Gran Turismo 6 can be a wonderful thing. It's hard not to admire its intuitive handling, the obsessive attention to detail, and its steadfast dedication to simulation, even though some of the fun is sucked out in the process. It's an impressive piece of work in some respects, but for a series with such a legacy behind it, you can't help but feel it's forever doomed to a life of quiet predictability to keep the diehards happy. GT6 is all about small, incremental changes over grand reinventions. While it is--in my mind at least--the best true racing simulation available on consoles, so much of the game feels antiquated and quaint when compared to its rivals. Everything that's good about Gran Turismo is here, and so too, unfortunately, is the bad.
Things start off well, though. GT6 gets you straight into the action with a Trackday lap--a first for the series--by putting you at the wheel of a Renault Clio RS at the new Brands Hatch circuit. There, you're taught driving basics, such as how to use a racing line and zip around the track. The pacey Renault isn't going to smash any lap records, but it's great fun to drive, and the Trackday certainly gets you geared up for some proper racing. And then, as soon as the tutorial is over, Polyphony Digital falls back into 15 years of horribly bad habits.
Powerful supercars still sound like lawnmowers and hairdryers.
Career mode begins without even giving you a choice of your first car; you're forced into the tepid Honda Fit for around the first 90 minutes of the game. Progress is slow, with credits being handed out at a paltry rate early on, and you're rarely rewarded with new vehicles for race wins. The first vehicle you unlock without having to spend any of your hard-earned credits is only a go-kart. Gran Turismo purists will probably be expecting this kind of grind, but newcomers will quickly be alienated by GT6 when other racing games are happy to put you behind the wheel of a kickass sports car within minutes.
Progress through your career is gated by a new star system and by the traditional GT license tests. There are six categories of races, each requiring a certain number of stars to unlock. Once you have enough stars to unlock the next category, you then have to complete a series of license tests. It's a long, drawn-out process that feels very old-fashioned. If you've played a lot of racing games, then the license tests are completely pointless; not everyone needs to learn how to drive from scratch with each new GT game. The fact that the tests are now mandatory again after being optional in GT5 is a total kick in the teeth.
GT6 maintains the series' famous variety of models and events, and adds to its heritage in meaningful ways.
Thankfully, your progress isn't further hindered by the user interface as it was in GT5. The menus are a vast improvement over the previous game's muddled design, borrowing heavily from the tiled layout of Microsoft's Metro UI. Everything from buying and upgrading cars, to Career mode, online play, and community features is accessed from a single screen. It sounds like a simple upgrade, but compared to GT5, it's light years ahead.
GT6's handling is nearly flawless. The updates to the driving model seem subtle at first, but the little tweaks combine to make vast improvements. Cars spring to life, demanding precision and concentration from even the most experienced drivers. The changes to the physics are the claimed result of partnerships with several automotive parts makers, from aftermarket suspension companies to tire manufacturers. The suspension modeling is the most immediately noticeable change. You can feel the body roll and yaw as you change direction, making it natural and instinctive to correct tiny slides as you sense the car's weight shifting, rather than relying on visual feedback.
Stock road cars are livelier too. In the past, they had very neutral and unresponsive handling, but in GT6, you can sense much more movement through these less-high-end machines, particularly when the nose dives down toward the asphalt under heavy braking. You can anticipate the limit of grip even on standard street tires, giving the best drivers the opportunity to extract more performance than usual from slow cars. That might all sound intimidating, particularly if you're not a seasoned driver, but there's a whole suite of assists that keep GT6's realistic physics accessible to less-skilled players. Traction control and other settings have 10-point sliders that can be adjusted gradually as you improve your driving, starting you off with basic control and easing you into a more realistic experience.
However, while the driving is executed beautifully, there are other areas of the GT6 experience that fare less well. New circuits like Brands Hatch, Bathurst, Goodwood, and Ascari all look superb, but older tracks are sorely in need of a fresh coat of paint. Some of the environment art leaves a lot to be desired too, and is in danger of falling far behind the rest of the racing pack. Many of the grandstands are filled with cardboard-cutout fans, and some locations have some horrible-looking trees and rock textures that look like they haven't been updated since GT4 on the PlayStation 2. Rain effects are disappointing too, with water falling from the sky in jagged lines, and spray from cars looking like a decal glued to the back of each vehicle.
Night racing, on the other hand, is spectacular, with gorgeous lighting and detailed star-filled skies. There is, however, an unfortunate side effect to the entire simulation: the frame rate. It's stable most of the time, but it suffers on some of the more detailed courses, and load times are inconsistent too.
Then there are the differences between the cars. The hotly debated issue of premium versus standard cars that was a big problem with GT5 was supposed to have been solved for GT6. In practice, the situation has improved, but it's far from resolved. For the most part, cars are stunning, both inside and out, but on the track, you can definitely tell which of them are updated versions of GT5's standard models. These cars have lower-resolution textures and significantly fewer polygons in addition to their featureless black cockpits.
In a weird twist, GT6 no longer separates standard and premium cars on the dealership screens. This can lead to spending your hard-earned credits on a new ride, only to get onto the circuit and find that it looks jagged and blurry next to the other pristine cars. Car audio is still a problem too. This is one of the worst parts of the series' long legacy and is crying out to be updated. Powerful supercars still sound like lawnmowers and hairdryers. Changes have been promised for future patches, but at the moment, the audio has been lapped by the competition.
