Monday, December 13, 2010

The Real Driving Simulator is Still There, but What About Everything Else? The Gran Turismo 5 Review

After numerous delays throughout the Playstation 3's lifespan and adding every much detail to a car as possible to deliver the perfect driving experience to some, Gran Turismo 5 is finally here. It is a long road for Polyphony Digital working on such an ambitious game, but its expected from them considering their pedigree from the franchise that changed the racing genre. Since the last main entry in the series, Microsoft and Turn 10's Forza Motorsport series has been the new standard for simulation racers due to its westernized approach and online options. Now that the originator has returned with Gran Turismo 5, can they reclaim their top dog spot of simulation racers? Surprisingly, the answer is yes and no as the game does live up to the "real driving simulator" name, but everything else feels dated and unfinished. It also makes another example of how Japanese and Western philosophies of game development are two completely different things.

Where Gran Turismo 5 shines at is still the driving just like it has been for the whole franchise. You're still getting a real driving simulation that is still unrivaled with any car you drive. Like Forza, GT5 now has a driving line turned on at default settings for those that have a hard time turning and cornering effectively even though at some times, the line does not do its job of when to brake at the opportune time where it depends with your gear rather than your speed. I wish they borrowed Forza's turns only driving line as an option rather than the full line, but it serves its part well mostly. Making that perfect time trial run with a certain car at the game's numerous tracks with the majority of them returning from previous games is still as satisfying as it was in the first Gran Turismo. Of course the experience is different with cars that span six decades of their existence from muscle cars, NASCAR stock cars, tuners, exotics, and race cars in the A-Spec mode. All those times have paid off for Polyphony making everything feel you're driving that specific car especially for the special events which I'll mention later on. While the driving aspect of Gran Turismo 5 is the best thing its going for, the non-driving aspects, well everything else, feels like a disappointment.

If you have been paying attention to Gran Turismo 5 before its release, chances are you know they have a stacked feature list to the point there's too much content to deal with in the game. The Gran Turismo Mode is still the main career mode with A-Spec events, where you drive the cars yourself, B-Spec events, a returning mode from Gran Turismo 4 where you simulate races by coaching drivers, special events, and the signature license tests you know and love. All of that is accessed in a cluttered up menu that feels thrown together at the last minute, which severely hurts its presentation value. It goes to show how Japanese philosophies of game design have been behind the times compared to the majority of Westernized games and they show no signs of realizing it hurts their games. This goes along with how you progress in the GT Mode with the numerous events they throw at you. The progression feels very much like a grind and a chore to a point it doesn't get fun anymore when you're just repeating the same races to have enough money to buy a certain car for a certain event, which is a whole problem as well. The majority of the A-Spec/B-Spec events require certain cars such as which company they're made from, the country, and even weight classes, to complete them and that can be a mixed bag because you have a buy cars wisely that fulfill the specific requirements and also win you the race. Even with the one car-specific events, you feel like you have to tune your car (Tuning is also unchanged from previous games as well) by increasing its horsepower to increase your winning chances to the point you're blowing them away for that easy win. I appreciate that all these restrictive events make you want to drive as many different cars as you can, but as a career progression model, it feels dated and frustrating especially at higher levels where you have to buy the insanely expensive cars to have a winning chance and the opposing AI drivers are tougher taking advantage of your slightest mistakes. While it is not that bad in A-Spec Mode, its worst in B-Spec because when your drivers are not doing well seeing their AI not perform to your orders, it is frustrating as if you want to do that race, but that takes away the whole B-Spec element. All of this will drive completionists and perfectionists crazy as it will take days, weeks, and even months to 100% if you have what it takes to do so.

While the A-Spec/B-Spec events tend to get repetitive later on at higher levels and classes, the special events are the saving grace for the career mode. These events are more diverse with more types of cars that challenge your driving skills. From go karts, NASCAR training with help by Jeff Gordon, and rally cars, they're interesting for their respective car class. That does not mean it equals fun as I enjoyed the go kart and rally events, but the NASCAR and even the Top Gear ones were disappointments. With NASCAR, while a cool addition to the franchise, it is not that fun driving left for numerous laps and those races are frustrating to beat especially where it takes more luck than skill to win because of the whole drafting mechanic (specifically in Indianapolis and Daytona), which I think goes against Gran Turismo's whole deal with simulation. Plus, Jeff Gordon's soulless coaching in the game puts a damper on the experience as well trying to beat the challenges. The Top Gear Test track events are disappointing because of the cars they give you to use such as a slow bus and a jeep. It makes you wonder, well why you drive a jeep that goes 50+ MPH max on a track known on television to be driven by faster and cooler looking cars. At least there's arcade mode for that, which is pretty much the same except they added a drift trial mode for those that like to drift. The special events are okay distractions for the rest of career mode, but they could of done better with those. The license tests also make a return, but they're not much of a factor this time around being a requirement to move on to the next set of events and car classes.

