After a five-year wait, memories of the previous fully featured Gran Turismo game have begun to slide into the realm of nostalgia. Nostalgia, of course, has a rose-tinted hue, and it’s this which threatens to throw Gran Turismo 5’s flaws into sharper relief than they deserve. In reality, Polyphony Digital’s biggest crime is one of inertia; the most infuriating problems here are structural quirks buried deep within the DNA of the series, and as the sheer bulk of content borders on the unmanageable, they simply become harder to forgive.
Gran Turismo’s spider-web of menu screens has always felt daunting, and as more elements have been bolted on to the periphery, it’s become positively labyrinthine. Usability isn’t the priority here, and the biggest casualty is the much-anticipated online mode, which is mired by design that insists on running counter to the established norms. There’s no invite system, for example; instead you have to manually send friends written invitations to join your ‘lounge’. The social networking options allow you to post on a Facebook-inspired wall, view activity logs, donate cars or directly mail friends, but there is no option for mass mailouts or event organisation. Polyphony promises that the GT5 community features are at an embryonic stage and will be refined and reworked in a series of patches, and they certainly need the attention.
It’s all the more galling because with 16 players in a race, clumsy AI removed from the equation, and Gran Turismo’s remarkable physics engine at work, there’s the potential for spectacular competition. The number-crunching going on under the bonnet is the game’s most notable triumph, making Gran Turismo 5’s handling model a significant asset. In previous instalments cars tended to suffer either from excessive grip, allowing for cornering speeds that wouldn’t look out of place on a Scalextric set, or catastrophic understeer that saw you inexorably gliding towards the outside barrier.
Gran Turismo 5 has defibrillated the rear end of its vehicles – they now squirm under hard braking, drift out if pushed beyond the limits of adhesion in sweepers, and with a deft touch can be caught on enthusiastic corner exits. There’s a proportion of Gran Turismo players who are happy simply to pitch themselves against the Nurburgring’s hallowed asphalt in an attempt to sculpt the perfect lap, and with the leap forward in vehicle dynamics, that eternal quest will be all the more rewarding.
Challenge the AI, though, and traditional GT rules apply. Driver skill takes a back seat to turning up with the correct equipment for the job. In all but the highest echelons, the key to success is often as straightforward as fitting race-spec slick tyres to your vehicle – the night and day dƒifference in grip usually converts almost any car that meets the entry requirements into a potential winner. This assumes you’re at a high enough level to enter the race in the first place, of course.
In previous games, as long as you had the requisite licence and a car that met the entry requirements, you could enter any race. GT5 keeps a much tighter rein on your progress, with an RPG-inspired levelling system that restricts you not only from certain events, but from purchasing certain cars until you have earned enough experience. Rather than adding depth, this artificial throttling of progress only makes the traditional GT grind more arduous, not least because the rate of progress slows as you ascend the ladder.
As a distraction, GT5 offers a series of special events. Ranging from karting races through to NASCAR driving schools, and encompassing a tour of locations in Switzerland and Italy, this is where the game demonstrates that the throbbing engine at its heart is capable of remarkable variety. NASCAR in particular reveals itself to be a unique and exhilarating challenge, with a juddering violence that isn’t evident in any other category.
The biggest break from tradition, though, lies in aesthetics. For a series that has long been committed to astonishing levels of fidelity, Gran Turismo 5 can be remarkably unappealing. The 200 or so premium cars are genuinely stunning and, as a result, the game attempts to steer you towards them wherever possible – which is hardly surprising, given that the standard models are of noticeably poorer quality to the point that their wheel-arch textures reveal crude pixellation. The upshot is that the vast majority of vehicles in the game – and crucially many of the race-prepared models – can only be purchased when they happen to appear in the used car dealership. If you have your heart set on a particular model that isn’t available in premium trim, saintly patience is a requirement.
In spite of its foibles, by sheer brute force of content and an overhauled physics engine Gran Turismo 5 fulfils its primary objectives. It’s a virtual Matchbox collection, and much of the pleasure comes from shopping and tinkering, and then feeling the results as you push the car out on the circuit. But this is a production that feels increasingly aged in the face of modern game design. The creeping and eventually overriding feeling is that this meticulously precise simulation, and its lovingly constructed catalogue of automotive history, deserved a little more game to come along for the ride.