The First Five Hours
Hour OneYou can look forward to spending a bit of quality time with another leisure pursuit because, if you choose the suggested install (after the day one patch installs and you have cleared enough space from your HDD), you will be waiting for at least 45 minutes, despite the clock timer indicating that you will only have to sit around for 20 minutes. Bring a book, a handheld system or a cup and ball to entertain you. The last quarter of an hour will be spent being shown around the menu screen. It looks nice, there are words to read and you can choose the colour of your driving overalls. When you get to navigate the menu screen you will be confused by the different size boxes. Some are oblong and tiny and some rectangular and massive. All of them are arranged on their own axis so as to cause maximum confusion to the end user.
You might just have time to choose your first car within your first hour. 20,000 credits should net you something reasonable on the second hand market but your choice will be restricted by the new level system. You start at level 0.
Hour TwoThe second hour of GT5 is nearly as excruciating as the first. Your first car will probably be a Ďstandardí car. This means that less time has been spent modelling it and, most noticeably its shadow. The game looks nice but the fuzzy and blocky shadows cast by the grid of Ďnon-premiumí cars instantly breaks any illusion of photorealistic graphics. If you have any knowledge of cars you will have probably chosen a decent Japanese motor from the late 90ís as your starting beast. If you have, donít bother upgrading it, you wonít need to. The first races are boringly easy in a stock Mitsubishi FTO 99. Despite your mammoth install the game is still achingly slow to load. You notice that the corner of the screen says Ďinstallingí whenever you load something up for the first time. Despite this youíll still need a laptop to browse the net before you wait your turn to play again.
Youíll be a bit underwhelmed by now. Youíll think that it is odd that you havenít won a car for getting all gold in the Sunday Cup. An old fashioned licence test might cheer you up. The usual how to stop, how to brake, how to corner feature (and are mildly entertaining) but things improve dramatically when you have to overtake eleven opponents in one lap for the final test in your b-licence. You draft, late brake and slide your way to first place. Youíre starting to feel the control of the car by now. Youíre starting to feel tense. It is starting to click. You finish your test, get your licence and notice that youíve levelled up to about level 3 by now.
Hour ThreeYou still havenít won any cars though. Most people will tell you that this is strange for a GT game. Oddly you have a little tiny lorry in the left corner of your home screen. It now has a number next to it. Clicking on it shows that the cars you have won are no longer automatically added to your garage. So you add your cars to your garage in a step that seems to have been designed purely to add more loading screens to the game. Special Events. They look new and exciting. Moreover though, they are good. Really very good. They are locked until you have reached the requisite driver level (as is the ability to purchase decent cars). Karting is up first and your avatar sits in exactly the same Kart as everyone else. You zip off the line and you spin on the first corner. Just like real life. After a short while though you are blasting around the track, a mere three inches from the floor at 75mph. Steering is fine and precise, braking in corners will ruin you and you are finally on the edge of your seat. The concentration required to keep your kart on the racing line (and the racing line guide in GT5 is still abysmal in terms of indicating any competitive braking zone) is immense. One mistake will scrub off all your speed but it is brilliant fun.
Enthused by this you try NASCAR. This is also done very well. If you canít draft then you wonít win. Fast and furious, maybe it isnít as boring as it seems going round in a circle 500 times. Then, the Top Gear test track! A seminal moment, this should be incredible! Everyone wants to be the Stig! Oh wait. VW Camper Vans only? Thanks Jamie Oliver. Thanks a lot.
Hour FourBack to the A-spec races. You win everything open to you in the first block with your stock FTO. Moving up a level improves things, youíll still win but youíll have to fight for it. There will be cars on the grid with a faster top speed than yours and this improves matters greatly. This is an important point that is paramount to enjoyment of GT5. You must self regulate this game. There is no point in taking a hugely overpowered car into the early races because it destroys any sense of challenge. GT5 can deliver tense, realistic and, far more than GT5: Prologue could achieve, a fun driving experience but you have to use it responsibly. A lot of the early races are for classic cars (pre-1979). These only show up in the second hand car shop and, even though they might not be, they sound like they will be boring to drive. So back to Special Event you head. More karting, the racing is closer now you are playing at a higher level and it is even more brilliant. Youíve unlocked a better event on the Top Gear Test Track now. A twelve car race in a Lotus Elise. This is it! GT5 has definitely hit its stride now. This is a challenging race but not impossible. Late braking on a tight track, surrounded by cones. It is a test of driver skill and it is memorable to say the least.
