Experience the driving simulation in Gran Turismo 5

HIGHLY DETAILED: The new premium-level cars in GT5 have an amazing amount of detail put into them.

THE only thing you need to know about Gran Turismo 5 is that, if you're a car nut, you absolutely must get this game.
But if you're a gamer who just so happens to play racing games, it's not such a clear decision. Why?
The unfortunate truth is that after five or six years of development, over US$60mil spent and a couple of launch delays, GT5 is an awesome driving simulator, but not a great game.
There are a fair number of imperfections in the game that may put all but the most dedicated "car guys" off, especially since most players are likely to expect nothing less then perfection. And with all the hype and build up (especially by Polyphony Digital itself), nobody would expect anything less.
With this depressing introduction out of the way (it's not all bad, really), let's get into the details.
INFO OVERLOAD: The homescreen is your window to all the various modes of play in GT mode. It's cluttered too.
Many modes
The game can be divided into two main modes: Arcade and GT Life.
The former lets you jump right into the action, racing either against computer controlled cars or against a friend (via two-player split screen) in a wide variety of tracks and a relative small list of available cars (compared to the 1,000 or so available in the GT Life mode).
Speaking of which, the GT Life mode (also known as the simulation mode to most people) is the interesting part of the game. If you've played any of the GT prequels before, you'll be right at home.
You start off with a small budget, buy a cheap car, enter race events, win trophies and cash, buy a better car, and continue the spiral of racing, buying cars and upgrading until you've grown a beard.
PHOTO REALISTIC: At times, it's easy to mistake GT5's screenshots for actual photographs.
As with GT4, there are both A-Spec and B-Spec events. The former is the regular first-person driving simulation, where you control the car yourself and race against computer controlled opponents while the B-Spec events put you in the role of a race engineer directing your driver on strategy from the sidelines.
Quite frankly, I find the B-Spec mode a complete waste of time.
The A-Spec events are divided into Beginner, Amateur, Expert and Professional categories, each with a number of race events. The more difficult categories are unlocked by means of experience points, which you gain whenever you complete an event.
As with the prequels, you also have new- and used-car dealerships, tuning shops to modify your cars, auto shops for basic maintenance, and a bunch of license tests you can take.
There are also Special Events (similar to the Challenges in GT4), which also give you money and experience points.
Oh, and the photo mode is back with more exotic locations, though you can only shoot Premium Level cars.
If you've played any of the prequels before, GT5 can invoke either nostalgia or a sense of deja vu.
For fans of the series, it'll be the fifth time you're grinding through essentially the same game again - and it doesn't help that the majority of the tracks are simply high-definition updates to the ones in the prequels, so you've almost seen it all before.
The only thing that's truly new is the online mode, which itself was slated to appear in GT4 but pulled at the last minute before the game was released.
Sometimes, you really have to wonder what Polyphony Digital have been doing for five years.
Waiting and more waiting
Perhaps the biggest problem with GT5 is that it takes ages for you to get anything done, thanks to a complicated user-interface that doesn't allow you to do enough in each screen, requiring you to dive deep into a hierarchy of screens to get things done.
Each of the many screens in the game (event selection, car selection, etc) have long loading times - anywhere between three to five seconds, in addition to the slow fade-in and fade-out screen transitions.
Some screens take longer because the game needs to load highly detailed car models and stuff.
The good news is that you can get used to it. However, if you do have some cash to spare, you could upgrade the hard disk on your PlayStation3 to a high-speed SSD (solid state drive), which have been known to cut load times by up to 40%.
STRIKING: So much time spent on graphics and not enough on gameplay features.
Awesome driving physics
As a self-described car nut, I must say that GT5 probably provides the most convincing sensation of driving a car I've ever encountered in a game. Although GT4 was already pretty good, GT5 brings it up a notch by refining the subtle nuances in car handling.
And to fully appreciate this, you'll need a racing wheel. I reviewed the game with my old force-feedback enabled Logitech Driving Force racing wheel (bought it with my copy GT3 way back in 2002), which is good enough though the newer wheels such as the Logitech G27 and Driving Force GT probably offer much better feel and precision.
Although you can play the game with the regular joypad, a steering wheel provides so much more precision and actual feedback, that you'd be missing out on a huge part of the game without one.
