Fifteen hours into Gran Turismo 5, my dream scenario had finally materialised. The ingredients were simple – a BMW M5 and the iconic Nurburgring Nordschleife; no AI opponents, no dynamic weather, and no day-night transitions. Just me, my car, and the road. You may have seen it in many other games, but you’ll never fully understand why they call this place Green Hell until you drive around it in Gran Turismo 5. It was unnerving and scary to the point where I couldn’t bring myself to floor the throttle. The fear didn’t come from over-the-top visual effects, but from the basic realisation that I was pushing a temperamental heap of metal to its limits. I wasn’t afraid that I might crash my car and incur a hefty repair bill, but that if I made a mistake, I wouldn’t be able to beat my previous lap time.
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That to me is what Gran Turismo games are all about. It’s easy to get lost in the cluttered menus, archaic game design, and mountain of content, but at its core, Gran Turismo 5 is about driving, and driving well. It strips away everything that we’ve come to expect from racing games and starts at the beginning, where it’s just you and a car. It’ll teach you how to drive, then it’ll teach you how to get better, and when you think you’re good enough, it’ll teach you that you’re not. The Licenses are a perfect example of this. You will occasionally race AI opponents here, but there’s always an underlying feeling that more than anything, you’re competing with yourself. The challenges are difficult, and often frustrating, but never unfair, because as you inch close to that gold medal time, you’ll start to think of ways to move even closer in your next attempt.
From the egocentric intro video and car museum, to the GT TV mode and little things like gifting you a car from your year of birth on your birthday, it’s easy to see that Gran Turismo 5 is also about a love for cars. There’s over a thousand of them, and while most of them (standard cars) look quite ordinary, and some downright unsightly, the way they’re made available to you makes the game’s A-Spec mode a lot more challenging. Events in many racing games are locked to certain vehicle specs, but it’s always been very easy to just buy the most powerful within that category and win easily. Not so with GT5’s used car dealership, which works like a classifieds listing where cars come and go. So while you may spot a car that’s appropriate for the event, it may not be the fastest or most powerful on the grid, which makes races a lot more competitive.
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I knew that GT5 was heavy on content, but only after I headed online for a few races with fellow IVG members did I realise than even after putting 20 hours into the game, there was so much I had yet to uncover. I was driving cars I had never driven, on tracks and surfaces that were new to me, and in weather conditions I had never experienced. It’s so easy to bury yourself in one of GT5’s many game modes that you’ll often forget how much else there is to do. The new Special Events mode is easily the highlight of the game, and it’s a great way to sample the variety of GT5 in one place. The AMG challenge around the Nurburgring in the sublime SLS AMG will surely remain one of my most memorable gaming moments, while racing VW hippie vans around the Top Gear test track at 60 kmph is just Yamauchi having some fun at our expense. You’ll also find kart, NASCAR and rally events here and it’s remarkable how each experience is so drastically different from the next.
GT5 isn’t here to replace standalone rally, NASCAR, F1, or kart racing games, and neither is GT5 just a jack of all trades effort. It’s simply a celebration of motorsport; one place where you can experience a little bit of everything done right. Vehicle handling on winding snow and dirt tracks requires immaculate braking and throttle control on uneven surfaces, while the more simplistic layouts of NASCAR tracks demand disciplined driving lines using weighty cars that are powerful but also a handful to control. Add to this day-night transitions and dynamic weather and you have so many combinations of car, track and conditions that it’ll be months before you can safely say that you’ve seen it all.
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I wasn’t a big fan of the B Spec mode in GT4, and while it isn’t my favourite here either, being able to build a racing team and guiding your drivers to victory from the team director’s role is unexpectedly fulfilling. The options aren’t quite as deep as I’d hoped and there’s very little in the way of tutorials, but B Spec is certainly a welcome change of pace after your arms start to hurt from wrestling with your car and feeling every bump on the punishing dirt tracks.
Speaking of feeling every bump, I cannot stress enough that GT5, like any simulation driving game, is best experienced with a wheel. There is no substitute for the wealth of information you get from the car and road surface from a wheel’s force feedback. Those new to sim racers should also know that there are no shortcuts here. No autopilot to brake for you, and no rewind to correct your mistakes. There are realistic assists such as traction control, stability management and ABS, plus a driving line indicator, but that’s it. If you’re new to sim racers and are willing to put in the time, GT5’s License mode is a great place to get acquainted with the game and the genre. If you want instant gratification and would like to tear through Le Mans in a Bugatti Veyron from the jump, this isn’t the game for you.
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If you have played other sim racers, you will surely appreciate GT5’s driving and physics engine, which has come on leaps and bounds since GT5 Prologue in 2008. While aesthetically, there may be a massive disparity between the standard and premium cars, when it comes to handling, they’re all equal. Each car feels and sounds unique, and you will have to relearn your braking zones and driving lines on a track with almost every car. Unfortunately, those who like playing from the cockpit view will only have that luxury in the 200-odd premium cars, and when it comes down to it, that is the only difference between standard and premium that matters. You can also tune your cars and buy performance upgrades, but it isn’t quite as deep as the customization options in Forza. Since I personally prefer my cars stock, I didn’t venture to deeply into this aspect.
On paper, the track selection looked a little limited, but even over 20 hours in, there are still tracks I haven’t driven on, so that certainly isn’t the case. While there are some great real world tracks in there, it’s the GT originals that shine. The steep climbs and drops of the Eiger K Trail and Chamonix, and the captivating day-night transitions of Toscana are the highlights for rally events. The Wangan Midnight-inspired Super Stage Route 7 night track is the ideal playground for supercars, and street circuits like Rome, Madrid and London are both visually and technically impressive. Then, of course, there’s the Course Maker, which is quite basic and won’t let you design tracks exactly the way you want them, but it ensures that you’ll never have to worry about not having enough tracks.
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It seems like the Polyphony team has been living in a bubble for the last five years, oblivious to the advances in game design around them. This is clearly evident in the poorly designed online mode, where basic features like friend invites are missing. Yamauchi has always been portrayed as a perfectionist, but several aspects of GT5 reek of compromise. Not all cars have cockpit views, and not all tracks have weather and time-of-day variations. These don’t hurt the game a whole lot, but they’re inconsistencies that are hard to accept after five years in development. The flip side to this isolated approach to development, however, is that the game still maintains its signature charm. In a time of streamlined user interfaces, GT5’s is cluttered and inefficient, but pleasant nonetheless, largely due to the excellent selection of smooth jazz and lounge music.
There’s also a sense of rigidity to Polyphony’s development philosophy. Bumping into cars and trackside barriers doesn’t feel meaty as metal-on-metal impact should, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a lot of other games handle this better than GT5 does. But that also tells you about the conviction behind Yamauchi’s vision. If you’re bumping into obstacles and opponents, you’re simply not playing the game right, so the team simply didn’t feel the need to spend time on something that doesn’t fall within the essence of GT gameplay. It’s also why the implementation of damage was last minute and eventually half-hearted. If you’re seeing parts fall off your car, you’re not driving it right, and that makes Yamauchi-san a sad panda.
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Gran Turismo 5 isn’t a perfect game, but it’s got its heart in the right place. It lays a heavy emphasis on a love for cars, driving, and motorsport, even if at times it borders on overindulgence. There are some technical issues, and some of the design decisions are bewildering, but once you get behind the wheel, and you hear the engine roar and the gears shift, it makes that five-year wait so worth it.