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Gran Turismo and Me: A Retrospective

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As an 11-year-old nerd without a care in the world past the annoying homework I’d have to do every now and then, I had a lot of time to spend playing videogames. For my 11th birthday, I received a Sony PlayStation with 5 games. The one game I remember was Gran Turismo.

Gran Turismo

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I never really knew a lot about cars. Gran Turismo was a whole new world – 150 cars, most of them exotic cars from Japan I’d never heard of, some I had, all of them shiny and exciting! Even back in the days of the PlayStation, these vehicles were painstakingly recreated, each with their own driving and handling characteristics.

Though this has now changed in later versions in the series, there was no damage or dirt build-up on any of the car models. This was even more hilarious given there was an in-game “car wash”, costing 50 in-game credits which essentially spun the car around really fast and came out as clean and shiny as it was before it went in.

There was nothing else like it. At least, not on consoles. Tearing up Grand Valley East in a Dodge Viper, or trying to master the night-time-based Clubman Stage Route 5 in reverse with a Nissan R33 Skyline GT-R became an obsession for my young mind.

The challenge from the game’s AI drivers wasn’t great, however. You could usually get past the pack and easily hold first-place for the rest of the race as long as you didn’t screw up. It was really the search for the perfect racing line, the endless striving for just a millisecond-shorter lap time every time you hit the track. That was what drew you back to the game for just one more race. I also had this challenge I set myself to try and flip the cars by bombing it down straights and straight into walls. Alas, it was actually impossible to flip GT’s cars, but I kept trying!

Gran Turismo 2

After selling 4.3 million units in Europe alone, a sequel was undoubtedly just around the corner. In the year 2000 (in Europe – 1999 in Japan and USA) Gran Turismo 2 was unleashed into the gamersphere to great critical and commercial success. The 150 cars from the original ballooned to over 650, unprecedented for a game of the time. It was a car-nut’s dream.

Want to take a Volkswagen Lupo around the High Speed Ring? Go for it. Have a craving for hooning a TVR Chimaera around Laguna Seca? Not a problem. That’s another addition – real-life race tracks. GT2 had some fantastic original courses, but also a set of tracks you could really go to in the real world! The Rome circuit and aforementioned Laguna Seca being highlights, with the infamous “Corkscrew” at Laguna Seca being one of the most satisfying (or nightmare) elements of any track in the game.

This insane library of cars was a drug for my young and fragile mind. I remember the hideous amount of Nissan Skylines and Mazda RX-7’s and the fact I wanted them all in a Pokemon-esque “Gotta catch ‘em all!” frenzy.

Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec

Just a couple of years later, Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec was launched on Sony’s next-generation PlayStation 2 console. A huge upgrade graphically, the game was actually smaller than its predecessor, once again only hosting just over 150 cars and 20 tracks. It was the pure and insane attention to detail that made the game stand out, though, and which led GT3 to sell just shy of 15 million copies and become the highest-selling game in the series to date.

It was the original Gran Turismo which opened the gates to car-nerdery, but it was GT3: A-Spec and its reserved beauty that sucked me in. The extra horsepower provided by the PS2’s “Emotion Engine” processor was used well here, with more emphasis placed on quality than quantity.

The improvements over the previous generation’s titles were numerous. Cars handled better, they looked better. The courses popped with more colour and more detail.

Gran Turismo 4

After the success of the third, came the fourth. Released in 2005 in Europe and the USA (2004 for those lucky Japanese gamers), it was notable for the installment’s huge garage of over 700 cars from over 80 manufacturers. It was also one of only four games on PlayStation 2 capable of outputting in “1080i” resolution, well ahead of the High Definition revolution that would happen with the next PlayStation console.

There wasn’t much of a change to how the game really felt, though. In fact, in comparison to its predecessor it felt a little cumbersome and overreaching.

As bulky as it was, it was a car lover’s paradise. Just looking through the list of motors available, you just knew the game was made by people with a passion for the subject. GT4 featured out-there choices such as the Daimler Motor Carriage from 1886 and a futuristic and specially-designed “Nike ONE” hypothetical concept car designed by Phil Frank (who previously designed the Saleen S7).

Gran Turismo had evolved. Where once it aspired simply to be “The Real Driving Simulator”, it was now an interactive history of the automobile industry, with some driving thrown in. Some of the cars weren’t even allowed to be raced, instead letting you take part in time trial events, or just drive around the Nurburgring to experience the.. er.. experience of it all. Gearheads still loved it, though, as did I. Today, the stakes are higher and the competition fiercer for the racing simulation crown. After 5 years of waiting, Polyphony Digital and Sony released Gran Turismo 5 in time for Christmas 2010. After such a long gestation period, however, it was never going to live up to the expectations of the series’ loyal but tired fanbase. In the time between Gran Turismo 4 and 5, a rival appeared from Turn 10 Studios named Forza Motorsport on Microsoft’s rival XBOX platform. Between 2005 and 2010, there were no less than 3 Forza games released, with the fourth in the franchise being released in 2011. There was a real, young, modern competitor to the GT throne.

Gran Turismo 5

I bought GT5 on release. I paid my money, took it home, ripped the wrapper off and got the disc in my PlayStation 3’ s drive. What I was greeted with will haunt me to my last breath: A mandatory install of the game. Not only that, but a 45-minute installation period before you could even get to the title screen.

Once in, a wave of nostalgia washes over you. The cheesy elevator music, the sound effects, the clean but old-fashioned menus, the one-and-a-half-minute loading times for races. Wait.. I don’t remember that from the old games. I also don’t remember the “Premium” and “standard” vehicle divide.

That’s right, the game split its cars into two categories – those designed for GT5 and those imported across from GT4 with not much more than a spit-shine. Premium cars got highly-detailed interior views, working windscreen wipers and detailed damage models – essentially what you’d expect from a current-generation driving game.

In contrast to this, the Standard motors had lower polygon counts and a very basic (read: almost non-existent) damage model.

Is this what Gran Turismo has become? A beautiful yet bloated and incomplete collection of cars of differing quality? On the track, things started to come together, with the series’ incredible and realistic physics models coming into play and creating an authentic racing experience. The game was well-and-truly a Gran Turismo title, but is that enough? The AI mentioned earlier hasn’t changed – opponents blindly follow racing lines without reacting to you making your way to the front of the pack. The damage, while welcome, has little impact on the performance on the vehicle, and the game stutters and drops in frame-rate when a full field of cars is in view – even worse when the pretty rain effects are turned on!

I took it back to the store within 2 weeks. A few months later, Polyphony announced a Spec 2.0 update bringing interior views to standard cars among other changes to highly-criticised elements.

The Future of GT

So, what next for the prestigious but old-fashioned series? Gran Turismo 6 was announced in May 2013 for release in November. Will Polyphony Digital have learned from their mistakes with GT5? Will it even see the light of day this year, or keep us waiting for another 5 years before appearing on Sony’s next-gen PS4 console? Will I ever get the excitement and joy I once had as a child from a Gran Turismo title?

There’s no racing franchise that creates as much buzz as Gran Turismo. The care, attention and passion the development team puts into every game is astonishing, though it’s also their downfall. The foundations are there with GT5. Now they simply need to live up to the promises they failed to keep last time around.

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