide a realistic and super detailed looking driving simulation, both in terms of cars and tracks. And when it's at its best, it's as amazing as any visuals you've ever seen. And none of this detracts from the central premise of the product for me: driving simulation.

At the end of the day, the lack of evenness in GT5‘s visuals is one of the greatest indictments of the PS3 hardware design yet seen. Sony's decision to use Cell architecture and a 2x speed Blu Ray drive instead of more familiar, easier to develop for hardware and a faster standard DVD drive has long been regarded as being responsible for the challenging development environment developers so frequently lament about the platform. I can't help but think that after six years on any other more familiar, easier to develop for platform, GT5 would have been arguably more homogeneous and complete.

The head of Sony Computer Entertainment once stated, “We don't provide the 'easy to program for' console that [developers] want, because 'easy to program for' means that anybody will be able to take advantage of pretty much what the hardware can do, so then the question is what do you do for the rest of the nine-and-a-half years?”

Call me crazy, but this reviewer feels that the “rest of the nine-and-a-half years” could be spent building on the foundation of truly complete, more quickly developed products, like Gran Turismo 5 could have been on such a platform.

AUDIO: 9/10

This simulation's audio is, in my opinion, superb. Cars sound like their real life counterparts, and every tuning alteration you make is faithfully reproduced. The sound is lush, full, and detailed. Bump into a cone on the right side of your car, and even without a surround sound setup you will hear its location not only on the right side of the car, but audibly “feel” that it is hollow and external. These kinds of details are what make the simulation feel real. The sense of position, space, and the differences between interior and external sounds are so immense that one can't help but feel GT5‘s sound design was handled by people who actually drove these cars and “felt” what they sound like.

The soundtrack is equally diverse and comprehensive. You will find examples of just about every genre and style of music that you can imagine here. I have been hard pressed to hear a song repeat itself thus far, and that is saying something, as I've played for hours at a time. Furthermore, with some effort, you can create your own custom soundtrack and enjoy your favorite driving tunes as you perfect and master your cars and tracks.

PRESENTATION: 9/10

One of the chief complaints about GT5 from many quarters has been its menu interface. Frankly, I simply disagree with that assessment. This is only my personal opinion, but by my standards the menus are intuitive, sleek, and pleasant to look at. In GT mode, their look and feel is customizable to a certain degree as well.

The menus are deep and detailed, by necessity. However, in my opinion, they are not at all overwhelming or obtuse to use. Even the much maligned online interface, especially the private “My Lounge” found in the community section of GT Life mode, is very usable and sleek looking. This is just an example of differing standards and tastes, ultimately, but if you're put off by people's appraisals of the menus, I recommend trying them out for yourself first before passing on GT5. You may find that they work and look great for you. I did.

ONLINE: 8/10

This is another area that is a mixed bag to a certain degree. The private “My Lounge,” which people on your friends list can join and which allows you to tailor races to your specifications - including (since a recent patch) power and weight limitations - works great in my opinion. It gives you as much control as you need over your experience, including a free driving option that allows everyone in the lounge to learn the track and ensure that their cars are tuned properly for the race ahead.

The more general online multiplayer is a bit more opaque. You can't set up private rooms in this mode (although My Lounge already serves that purpose,) and you basically have to wait for people to join your room, or join the existing rooms on the list. It does at least tell you what bandwidth the host of a room has (as well as your own bandwidth and NAT type.)

Lastly, in a great addition, you can gift cars to friends online and vice-versa. This a great way to give someone a car they haven't found in their used car shop (since they rotate at random after every race,) that they couldn't afford, or that you'd like them to tune up for you if you aren't as experienced as other drivers. The only drawback - and it's a potentially severe one - is that you will sometimes encounter connection errors, possibly permanently losing the car you were attempting to send. When this happens, you must use the PS button to exit GT5 without saving. If you back out of the menu, an auto-save will occur, and the car will be gone.

All in all, this is the best that online functionality has ever been in a Gran Turismo product, and in a simulation that is already an amazingly faithful recreation of reality, being able to race against human drivers just further enriches the product as a whole.

CONCLUSION/FINAL SCORE: 9/10

At the end of the day, how you feel about GT5 will depend on what you expect and demand from it. If you want a fully featured videogame with all the bells and whistles, you may find yourself disappointed. But if what you want is what Gran Turismo has always offered - a truly realistic and detailed driving simulation - then there is nothing closer to achieving that description on a console than Gran Turismo 5. If you love the Gran Turismo series, have been disappointed in the past with more streamlined and dumbed down products, and want a realistic, challenging product that lives up to the subtitle “The Real Driving Simulator,” then Gran Turismo 5 will be like heaven for you. It's as close to perfection in a console driving sim as we are likely to ever see this gen in my opinion.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 12/06/10

Game Release: Gran Turismo 5 (US, 11/24/10)


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