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Gran Turismo 5
Score: 90%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Developer: Polyphony Digital
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 2 / 2 - 16 (Online)
Genre: Racing (Simulation)/ Racing (Arcade)/ Racing (Kart)

Graphics & Sound:
In general, the presentation in Gran Turismo 5 is outstanding. The introduction video feels every bit exactly like an educational how-things-are-made video straight off of Mr. Rogers' "Picture-Picture." So, now I know the processing behind making wax crayons, rubber balloons and now... cars. It's an interesting video with scenes depicting everything from mining ore, to smelting and refining it, to pressing the parts out of sheet metal, assembly, corrosion-proofing... from the ground to the street, all accompanied by a classical piano piece. Then, once the rubber hits the metal, the music - and the mood - changes, to some fast-paced, pumping alternative music as we shift into the aspects of racing.

I think this intro does a really good job of setting the stage for what you experience next. This intro, like Gran Turismo 5, itself, has a split personality. The first half, the half that's all about getting it right - the simulation side, if you will - is a big part of any Gran Turismo game, and is evident in the realistic car models and tracks. This side is all about the history of the cars, the elegance of their designs. This side is where you get things such as the "Museum" Mode, which has photographs of vehicular historical significance, and the "Photo Travel" Mode, which allows you to set up and shoot a photo-shoot of exotic cars at exotic locations. These aren't features you'd expect to see in any other racing game, as they're not particularly racing-related, per se, or at least not directly related to the act of racing in a racing game.

The other side of Gran Turismo 5, the gritty, pumping alternative-music-driven side is the side you'd expect to see in a racing game. This side is all about launching a high-precision ton of metal down a hot, sticky, asphalt road that unwinds violently ahead of you, and about fighting tooth and nail to claw your way past other like-minded racers in the desire - nay, the need to be the first across the finish line. This side is responsible for the fact that you can upgrade your vehicles with high-performance parts to make your cars go faster... and for the fact that there's an Arcade Mode at all.

The sound effects clearly come from the Simulation side, with everything sounding very realistic, from the whine of a compact car as it struggles to gain anything resembling speed to the throaty roar of a supercar engine as it powers its way around a track, struggling to get out of your grips in the attempt to leave the track completely.

The music selection is one place that the sides seem to find some sort of harmony; there is an odd mix of music covering a wide pallet of genres, from Classical, Jazz and Bossa Nova to Alternative, Rock and Dance/Electronic, among others. This isn't a collection of the biggest and best hits ever, but then again, this isn't a music game. Several of the songs are versions specifically made for Gran Turismo 5 and seem to be extended versions to help them last the length of a race. (There is even a version of "Heads Will Roll" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, so Psibabe was happy.)


Gameplay:
Gran Turismo isn't satisfied with being the be-all-end-all for fans of hyper-realism in their racing. Case in point, Gran Turismo 5 not only offers the Arcade, Simulation and Rally racing found in previous versions, but also decided to try their hand at Kart racing and NASCAR, as well. Additionally, Top Gear (the British television series) is represented here, as well, with some novel racing events (such as racing vintage VW buses) and being featured in the License Tests.

The arcade side lets you jump in and play, without concern for advancing a racing career. There are Single Races, where you choose a car, a track and a difficulty level (Beginner, Intermediate or Expert) and you're off to the races. The Time Trial mode lets you push your car to the limits alone (or against a "ghost car" representing your best performance so far), as you try to do your best and get the lowest lap time you can achieve. This is, by the way, a good way to get familiar with a track. Drift Trial is a mode where you attempt to take your car to the edge of control, getting your car to slip sideways (typically as you round a corner) without running into anything, leaving the track or getting turned around to the point that your car is moving backwards. This takes a lot of control and practice. 2P Battle lets you play against a friend locally, in a split screen two-player race.

The simulation side of things is called "GT Life" in Gran Turismo 5, and this area serves as your "desktop" for launching into A-Spec races, where you advance your racing career, B-Spec races, where you advance your career as a coach managing your own racing team, and Special Events, where you'll find Kart racing, NASCAR training with Jeff Gordon, Top Gear races and other interesting racing events. Open Lobby is where you can take your game "on the road" and play online against other gamers.

GT Life also provides access to Car Dealerships and Used Cars, where you can purchase new cars for your garage, as well as the Tuning Parts Shop and GT Auto, where you can enhance your cars and keep them in good running shape.

There are five different tiers in A-Spec: Beginner Series, Amateur Series, Professional Series, Expert Series and Extreme Series, each tier requiring a specific minimum experience level to gain access. Each time you participate in a race or work toward a license, you'll gain some experience toward higher levels and the additional rewards higher levels unlock, from tiers, to individual races... even cars have a minimum experience level at which you are allowed to purchase them. As you progress to new levels, you'll want to check the Special Events from time to time to see what of those you've unlocked, as well.

B-Spec has the same five series, and works in much the same way, with the exception that you're coaching and managing a racing team, rather than driving a car yourself. It's important to remember that, more than anything, you're managing people. You'll need to keep track of your driver's mood; if you push your driver too hard, he'll make more mistakes, which will cost you in the long run. Remember that in a race with four or even six laps, you don't have to (or even want to) make it into first place as soon as the race starts. Your ultimate goal is to get there not long before the end, where you can use others' slipstreams to your advantage, learn the track by watching the cars ahead of you and watch for openings that allow you to overtake other drivers with less chance of losing control.

Also found here are the Licenses, where you can prove your skills in a variety of short objective racing lessons. Passing all of the tests in a given license earns you that license and unlocks rewards. You can also access Gran Turismo TV and the Museum from GT Life, as well as various options settings, from music selection to steering wheel controller selection and even 3D Television functionality.


