You could have knocked us over with a PSP Go when, at E3 2009, Sony announced that Gran Turismo for the PSP would be coming out after all. The long-delayed project--first announced in 2004--seemed to be relegated for vaporware status until this year's bombshell. At E3 we got a chance to play the game for the first time, and at last night's PSP even in San Francisco, we got some more time behind the wheel of this handheld driving game, which will be released on UMD and for download on October 1.
What surprised us right away was the game's handling. Whether using the D pad or the analog stick to steer your car, we found the handling to be surprisingly nimble, without being overly sensitive. This makes the tightest corners on some tracks a bit more difficult to handle than you might expect--you have to slow down more than you'd think to whip the car around the turn--but for the most part the cars handle beautifully, and as you'd expect from a GT game, the game does a fine job of making each car feel different. This despite the obvious lack of rumble support, which we'll admit detracts from the overall driving experience somewhat, especially when driving over rumble strips on a race track.
The approach of the PSP version of Gran Turismo is different than that of the traditional console games. Unlike in previous GT games, which required you to slog through license tests to gain access to races and tracks, the PSP version unlocks everything (except for the car collection) from the get-go. All tracks (which run the gamut from the fictional Gran Turismo classic tracks to real-world circuits like Laguna Seca, Fuji Speedway, and the Nurburgring) are opened from the get-go, and in place of running through a series of specific events, you can choose to run a race or time trial at any location. As you complete races, you'll unlock more difficult versions of the track--"difficulty" here doesn't mean different layouts for a particular track; instead, it refers to the level of AI competition you'll run against when racing on that circuit.
Winning events in single-player will earn you so-called "intelligence points" for an AI driver you can use to enter multiplayer races on your behalf. The more races you win, the more skilled your AI driver will be behind the wheel. Why you would want to enter an AI driver in a multiplayer race is beyond us, but as Sony producers told us, the basic idea is so that you can watch the race as it happens, watching the AI driver's line in the hopes of improving your time around the track. The real fun in multiplayer, of course, is in actually playing against a friend, and the game gives you a few race types. There are Professional races, which are for serious GT fans who want to race cars as realistically as possible; Buddy races, where you have control over specific settings and handicaps you can set for either driver; and finally Shuffle races, which put both players in random cars of the same class and let them hit any of the tracks in the game. Before each race, the player who came in first in the previous event will be handicapped in order to encourage tighter racing.
You'll earn cash in both single- and multiplayer events that you can use to buy cars from the massive 800-car-plus roster, which include everything from humble commuter cars to top-of-the-line production models from Ferrari and purpose-built racecars as well. As your car collection grows, you can tag certain cars to your "favorites," which you can quickly access before a race begins. While GT for the PSP won't have the extensive customization and tinkering options you'll find in console versions of Gran Turismo, you will be able to change basic car settings--things like ride height, camber, and so on--before a race begins. Elsewhere, the game will have a series of specific challenges you can play to earn gold, silver, and bronze trophies--these are essentially the same as the license tests in the GT console games and will test the entire gamut of your driving skills, from basic cornering and braking techniques, to full-course sprints that will require the most of your technique.
With Gran Turismo for the PSP, Sony and developer Polyphony Digital look to bring a sense of approachability to a racing series that has traditionally been all about the grind. The new direction might irk GT purists, but the open-ended nature of GT for the PSP might be better suited for the handheld fans, many of whom will only be playing the game in bite-size chunks anyway. Besides, there's always Gran Turismo 5 for the purists. We hope to see more on GT for the PSP and GT5 next week during the 2009 Tokyo Game Show, so stay tuned to GameSpot for more.