"Sport is challenging for the human mind and spirit! Sport is fun! Sportmanship is important and good. To be bad is not good. To be bad is not good sportmanship..."
The little instructional video that launches the Gran Turismo Online Championship is bad. Really bad. In fact, the presentation here is not good at all, especially during the first two hours. This is because there's a slight contradiction in how it's structured and designed; as usual, when it comes to Polyphony Digital's titles, the juxtaposition between racing sim and country club lobby with jazzy tunes doesn't quite gel.
Series creator Kazunori Yamauchi has been extremely clear that they are moving away from more casual elements, and you won't be collecting Prius models and you won't be steering a moon buggy. However, the game still treats you like a child at the very beginning. GT Sport is regulated by FiA, it is an "always online" game to counteract and prevent cheating and fiddling, and it only revolves around race cars, in racing contexts.
We find ourselves getting quickly fed up with the terrible video intro, which speaks to us as if we're four years old and don't know racing. In the main menu, our fury is triggered by the fact that Yamauchi and his crew once again insisted on playing horrendous piano jazz in combination with memorials from "timeless events through world history" (like when Clapton broke through or when the first moon landing took place - stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with racing).
However, we get the idea. Polyphony wants to create a car club where everyone will want to "hang out", one clever enough and aware of the outside world rather than being self-contained and introspective, something that could be said of some of the most hardcore racing communities out there. In the same vein, Polyphony doesn't want to be inaccessible by throwing too many difficult motorsport terms in the player's face too early. We understand, but regardless, we hate how Gran Turismo Sport begins.
Driving tests are gone just like the traditional career mode. We heaved a big sigh of relief since we were tired of being forced to steer 72 horsepower hatchbacks around Willow Springs for 39 hours to afford a Nismo N24 GT3 GTR, but then we noticed that the "Challenges" contain what seems to be exactly the same as the old driver's license tests, just under a different label. Very well, the first two hours consist of proving to Polyphony that we know where the brake pedal is, and that we understand that one should turn when a curve pops up. In the same way as the "sport is challenging" video, we didn't enjoy this one bit.
But then Gran Turismo Sport opens up and, after some 25+ hours of playing time, we now consider this to be the best game in this series in a very, very long time. After finishing the most basic lessons in the Challenges mode and unlocking the first tracks, Polyphony throws us into the seat of a LeMans car, and it's now about learning (step-by-step) the most important things in racing. Here, the priorities of the studio have really been on point. Even better, when we finish six stages in the game's Challenge mode, we step into the section that divides the various tracks into small sections and using finely-crafted visual aids it trains us to attack the apex with the right steering input, and step in with the right amount of speed to properly maximise a specific corner. This is a fun and educational way to show the player how it works without ever making it overbearing or too challenging. Here, right here, is where this game shines brightest.
All of this, including the time trials and the custom races, are just preparation for what Gran Turismo Sport is really about: online racing (more specifically, FiA-regulated online racing). Being forced to pay £430 for a FiA membership to possibly aspire to achieve some kind of virtual success in a game isn't for everyone, and for these players, there's plenty of other tournaments and championships in the online lobby.
In Gran Turismo Sport, racing etiquette is very important and Polyphony has borrowed from iRacing in particular with regard to the points you are awarded as a player at the end of the race, which then puts you with like-minded players in the next. If you drive too aggressively and maybe even carelessly, you'll be able to compete against other crazy-drivers and it will be visible when you log in that you are that type of driver. We think this is a smart way to "clean up" online competitions and we suspect this game will be very popular in the future if this system proves effective in the long run.
Polyphony Digital has rewritten most of its old physics engine, and it's noticeable, even when we played Gran Turismo Sport with a controller (which we only did for about an hour or so). The tire physics in the game are really good, even if they're not in the same class as either iRacing or Assetto Corsa (although they're really not far behind). The Gran Turismo Sport system does a very good job of simulating friction, heat in the tire (grip), and shifting the centre of gravity, and there's a lot of detail in how much feedback gets delivered to the steering wheel. We played GT Sport with the Thrustmaster T-GT steering wheel designed specifically for this game, and if you intend to really dive deep into this title we advise you to do the same. The wheel is no technical marvel (more or less it's just an optimised T300RS), but together with this game it really shines.
