Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Time and time again, it’s the comparison that kept occurring to me as I played Gran Turismo 5 on my PS3. The fruit of years – and years of development, Sony’s Forza-killer was finally bestowed upon us this November. Befitting its immense gestation period, the game is a mix of out-dated user interfaces and standard cars and tracks, a sublime driving engine, and incredible detail on some of the newer premium cars. Originally targeted at Forza Motorsport 2, it came out after Forza 3, and it plays like something in between the two.
Polyphony, the game’s developer, went for the bulk approach here in order to clear the 1,000-car mark. Everyone begins the game with standard cars. I began the game with a ‘93 Silvia, whose wheels I couldn’t change, whose interior I could not view, and whose engine I could not turbocharge. It felt straight out of GT2, let alone GT5. It’s not actually until you move up to the premium cars that the game’s 2009 and 2010 development years are apparent.
Those premium cars are styled beautifully, with incredible attention to detail. Assume the cockpit view, and, if you’ve got a 1080P plasma HDTV, it’s as close as you can get to the real thing for under $100.
It’s much the same with other aspects of the game. The game’s user interface is so cluttered with tiny buttons, it harkens to an Acura’s center stack from the earlier parts of this decade. The execution is similarly lacking. Tap “cancel” to leave GT (career) mode, for example, and you don’t actually leave GT mode. You get to a red button, which you must hit again in order to leave GT mode. It wouldn’t be so bad, were it not for the fact that you actually have to leave GT mode to collect the prizes you win during career races! Meanwhile, I’ve never seen a game whose interface is so ridiculous that developers actually have to provide a zoom feature for users to decipher all of the buttons.
The online play provides more dismal results. Back in Forza 2’s heyday, I could download the fastest posted lap with a given car on a given track and try to chase it in order to better myself. Forza 3 later, and GT’s online mode is limited to some generic racing. Great. Though we shan’t enter into a PSNet vs. Xbox live discussion, suffice it to say online mode trailed Forza 2 and is left in the dust by Forza 3.
Finally, the customization options are the most lacking of all. Standard cars can be upgraded, but only with non-branded generic parts such as “High RPM Turbocharger” or “Supercharger”. Most pathetic of all: you can’t upgrade your brakes. Ever. So forget about six-piston Brembos like in Forza 3 (or 2, for that matter). Of course, licensing items costs money and takes time, but let’s not forget this game’s been eons in the making.
The tracks, like the cars, are definitely two-tiered, with some getting and incredible treatment and offering picturesque views while others offer what could only be called “2D Mania”.
So what’s the Dr. Jekyll to all of the Dr. Jekyll above? Two things: Pure racing and special events.
GT5’s driving engine remains sublime, on-par or better with Forza’s depending on who you ask. This game incorporates all kinds of racing – from the extreme (snow, dirt, weather changes, night racing, drifting, NASCAR to the zany (driving a VW Bus around the Top Gear airfield) to the traditional (flinging a Ferrari around Rome) to the downright cool (testing AMG’s at Mercedes’ home track). And every single mode of driving is phenomenal.
Drive a NASCAR car and you can feel the strange mix of the car’s heaviness and its gradually increasing fickleness as you pick up speed. Drive a VW Bus and you’re almost nervous about tip-over.Your controller with rumble with the torque steer of a juiced up FWD car, and your rear will break loose as you’d expect if you gun it too early upon exit. Brake too hard while turning and say hello to lift oversteer at the rear.There’s no Need For Speed-style fantasy physics here, it’s all the real deal.
Unfortunately, even the game’s best aspects were not immune to the pervasive issues that plague the rest of the game. The damage modelling is mostly cosmetic and ineffectual. The GT mode is a grind, involving racing and re-racing the same tracks over and over again to level up, to get better and bigger parts. And of course, the AI is as deficient as its always been in the series. Take the lead on it, stay on the driving line and it may never actually pass you, no matter how slow you’re going.
It’s tough to know what to make of GT5. Every single time it pleases with an exquisitely delivered race, you know Mr. Hyde lurks in the shadows – lo and behold, here’s an eternal loading screen then dizzying array of buttons and Japanese elevator music. It’s the only game I can describe as both immensely frustrating and immensely satisfying at the same time.