So this morning I woke up, had a cup of coffee, arrived at work, and proceeded to pass a McLaren F1 through the Nurburgring’s Karrusell. In an Audi station wagon. Not even Sabine Schmitz herself could make that claim, which is why Gran Turismo 5 has been the world’s most anticipated racing game since it was first announced some time last millennium. It makes car enthusiast dreams a reality and brings the world’s greatest cars and tracks together without the pains of air travel or giant bank accounts. Yes, we’ve waited through too many delays, but the game is finally here and we’ve spent the past few weeks mastering the premier tracks of the world from the comfort of a Sparco seat on the floor of the km break room.
The game’s career mode starts just as it has in the past four iterations. A tiny bit of money, a tough choice of how to spend it (New or used? Front- or rear-drive?) and a long series of licensing tests before one’s allowed to run higher level races. Where to start?
Actually, we decide to start with the new Special Events section, mostly just because we’re dying to try out the new karting races. They’re pretty realistic and, as a result, quite fun. While we’re generally most comfortable with the “front bumper view” that shows none of the car, go-karting is the one place where we’re really into the first-person view. We even find ourselves leaning hard into corners, not that it actually helps. Other events in the special racing category include Nascar training, rally racing, an AMG challenge at the Nurburgring, and a series of races at the Top Gear test track that involve matching sets of Lotus Elises, VW Type 2 buses, and even VW Kubelwagens. All of them garner a lot of money and a lot of experience points, which are required to unlock harder races. Completing all the license tests early on also helps build experience points and even wins some free cars to start building a garage.
The Gran Turismo franchise has long prided itself for being the most realistic driving simulator around and for the most part, that claim pushes forward more with GT5. Looking past the simple fact that there’s a better, very realistic in-car view and better landscape graphics, the physics of the game are really the big deal. And they are better than ever. The screen’s movements accurately match the view from a real car, and the inputs on the controls deliver accurate, expected reactions for cars with different weights, suspension tunings, and drivetrain layouts. It’s real enough that we start reacting to G forces that would be coming in an actual car, which results in immediate mocking from coworkers.
As the game moves along the cars predictably get faster, the races longer, and the whole experience a bit more addictive. As the prizes get bigger, the desire to get all gold medals grows. It makes a man do silly things, like buy a 1969 Chevy Camaro and spend $600,000 race-modifying it enough to out-race a Jaguar XJ13, a Ferrari 330 P4, and a smattering of ‘70s Chaparral race cars. The engine notes for all those different cars, we might also add, are about as good as we could expect speakers to reproduce. Supercharger whines, turbocharger blow-off, they’re all there, though some specific engine characteristics — resonances for the most part — aren’t.
There are some other holes as well that keep GT5 from being a complete product. While the newest additions to the car dealerships, called “premium cars” get a full interior and options to select different wheel designs, these amount to only about a fifth of all the cars in the game. The remaining 800 or so are no better than they were in GT4. And sorry, but even GT2 had more extensive options for aftermarket wheels than this new game. Additionally, fewer than 20 cars in the whole game can undergo the very slick “race modification” procedure that transforms a normal street car into a track killer.
Additional small details in the game also leave us wondering how GT5 took so long and why it still doesn’t seem finished. Our tech guy is especially annoyed about the aliasing in the game that leaves all of the shadows looking blocky. There’s also the matter of artificial intelligence; when spin-outs or collisions happen, the computer-controlled opponents don’t stray from the line, don’t try to prevent a collision, and don’t even slow up after one has happened. As a result, it’s easy to get pinned sideways in front of a car and get dragged along a wall for quite a while, turning a small recovery into a serious, race-ruining accident.
But those are small complaints. We aren’t übuer-nerds after all — we can ignore a few weird pixels. And trust us, we’ve already gotten quite good at hitting the buttons to restart a race botched by a crash. Wheel modifications and full interiors aren’t even that big of a deal. But what we can’t handle so well is the waiting. Tom Petty was right; it really is the hardest part.
When the game starts up for the first time, a prompt comes up to download about eight gigabytes of information to the Playstation’s hard drive, an effort that cuts down on load times later in the game. We let the process run its course, which itself takes some time. But it’s okay, because it’ll pay off later.
Except it doesn’t actually seem to pay off much later. Before every single race, a black screen comes up with a load status bar. Each time, it takes what seems like an eternity for that bar to fill and the race to start, enough time to check e-mails on a smart phone or perhaps play a complete game of Monopoly (in truth, probably a minute or more on average). It’s a painful shortcoming in our world of high-speed internet and ADHD.
There are also a few races where the developers decided to program in more realistic starts, for example watching a few cars ahead set off in a staged rally event before getting the green light. Or a Nascar event that starts with a stop through pit lane. The realistic experience is fun the first time, but it’s just more upsetting downtime every turn after that. A handful of expert-level rally races are completed over eight different stages lasting between two and four minutes each; between the load times for each leg and the staggered starts, one of these rallies is twice the time commitment it should be.
Don’t get us wrong, we’ve loved playing this game for the past few weeks. But for the time it took to develop, it just feels a bit unfinished and too short of the advancements we should have seen in all the time that’s passed since GT4. If GT5 were a brand-new, fresh release it would be pretty amazing, but viewed as an evolution of an already awesome franchise, it’s just kind of good enough. New challenges, new tracks, a fresh start for people who’ve conquered the previous editions — there’s a lot to be gained here. But as the future of driving games, Gran Turismo 5 crashes just short of the finish line, Ricky Bobby-style.