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Gran Turismo 5 (PlayStation 3) artwork

Gran Turismo 5 (PlayStation 3) review


What will successfully create a sense of realism - and therefore immersion in driving games is very subjective, I think. Perhaps more so than with any other type of game. Maybe the viewport will bank and shake in exaggerated ways so the driver will “know” how the car behaves - even though the view when sitting in a real car will look nothing like it? Maybe the game will provide “TV realism” - which then the player will believe makes sense? Or maybe the game will mimic reality as closely as possible?

Obviously neither of those approaches are “correct” for creating a game that appears to the player as “realistic”. But since there are limitations on the currently available tech - the sense of realism has to be faked for the time being. It has to come through visuals and limited feedback from a controller device.

So the real choice for a simulation designer will be to decide to what degree a simulation can be accurate, while still appearing to be realistic to the user. In those terms, Polyphony Digital picked a complex and detailed, but subtle approach. Where the goal has been to not necessarily give you realistic visuals, or “realistic” looking feedback of various kinds - but to allow you to drive realistically with a controller device, and have the car in the game respond to you in a way you expect.

This is really what all the GT games has been about, even though they have become more technically intricate and prettier lately. So how well does the latest iteration fare? With online play (finally), limited damage, dynamic shadows, yet more intricate car-models, interior car view, tracks with faithfully recreated bumps and curbs that affect car-handling, and so on?

The Menus

My first impression is not very good. The menus are pretty, but slow and unwieldy. The functions are familiar enough, but instead of having instant screen-changes with some picture or pre-generated video displayed in the background, like in GT3 and 4, the menus now take a second or three to be ready after each screen-change. Either because a car model has to pre-loaded, or some online feature (that I do not use) needed to be updated, or something hidden is going on in the background. In truth the loading times are not too long. But the menus feel slow since the pauses are unexpected and random. Since you need to go back and forth around them every time you want to buy, say, a set of tires for your car - this suddenly takes a long time.

There are a few new navigation functions that are very good, though, such as the garage/car-selection screen. This is a side-panel of sorts - in the same “dashboard” look as the rest of the design - with tabs containing all your cars. (There are thumbnails here generated from the model, with custom spoilers and custom rims, colour, etc). And this menu can be called up ahead of races, online and offline, and sorted in different ways. In single player, or in official time-trials or races with power and weight-limitations, you can use this view to find the cars you own that qualify for the races. In online races the same menu is used to let you see “recommended” cars that fit the room’s restrictions, or your own cars you’ve marked as “favourites”.

But generally you get the impression that these new functions were added in later - after they figured out the menus became too messy and too difficult to navigate. In a nutshell, you can see the menu structure has been kept from the earlier games - but that the new design, when successful, simply circumvents that structure completely. And when you can do that - use the garage selector between races, or jump to “settings” to customize your suspension or brake settings on the race-screen, with the track running in the background - then the menus are relatively snappy both online and offline. When you can’t do that, and have to abandon everything, and navigate back to the main menu in order to buy a new spoiler, or a new suspension (either of which is found in two completely different virtual tuning “shops”) - then it’s a good thing the lobby-music is slow and relaxed, at least.

Unfortunately, the otherwise brilliant garage-screen is also slowed down when picking options that insist on checking variables online before continuing. And the way this is implemented (sync with server to check single variable, etc) will cause uneven pauses, even though you have no intention of actually selecting the online functions. This modularised way of designing the menus - with adding functionality to an existing panel - is also what creates small discrepancies between the menus in different contexts. When online the thumbnail-generator for the car-menu is unavailable, for example, along with all the other social functions such as sharing cars. And this creates a somewhat messy impression. Even though I suppose the obvious amount of work and care that went into creating it all will make objections like these seem petty at best, when you play the game and understand how it hangs together. Still - while the menus are functional for the most part, the impression is not as sleek as the graphical presentation in this case. And there are certain very notable functions that feel very absent at times.