Difficulty:
Don't let the fact that Gran Turismo 5 has an "Arcade" Mode fool you. This is actually more of a "Quick Play" Mode than an "Arcade" Mode. The aspect of Gran Turismo games (including Gran Turismo 5) that can frustrate some players is the technical strictness that the realism brings with it. Arcade racers - especially those that aren't coin-operated - want you to win or at least place. They want you to do well. They actually build in-game mechanics that help you out in times of need. If you've ever played a racing game where you messed up and fell behind, only to make a massive recovery later in the race and end up in first place in a "Cinderella Story" fashion, you've most likely won at least in part due to the "rubber band" effect (see link below). If you mess up badly in Gran Turismo 5, you might as well either restart the race or find other things to amuse yourself... you're not catching up. That is, of course, unless you've stacked the deck by bring an overpowered car with you or you make use of the fact that Gran Turismo 5 is just a game, while its A.I. drivers drive as if it were real...

The one tool in your favor is the fact that you can smack the heck out of your car without taking much damage. While it's great to learn how to drive a race car the "right" way, as your simulation side is telling you, it can be more fun and, at times, more rewarding to listen to your arcade side and exploit the fact that all of the A.I. racers will line themselves up in a line and carefully brake to take a turn... isn't it funny how much a row of cars lined up like that looks like a guard-rail? Just gun your car into the corner, and take the turn hard, lining your car up so that when you lose control, your side will slide into another race car, keeping you from sliding off the track. More than likely, you're heading the right direction now and moving faster than the other cars that were braking carefully for the corner. Use this to your advantage and make your play for the front of the pack. Sometimes, this will get me in first place coming out of the very first turn in the track. Mind you, once you're in front of the pack, you're going to have to be able to show off those technical skills that your simulation side keeps nagging you about or the other cars will catch up to you, use your slipstream to gain some extra acceleration and overtake you... and if you slip up and slam into a wall, you can fully expect the entire pack to ceremoniously pass you up. (I find this typically happens to me near the end of the last lap of a race.) Now, in all honesty, you will take some scrapes here and there on any car and, if you really trash your car, some heavier damage is possible on Premium cars, so use this tip cautiously.

The only other advice I can give on the difficulty is to hang in there. You earn some money when you finish a race, even if you come in last place. This money can be used to repair your car to regain lost performance, enhance your car to increase your performance or purchase new cars, either to bring something a little more powerful to a race that's giving you problems or to make new races available to you.


Game Mechanics:
As I mentioned in the beginning of this review, the overall presentation of Gran Turismo 5 is for the most part excellent. One thing that I found strange, however, was that shadows and environmental particle effects, such as snow and dust, have an extremely noticeable jagged edge to them. I don't know why this is, but it stands in stark contrast to the otherwise ultra-realistic smoothness of the car models. It can be distracting at times, if you are watching replays or are driving in a third-person view - especially if there are a lot of environmental particle effects on the track. I am personally hoping this is addressed in an update at some time in the near future.

Gran Turismo 5 should be a field day for car enthusiasts, with the various extra-curricular "special features," from historical snapshots, to each cars' description, to the videos in Gran Turismo TV, and the Photo Capture Modes. It's not, however, highly approachable - even in Arcade Mode. If you want to win races, you'll need to learn how to control a car while racing.

I don't have a 3D television yet, but for those who do, Gran Turismo 5 supports 3D television, both for playing the game and even for taking pictures in the Photo Modes. Set your camera for taking 3D pictures, and the game will generate a 3D image compatible for viewing on a 3D television.

Gran Turismo 5 supports a slew of steering wheels, for those of you who have the desire and the room to better simulate a racing setup. Not only that, but, supposedly, if you have a PlayStation Eye, you can use its facial tracking to control changing your view when you start to look to the side, if you race in Premium cars in the cockpit view. Mind you, I've calibrated my PlayStation Eye and it tracks my face just fine in the options screen, but I haven't been able to find any course that actually supported this feature. My review copy didn't include a manual, and the in-game manual doesn't really offer much more insight than the help text on the PlayStation Eye setting screen did. Searching around the Internet, I found some people saying that it worked on certain tracks in Arcade Mode, although, as of this writing, I have yet to get it to actually work. It's a pity, as this sounds like an interesting and useful feature.

For those who like to tinker, Gran Turismo 5 includes a Course Maker feature, which can be used to create tracks which you can use in Arcade Mode and can share with others. Rather than directly changing the direction of the track sections, however, you merely manipulate some parameters, such as how many sections the track will have, how complex each section will be, how tight the curves will be and how wide the road will be, and the game builds a track to your specifications. While this isn't as hands-on as track editors in other games, the resulting tracks can be quite good.

The one thing that is woefully absent in Gran Turismo 5 is the ability to customize the look of your cars. This is one aspect of the game that the simulation side won and I wish the arcade side had, instead. Why, even when you paint a car, you have to select from colors of which you have paint chips, and once you use one, it's gone. That might be acceptable - if you didn't also have to pay a couple thousand dollars to get the paint job. The reality of custom paint jobs is that they're not cheap... but that reality isn't fun, and our arcade side is looking to escape this boring reality with a racing game that lets us customize the look of our cars without paying a virtual arm and leg.

If you're looking for realism and you're interested in the history of that beloved machine we call the automobile, there's nothing that comes anywhere close to Gran Turismo 5. If you're more of the arcade racing type, you should give Gran Turismo 5 a rental before buying; you may find it short on the over-the-top arcade action you want and full of features you don't.


-Geck0, GameVortex Communications
AKA Robert Perkins

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