TGS 06: Gran Turismo HD Updated Hands-On

We sit down with the premier PS3 racing sim and take it for a few laps.

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TOKYO--There are two ways to play the latest build of Gran Turismo HD for the PlayStation 3 on the floor of the Tokyo Game Show. You can stand and play the game with the dual-shock analog control, or you can wait in a slightly longer line and experience the game as the motosports gods intended you to: sitting in a form-fitting Sparco racing seat setup complete with roll bars, a Logitech GT wheel and pedal system, full surround-sound speakers, and a 37-inch Sony display to experience the true 1080p high-definition quality of the game. Needless to say, when it came to our first hands-on look at GT HD since the 2006 Electronic Entertainment Expo, we chose the latter.

It was a fine choice, too. Sitting in the snug seat, fighting the force-feedback controls on the wheel, and generally enjoying the full-sounding car engine and squeal of the tires in a relatively private and enclosed space just feels right and really captures the sense of "you and the road" that makes the GT series so compelling. It helps, too, that the "road" part of this equation is an entirely new track. Dubbed The Eiger Nordwand, it's a long, hilly course vaguely reminiscent in shape of the Yellowstone track in Gran Turismo 4.

While the two tracks might be similar in general layout, they couldn't be more different in terms of visuals. This mountainous, treacherous road features plenty of elevation changes, challenging switchbacks, and a few long straights to let you open up the car. The layout of the track is certainly a challenge, made all the more difficult by the beauty of your surroundings. The imposing snow-peaked Swiss Alps form the backdrop of your race, and on the beginning leg of the lap, you'll get a peek over the perilous cliffs below. The sense of depth to the environments is simply astonishing in GT HD--the mountains feel distant yet are rendered with such detail that you will likely lose a few seconds off your first lap gawking at the scenery. Objects closer to the car are no less impressive, including loads of spectators lining the track waving Swiss flags--it is truly an impressive spectacle. The game's frame rate hung together for most of the demo, dipping only during the tightest corners in the game.

We tackled the course in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IV, one of the 10 selectable rides available (other drives included the Mazda Eunos Roadster, Toyota Celica GT-Four, Suzuki Cappuccino, and the ubiquitous Subaru Impreza WRX), and by the second lap, we were sliding our way around the course with the best of them. If you've spent any time in a GT game, you'll feel right at home with GT HD's driving model. The Mitsubishi felt heavy under acceleration and twitchy under braking (in good ways, mind you), and sliding the tail end of the car around corners became more or less second nature by the second lap.

Unfortunately, we were allowed only two laps on the Eiger course in the slick little racing setup, and it's left us with the hunger to try another few laps with the game. We hope to learn more about Gran Turismo HD in the coming days during TGS 2006, so be sure to check back soon.

[UPDATE] Yesterday, we had a chance to visit Polyphony Digital headquarters and see a presentation from PD president and Gran Turismo series creator Kazunori Yamauchi. During the presentation, Yamauchi outlined his vision not just for the next game in the GT series, Gran Turismo HD, but also for the future of the series going forward.

The biggest news on Gran Turismo HD is that the game will be split into two portions, known as Gran Turismo HD Premium and Gran Turismo HD Classic. The significant differences between the two "sides" of the game are extensive, not just in quantity but in terms of visual quality. First let's talk numbers. Gran Turismo HD Premium will feature 30 cars and two tracks, all of which have been modeled from the ground at a level of visual fidelity that simply hasn't been approached in the game before. As Yamauchi told us, modeling cars for the HD Premium version of the game takes roughly six months for each one, and the models themselves are composed of tens of thousands of polygons (as opposed to merely the thousands that compose those found in GT HD Classic).

As you might expect, the Classic version of GT HD will feature the "quantity" side of the equation--more than 750 cars, 51 tracks, and thousands of downloadable items. All of the assets in the game will come from data supplied from previous GT games, all upgraded for high-definition presentation. Essentially GT HD Classic will be a compilation of previous Gran Turismo games presented in HD quality.