As with GT4, you can feel the general differences in handing between front-wheel (FWD) and rear-wheel driven (RWD) cars, mostly in terms of the tendency to understeer and oversteer, as well as the effects of applying and lifting off the throttle in the middle of a corner.
What surprised me, however, is the range of differences in feedback and handling. For example, a lightweight RWD Lotus Elise handles remarkably differently from a slightly heavier Mazda MX-5 due to their differences in power and weight distribution.
With the MX-5, you can simply floor the pedals in and out of corners (with a bit of opposite lock on the steering) and the car will glide around a track with not too much effort.
Do the same with the Elise, and you'll end up in a spin. But if you're gentle and precise with your steering inputs, throttle control and braking (which requires far more concentration and skill), the Elise will run circles around the MX-5 on any given track.
Drive around in a much heavier, more powerful BMW M3, however, and you'll have to adapt your driving style to squeeze the most out of it too.
You'd be right if you said that GT4 offers some level of distinction between cars, but where GT5 shines is in the subtle differences in steering feedback, and how much more sensitive the game is to steering and pedal inputs.
And speaking of steering feedback, I find that I'm able to judge the amount of available grip a lot better - you somehow know if you're just about to lose it.
Drive on a bumpy track such as the famed Nurburgring Nordschlife and you can feel it when the car skips over a bad surface or when there's a sudden change in camber.
Take the same car to a track with a smooth surface, and it still feels like the same car, though less twitchy.
Did I mention this game works better with a racing wheel? No? Get a racing wheel if you want the best possible experience with GT5.
The only thing that's not modelled properly in GT5 is brake fade, which is weird because taking care of your brakes is an important skill in racing. And for that matter there don't seem to be any brake upgrades in the tuning segments in the game.
THE CHIN-ON-MY-BONNET VIEW: Still the best way to play GT5, because it gives you the clearest view of the road.
Many cars, many tracks
The selection of cars and tracks in GT5 are sure to impress some people and disappoint others. You can view the entire list on the official website.
Now I am going to put on my car geek hat, so if this section bores you, skip to the next one.
Fan favourites like the Nurburgring Nordschleife, Laguna Seca Raceway, the Monaco GP circuit and the Suzuka GP circuit make a return.
New entries include the Monza F1 circuit, Daytona International Speedway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Nurburgring Gran Prix circuit - all of these are pretty awesome circuits.
Combined with the traditional GT fictional circuits such as Deep Forest and Trial Mountain Circuit, as well as fictional tracks based on real-life locations (the new London and Rome circuits, as well as the Tokyo R246 from GT3/4, which I've only recently found out is an actual route in Tokyo), the variety and number of tracks is pretty impressive.
Personally, I wish there were more real-world tracks, especially those from the Formula 1 calendar, but I guess we can't have everything.
As for the car selection, your satisfaction with the list of available cars is largely dependent on whether or not your favourite cars are there.
The selection is pretty wide and there are quite a huge number of cars from the 70's and 80's too.
Unfortunately, the car list is still overwhelmingly Japanese - out of the 1,031 cars available, there are around 150 Nissans, over 100 Hondas, about 100 Toyotas, just under 100 Mazdas, about 70 Mitsubishis, 30 Subarus and a smattering of Daihatsus, Isuzus and Suzukis.
That's almost 600 Japanese cars, or more than half of the total, and almost any Japanese performance car you can think of is there.
So if you're a fan of Japanese cars, you're in luck.
But on the other hand, European car fans are bound to be a little upset that many boring Japanese cars like the Toyota Prius and Honda Odyssey have made the cut while many European icons of the 80's and 90's are absent.
Off the top of my head, I can think of the Peugeot 405 Mi16, the Volvo 850 T5 Wagon, BMW E30 M3, Ferrari F355 and Ford Sierra RS Cosworth - all iconic cars among car geeks, and none of them are here.
I can think of another 20 European cars that should be here, but I shall not bore you with any more lists.
Also, the cars themselves come in two tiers: Standard and Premium.
Premium cars are modelled in very high detail with loads of polygons and look like real cars up close - the headlights, taillight clusters and wheel arches have proper geometry instead of just clever texturing.
Even the interiors of the cars are modelled, so they look awesome in an actual race because you can look into them and see the driver moving about in the cockpit. The Premium cars also give you an in-cockpit view, where you can see the dashboard and your hands on the wheel.
