What a wait it's been.
Five years and eight months have passed since the racing-crazy head-honcho of Polyphony, Kazunori Yamauchi, stood center stage during Sony's PS3 press conference in Los Angeles and talked about the most ambitious entry into the Gran Turismo series ever. But time went on. Gran Turismo HD became a demo; grey, pale, boring, despite its beautiful graphics. One year went by and we got Gran Turismo 5: Prologue. A handful of cars and a few levels for a cheap price, and it felt much better than Gran Turismo HD. It felt worth the money, and polished.
While I wasn't a huge fan of Gran Turismo 4, since I thought there was a huge difference between Yamauchi's ambitious vision and the end result, my expectations for Gran Turismo 5 were still high. After more than 30 hours with it, I'm disappointed. This is not a bad game, but at the same time not nearly as good as I would have hoped.
When Gran Turismo 5 is good, it's fantastic. It shines like a carefully polished diamond with fantastic graphics and balanced car physics. When Gran Turismo 5 is bad, it's really bad. Sloppy graphics, stuttering frame rate, hopelessly repetitive and a weak presentation. It doesn't take long before it becomes obvious that the development of Polyphony's fifth game in the series hasn't only been expensive, it's also been problematic. The game feels inconsistent, and the general experience fragmented - either way, it's high quality racing as long as you stay away from the worst pitfalls.
It's taken Polyphony more than five years to finish development on Gran Turismo 5. It has cost the developer millions and millions of dollars. Which is a lot of money and time for a game which damage modelling and online modes that still can't compete with racing giants like Forza Motorsport 3 or Need for Speed: Shift. Instead it's the amount of cars and racing cups in the game's career mode that makes up the basis of Gran Turismo 5. This is where Polyphony spent most of its energy. 1031 different cars and more than 60 races is a rather solid foundation to park an overloaded racing car on. And it would have been even more solid if it wasn't for the fact that Polyphony had stressed out some parts while they've shaped others with extreme care.
But to feel that realism, there's a price. You simply can't feel the small improved differences with a standard Dual shock 3 controller. With myself parked in Gamereactor's Fanatec Rennsport-cockpit with a Logitech G27 steering wheel in my hands and with the gas pedal pressed down on the game's Calsonic Nissan GT-R, Gran Turismo 5 is fantastic. The car physics in the Gran Turismo series have always been a bit stiff since the start. It's been too mechanical, too heavy. In Gran Turismo 4 it often felt like you were driving a 12,000 kilo heavy lump of steel and not a 1200 kilo light Japan GT-monster. In Gran Turismo 5, Polyphony have been working hard with the tire physics and how the weight is distributed, which you can really feel. There's another kind of dynamic in how the car tires react when you turn a tight corner. It's more exact than ever before, with an added sense of speed and power. With my chosen car, on my chosen track, and without any stupid droner cars controlled by the game's AI, I throw myself on to the tracks of Laguna Seca, Monza and Suzuka to improve my lap times.
And that's when Gran Turismo 5 truly shines of pure quality. With the G27 everything is changed. That Polyphony this time around simulates the air pressure in the tires and the heat of that air up to 180 times per minute is noticeable. I get a more detailed form of feedback from my steering wheel and I feel faster than ever round Laguna Seca in a Gran Turismo car.
A few hours later put myself into Sebastien Loeb's WRC-car the contrast is almost overwhelming. The mix between the brilliant feel and micro millimeter-precise tire physics to hopelessly slippery make the bad car physics almost feel like a parody at times. The same goes for the Kart-racing, which like the WRC events, should have been taken out. The karts are fast and very responsive, just like in reality, but at the same time they feel more like arcade-karts with their silky smooth stability. And the problems don't end there.
Gran Turismo 5's presentation is more or less worthless. Several different graphical styles are mixed into a huge mess of bad typography and badly designed menus. You have to jump around through the menu system like a madman during the career mode and everything is covered in bad elevator jazz. The menus are meant to mimic some form of exclusive computer program, but it only manages to annoy. Example: the fact that you have to click nine times to pick out and test-drive the cars you win in the game's various races is one of the oddest design choices this year.
