GAME REVIEW: Gran Turismo 5 for Playstation 3

Nissan GT-R and friends at Monza

Way back in 2005, gas was cheap(-ish), the economy was moving right along, and the Western zeitgeist knew nothing of the many atrocities that would be perpetrated against it by the close of the decade (We’re looking at you, Jersey Shore.). Also in Aught-five, Sony and captive developer Polyphony Digital released a game called Gran Turismo 4 for the Playstation 2. As we know all too well, a lot has happened in the intervening near-as-makes-no-difference six years, but it has taken the Polyphony Digital team (led by company founder, Gran Turismo creator and all-around car nerd Kazunori Yamauchi) that long to bring the next complete title in the canon – Gran Turismo 5 – to market.

While many cynics opined that GT5 would be the heir to Duke Nukem Forever’s throne of heinously long development times (assuming, of course, DNF is ever released), the PS3 exclusive finally dropped just before Thanksgiving, much to the delight of automotively-literate gamers worldwide. But when you consider just how lengthy the gestation period was, and how rival Turn 10 Studios was able to crank out the first three installments of the Forza Motorsport franchise during that period, you can’t help wondering, “Was it worth the wait?”

Maserati Granturismo S at Daytona

If you’re into sheer numbers, all that waiting was indeed time well spent; there are over 1,000 cars and some 50-plus tracks if you count variations. There is, however, one rather large caveat: Those scores and scores of cars (which range from classic Japanese kei cars less powerful than some lawn mowers to NASCAR Sprint Cup cars to a fictional “Rulebook? What’s a rulebook?” race car) are segregated into two categories, Standard and Premium.

The former look nice and are pretty much lifted directly from GT4 and Gran Turismo for the PSP, while the latter are rendered from many, many more polygons and feature fully detailed interiors, more realistic damage with deformable and detachable body panels (but not right away, something we’ll get into later), and the option to change wheels (something you can’t do on Standards even though you could swap rims on most of these same vehicles when they appeared in GT4) and, in a few instances, race modify your ride for even more track-burning performance. No big deal, you say? What if we told you only about 200 of the 1,000 cars and trucks in the game are Premium models? Still okay with that? How about that the Bugatti Veyron is a Standard, or Standards can’t be used in Photo Travel mode?

At any rate, the game itself is separated into two modes, just like every other full GT title: Arcade Mode and GT (nee Simulation) Mode. Per tradition, Arcade Mode lets you jump right in a car and race it, go for the best time, or try to set the highest drifting score for a particular track. That’s all fine and dandy, but true gearheads are all about GT Mode, which is the meat and potatoes of the game. As with prior iterations of the franchise, you start out with a small pile of cash to spend on a car (typically a used one), and have to work your way up through the ranks to earn more money to buy new cars and upgrade your existing ones. You also have to take tests for various classes of racing licenses, another longtime GT game favorite (or foe, depending on your perspective).

Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG on Ahrweiler Street

But where GT5 really departs from tradition is in the leveling system. There are now separate races within GT Mode for A-Spec (where you’re the driver) and B-Spec (where you direct an AI driver or drivers in your car). In both instances the more you race the more experience points (EXP) you gain; for A-Spec it allows you to access more difficult, higher-paying events and the ability to purchase hotter cars, while leveling up in B-Spec allows your AI driver to access more advanced races, plus you can add AI drivers, and AI drivers’ skills improve as they level up. Be warned, though: When they’re just starting out, your B-Spec drivers are Grade A dimwits. Leveling up in either mode also unlocks more realistic visual damage.

But oh, the places you’ll go! Plenty of real tracks from around the world like Le Mans, Suzuka, Monza, the Nürburgring and, closer to home, Daytona International Speedway and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway await you, not to mention some (but not all) of the beloved fantasy tracks from Gran Turismo’s past as well as rally stages and kart tracks (Yes, GT5 has karting. W00T!). But another big story for GT5 is the Course Maker mode. While not a true track editor, it does let you set some basic parameters like the location, number of segments and complexity before generating random courses based on those factors. It’s quite a fun diversion from the racing and car tuning aspects if you ask us.

Citroen C4 WRC in the snow

Ah, tuning. Still a pretty in depth affair, but there have been two significant backward steps taken. First, the “fully customizable” racing transmission only lets you tweak the final-drive gear ratio. Banging the rev limiter on the chicane-less version of Circuit de La Sarthe’s Mulsanne Straight? You can fix it, but only if you’re prepared to accelerate out of Arnage and the other tight corners at walking pace. Secondly, there are no brake upgrades. Zip. None. Nada. Granted, you can adjust the front to rear balance, but there’s no getting rid of your classic muscle car’s Paleozoic Era tech drums or fitting your track-day weapon S2000 or Elise with carbon composite rotors. We wish we were punking you.

Mercifully, all is not lost with regard to the gameplay experience. Far from it, in fact. For starters, GT5 looks gorgeous. Like, Aly Michalka sitting in a Series I Jaguar E-Type roadster eating chocolate-covered strawberries gorgeous. Sure, there are some hiccups like the disparity in detail between Standard and Premium cars and some jagged, flickering shadows, but on the whole, you can’t get much closer to video. Throw in a 3D mode if you have a compatible TV and real-time weather and time of day changes on select tracks and you don’t have a mere feast for the eyes, but the smorgasbord to end all smorgasbords for the eyes…assuming you’re into cars, anyway.

AC Cobra at Laguna Seca

As for the driving experience, it too is downright impressive. Different types of cars behave differently, and they respond quite realistically to upgrades and setup changes. The AI opponents seem to have improved a little over those in previous games, but they’re still oblivious to your presence more often that they’re aware of it. Online racing works well if your connection does too, though you may want to stick to private games with your friends if you want to avoid being rammed out of the lead by some pottymouth 8-year-old.

On the whole, GT5 lives up to most of the (admittedly-lofty) expectations bestowed upon it by fans and the media. While there are some notable omissions and aspects that appear rushed even after about 72 months of work, the solid game mechanics and staggering graphics help us forgive most of those foibles. What’s more, Yamauchi-san, perfectionist that he is, says updates and patches will be coming down the pike fairly regularly; whether new cars and tracks will be part of this kaizen regimen remains to be confirmed, though it seems likely. For $60 (plus $300 for a Playstation 3 if you don’t already have one), GT5 is arguably the car buff bargain of the year. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a crime against humanity and 10 being lounging by a pool somewhere in the Tropics as the Victoria’s Secret model(s) of your choosing hand feeds you your favorite dishes off In-N-Out’s secret menu, we give Gran Turismo 5 a more-than-respectable:

8.5 / 10