After a while you finally win the race and youíre in the groove. As you play more courses and load up more content you notice that the Ďinstall and goí system seems to be improving the playing experience. Either that or youíre just getting used to the massive loading times.
Other impressions you will have picked up by now is that you can still play the game as a bumper car racer. The sound of hitting another car is like hitting a cardboard box with a cat and your lights donít work on the standard cars.
Hour FiveIt is late by now but you have levelled up enough to play the AMG Driving School on the NŁrburgring. This is also brilliant. The track is broken into four segments for the first four challenges and the fifth and final test is a full lap. Silver is easily achievable for any competent player and Gold is only slightly out of reach. This is when the old mind set comes back in. You want Gold. You know you can get Gold. So you replay the segments again and again. Learning them. Shaving milliseconds off your previous time. Driving. The full lap is up next. You didnít expect there to be traffic on this lap but there is. Just like real life. Deal with it. That same feeling now carries over to the A-licence test you decide to try next. The urge to get Gold, the desire to improve is driving you now. GT5 has captured you in its magic. The flaws in the (much flaunted) graphics, the massive load times, the bewildering UI and the shoddy sound effects donít matter now. Youíre back in the Real Driving Simulator again and it is great to be there.
Stopping DistanceGT5 is obviously a massive game. There is no need to run through the figures again. These first five hours of play didnít feature any of the following: online racing, ANY kind of tuning, any new car purchases, arcade mode, GT Theatre, B-Spec mode, any of the photo or video modes or the museum and history collection. What the first five hours did reveal was initial crushing disappointment, begrudging acceptance, slow understanding finally leading to fun and a re-ignited passion for the series. Letís hope that it can sustain players' interests after day one.
The Follow ThroughAfter running in GT5ís engine with a few practice laps the real driving simulator settles into a core experience that is familiar to say the least. GT5, like all GT games before it, keeps the A-Spec mode as its standard fare. You pick your cars and you race them in a series of structured events to win money and cars. You repeat this process for as long as you choose to. Within the A-Spec mode GT5 manages to excel and frustrate in equal measure, setting a tone that is maintained for a great deal of its lengthy play-time. The racing itself is sublime, but more on that later. After the PSPís hollow, structure-less single-player campaign the re-introduction of class categories is a godsend. There is a broad selection of events for different types of racing, many of which will be familiar to the GT stalwart. Mini-only challenges, lightweight cups, American muscle cars and, in the early portion of the game, a lot of classic car racing. While this might be a little disappointing for those looking to get behind the wheel of a rocket-propelled 1,000 BHP Skyline this hand-holding offers a crucial insight into the best way to enjoy GT5: with patience and self-restraint.
By picking just the right car for each challenge Ė not too underpowered and not too overpowered Ė the players can enjoy some of the closest digital racing available. Tight victories are so much more enjoyable than cakewalks, and often the best races are the ones where you have to drive on the edge of control to secure a win. Despite what some may think, overpowering your car isnít what GT5 is about. The balance isnít quite right, though. To be able to enjoy the early races you need either a lot of money or to have won a lot of the right Ďprize carsí. If you canít second-guess the order designers intended you to unlock vehicles then you might find yourself ineligible to enter many of the races.
It can be extremely annoying when you need a decent FR motor or an American sports truck and you canít find (or afford) anything suitable on the second-hand market (the list refreshes after each race and is limited to thirty motors at a time), effectively reducing your ability to tackle the campaign races in the order you want to. When you get a decent motor you and you win the challenge, what are you awarded? A car that would have allowed you to win the challenge. A little example of broken game-logic that, like the much commented on graphical difference between the standard- and premium-model cars, taints the experience somewhat.