While you advance through your career, you'll need a specific car for more or less every race, like it's always been in the series. But instead of picking a fitting car from the garage automatically, like in Forza 3, you have to go back to the start menu, click four times to the left, pick a garage and then click three more times to even get to the room where your the cars are actually parked.
The "GT Auto" and "Create A Track" modes are big disappointments as well - especially when tuning and painting your cars is terribly limited. Another confusion is the difference between different cars and levels. 200 of the 1031 cars are so called "Premium Cars" that have been modelled according to the full hardware capacity of the PS3. The other 800 cars are "Standard Cars" and they look a lot worse, have no cockpit-view and their car physics are not as advanced or finely tuned. According to Polyphony the difference is supposed to be really small, but if you look close enough you can see that the Standard cars are partly based on the polygon models from the Playstation 2-game Gran Turismo 4. They won't get damaged if you hit an opponent or crash, and generally feel like cheap budget versions of the car models I expected. The result during the career mode was that I simply sold all the Standard cars I won straight away. I also made sure not to ever buy one.
There's also a huge difference between the various levels. One second you might be driving around a visually stunning track (Nürburgring, Rom, London), while the next you find yourself surrounded by low resolution textures and incredibly flat lighting (Laguna Seca, Monza). Sometimes the difference is minimal, sometimes it's gigantic. Just like the rest of the game it gives a rather schizophrenic impression.
The graphical quality in general suffers from a severe case of multiple personality disorder. The real-time rendered reruns are incredibly well made, while some textures looks like something from the PlayStation 2 era. The weather effects never look very realistic, and often make the game stutter. The Premium cars are incredibly well modeled, covered in incredibly high resolution textures and lit with beautiful real-time light. The Standard-selection looks terribly low budget in comparison.
The real-time system for damaging your cars doesn't look very good on all of them either. Cars are barely damaged at all irrespective of how fast you crash into something. It looks like it's all been recorded in advance since all cars are deformed in the same way. Compared to Forza 3 or Shift, Gran Turismo 5 feels like a five year-old product in this department as well.
The sound doesn't impress. The engine sounds from the Premium cars and the Surround mix are generally good. There are a lot of important sound effects that seem totally random. Crashing into another car, for example, makes a sound that have induced a lot of laughter here at Gamereactor. Instead of the sound of steel crumbling and glass shattering, it sounds like if you'd slam an empty water bottle against a rail. "Bump." The same goes for the shrieking of the tires, that sounds a lot more like a screaming cranky old lady.
When Gran Turismo 5 starts, it asks if you want to install 6,92 gigabytes on your hard drive or try your luck without installing it. Stupidly, I started my career as GT5-driver without going through the installation, which I paid dearly for during the following five hours. What happens if you don't install the full game, which takes about 55 minutes to do, the game takes it upon itself to install small pieces at a time while you're playing. Every track can take several minutes to load and it becomes a true pain to go through the career mode. With that said, it should be noted that the loading times don't become that much shorter even after you've gone through the installation. Of course the gaming experience becomes a lot smoother, but the game still loads a bit too much despite the massive amount of data on the hard drive.
My first impressions from playing online are good, though, and I should take the time to give Polyphony some credit for what looks like a well-crafted and entertaining online mode. Sadly I've only been able to play about ten races so far, and I shouldn't really say anything before having tested it during a couple of racing-happy weeks, but at least I can say that the first impression is a good one.
Really good is mixed with really bad, high and low, all the time. And that's how Gran Turismo 5 comes across in the end. It's a terribly uneven racing game where there seem to have been some form of insecurity when developing. A wish to put too much in, to do too much instead of doing a few things really, really well. Within the slow and one-sided career mode, the uneven graphics and the dizzying presentation I find improved and more dynamic car physics, a good online mode and amazingly beautiful Premium-cars. But that's not enough to beat Forza Motorsport 3.