The first game I picked up with my original PlayStation, back in late 1998, was Gran Turismo. At that time it was a showcase for the power of PlayStation – so much so that watching the gloriously captured replays was as much a part of the experience as actually playing the game.
Buying and playing Gran Turismo 5 feels heart-warmingly familiar. Like an old friend has come to visit after a long absence and we’re recounting past glories together.
“Remember that time I nailed Trial Mountain in a 3000GT and blew away the field by so much I started to lap the back-markers?!” I’ll say.
And yes, Gran Turismo does remember. Essentially, he hasn’t really changed at all since the last time I saw him.
Going back to when we first met – I’m not usually driven to complete many games, but I won every race there was to win in the original. Not that many of the events could be considered races. The balancing was generally so loose that it was easy to make the AI look silly after some basic updates to the given car in your arsenal that met the event criteria. Heck, it was even possible to enter a car unmodified to meet the criteria, then pimp that ride in the set-up screen before the races and blow the AI away completely.
The fun in that was fairly limited, even if it did ease the pain of grinding up enough credits to afford some more expensive metal. Yet it was the laborious grinding that would inevitably have me lose interest in each version of the game. As nice as it is to be rewarded with an elusive supercar or to save up and buy one, in competent hands those same powerful machines would render the AI competition an irrelevance. And, ultimately, picking on the AI in GT is somewhat cruel, in that you get the impression that it’s trying as hard as it can with the limited intelligence at its disposal.
However, if it seemed cruel to take advantage of poor game balancing and primitive AI in 1998, in 2010 it seems inexcusable for the same flaws to be so prevelant some twelve years and so many evolutions of the game later.
In fact, over that time it’s disappointing to note that those flaws have become hallmarks of Polyphony Digital’s output in much the same way as their much lauded high-polygon, exacting car models have been. Except that even those standards now appear to be slipping. A very high percentage of the car models in GT5 are poor in comparison to Polyphony’s prior artwork. The jagged edges on window lines and shadows leave the impression that this first full-blown PS3 offering is merely high definition GT4, but with a fraction of the gameplay to be found in one of the PS2’s great time-sinks.
Even some of the highly realised circuits are creaking with the weight of expectation that comes from such an extended development cycle. Trial Mountain, Grand Valley, the High Speed Ring – tracks that will be familiar to any GT fan, are all present in GT5. The trouble is, they’re all too familiar. Little has changed since we saw them last, and never have they looked as basic and uninspiring as they do in 1080P detail. Sure, there’s been a building or a lake thrown in here and there to flesh out the environment, and some do look better than others, but photo mode easily betrays the age of certain old favourites.
So what are we left with, when the car porn of GT is stripped bare and that same, dumb AI is back once again hoping you’ll show it kindness rather than the contempt it deserves?
Only the best physics model to be found on current generation consoles. From an under-powered compact car to a highly tuned racing machine, and everything in between; get behind a quality steering wheel and Gran Turismo 5 is a cerebral experience. Then there’s the purity of Gran Turismo itself. The original was such a game changer because it eschewed the short-cuts and power-ups that had become standard fare in most racing games that came before it. And GT5 holds onto those values just as strongly all these years later.
And that’s why I’m torn between wishing that some other developer would step up and put Polyphony Digital in their place, and wanting to do just one more lap in one more car at the end of each GT5 session.
I love what Gran Turismo stands for and I love the handling of the cars.
The trouble is, at the times when those legacy failings rear their head, I can’t help but wonder why we’re still together all these years later. We’ve had some great times, there’s no denying that. At the end of the day, all I want is a good looking, honest racer that makes me earn the rewards and doesn’t throw in any shortcuts to cheapen the experience. And GT5 wants to be that game – it really does.
But, at the same time, we both know we’re not being honest with each other. Those AI cars can weave and duke all they want, but – as the banner image shows – they’ve also shunted me along the track for 200 yards without being able to get around me. I can pretend that the cumbersome menus, the grinding and the stupid AI don’t matter. For a little while, at least – that’s the way it’s always been. But we’ve been down this road together so many times now, that I’m afraid the next time I lose interest we’ll be finished for good.
Still, I can pretend for a little while longer. No harm in just a few more laps before the magic fades away.