Similar variable attention was given to the progression of the single player modes. From the beginning, you typically end up in a game where either your car will outmatch your opponents - or else you don’t have the right car for the entry. Meaning that you will need to race the available races - the ones that are not challenging in your current ride - to earn money enough to buy a slower car. In order to race the events you already won over again, now that they are more balanced and interesting. In the actual races this strange symptom continues - the cars that enter are wildly disproportionate in performance, which makes you very typically outrun the first field before the first turn - but struggle terribly to pass the last one or two cars. Which makes sure that in order to actually progress in the game, you will need to add so many upgrades to the car that you can comfortably race past everyone and stay in first place for the entire race.

And in a sense you are forced to go through with this if you want to be able to race customized versions of cars against others online - which again is necessary if you wish to make certain sports-cars match each other in performance, rather than end up mirroring the scenario from the single player. This is, simply put, not good game-design.

The way the ending credits unexpectedly unlock in the middle of one of your games, after a counter says you have started 100 races, simply serve to underline how random all of this really is.

Hidden Options

Fortunately, a patch has allowed you to earn credits while racing people online (with cars that are not yet available to you), so this does work out in the end - at least if you do play online. You should, however, expect to play somewhere in the vicinity of 90 minutes of straight wins to earn approximately half the amount of credits needed to purchase, say, the Zonda F, or any of the expensive racing cars. In a similar way, actually purchasing the historical racing machines, or the classic cars like the Lamborghini Miura or the one of a kind Jaguar that never made it to a real race (full with intricately modelled leather straps on the hood) - will cost you so many credits it is apparently not supposed to be possible to buy, unless you become a full time virtual driver. Which is truly a shame, considering the amount of work that went into modelling the exterior and interior of these cars. Instead you will only see it in inflexible external views for the entirety of the game, most likely.

There’s not even an event you can win to earn the car anywhere. It’s a sin!

Following this treasure hunting theme, the most interesting and diverse races in the game - such as a rally-challenge against Sebastian Loeb (with his own voice-over and driving) in his world-famous Citroën, or a driving academy to teach you the subtleties of racing on the Nurburgring’s Nordschleife, is hidden under a button called “Special events”. These unlock gradually as you race and gain levels - and could easily have been called the “main single player mode” without anyone reacting. This is also where you can find the Top Gear test track challenges (this is the track where the slalom and brake test licenses also happen on, just like in the program). As well as the unique multiple rally-stage challenges, with a rally-style map in the middle of the screen and delayed starts - or the tracks where time flows, or weather changes -- that afterwards are nowhere to be seen again in the game, ever again. Either in the online races, or in the single player campaign.

Other marvellous oversights like these include (but may not be limited to): a hidden switch in a sub-menu under options - controlling the “simulation/professional/arcade” settings known from the prologue (the game defaults to “arcade”, which forces you to drive in a particular way - very strange design-choice, just as the inclusion of driving aids such as ”skid recovery force”). Or, engine and body-kit upgrades (for these insanely expensive cars) that cannot be undone again to quickly balance the car to the other racers. Multiple interior colours for some of the premium models (what a shock - there’s no setting to pick the interior colour theme, but the game will pick a different one on a second purchase of certain cars - this interior theme then is stuck with you for the rest of the game, and can’t be switched out. Obviously you cannot actually view it from the inflexible external camera either). And of course - instruments on certain interior views that work better than the on-screen variants. But the game doesn’t let you disable parts of the hud to truly take advantage of this.

Another fantastic oversight, it is not possible to save different suspension and downforce setups for the same car. Truly annoying, when that option was present in the GT5 prologue.

To top this off, the work that went into the artificial intelligence in the game also was tremendous - in fact, it has it’s own game-mode called B-spec - but thanks to the setup with too different performance in cars, you will rarely be able to enjoy it when racing yourself. Other strange curiosities include that for a large part of the game - say, the first week of playing time - the AI abuses the mysterious arcade helping devices such as “skid recovery force” - an eminent way to ruin the game for any player - to display a very erratic driving behaviour with unexpected maneuvers. This will hopefully be addressed in a patch as well.