But that isn't the entire story. Because GT HD is being treated as an entirely online project, Yamauchi says he envisions a constantly changing and evolving game after it hits store shelves. The online strategy outlined by Yamauchi included some obvious game features that will be included in the game--including online racing, time trials, drift contests, car clubs, and voice chat--and there will also be some new features that Polyphony Digital plans on adding down the line: spectator mode, bulletin boards, race builder tool, livery editor, and a vibrant marketplace for unlocking new cars, tracks, and so forth.

As Yamauchi explained, the original Gran Turismo games were meant to be played by the user--with GT HD and subsequent games, Yamauchi hopes to provide the ability for players themselves to contribute to the content and make GT HD a more personalized experience, thus the inclusion of livery editors and race creators. Not all of these online features will be available on the day GT HD is released; instead, features will be added over time in regular game updates. In addition to features, Yamauchi said his studio plans on releasing updates for the game's artificial intelligence after the game's release--two such updates are currently planned: one by the end of 2006 and the next in the second quarter of 2007.

From a gameplay standpoint, the physics of Gran Turismo HD have progressed to the point that Yamauchi believes they will need to add multiple difficulty levels to appeal both to the hardcore GT users and those new to the series. The GT HD demo, for example, featured both a normal driving mode and a "professional" setting, which had less grip on the tires, twitchier acceleration, and cars that were simply more "squirrely" under braking. Damage, which Yamauchi jokingly referred to as "the homework [Polyphony Digital] always forgets to turn in], will be in GT HD at some point, though Yamauchi was careful to point out that different cars may suffer differing levels of damage. To appease manufacturers, the game might feature extensive damage on race-trimmed vehicles, while only minimal or cosmetic damage on the everyday factory street models, but this is all still up in the air at this point.

One thing that isn't up in the air is the deal with Ferrari, which was signed and agreed upon just a few weeks ago. The Prancing Pony brand has traditionally shunned the GT series but has finally relented and will feature prominently in the game. We saw modeled renders of Ferrari's gorgeous 599 GTB model during Yamauchi's presentation, and we can't wait to give it a spin in the game. Though details are currently sketchy, Yamauchi hinted that the Ferrari partnership in GT HD and subsequent games may go beyond merely featuring Ferrari's lineup in the game.

One other piece of the GT HD puzzle is the idea of the marketplace. Showing a mock-up of the Sony GT online shopping center, Yamauchi said players will be able to download new cars, tracks, and exclusive items for their version of GT HD. No price point has been announced for any of the items that will be available, nor do we know how downloads will be made available in different regions. For example, if a player is "shopping" in North America, will he or she only be able to purchase cars available in that area? Will cars be available in packs or as individual units? At this point, it's still up in the air. Furthermore, the idea of purchasing new cars and tracks brings up the rather obvious question of unlockable content in the next GT. What incentive will there be for players to unlock cars, if they can merely whip out their credit card and simply buy exactly what they want? Nonetheless, it seems as though a balance will be struck between purchased and unlocked content in the game's after-release support.

So with GT HD coming out and being supported with regular updates postrelease, how does the eventual Gran Turismo 5 fit in the picture? Yamauchi isn't 100 percent certain at this point. Some aspects of GT5 are obvious--eventually every car available in the GT roster will be modeled in the same incredibly precise detail as the 30 being featured in the upcoming GT HD Premium, a project that will take many years. As to what kind of game GT5 will be, Yamauchi explains that it largely depends on the feedback received from GT HD. Perhaps GT5 will be merely a compilation of all the different updates that occur for GT HD in the coming years, or perhaps it will be a logical extension of the kinds of things that are found in the game. We won't know for several more years, however, since GT HD is the first thing on Yamauchi's mind right now. The game is currently slated for release at the end of the year in Japan and Asia and 2007 for North America and Japan. We'll have much more on the game in the coming months, so stay tuned.

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