The Ride of Your Life

Gran Turismo 5 is out now, after years of development time and a daunting number of delays, including a few last minute announcements which left retailers stuck with incorrect ads and preorder cards, and no reliable information for customers as to when they can expect the game .  The end result is that the biggest release in Sony’s most iconic franchise is being met with confusion and ambivalence.

After all this, the question is simple – was it worth it?  The jury’s still out, but the early reviews are coming in, and the good ones all express the same common feeling about the game, even if some of the final scores are typically inflated.  Specifically, the general sentiment seems to be that Gran Turismo 5 has made huge improvements in driver AI and cornering physics, but by trying to cram so much into a single game, the total package feels at once both overwhelming and underdeveloped.  Here are some examples I’ve come across.

– This is fairly well known, but of the 1000+ cars in the game, only 200 are considered “Premium” cars.  These are the ones with the photo-realistic detail and lighting effects, and the fully rendered cockpit views.  Every other ride is a slightly tweaked model from GT4, with no fancy lighting and no special cockpits.

– The damage modeling needs a lot of improvement in order to be believable.

– Car customization is not as robust as it should be, including a lack of ability to modify brakes.

– Online multiplayer is missing basic features while also including pleasant surprises.

– There are tons of features, but none of them are complete packages.  The NASCAR feature is not as full fledged as a standalone NASCAR game, the track editor isn’t really a track editor, etc.

 You can have any car you want, as long as it’s the GTR

As many of the reviews have pointed out, this is all the result of Polyphony Digital, and specifically Kazunori Yamauchi, becoming increasingly focused on very specific cars and very specific elements of racing game design, to the point where these elements will receive top priority regardless of what the game actually needs, or what the rest of the industry thinks.  At the same time, their (his) love of motorsport is so huge, that they still wish to do everything else, and decided to bite off far more than any single developer could possibly chew.  When you stop and think about just how much content is in GT5, and how much effort went into the smaller details which aren’t readily apparent, it becomes obvious why this game took so long, and why they still couldn’t polish everything to perfection.

Still, understandable doesn’t also mean acceptable.  The way I see it, the more appropriate analysis is that Polyphony is obsessed with cars, not racing games.  This is how the series has achieved this dual nature, in which each sequel is a technical masterpiece that feels stale and old.  They’re advancing very specific parts of the craft to the point where they have become blinded to everything else which needs to be done, and the rest of the industry has noticed.

I think I know how to “fix” Gran Turismo, but I don’t see the solution being palatable to either PD or the fans.  Essentially, the games need to think smaller.  GT 3 had less cars than GT2, and mostly recycled tracks, and yet it was arguably the pinnacle of the series’ mainstream appeal.Imagine if instead it saw fit to outdo GT2 in content. We certainly wouldn’t have gotten the same game (and it wouldn’t have launched when the PS2 needed it most).  GT has always been known as the series with great graphics and lots of cars, but somewhere along the line, everyone decided that each sequel need to have more cars and better graphics, and this has become an impossible goal due to the degree in which these additions are being made.  The fact that only 200 cars got the Premium treatment says to me that GT 5 should have stuck with about 200 cars.   It would be leaner, but it also would have come out earlier, to much more attention, and with uniformly gorgeous visuals.

But the GT fans who do remain do not want that from the games, nor does it in any way match Polyphony’s desires.  So Gran Turismo will likely continue to go down its current path.  I just hope that the fanbase remains strong enough, because big budgets go to big sellers, and I can’t see Sony giving PD free reign forever if Gran Turismo becomes a niche product.  It isn’t that I don’t want the developers to make their dream game; I’m just afraid that they’ll kill themselves trying.

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