The Driving

The actual driving, however, is fantastic. It really is difficult to overstate this. The game keeps the subtle handling response from the earlier games, with the individually characteristic cars. I am not sure how they actually achieve this, other than by hand-tuning the feel and behaviour of each car by hand over the top of an advanced physics model. This is something you normally wouldn’t expect a developer to do - not for 1000 cars, at least, as well as so consistently well - for different drive-trains, different racing styles, and different surfaces.

Usually in simulation games there is a particular point where the simulation breaks - in GT5, that point is on high speeds in heavily modded cars, where the weight and the power of the car is far away from the stock version. The rest - on any surface, elevation, bump, in any car, all of this is suspiciously spot on. Honestly, I’m conflicted - I took a BMW I’ve driven to a dirt track, and it handled like it does in real life. I changed to an Audi with front wheel drive I’ve also driven. And again, the car handled and behaved in the exact way it actually does. It’s uncanny. I know what my impressions are, but I become skeptical out of reflex - a game simply should not work this well.

New to the GT series is also the interior view, included with the 200 or so “premium models”, which has a somewhat different feel compared to the clean full-screen view with the characteristic transparent instruments. Having gotten used to the full-screen view from the earlier games you will probably have some initial difficulties switching to the interior view and still racing fast. But it is too good looking to pass up. And once you get used to it, it offers a racing feel that essentially keeps the weight-distribution feedback from the full-screen view by subtly moving you back and forth in the driver’s seat. As well as giving you an impression of the physical punishment you get when sitting in a racing car, or when hitting a curb, etc. Further building on this is the suspension tweaks, and the way this directly affects the model’s simulation in the game - as well as how this changes the feedback in the cockpit. It is for example possible to create a racing car setup with very stiff suspension and heavy downforce - but then take the same car for a spin with a softer setup and different tires for a completely different experience. Which will be more or less effective on individual tracks.

In fact the simulation in GT5 has evolved a long way since GT4 as well as the GT5 prologue, until the racing is no longer as clinical as it used to be. In either of those games, driving at full peak at all times was not only possible, but also necessary - while in GT5, owing perhaps to the project director’s more practical racing experience since the start of the earlier projects, we are presented with a much more subtle model where driving at peak involves risk from losing grip and spinning out - where just a small slip of concentration means the race can be over. At the same time, the penalties from crashing as well as making “shortcuts” that would tear your suspension off - can be turned up, and are linked very artfully to the visual feedback when racing. The same for tire-wear and gas-use. At least online races become massively more interesting thanks to this, and will cause long and interesting race-duels - as well as replays that you will actually want to save and watch later.

In the single-player, however, you are limited to using the damage options in the arcade mode. A limited physical panel deformation is always enabled - but this is dependent on car-make (a licensing issue, perhaps?), and specific model of a car. It does become more pronounced as you level up. But initially the damage increase is also so slow that heavy, heavy crashes sometimes do not cause visible damage at all. Mirrors and glass never break, for example.

Still, the deformation on the racing cars, with crumpled spoilers and wings hanging off is visually very pleasing (as well as seen through the interior view if you’re hit badly enough) - so it’s a shame that this too is one of the effectively “hidden” functions in this game: it will literally take days of gaming time before it unlocks.

Meanwhile the amount of detail that went into recreating the Nurburgring tracks alone (one of about thirty unique locations) is mind-numbing. Every piece of graffiti, all the curious bumps, angles and elevation differences are there. And they all affect the car while you race, bringing the racing experience to a point where it does not only let you drive the car realistically - but also bring parts of what the racing experience is like back to you as well. In those terms, GT5 is a very successful simulation, and a uniquely well made one. Even when seen against direct competitors in a way that GT3 and 4, as well as the GT5 prologue, never really was.