The bad news, though, is that only 200 or so cars from the total are Premium ones.
The remaining Standard cars are basically models lifted right out from GT4, which look great at a distance, but when you come close to one, you'll notice that most of the features are really just low-resolution textures rather than actual geometry.
While these Standard cars looked fine in GT4, they stick out like a sore thumb in the age of 1080p high definition.
This is actually really disappointing, especially if your favourite car happens to be just a Standard car.
Also, in spite of boasting 1,031 cars, a lot of them are variants of the same car. There are over 20 variants of the Mazda MX-5 and Mitsubishi 3000GT for example, and all of them with very minor tweaks and differences.In the end it's impossible to keep everyone happy.
Tune up
Like the prequels, you can tune up your car in GT5, though the process is overly simplified and a little unrealistic.
Car tuning normally involves a lot of development, experimentation and testing - since you'd have to try out parts from various manufacturers - and you'd normally have to make compromises and trade offs in performance.
But with GT5, you just check some boxes and your car is magically better. And every car seems to have the same upgrade path too, with exactly the same tuning options in identical screens (although sometimes they blank out stuff that's not applicable).
The other thing that bugs me is that the upgrade options seem to ignore the car that you're starting with.
Let's say you're starting with a Honda Civic Type-R, that's already highly tuned and modified right out from the factory.
And yet, you can still "upgrade" to a sports suspension, air intake, exhaust, perform port-n-polishing on the engine, balance your camshaft and do other things, which according to Honda has already been done to the car before they hand you the keys.
Of course, all of these upgrades will magically add another 30 BHP to your Type-R.
Also, how is it I can upgrade the ECU (Electonic Control Unit) on an old Honda S800, which doesn't even have fuel injection? Errors such as this add to the feeling that the developers just didn't care about the tuning aspects of the game. Stupid AI opponents
One bit of criticism levelled against GT4, was that the computer-controlled opponents seemed to have a total lack of awareness of their surroundings and are simply following a pre-determined line.
In a normal race against computer controlled opponents, this wasn't apparent until you made a mistake, and you'd find a long train of cars ramming into your car's backside.
The AI apparently has no idea how to make a clean overtaking manoeuvre without ramming into other cars - basically it had no racecraft.
Sadly, it seems to be the case for GT5 too. Though there seems to be a little more variation in how the AI opponents drive, they are still obviously following a prescripted path.
You can try this out yourself: When a race starts, take note of how the faster cars around you weave through traffic.
Then, restart the race immediately - each time you do, you'll notice that the other cars behave exactly the same off the starting line, weaving in the same directions.
Given how the PS3 is supposed to have huge amounts of processing power, it's deeply disappointing that Polyphony Digital didn't spend more time on improving the opponent AI.
It's not terrible to the point of ruining the game (though it can get annoying if you're suddenly slowing down, and you don't know why, only to find there's another car stuck to your side), but it would've been nice if the AI provided some sort of competition instead of being merely moving chicanes on track.
Good thing there's online multiplayer, then.
ONLINE PLAY: This is what a Lounge looks like, with a chat window on the left and a list of players on the right.
Take it online
Probably the most significant addition to GT5 is the online multiplayer mode, which finally drags the GT series into 21st century.
The good news is that the actual online play is pretty good. Depending on the speed of your connection, you can set five different levels of "race quality", which determines how much data is transferred over the Net - the more data, the smoother your opponents cars move around the track and the interactions and collisions between cars are more accurate.
But even at the standard settings (which is what you'd be able to sustain with a regular Streamyx ADSL connection), the quality of multiplayer is still pretty good with very little lag and not many connection errors.
You can send and receive text messages with other players, though it's apparent that very few GT5 players have a USB keyboard attached to their PS3s, since everyone fumbles with the virtual on-screen keyboard, taking ages to send messages.
You can also use voice chat if you've got a headset, though it'll stretch a poor quality Internet connection.
Now for the bad news: There isn't really any matching service - just a listing of available lounges created by other players, though you can narrow it down according to region.
A lounge is basically a player-created room where the lounge-owner can set a bunch of rules, settings and regulations (quality of race, number of laps, power restrictions, number of players, track selection, etc).
After you create a lounge, it will be listed by the server though the browser only seems to show a maximum of 100 lounges at a time.
