Booting up Gran Turismo 6 for the first time is an uncomfortable experience. After the painfully slow day-one update download and melodramatic intro sequence, you’re immediately forced to spend 17,000 credits on a Japanese hatchback that you almost certainly don’t want and then thrust onto a track that, in the wake of Forza 5, looks decidedly underwhelming. But then you reach the first corner and Polyphony’s reworked suspension physics reveals itself. No racing game has ever felt like this.
Cars lean dramatically away from apexes; wheels independently retreat into their arches when they hit rumble strips. You can feel your vehicle’s weight shifting over the front wheels as you brake. Damping, anti-roll bars and centre of gravity are more than just abstract numbers being crunched behind the scenes: now you can see the effects of any adjustments. The result is transformative, bringing GT5’s already exceptional handling alive in a way that makes revisiting old favourites, whether it’s the Integrale, NSX or Skyline, a consistent pleasure, while making every other car game – Forza 5 included – feel flat in comparison.
GT6’s handling is so good, in fact, that you won’t mind being forced to start out with nothing to your name again, despite having amassed five considerable car collections over the course of the series’ 16-year lifespan. But the refreshed physics model can’t take all the credit for dissipating a little of that growing Gran Turismo fatigue; Polyphony has shaken up the game’s structure, too. GT5’s contrived, RPG-inspired levelling system has been cast aside in favour of a more generous, and more open, setup that showers players in amusing distractions and new vehicles.
The career mode is split into six series, from Novice through to Super, and makes superb use of the generous selection of tracks as you progress. Kart, dirt and oval racing are mixed in with city and circuit events across real-world tarmac and Polyphony’s own creations. The main events are bolstered by Coffee Break Challenges, Mission Races, One-Make and Special Events.
The quick-fix Coffee Break Challenges task you with such feats as knocking down as many cones as possible within a time limit, or travelling as far as you can on one litre of petrol. Mission Races ask you to overtake one or more opponents over the course of a single lap or segment of a track, while Special Events include a trip to the moon in the Lunar Rover and invites from Lord March to drive exotica at the Goodwood Festival Of Speed. One-Make trials require you to own a specific car to participate, but all of the other events provide a welcome opportunity to sample machines far beyond your financial means early on, even if driving on the Moon is somehow even less enjoyable than driving your Prius in the Hybrid Cup. Awkward filler aside, the sheer range of driving experiences on offer is dazzling.
Bizarrely, progression through them seems to have been inspired by Angry Birds, with a three-star scoring system for every career event. One is awarded for mere completion, irrespective of your final position; a second is earned with a podium finish; and the third is reserved for crossing the line first. Earning half of the available stars in a series will win you a car, with another one given when you mop up the rest, while additional events and the licence tests are opened after only ten or 20 stars (the tests are rendered even more patronising by making an appearance well after you’ve put a few races under your belt). The system is simple, but it works perfectly in a game whose chief pleasure is driving. Being able to progress regardless of your performance means you can focus on GT6’s remarkable handling model, and removes the previous games’ onus on fighting your way through a lifeless grid. Gran Turismo is suddenly significantly less daunting, and you’ll relish the prospect of almost every new race.
If only your opponents exhibited such enthusiasm. GT6’s AI drivers suffer from the series’ perennial lack of personality, looping the circuits in a predictable line and functioning more like mobile chicanes than competition. Occasionally, a puff of dust will erupt ahead of you as one puts a wheel in the dirt, but they’ll never do anything as dramatic as spin out, fight over a corner or roll over. Even so, they remain hypnotic to watch thanks to that spectacular physics model, functioning as a shop window for purchases as you imagine how their vehicles corner, accelerate and brake.
Unfortunately, knowledge of a particular model’s handling won’t help you to predict the best moment to overtake. While cars might look like they’re governed by the same rules as you at first, proceedings are really controlled by conspicuous rubberbanding. Front runners zip off during the first lap only to be found crawling around the third, diminishing any sense that your driving abilities are what determine your finishing position, not just your lap time. As ever, you can simply buy your way to success, too, by ensuring your car is as close to the top of each PP (Performance Points) band – which group together modified and clean cars with similar power outputs – as possible.
Except now you can invest real money into that endeavour. Coming so soon after Forza 5, the very existence of GT6’s microtransactions caused a stir, but Polyphony lives up to its promise that they provide an entirely optional route for cash-rich, time-poor players. GT6 is much less of a grind than GT5, and you’ll find yourself earning credits and prize cars quickly. The most exotic machinery still requires concerted saving, but you’ll spend a great deal less time feeling neutered along the way. And that wait is further mitigated by Vision GT, a collaboration between Polyphony and the world’s biggest car manufacturers – and even, oddly, the likes of Nike – that further broadens GT6’s vast vehicle list with a number of exclusive concept cars. These will be made available over time, but the first, Mercedes-Benz’s AMG Vision GT, is available right now for free.
Racing is much improved when you replace the lacklustre AI with human opponents, and while the twoplayer splitscreen mode is disappointingly limited, GT6’s online functionality has benefited from the fan feedback on GT5. Joining or creating a race room is simple and quick, and setting up a race or championship with whichever restrictions you want to put in place is much easier than before. Until the host begins an event, participants can spend the time getting to know the course and tuning up their car in an open practice session. If a race is already in progress, you can watch it till you’re able to join the session. Despite restrictions, it’s still possible to find yourself in a room up against much more powerful vehicles, and it is perhaps in this respect that the game’s microtransactions will prove irksome for those who prefer to earn their fleet.
Balancing concerns aside, it’s cheering to see that the online mode maintains the singleplayer game’s 60fps and native 1080p resolution. While it’s tough not to be disappointed by GT6’s graphics when compared to Forza’s blistering visuals, Polyphony has squeezed remarkable performance from PS3. It’s not a consistent one – the framerate drops during very busy moments, and the quality of trackside scenery charts the evolution of PS3 graphics – but the overall view is rarely less than pleasant. There’s still a noticeable divide between the premium and standard car models, the latter continuing to lack interiors, but there are far more premium cars this time around. GT6 looks its best during replays, where the game pulls the series’ trick of smothering everything in an additional layer of postprocessing, but it also serves as a reminder of all the compromises that may not have been necessary on eighth-gen hardware.
For instance, the loading times, which often keep you waiting the best part of a minute for your next race. They’re even more galling given the effort that has gone into streamlining the career mode, and sorely hurt the game’s pace. There are other missteps, too, such as the absence of any option to go straight to the next event (outside of championships) from the race screen. Even the Goodwood events, which take place on the same course, require you to return to a menu to select the next challenge. For all GT6’s improvements, Polyphony remains out of touch with many genre innovations.
GT6 finds itself in an awkward middle ground, both of generation and genre. Polyphony has produced a handling and physics model that is unmatched by any other racer, but failed to provide AI competition capable of showcasing it to its fullest. Playing against friends reveals a peerless driving simulation, but you’ll need to work your way through the singleplayer in order to get the most out of the game online. The alternative is microtransactions – a galling thought after all the hours ploughed into the first five games. GT6 feels like an almighty tech demo for a game yet to emerge from its fastidious science, one we’ve been waiting to play since 1997. Perhaps GT7, apparently due next year, will be that game. For now, we’re left with a driving sim that’s as close to real as any game has ever come.