Another important aspect of Gran Turismo 5 that feels unfinished is the online portion, which is pretty disappointing for those that have been waiting for a main entry of the series taking that next step. While some aspects of the online are cool ideas such as social elements with friends by giving cars and whatnot even though they look a little light (somewhat trying to go Facebook, but not really), the more important aspect where you wanna play against others feels like a complete mess. The online lobbies are no sense of structure at all being just rooms with unorganized chaos even if you put a title to your room. These lobbies go as free driving first and then if the host wants to race, then they set that up, and it begins. Chances are most of the rooms players host are just to mess around especially if just want to race against competition. In addition, even with online races, you can't promise you can race clean against other humans, which is the case for simulation racers period. Polyphony promises improvements to the online environment in future updates like leaderboards and matchmaking because as it is now, the online play is not worth your time for now.

At times, Gran Turismo 5 is one of the best looking games out there on the current generation of consoles, but also ugly at times too. It seems like Polyphony focused on certain graphical touches and didn't do much on everything else, which is actually true with the whole premium car/standard car debacle. The premium cars have cockpit views and look more sharper while standard cars have no cockpit view and don't look as good to the point its even PS2 quality, which is a shame. Plus, most of the time you would be driving in first person if that is your preference compared to other third-person views. In replays, the game looks amazing at some spots which is why there is a photo mode for those opportunities to save up memories and even near real-life photos the game provides. The various camera views work well in those replays as well as Polyphony is the best of the game that nails those moments well in races. Half of the tracks look amazing, specifically the city tracks while most of the fictional and speedway tracks are not as visually superior as they didn't pay good attention to some details even though they still look 100% accurate to their real-life counterparts. The day/night cycle is a redeeming mark to the graphics as some tracks look beautiful in the time of day they're set at especially at dawn and dusk even though it can difficult to see at times. Even the dynamic weather effects of rain and snow were not as impressive as they originally thought they were on paper.

Sound-wise, it is also all over the board of high and low points. Menu music is straight up chill and jazzy as if you're in an actual car dealership being sold on a car by some salesman, which is a good thing for the game. Sometimes, you just want the mellow stuff browsing through menus and menus, which is indeed the case I mentioned earlier how cluttered they are in GT Mode. While racing through, the soundtrack kicks in as it is mostly rock stuff from lesser known bands to mainstream stars like My Chemical Romance, who did the intro song. It is tolerable at best, but of course there are custom soundtracks, which shine in a game like this pending which music you have to blast. The sound effects are also a mixed bag which bumping sounds not feeling like noises of a real car crash since actual car damage was promised for the final version even though it is secretly hidden, which is also a huge selling point failing to miss its mark among the consumer audience (Unless you consider the recent online damage patch for that mode). The various cars' engines roaring and slowing down are still top notch for the franchise.

Is Gran Turismo 5 worth the long wait after the numerous delays? If just want to drive a lot of cars, yes because the driving model is still as good as it was since the original. If you're expecting a huge leap for the franchise because of how long Polyphony worked on, prepare to be disappointed as this game feels like one step behind its main competition now in everything else. The franchise formula is starting to feel dated of being more a grind and a chore than fun after numerous hours in the main career mode. The laundry list of features is still there driving different types of cars, but there are definitely lots of them hidden missing from what they initially promised such as damage not being a significant addition as it should be, the track creator feels tacked on, and besides some interesting social elements, the online department feels unfinished as a whole until they update it with more structure and purpose. This game also proves that Japanese philosophies of game design especially in the single player progression aspect of grinding it out till you can get the one thing you need to win just can not cut it in these days of gaming as it used to be maybe a decade ago. I had high expectations for Gran Turismo 5 to deliver on all the promises it sets out to achieve, but it could of been so much more especially with how long it was in development for.

Score = 7.5/10

  • From a gameplay standpoint, still lives to the "real driving simulator"
  • Tons of content which means lots of replay value especially if you're willing to 100%, which will take a while perfecting everything
  • At some moments, it is one of the best looking games out today
  • Tons of questionable design decisions that turned out bad
  • Career progression becomes too much a grind and a chore in A-Spec/B-Spec Modes
  • The premium car/standard car debacle is an issue - especially when you put more polish to a certain percentage of the cars, it makes that much of a difference
  • Hidden/missing features that Polyphony promised before the game came out (Where's the YouTube upload feature for example?)
  • Online play as of now feels unfinished as it is a complete mess until it gets patched with improvements

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