Archive for December 1st, 2010

Games: Gran Turismo 5

I Am A Leaf On The Wind – Watch Me Soar

Neeeeeeeeeeeeeow! My supercool stealth car takes to the air.

And I am flying. No Really. I know how Gran Turismo is the ultimate driving machine only in a box and not on the road and all that, and I know that driving is usually undertaken while firmly on the ground, but I am bloody flying. Because this road has little hills on it and I have just hit one at apparently nearly 200 mph and that’s enough to take all four wheels off the tarmac and there we go, that’s called flying. And once you take all four wheels off the road you’ve totally lost control of that car and you’re basically in charge of a pre-aimed ballistic object and you’d better just hang on and hope.

But everything’s alright if only because at this moment I am in the lead and all the rest of the cars, all of those 1,000+ lovingly crafted cars are behind me. And that’s all that matters. That and the small matter of radically reducing my speed as soon as those tyres hit the ground and I get round to regaining some small semblance of control. And after that it’s on for another five whole laps and eventual victory.

Yes. Racing in Gran Turismo 5 is a blast.

It feels significantly more like really driving (only about 5 times as fast and often in supercool cars) than even Gran Turismo 5 Prologue does. Here you can actually begin to feel the camber on corners, so your car has a sense of momentum and weight rather than just velocity, so it continues round corners when you take your ‘foot’ off the ‘gas’. The right racing line feels immeasurably better and more satisfying than anything else. Different surfaces and tyres affect your car’s behaviour, while each car has its own particular foibles and handling.

I Am A Rock, I Am An Island

But like any new flash car GT5 has its running in issues. For Gran Turismo 5 is an outstanding driving simulator entombed in a chaotic mishmash of gameplay and interface elements. Despite having taken over five years to develop, it seems that for every moment spent on lovingly detailing the cars, tracks and weather systems that comprise the actual driving bit, another moment has been stolen from the development of either the gameplay or the interface.

Gran Turismo 5 is so stuffed full of different elements that it seems no one has any idea of where they should all go or how they should fit together, either practically or visually. Which makes some necessary activities simply vaguely inconvenient, but others insanely irritating. And while they in no way detract from the core element of GT5, namely the actual on-track driving, they can make the process of actually getting to the grid fantastically annoying.

Initially it seems simple, once you decide to dump the ghastly intro movie, which merely reinforces the uncomfortable sense of underlying self-congratulation that lingers around GT5 like an unwelcome stench. You’ve got the traditional Gran Turismo modes, the career game GT Mode, the ‘just go racing’ Arcade Mode, and a basic Track Generator. And while the latter two are pretty self-explanatory, it’s only when you jump into the GT Mode that the problems start to occur.

GT Mode, quite simply, is a mess. It looks like a hyper-excited five year-old’s idea of what they want for Christmas. It’s got everything and it’s all just flung in there with no thought for which bits are the most important or how the various elements should fit together. And there’s this bit,and that bit, and another bit, and it’s all presented in the same breathless, unpunctuated tones your five year-old uses when describing the story behind a movie.

There’s the main racing game, some inexplicable GT Manager type game for budding race team bosses like Red Bull’s Christian Horner, Sébastien Loeb’s Rally School, Jeff Somebody’s NASCAR space, a bit of dirt racing, some karting, the practice area (basically Arcade mode within GT mode), a photo area, the car dealer section, the used car dealer section, and two separate car tuning and performance areas. Going through the mechanics of actually playing the game, as opposed to just jumping in and racing as you do in Arcade Mode, is unbelievably painful. Things that should be easy to do take masses of button clicks and screen changes. Things that should be inextricably linked are connected by the longest, most spurious journeys. And things that seem blatantly obvious just don’t happen. Add to this interface elements that don’t behave consistently and some simply baffling choices about car availability and you’ve got a game that makes it significantly more difficult to actually play than it should be.

Hate That Homescreen

Now I’ve played Gran Turismo 5 Prologue for a while, and various previous incarnations of Gran Turismo, so I know what I expect. And what I don’t. And what I don’t expect is an orgy of bloatware. It seems that where earlier editions of Gran Turismo set the agenda for driving games, GT5 is much more reactive, as aware of what the competition is doing as of the scale of its own ambitions. For instance, is the Rally racing element really an integral part of the game or a terrified reaction to the emergence of Rally Driving games like Dirt? Certainly if you compare the graphics and quality of the Rally section with, say, the Tuscan Night Drive, the former appears thrown together, far less well thought out, with poorer graphics and cars. Could it be that in the five years of self-obsessed perfection seeking development undertaken by the Gran Turismo team fear and panic became the dominant driving forces?

