Gran Turismo 5 has a problem with me. Not me with it. Oh no. The real driving simulator has a grudge against me. It knows I played Forza 3 first, and is in some sort of huff about the whole situation. Now that sounds like I’m merely comparing the two games, the two differing console-exclusives, which in some ways I am, but there is a bit more to it. I’m of course aware a game should be judged on its own merits, and I’m going to do just that. If the thing will bloody let me anyhow. Allow me to explain.
I enjoy driving. I don’t know a huge amount about its technicalities, but the endless hours of staring listlessly at Channel Dave (and therefore TOP GEAR) has lead me to become some sort of closet CAR ENTHUSIAST. That is Top Gear, coupled of course with the actual physical act of driving (and making racing car noises whilst I do so.) So last year when Xbox 360 exclusive driving simulator Forza 3 crash landed on my face, I bought it with a new found enthusiasm for the genre. Whilst my previous liaisons with driving simulators had been out of some bizarre youthful stupor or inert moral obligation, this time I bought a driving game to do what reality would restrict me from doing. I say reality, I of course mean, the police. And it was fun. A lot of fun. The physics engine was superb, the presentation and car progression was easy to use but in-depth if your knowledge stretched that far (mine didn’t, even slightly) and the game gave enough back to the player for it to be thoroughly enjoyable, yet comply strictly to the ‘simulator’ jig. You might say it ‘kept it real’, but if you did, I’d unfortunately have to strangle you.
Gran Turismo then, was the very first driving ‘simulator’ game I ever did play. The first and second iterations were my introduction to racing games in general; whilst the third was my introduction to a new generation of consoles (GT3 came with my Playstation 2.) Its presentation, tracks, cars and general zeal is an echoing cave of nostalgia for me, and undoubtedly many gamers like me. Wrapping up the life story, I bought GT5 without a second thought. Over five years in development, a million deadlines missed, constant tweaks and improvements made during its pre-release time, this would be the racing game to make all other racing games nervously scuff their shoes on the floor and look away. Gran Turismo 5 could do no wrong.
After excitedly jamming the disc in, I managed to remember all PS3 games take some time to install and update, and so my first evening with the game didn’t go completely to plan. After 40 minutes update, the install began. After I’d finished getting all the arrangements for my next 37 birthdays organized, learning Swahili and writing a novel, I went to the pub. I couldn’t help but remember how I’d put Forza 3 in my disc tray and as if by magic, I played it there and then. Still, these things are commonplace with the Playstation 3 now, and so I soldiered on, and over the course of the following weeks put some real time in to the game. The problem is, that REAL time was mostly spent desperately searching for things I liked about it.
Undoubtedly, it’s the most complete racing simulator on the PS3, its graphical capabilities are absolutely stunning at times, and there’s SO MUCH to do. It wasn’t enough to have a million billion cars, but to have an entire EXTRA mode, in which you could manage a team of drivers thrown in as well, not to mention all the licenses to earn and the special events teaching you the mechanics of NASCAR Racing, rally driving, and the massively enjoyable and lithe Karting stages. It’s almost too much. The presentation is impeccably shiny, and the easy-listening melodies playing in the background during the menus make you feel like you’re perusing a ridiculously priced car showroom, whilst a man with a plastic hair-do lures you with promise of the coffee machine and high-brow technical conversation. Of course, before long the music fades into a distant fuzz, whilst the plastic-man’s conversation becomes a monotonal drone, his hair melts and his entire face turns into a ball of partially delicious-looking slime, and pretty soon you’re wondering why on Earth you even wandered into this bizarre metaphor in the first place.
One of the first things to niggle away at the concrete fortitude which is my patience is the significant lack of cockpit view. I like my simulators to simulate to the best of their ability, and the superb-looking cockpit views I’d seen across many a screenshot indicated this game would be full of some of the most detailed looking interiors this side of Angus Purden’s living room. Finding out the vast majority (800 of the 1,000 included cars) didn’t have interior views at all left a BITTER TASTE in my mouth, and again I was brought back to thinking how all the cars in Forza 3 had a, albeit slightly less detailed, interior camera angle, and I wasn’t forced to re-familiarize myself with a different view before being allowed such luxuries. How odd.
