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Kazunori Yamauchi's latest opus pulls out of the showroom as Sony hands us over the keys...
Good things come to those who wait, or so they say. It's a proverb we'd hoped would ring true for Gran Turismo 5, a game that's been in development for over five years and continually pushed back from one vague seasonal release window to the next over the last couple of years. Perhaps Kazunori Yamauchi and Polyphony Digital's most phenomenal achievement is that they've actually been allowed to develop a game for so long - in previous generations, whole videogame consoles would have come and gone in the same time that it's taken this one game to be developed.
And even now, with the game finally making its way out into the wild, there's still more waiting to be done. Loading screens really are unfathomably long, while installing to the hard drive is an hour long process that still leaves extensive load times in its wake. The wait continues on into GT5's online component, which seems to take an age checking network environments or joining lobbies, while some post-release bugs haven't exactly helped matters either. Gran Turismo is a game that will try your patience then, but the real question is whether it's all worth it in the end and the answer to that is yes, but only just.
It's still the most visually impressive driving sim out there by a comfortable margin; the amount of content on offer easily trumps any other driving game in terms of sheer size, variation and quality, while the series retains its trademark motophilia that lavishes pornographic levels of attention on the metallic curves of its lovingly recreated vehicles. It is, as it always has been, a car collecting game that puts the focus squarely on acquiring vehicles and experiencing the thrill of driving them rather than racing them per se. Yes, we know that the vast majority of content in GT5 features races against AI vehicles, but once again these AI vehicles are about as aggressive as Mahatma Gandhi and feature as mobile blocks of Styrofoam more than they do tangible race competitors.
The actual 'racing' in the game is more about buying the right vehicle for use in a particular championship and then using additional modifications in the garage to keep your car's pace above that of the AI pack. If you're playing Gran Turismo as intended, then furious battles in-between the front-runners shouldn't really come into it - it's much more about a challenge between you, your car, and the race track. To that aim, GT5 delivers to the same high standards of all its predecessors. The sheer joy of purchasing a '95 Toyota Celica WRC car or modifying a Nissan GT-R to ridiculous proportions is still unrivalled anywhere in gaming and will happily sate the appetites of hungry car enthusiasts more successfully than ever before. Still, those expecting a racing game might be disappointed, and justifiably so to be honest.
While the introduction of damage modelling is tastefully applied to the range of 'Premium' cars in GT5 (over 200 cars in total), it doesn't really have a knock-on effect with any of the gameplay at this stage (although that may be subject to change). Precisely how far this damage modelling goes from one 'Premium' vehicle to the next is then a touch inconsistent as well - some only go as far as minor scratches; others can incur sizeable dents - while it's perhaps not quite as dynamic as we'd hoped either. Damage will appear on the specific pieces of body panelling where an impact is made, although the extent of that damage doesn't really reflect the force of a collision (even on the more dentable vehicles). Generally speaking, frequency of contact rather than intensity will determine how much damage is done, while the animations do appear to be a bit canned at times (we've seen our Lamborghini Gallardo's bumper come loose in precisely the same way on numerous different occasions).
Where visual improvements are concerned though, the undeniable stars of the show are GT5's in-car views (arguably they're the stars of the whole game). Following their introduction in GT5 Prologue, Polyphony Digital has now retained this painstaking eye for interior detail and applied it to all of the 'Premium' cars in GT5. Subtle camera work that transfers the illusion of inertia and speed particularly well then makes these in-car camera angles more than merely pretty - in fact, you'll be robbing yourself of much of what makes GT5 great by opting for an alternative view. All of the new environmental additions, such as rain, snow, and night time races, have then been translated incredibly well to these in-car views (although, ironically enough, viewing wet or snowy races from the behind-the-car view can result in some fuzzy and even broken visual effects at times).
The weather effects certainly deliver on the gameplay front though, proving GT5's simulation prowess once again with a thoroughly believable loss of grip (driving on marbles is a famous motor racing phrase that comes to mind). It'll be no surprise to fans of the series that GT5 is as intently focussed on vehicle handling as it always has been, with a wide variation in driving experience from one car to the next and handling that changes convincingly as you add new parts and modifications to specific vehicles. Particularly worthy of note are some new additions to the Gran Turismo fold such as karting and NASCAR, with the karting in particular proving to be freakishly lifelike (to be honest we've never actually driven a NASCAR, so that could be just as lifelike for all we know). Whatever the case, there are whole videogames that are focussed solely on these specific types of motor sport that still don't do as good a job as GT5 manages on a whim.
Perhaps the most original addition to GT5 is the new Course Maker, which allows players to take an existing blueprint for a circuit in the game and customise it according to a number of parameters including the number of sectors, track width in each sector, corner sharpness, and complexity (i.e. the number of corners). Once you've entered values for all of these variables, the Course Maker then processes a new sector of track for you. While we're a bit disappointed that the system doesn't have quite the hands on editing control that we'd hoped for, it's still decent enough to have a mess around with and see what you can conjure up before taking out your most prized car for a test drive or race around it.
Beyond all of this, there's still oodles of content to get your teeth into, more cars than you can shake a stick at (over 1,000 apparently), and a wide assortment of imagined and licensed tracks. It really is as big as a driving game can get really, with enough races, championships, and Special Events to keep you beavering away for far in excess of 50 hours if you want to achieve the Gold trophy in each one. The B-Spec mode returns from previous GTs and, as before, there's little appeal to it beyond accruing some extra cash when you're making a cup of tea or, in our case at this very moment, writing a game review. As it was in Prologue, Gran Turismo TV is also on hand with both paid-for and free video content from the world of motoring should you wish to indulge. When you're tired of all this, there's 16-player online multiplayer to keep you happy as well.
Admittedly the online component of GT5 has had a bit of a battering in its first 24 hours of exposure. Still, Kazunori Yamauchi has been quick to assure fans that the multiplayer will go through an ongoing process of evolution in the coming months, which is news to our ears as the offerings are a bit embryonic at this stage. Promises of online matchmaking, leaderboards, and more stringent restrictions in races need to be delivered by Polyphony Digital if this portion of the game is to achieve any significant lasting appeal. The development team might also want to look at adding a few more race modes as well because the offerings at the moment are fairly straight forward and bare, with only conventional and 'Shuffle' races on hand to mix-up the action.
Other blemishes on the game are evident in its visuals which, although genre leading and closer to photo-realistic than pretty much any other videogame series in history, still remain on a par with the graphics in GT5: Prologue when we'd hoped they would be a slight improvement. GT5 is certainly no more graphically impressive on a technical level than Prologue and perhaps ever so slightly less. Maybe it's just the increased number of cars on track or the sheer amount of content that's been shoe-horned onto a single Blu-ray, but subtle visual effects such as shadowing have definitely been turned down a notch from what they were in the Prologue edition. Still, we're more than happy to trade-off blockier shadows for new visual features such as damage and weather.