Thankfully, the wealth of content on offer means that if you do find yourself stuck for something to do, there will always be an alternative pursuit available. The licence tests return, and nothing really needs to be said about them Ė they can be as fun or as frustrating as they have always been. The ability to tune your cars is obviously still included and, provided that you donít go mad: fitting a huge twin turbo to your Mumís 1991 Peugeot 106; it is still as oddly addictive as it ever was. Watching a standard carís BHP creep way above what any sane person would ever consider safe is a delightful experience and one that no other racing game has quite managed to replicate.
B-Spec mode, where you train a novice wheelman how to race, as with a lot of GT5, both excites and annoys. You start with a freshly helmeted driver with very little skill or confidence. If you play by the A-Spec rules of putting your student in a car of appropriate power he (there are no female drivers available) will struggle to maintain his starting position. Put him in a vastly overpowered car and heíll probably win by a few seconds. Things do improve when your driver levels up, though, and B-Spec mode proves to be quite an engaging distraction at the higher levels. You can only instruct your driver to increase, decrease, maintain pace or overtake, but the tactical decisions do take effect even if it isnít entirely noticeable at first. When you reach high enough levels you can train multiple drivers, like Pokemon, and when the mooted option to control B-Spec mode from your PC at work is added to GT5 it will be even more distracting to the workforce of the world.
The new Special Events are continually brilliant. They offer a glimpse of what GT could be like if Polyphony Digital decided to cast aside the shackles of PSone game design and focused on tight, varied driving experiences. Just reading the list of events is like dipping into a driving enthusiastís 2011 wish-list. Karting, Nascar, Rally, Grand Touring, AMG Driving School at the Nurburgring and the Top Gear Test Track. All of the events are pitched so that you unlock them as your skills progress, the new level system takes care of that nicely (as well as preventing you from buying a monster race-car when you should be using a Eunos Roadster) and they all offer a unique insight into different driving disciplines. Here, GT5 streaks ahead of the competition, the range of different driving experiences available is unparalleled.
Where GT5 falls way behind the pack, though, is the online racing. Although a patch is apparently inbound there is little impetus to engage in the online side of things at the moment. With no EXP gains or money to win it wonít add to your single player totals and with a menu system that is even more difficult to navigate properly than the main GT Mode, it is a painful experience at the moment. A little more thought or even a few features from GT5: Prologue would have improved matters dramatically but, at the time of writing, online multiplayer is a bit of a fruitless endeavour.
If all that racing is becoming too much then why not take some time to enjoy some of the complimentary features that are packed in under the hood? The sheer beauty of the premium-model cars (although quite why the C4 Coupe 2.0VTS 2006 is a premium model and the Bugatti Veyron is not beggars belief) in the replays or the photo-location modes is astounding. In still image form GT5 is probably one of the best looking games of all time and is an astounding technical achievement. It can be easy to while away hours browsing your garage and putting your favourite Ferrari next to a beautiful sunset scene just to walk around it taking snapshots of wheel arches, air vents and exhausts. It is a car fanatic's dream.
That is the best way to describe GT5: a love letter to the motoring enthusiasts of the world. The racing physics are sublime. Even with a pad you can intuitively feel tyres losing grip on a wet road, you can feel snow crunch beneath your tyres and you can tell when youíve nailed a powerslide well enough to make up time or if youíve wasted your energy and overcooked it. The driving model is a joy. The chance to drive some of the unattainable and incredible machines, including prototype Lamborghinis and one-off production race cars, from both the past and present is something unique amongst games. GT5 is as much a visit to the museum of motoring as it is a video game, but that is an accomplishment rather than a failing.
The breadth and depth of content on offer is astounding but GT5 is not the perfect driving game. By firmly sticking to some, arguably archaic, design decisions and trying to tackle too much in one package the team at Polyphony Digital have made mistakes. The damage modelling has to be unlocked, which takes around ten to fifteen hours of play. The sound effects are terrible. The need to grind money and levels later in the game should really have been avoided and there should have been more focus on interesting one-model racing. Those who prefer to play a new game for 6 hours and then trade it in wonít get to see a fifth of the content of offer here. But if you are prepared to put the effort in then GT5 will reward you with many hours of motoring enjoyment.