There's a cultish love surrounding the Gran Turismo series, one that people outside the cult don't understand. Haters love to throw out "Forza is better!" or other such nonsense. But those in the Cult of GT just smile and chuckle at those who clearly don't know.
What is it about Gran Turismo that creates such an intense bond? Some say it's the realistic physics, others the real-world cars. But Gran Turismo is somehow more than the sum of its parts.
Now, after 6 years of rabid waiting, GT5 is upon us. And it's awesome.
All the core aspects that make GT great are here. You start the game with a pittance and need to buy a car, modify it however you can, and start racing. In some ways, these early races are GT at its purest, and in some ways, its most fun. You don't have much of an advantage over the other cars, and the speeds are slow enough that every corner is vital.
As you win a few races, you can upgrade your car further, or get a better car. Where GT5 differs is in addition to a lack of money holding you back, you have an RPG-like leveling system. Certain cars are only available at certain levels, and if you're not that level, you can't use them. Generally, the higher powered, harder to drive cars are higher level. The slower, front wheel drive cars are lower.
It's almost too easy to gain levels and money, thanks to the Special Events section. This is where the non-GT-standard races go, like NASCAR, rally, karting, and so on. You get significantly more XP and money doing these special events than the standard track races. Within an hour or so, you'll have more money than you know what to do with.
Karting is insanely fun, and one of the biggest surprises. There is so much grip on these little go-karts-on-meth. NASCAR, too, is surprisingly fun. I wouldn't have believed that going in a circle would be interesting, but there you go. The rally portions are decent, but a far cry from the Colin McCrea/Dirt series. Dynamically generated tracks, as in the game creates the track new each time you play, is brilliant. The occasional graphical weirdness, like a wide open snow plain with a snake like course laid on top, is forgivable.
There's even a Top Gear section, where you race against like vehicles around the Top Gear track, which is fun but often annoying. This is because in most of the races in the Special Events section you can't bump other cars or go off the track even slightly. If you do, you're disqualified and have to start over. Now this wouldn't be an issue if your AI opponents had any concept of, well, anything. And this brings us to one of the biggest problems with GT5. There's no AI. None. Your opponents on the track might as well be blind kids racing slot cars. In a regular race, this isn't a big deal. You get crunched up in the first corner, and then everyone pulls out of it - after all, rubbin' is racein'. But when you're penalized for touching other cars, and they have no concept of you being there, normal racing tactics like late breaking become next to impossible. The other cars will just run right into you or cut in front of you, often either knocking you out off the track (disqualified), causing you to hit them (disqualified), or spinning you around (out of the race). I don't mind the no-touch policy, but at least have the AI have some concept that there's other cars on the track to make it some semblance of fair.
Another way to get XP, and one that's necessary to unlock the better races, is the good old license system. You'll need to get a license to drive with the big boys, and these tests are basically the same as they have been in previous GTs. With a racing wheel, few of them were particularly hard, though the AI/touching issue is present here as well, so the final test where you race on a real track with AI opponents is often the most difficult and annoying part of the licensing system.
Completely separate from the regular racing is the B-Spec mode, in which you take on more of a crew chief/team owner role, managing drivers as they gain XP and win races. It's more interesting than it seems at first glance, but not by much. It seems kind of half-assed. There's no way to really do anything but watch. You can offer commands like "speed up" "slow down" and "pass that dude" but that's it. If you're going to include this kind of sim mode, why not make something of it? In the end it feels more like a mildly interactive, reasonably well animated movie than a game. It's not a bad way to make money and get free cars while you're doing something else, though.
And then, of course, there are the cars. The boast of over 1,000 cars is certainly impressive, at first glance. The truth of the matter is that nearly 2/3s of the cars are Japanese, which seems a little lopsided if you're an agnostic car fan. Worse, many models are WAY over-represented. Do we really need 34 versions of the Miata? Surely 20 would have sufficed? Even 10 would have been plenty.
About 80% of these cars are imported from previous Gran Turismo games, and they look it. Many vehicles have jagged edges on curved surfaces like windows and wheel wells. If you have a large screen TV, this becomes very noticeable and distracting. Six years in development and they couldn't update the old models a little better?
The other 20% are so-called Premium cars, which are bought in the dealership in game. These are much better looking, often bordering on photorealism. Even better, they have fully modeled interiors. Sadly, the graphical oddities continue here. Shadows seem blocky as they pass over the interior, and just look plain weird. This aspect doesn't look like a game that was released in 2010.
The sound is decent, but certainly not amazing. The various cars do sound different. Firing up a big-block carbureted V8 has a delicious growl, while a little 1.5L Honda sounds just as smooth as it does in real life. Even the air-cooled boxers of the RUF-don't-call-them-Porsches sound very true to life. But on the track as you're buzzing around, the droning engine sounds are often more similar than different.
The surround effects are ok, you can hear cars as they approach behind you, but when you pass through a tunnel, there's noticeably no change in the sound. It's this "almost right" aspect that prevails in the game.
As of this writing, the online play is overtaxed and underdeveloped. It's hard to make a judgment on it when it's so nearly unplayable. Already Polyphony Digital has issued a patch to make it suck less, but it's not there yet.
Which brings us to the overriding feeling of Gran Turismo 5. How, after 6 years of development, is this thing so unpolished? The menus are brutally clunkly, always requiring 2-3 more clicks than are necessary, the load times are annoyingly long for a game with an 10GB install. Long enough that you're regularly saying "Oh, come on!" to yourself. Then there's the aforementioned lack of AI, graphical glitches, and audio that's only OK.
Are these just nitpicks? I don't know. Personally, I feel that after the tremendous sums of money thrown at this game, and 6 long years of development, the whole game has a certain lack of refinement that is inexcusable. This thing should be creamy smooth. I can't help but wonder where the time and money went. All the areas of a game that benefit from long development and lots of money are quite simply lacking.
And let's not forget, this is the SECOND time we've given $60 to these people in this console generation. GT5 Prologue anyone? So for 6 years and $120 for this game, I'm rather underwhelmed.
Is it still awesome? Is it still the best racing sim ever? Absolutely and absolutely. For many that ends the conversation. But taking a step back and just looking at it as a game, I have to say that in many ways it falls short.
But when you're barreling down the Mulsanne Straight at 220+, the car bouncing around at its very limits, all these complaints fade away. The long and the short of it is that GT5 is probably the best $60 you can spend this year.