And if you intend to play with other players in your friend list, you can't send him an invite with a link.
Instead, you're given a unique 20-digit number for your lounge, and you're expected to pass this number to your friends for them to key in.
Likewise, you can't search for your friends online and see which lounges they're in. And you can't set up private, invite-only lounges.
To sum it up, the online aspect of GT5 is excellent if you have a bunch of PS3 owning friends whom you'd want to race with. But if you're hoping for some sort of friendly online community that'll grow and mature, you're out of luck.
Graphics and sound
The GT series has always had a reputation for gorgeous graphics in their respective eras (though the PlayStation originals look rather long in the tooth now). And so, GT5 would be a huge disappointment if it was anything less than the best looking driving game in town.
Well, it almost is, if it weren't for three little problems.
The first problem is the two-tiers of car models, which can break the visual consistency in the game when you have a Premium car running alongside a Standard one right in front of you.
It just feels as if Polyphony Digital got lazy - pixellated wheel arches may have been acceptable 10 years ago, but not anymore.
The second problem is the game's realtime shadows, which look nice from afar but look like transparent mosaic tiles up close - sometimes flickering on and off uncontrollably.
To be fair, it seems to look worse on some cars than others and you don't really notice it while you're playing.
The third, and last problem is the games inconsistent frame rate. If you're flying down an empty track, the game can easily maintain 60fps at 1080p resolution.
But, once you have a few cars (especially the highly detailed Premium ones), the frame rate starts to drop.
But rather than just dropping to 30 fps, GT5 attempts to draw its graphics as soon as they become available, which means that there's no vertical synching.
As a result, you'll often find the screen tearing across the middle, as the top half of your TV displays an image one frame ahead of the lower half.
This can be a little distracting at times and detracts from the overall polish of the game.
In spite of all this, GT5 is still a pretty gorgeous; static screenshots from the game can easily pass off as real photographs.
All of the race tracks that have been carried over from the prequels have been given very extensive makeovers and look gorgeous, though all of the tracks based on real locations tend to have a visual edge.
The London, Madrid and Rome city tracks look photo-realistic and are laid out using actual real life streets - you can double check with Google Earth if you don't believe me.
The tracks with weather or time changes look really cool. There's nothing quite like racing through the Nurburgring as the sun sets, or watching the rain clear at Suzuka with the sun reflecting of the wet track.
The actual rain effects themselves still look quite artificial.
The game's sound effects are good, though they don't sound that different from any other modern racing game. After all, there are only so many ways you can make a "Vroom! Vroom!" sound.
The music is anonymous elevator or supermarket fare; forgettable and unlikely to get your pulse racing. At least the soundtrack fits the mood of the game and isn't invasive.
It's a shame, really - an awesome soundtrack would've made players completely forgive the loading times and convoluted menus.
The days of Losing My Favourite Game by the Cardigans (the awesome title song for GT2) are but a distant memory. Now that was a great song.
Conclusion
So Gran Turismo 5 isn't the perfect driving game that we were all expecting, though I'm sure almost any racing fan would still pick it up.
As a reminder do try to get a racing wheel if you're serious - there's a special bundle of GT5 with the Logitech Driving Force GT, though not officially in Malaysia.
The driving physics will no doubt keep car enthusiasts happy but there's a niggling feeling that even after a five- to six-year development period, GT5 still feels unfinished and isn't that much better than GT4.
The good news, though, is that Polyphony Digital is still working on the game and have so far released several software updates with minor fixes and enhancements (the latest one – 1.05 – adds a bunch of new features, new Seasonal events, fixes some annoying UI problems and lets you earn money and experience points from online races).
With any luck, they'll refine the online multiplayer matching system in future, and maybe offer updates or expansion packs with more tracks and cars (the creators of GT5 have stated that some of the Standard cars are going to be upgraded to Premium ones).
If they don't, then they'd better get it right with GT 6, which will probably hit the market before 2020. If we're lucky.
Pros: Awesome car handling physics; good selection of cars and tracks; pretty good graphics; online play is good; they're still adding more features.
Cons: Single-player campaign could've been more innovative; poor computer opponent AI; cumbersome UI, long loading times.
Gran Turismo 5
(Polyphony Digital Inc)
Driving simulation for PS3
Website:
 www.gran-turismo.com
 
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