The Dynamic Lighting

While not the primary focus of GT5, the visual feedback has been improved a long way with GT5. Whether it is the complexity of the car-models (specially for the 200 “premium models”), nuances on the track, damage modelling, object physics, interior views or weather. And all of it comes together on the track in a way that the interface designers at Polyphony could only hope to accomplish some day.

The most notable of each of these new features is the lighting model. It’s not put on display too much in the game, but the day and night-cycles allowed in the game is a showcase for how the shadows can be cast in all the different directions needed. And highlight the fact that none of the effects in this game is location-dependent or canned animation added on top later. But all generated at the track in the proper locations depending on the actual virtual scene. This results in things such as shadows that can be cast through the wind-shield, into the interior of the car-model, or past spoilers and mirrors. While driving at night, or during a low sun has light-sources illuminate the interior of the car on half of the dashboard, for example, as the driver casts a shadow, or the depth in the model shades the sun.

It is perhaps something only an engineer can truly appreciate the impact of, but when flashing the lights to a car in front of you, and you can see it illuminating the interior of the car, as well as cast a shadow further back - it is something that is both visually pleasing, as well as a ground-breaking engineering feat. The amount of calculation necessary to achieve limited ray-tracing like this is very high, and to pull it off in 1920x1080 resolution at close to 60 frames per second is not a given. Neither is it to achieve comparable quality on this shadow and lighting scheme compared to a more static one, such as the kind seen in, say, an Unreal Engine game. It is a curious and rare thing to see in video-games, but the leap in technology here is actually visually polished, which pulls GT5 up on the podium as more of a piece of engineering art than a game.

The same can also be said for the inclusion of 3d - I have been able to test it briefly - and while it is not going to give you vertigo and have you falling into the screen, it does add a layer to the game’s presentation by depicting depth in the screen more appropriately “realistic”. Where that depth in 3d space that is reduced to 2d on a flat screen is used to extend the detail already present in the scene. In danger of sounding too much like an advertisement: If you thought 3d was just a gimmick - this is a good opportunity to be convinced otherwise.

Not really a game

The problems in GT5 lies fairly exclusively with superfluous presentation issues - and the way that many of the functions included appear more as advanced prototype examples, rather than being part of the game in general. Meanwhile, you end up needing to spend a lot of time before finding the core of the game - the link between the online and single player modes, with the well evolved lobby-functions for racing online. Of course, once you do discover the core of the game, it is easy to be annoyed by the clunkiness of the navigation scheme, the time it takes to backtrack through the menus. And with the difficulty in making use of even half of the functions when arranging a race.

In a nutshell, some parts of Polyphony Digital’s project are more than simply stunningly beautiful. Others are well constructed individually, and help create the uniquely most technologically advanced simulation rendition ever made. But some of the composition in the end was less than successful, which makes a quick look at the game less than flattering. Worse is that some of the impossibly detailed content PD included is never actually seen in the game itself, which will certainly make anyone shake their heads. Lack of certain scheduling tools for online also are notable, specially since the functions needed to schedule private events obviously are there already with the in-game blogging and message-system. The amount of time it takes before the AI and damage unlocks also is extremely long. And Gran Turismo 5 therefore falls tremendously short of being a good game.

If you take time to enjoy the features it offers, though, you will very likely start to appreciate the way Gran Turismo evolved into something truly unique in this fifth iteration. A game that that doesn’t simply let you drive realistically with a controller, and thankfully without the added complications of speeding in real life - but which brings important parts of the racing experience back to you through the screen as well.

GT5 still pales compared to reality, of course. But - we are actually getting there, aren’t we.

Gran Turismo 5 is an online and offline touring and racing simulation game. It supports split-screen races for two players, and has it’s own on-track lobby and chat-system for online modes. Have played the game for approximately 3 days game-time, which is enough time to get through most of the main events, the special challenges, and the “license" tests. The game extends almost endlessly. GT5 clearly also is a proto-typing test for features that no doubt will feature more prominently in GT6.


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Community review by fleinn (January 03, 2011)

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