The AI needs a big upgrade as well. Despite promised improvements, Gran Turismo 6 feels much the same as past GT games. Opponents adhere to a rigid racing line, behaving more like slot cars than real racers. They show almost no awareness of either you or the other AI drivers, clumsily turning into other cars, stamping on the brakes way too early, and failing to power out of corners. In this regard, GT6 feel hugely dated in comparison to its competition and sucks the fun out of the racing. The driving itself is hugely enjoyable and rewarding, but racing with the AI is more like an elaborate obstacle course than a motorsport event.
If you want some competitive racing, you need to head into the online lobbies. Multiplayer racing can be a minefield at the best of times, and GT6 similarly makes getting into a race an awkward process. For some reason, the day-one patch removed the Quick Match option from the menus, meaning that the only way to race is to scour pages and pages of custom lobbies until you find one that you like. Users can flag events as racing for fun, for realism, or for drifting, but that's about as helpful as it gets. Icons show you whether a lobby restricts assists or car performance, but there's nothing to tell you which assists will be locked out, or exactly how car performance is restricted. You're left with no choice but to connect to a game and hope for the best. This is yet another area where Polyphony Digital promised big changes from GT5 but has failed to deliver.
Despite its many problems, GT6 still has vast appeal for gearheads and car collectors. Polyphony Digital claims that the game has more than 1,200 cars, so there are plenty of new machines to experience and customize. The possibilities for automotive customization have been dramatically expanded in GT6 with huge amounts of visual upgrades available. There are dozens of wings and other aerodynamic enhancements and hundreds of wheel designs, but sadly, no options for custom painting. On the mechanical side, the tuning shop has been significantly streamlined, making it much easier to see the effects of each new part before you spend your credits, although there's still no way to share setups with other players.
So much of the game feels antiquated and quaint when compared to its rivals.
As well as the sheer number of cars, GT6 maintains the series' famous variety of models and events, and adds to its heritage in meaningful ways. In a first for the series, the game includes a long list of European racing cars from the FIA GT3 class, so you can take to the track in the ultimate versions of the world's most desirable cars, like the Mercedes-Benz SLS-AMG GT3 and the Audi R8 GT3. There are more Le Mans prototypes than ever before in a GT game too, and rally makes a welcome return, albeit with no new dirt courses. Polyphony is promising plenty of cars and tracks to come, much of it via free downloadable content, including the Vision GT cars, which are unique concepts developed by the world's top carmakers specifically for Gran Turismo.
Unfortunately, if you want to build up a big car collection, you're going to need either a lot of spare time or a lot of spare cash. GT6 is designed to reward its most dedicated fans by keeping the very best cars exclusive. Classic racing cars have high credit price tags, meaning that you're going to have to grind out a lot of career events to afford them. In GT5, you could get around this by taking part in the weekly updated seasonal events, which differed little from Career races but offered massive payouts, sometimes upward of half a million credits. In GT6, the first batch of seasonal events offer a top prize of only 12,500 credits. This leaves the newly introduced microtransactions as the only option for busy players to acquire the best cars. One million credits cost £7.99, but the most expensive cars in the game are worth around 20 million credits, costing upward of £100 in real money. Spending money is entirely optional, and you have to actively go looking for the store to do so, but the choice to add microtransactions instead of addressing the grind leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
GT6 takes another bizarre turn in the game's Special Events. These side missions place you in specific cars and locations with unique tasks. My favorite of these is the Goodwood Hill Climb, which puts you behind the wheel of a variety of classic cars at this famous British motorsport festival, and is a neat bit of nostalgic fun. At the other end of the spectrum is the gimmicky lunar exploration task. That's right, you can drive on the moon. In this event, you drive supposedly accurate lunar rover missions from the 1970s. These are slow, tedious events that are only remarkable for the setting and the fleeting novelty of driving in low gravity.
Career mode also features optional coffee break events designed to add more variety to the racing format of the single-player game. These are usually drifting challenges or cone challenges in which you have to knock over a certain number of cones in a given time. They're more of a pleasant distraction than a meaningful addition, but they break up the pace nicely.
The rest of the presentation is pure Gran Turismo, for better and for worse. The music is the now-notorious mixture of lounge jazz and heavy metal, and none of the game is voiced, so you read a lot of text tutorials in the early going. Other areas have been given a bit more attention. Races are introduced with some cool TV-style graphics with details about weather conditions, temperatures, and starting grids, which creates a nice sense of atmosphere that has been missing from previous GT games. Damage, on the other hand, has not been changed at all since GT5. The vast majority of cars show barely any damage. Even 100mph head-on collisions cause only tiny dents and scrapes, and they have no impact on car handling or performance.
It's those little niggles that make Gran Turismo 6 feel so incredibly dated compared to its rivals. Yes, it's nice to have that attention to detail poured into the physics simulation itself, but when the likes of Forza are heaping on the features, it's hard not to feel shortchanged by GT6's lack of vision. Maybe we'll see the makeover the series sorely needs when it inevitably hits the PS4, but until then, Gran Turismo 6 remains a fantastic simulation; it's just not a great game.