Could it be that after nearly half a decade of poncing around fondling cars and generally back-patting themselves, the development team suddenly realised that they really needed to deliver something and right now? And cut corners, and just stuffed everything into the game and slapped on the first crappy interface they found in a dumpster somewhere. Because that’s exactly what it feels like.

So What’s The Beef?


Gran Turismo 5 GT mode home screen

Garbacious interface. Have a guess how to start the game from here.

It’s tempting to say, where to start? If only because if I wanted to create an effective interface to the many, many features that comprise the GT Mode, I wouldn’t start from here. I’d start somewhere else. Anywhere else. Because this doesn’t work on either a visual or a practical level.

Simply put there’s no hierarchy here, no sense of clarity or importance. You’ve got three distinct levels of navigation and they don’t play well together. As the Prince says to Mozart in Amadeus, “too many notes”. Too much information. Overwhelming choice.

You’ve got Open Lobby the online mode, which is supposed to be the game changing element of GT5, buried next to the main Class A game (where you get to drive the cars) and the Class B game (where you don’t).

You’ve got all the special sections (karting, rallying, race school, NASCAR and the utterly painful Top Gear section) lumped into one area and then almost hidden next to the licences. You’ve got the utterly pointless GT Auto section, which opens up into an area that looks like a badly designed photo booth website, overshadowing the far more useful Tuning Shop, which leads you into the hardcore car customisation system. Meanwhile, elsewhere, there’s my garage full of cars.

Now all this would be vaguely acceptable if only the areas were integrated properly. So I could, for instance, easily reach the Tuning Shop from within the Class A section, allowing me to customise my chosen car without having to undergo an orgy of button mashing after discovering I need a little more tuning to get by in a particular race. Or get to the Dealer or Used Car areas so I can purchase the right car for a particular constrained race. But no, no thought seems to have been given to the mechanics of actually playing the game (as opposed to the mechanics of driving). It’s annoying to have to continually trawl your way through the Used Car area every 10 minutes hoping against hope that some kind of truck will turn up so that you can participate in one particular level 5 event.

Winning an event gets you credits and experience points which enable you to buy better cars and enter more events. It also gives you new cars as prizes. But even this has evolved from the streamlined experience of previous games into a convoluted multi-button mash irritation of a process. Instead of simply showing you the new car and then automatically putting it in your garage the process has ‘evolved’. Now a tiny numerical indicator appears beside the useless Car Delivery icon. Clicking on this reveals a ‘ticket’ for a new car, which looks like a metro ticket with the minimum amount of detail. You click on this and a dialogue box asks you whether you want to ‘use this item’. This doesn’t mean ‘would you like to get in this car and drive it’, but ‘ would you like to redeem this ticket and get a new car delivered to your garage’. So you click ‘yes’ and then, and only then, do you get the cutscene showing you the new car. So a previously simply system is replaced by one that requires three additional button clicks and gives you no discernible benefits. You can only imagine what was going on in the mind of the idiot who dreamt that up. And after winning two or three events and undergoing the torturous process of getting two or three new cars you wish nothing but badness on them.

And then there’s the Circle control. Sometimes it works as you imagine, cancelling an action or taking you back one screen. Sometimes it doesn’t. And you’ll never know which is which. And it will infuriate you. Beyond imagining.

And Yet . . . And Yet

All of this pales into insignificance once you start driving. It’s fantastic. Far more visceral and real than previous versions. And it’s competitive. You begin to have some inkling of what it’s like on the grid of a real, quality car race. I love the karting, the way the handling is completely different from that of the cars. I love the way you finally get a sense of the incline and camber of the hills and corners.

Sure you’ve still got the same crappy AI driving the opposing cars, making some driving more like playing dodgems than anything else. This makes starts something of a lottery and it’s still annoying to make an audacious start, avoiding crashing into the cars beside you, only to have some mindless car slam you off the circuit as it plows its way automatically around the circuit. But ultimately it doesn’t detract from the glorious joy of the driving. Of racing. It’s exciting, exhilarating and fantastically rewarding. I’ve been playing it for hours and hours.

And I’m flying.

[review pros="Outstanding driving simulator, Great racing" cons="Clumsy interface, Irritating processes, Bad IA and bad AI" score=80]