We have no trouble feeling which tire gives the best grip when our McLaren GR4 650S slams down the Karussell on Nordschleife. The improved physics are nuanced and multi-layered, and not at all as static, on the very limit, as it was in the more arcadey Forza Motorsport 7. Forza has often forced the player to learn to never let the tires do two things at the same time, and even though these are the basics when it comes to real racing, there's more to it when you're an experienced driver. GT Sport's tire physics allows us to use trail braking as well as modulate the amount of gas we use during the start of the turn-in, in a way that you usually only find in the hardcore simulators (Rfactor 2, iRacing). It's impressive stuff.
Another aspect that's better in this game than in any other Gran Turismo is the sound. Sure, there are still cars that sound as if their engine sounds were played through a poor speaker, but on the whole major improvements have been made. If we take our own race car (Nismo Nissan GT-R R35 Time Attack), for example, setting it next to the even rawer LeMans car in the game, they share lots of similarities both graphically, physically, and audio-wise. Unlike in Forza Motorsport 7, where they didn't capture the character of the mechanically sharp yet dark tone of the 3.8 litre, twin turbo-charged VR38-engine, Polyphony has apparently gone out to a competition team and really recorded all the engine sounds on all gears throughout the entire rev-range, and it's such a little thing but it really impressed.
The racing cars scream in a totally different way now, too. Although the interior cockpit-view still is a bit too calm and smooth for us, when it comes to sound and visual vibrations, (although many of today's new racing cars are actually very calm and collected from inside the cabin, which makes us understand what Polyphony is thinking here), GT Sport is an improvement audiovisually. Polyphony has now added enough winning transmission-sounds and bangs from the open exhaust valves that it's really starting to sound like a proper, full-blown simulator. Sure, the gearbox of an Audi TTS sounds almost identical to the one in a Chevrolet Corvette C7 GR3, which is completely absurd, but at least they improved the overall whine of the transmission. That's certainly better than nothing, especially since we will only drive the pure racing machines from here on and will never ever touch the TTS again, or the Mazda MX5.
There are other elements, with regard to the audio, which doesn't deserve the same credit, and we're specifically talking about the collision effects. Driving into a competitor sounds a bit like throwing together two empty soda cans, and in combination with the horrible, horrible music, it feels like Polyphony needs to take a new approach here. The music played in the menus, in the lobby as well as during loading times, and the actual competitions is something you will have to learn to ignore and tune out as fast as humanly possible.
As far as the graphics are concerned, we have virtually nothing to complain about. On the contrary. Gran Turismo Sport is more beautiful and closer to "photorealism" than Assetto Corsa, Forza Motorsport 7, and Project CARS 2, and although some of the lighting around the surroundings sometimes feels flat, the cars, asphalt, and opponents are always very well designed and illuminated in a more than satisfactory way. For example, there aren't really many racing simulators that can compete with Polyphony's 2017 version of Nürburgring Nordschleife (which looks incredibly good here). Loading times are short, the livery editor is great, and the online lobby is very easy to understand.
What's lacking here, more than anything, is tracks, because even though Polyphony's fantasy tracks - Kyoto Driving Park and Dragon Trail - are great, we will never understand how or why they are releasing a simulator without tracks like Spa, Monza Mugello, Silverstone, Hockenheim, Road Atlanta, or Laguna Seca. That's just weird and we hope that Sony plans to release these as free DLC in the near future. If not, we think this game will have a really hard time online, at least in the long run.
There's no doubt at all that Kazunori Yamauchi and his team have created one of their best racing games for many years. They have a new focus and we think it's a brilliant one. We don't care about the fact that the game requires constant connectivity (because it does) and we really don't give a damn about the fact that the old-fashioned career mode has been booted out of this title. Gran Turismo Sport is about online-based sim racing, and Polyphony has succeeded very well here. Together with the Thrustmaster's T-GT wheel this is a great package for the sim-crazy PS4 owner who wants to move on from Assetto Corsa. However, Project CARS 2 remains the king of console-based racing sims this autumn. That game is just as good if not better physics-wise and contains three times the number of tracks and pure racing cars.