Polyphony Digital's driving simulations have been the bedrock of Sony's PlayStation-exclusive library, with franchise sales surpassing 50 million. However, it's taken six long years for the fifth edition to putter out of the garage, and in the interim Microsoft's Forza Motorsport series has grabbed the spotlight with three solid games. Fans might be wondering: Why the delay?
More time to make the perfect game might be one answer. But that's not necessarily the case here: Gran Turismo 5 is in many ways refined and gratifyingly deep, but offers no shattering innovations – in fact, it plays host to some glaring issues that I would hope not to see in any racing sim, much less one that has been in the making since before my kindergarten-aged daughter was conceived.
But let's first concentrate on what it gets right. In a word: racing.
I can't think of any other game in which players can switch between driving a Ferrari on Germany's renowned Nürburgring and a stock car on the Daytona International Speedway, then move on to race a rally car in the snowy Rhône-Alpes region of France and get behind the wheel of a kart near Tokyo Bay before wrapping things up with an amusing Volkswagen bus race on England's famed figure-eight Top Gear track. The range of racing served up here is simply unparalleled.
- The Goods Platform: PlayStation 3 Developer/Publisher: Polyphony Digital/SCEA The Good: Unparalleled variety of tracks, cars, and modes. Exquisite driving physics. Premium car models are photo realistic, inside and out. The Bad: Online play feels like it was ripped from a ten-year-old game. Collisions remain jarringly unrealistic next to cars' authentic handling. Inefficient menu system sometimes borders on Byzantine. The Verdict: It has all the depth you'd expect of a driving simulator that's been in development for six long years, but also some noticeably frayed edges and a slightly aged vibe. ESRB: Everyone
And it's not just about diversity. Gran Turismo 5 delivers superb driving physics as well, which players come to appreciate through scores of licence tests that teach the finer points of handling S-turns and slipstreaming. From the anvil-on-an-office-chair feel of a NASCAR vehicle to the hyper-sensitive steering of a kart, each of the game's 1,000-plus painstakingly modelled automobiles have their own quirky performance characteristics and can be modified in countless ways, including maintenance procedures – remember to change the oil – and parts upgrades.
There is also a host of new features, such as an oddly compelling photo mode that lets fans take glam shots of their rides idling in exotic locations, the ability to "gift" cars to fellow players, and a track-editing tool that permits light alterations of some of the game's courses.
These new modes are nice, but I'd rather the developers spent time fixing some of the series's long recognized shortcomings.
Unrealistic collisions, for instance. As in previous Gran Turismo games, car impacts lack weight and leave little in the way of damage. They're like wet bars of soap gently colliding on the bottom of a tub. Perhaps the game's artists cared so deeply about their creations that they didn't want anyone to tarnish them.
Meanwhile, online play – fast becoming the series's Achilles heel – feels terribly dated. It lacks automated matchmaking and offers no rewards or sense of progression. I was left completely uninterested.
Then there's the clunky presentation. A game of such enormous complexity demands a simple menu system that facilitates quick movement between modes, but instead we've been given an artsy and ineffective interface that forces players to work through long loading screens.
All that time in production has generated one of the deepest racing games ever made, but also one that's noticeably flawed and – more worrisome – behind the times. If the next Gran Turismo spends as much time in the studio as this one, Polyphony Digital risks making their once unparalleled driving simulator irrelevant.