The problem occurs when, at first, all you can expect to be driving is the standard cars; basic modelling, commonly lifted from GT4 or the PSP version of the game, and of course, no interior view option. You purchase your first car from the Used Car Sales tab in the main GT menu, an interesting idea that allows the player to peruse a small list of constantly changing ‘used’ cars, wear and tear and all. The idea presumably being that when you need a certain type of car, you can jump in here and see if you can catch a rare find, possibly even on the cheap. This leads me fluidly into my next little unreachable back itch.
It seems every race or series is a very particular type of race or series in which you have to use a very particular type of car. The idea of this is to keep you driving new cars, learning their handling, seeing how each differs to the other. It’s Polyphonic Digital’s way of going ‘Hey, look how super awesome our handling and physics are! Can you feel how different they are from car to car? Can you?? CAN YOU?’ This is all fine and well until you don’t have any cars that you can race with, and you need to enlist the help of Tiff Needell and his entire research team to determine which one you need. There’s no clear indication here, and when all you really want to do is get on and into the race, turfing through the Car Showroom trying to remember the particular type of air pressure needed in the front left tyre, or the correct year prior to which the wing mirrors need to have been painted, to be able to enter the race gets a little tiring. You get given cars for winning races, but for all their use, they may as well have awarded you with a toy trumpet and an acapella chorus of ‘Simply the Best’ by the development team. A page that takes you directly to a list of suitable cars, showing their prices and the best one, and giving you the ability to purchase them from there? Problem solved.
When you finally get into the race, it feels like good old Gran Turismo. Except it’s not so good. It’s just old. Whilst the physics have clearly had an unprecedented amount of next-level surgery, there’s a peculiar overtone of PS2-era clunkiness to the proceedings. And what I mean by that mouthful of nonsense I think lies in the poor collision and damage modelling. Again, as much as I tried not to, this sent me back to Forza 3, where the crumpling looked superb, and it also meant a ruined car both cosmetically and performance-wise. I remember racing with the distinct intention to keep my car absolutely pristine, an ethic that the game hammered into me from the start and in a way I somehow enjoyed. Whilst this was my initial reaction to GT5, the awkward, unrealistic thumping, the costless result of crashing or colliding with other drivers, soon lead me to use it in races when I needed to. Instead of playing GT5 to race amazing cars like I would in real life, I was again merely playing it as a game in which I wanted to win. Suddenly not a massive amount had changed between 3 and 5. Unbelievably, I then discovered that the real damage is an unlockable that you obtain by progressing your driver to Level 20. I thought the person who told me that was joking. Who thought that would be a good idea and how high were they? I suddenly wondered if there other huge gameplay mechanics that I wouldn’t get until I’d progressed three quarters of the way through the game. Hit level 25 and suddenly half the driving mechanics kick in, level 30 and they texture the road. Level 40, and it turns out what you’ve actually bought is shooter Killzone 3.
Whilst earlier I mentioned the presentation to be a shiny, glistening hub of options, it’s also a bit muddled, lumping everything in a big pile on the main page and just sort of saying, ‘ere, sift through it, you’ll get there eventually’. Coupled with the monumental amount of loading screens even AFTER the optional installation, you suddenly start to wonder what they were doing for 5 years. I wasn’t all that bothered about being able to see the correct screw texture on the tiniest compartment in one of the 200 premium cars Poly, I’d actually just hoped for a complete, enjoyable driving simulation.
With all that then, GT5 lost its appeal with me, and the unthinkable occurred. It became just another racing game. And a bit of a disappointment.
All that in mind though, this is still the most complete and realistic racer on PS3, and there’s most certainly enough here to keep a fan engrossed for weeks. I deliberated time and again about how I could review this game without taking into account its opposition on the other platform. You have to look at these things as they make you react. And this is how I constantly reacted to each of my sessions with GT5. If you’ve got both consoles and considering how cheap Forza 3 is now, I can’t recommend giving it a try enough. If you’re a lone Playstation wolf, and are after reliving the glory days of earlier Gran Turismo games, or just an in-depth racing simulator, nothing really compares. So you don’t have a choice, and will still probably get a huge amount out of it. Just don’t pin those expectations up so high you won’t be able to reach them again.