If Gran Turismo 5 is going to be the real driving simulator, then Prologue could be described as the warm-up lap. Although the game is an astounding technical achievement that looks and sounds nothing short of amazing, it's ultimately only a brief taste of the smorgasbord to come.
Prologue is available to download via PlayStation Network or on a Blu-ray disc from stores. As with previous iterations of Gran Turismo, the structure of GT5 Prologue is based on competing in a series of races, unlocking new event classes, and earning enough credits to purchase better cars, though you won't be required to complete any license tests before you're allowed to compete. With more than 30 events to unlock, the single-player game isn't overly lengthy, but it features a challenging difficulty curve as you progress from beginner to professional level. There are several different formats for events, from standard races and time trials to varied challenges, such as overtaking the entire grid in a single lap.
You start the game with 35,000 credits, which is enough to buy a basic car, such as the Mini Cooper-S '06, Citroen C4 Coupe '05, Ford Focus ST '06, Honda Integra Type R '04, or our favourite, the Mazda RX-8 Type S '07. A few race victories should give you enough credits to buy something better, but the option is always there to save your money and complete a 10-race series to win an exclusive new ride. Unlike in earlier iterations, Prologue doesn't give you the option to upgrade car parts, although you do gain access to the quick-tune option later in the game.
Prologue is hands-down one of the best-looking games on the PlayStation 3. Environments are packed with a stunning amount of detail and really make the most of a high-definition display. An incredible amount of attention has been paid to the cars, which look absolutely beautiful as they fly around the tracks. Environments are similarly impressive, though the High Speed Ring's expanses of water look flat and motionless, and the mountains of Eiger Nordwand look less convincing than the vistas on other tracks. Occasional motion judder and noticeable aliasing also tarnish the impressive visuals somewhat. That said, these issues are rather minor, and the game holds up well in two-player split-screen, which lets you race head-to-head without any AI drivers.
Unlike arcade racers, Gran Turismo games reward technical proficiency and have no margin for error when it comes to sloppy driving. Thankfully, the controls are accurate without being oversensitive, with support for racing wheels and plenty of adjustable options for the driving model. These include transmission choice, driver-assisted steering, traction control, tire selection, and a driving line, which has been included in a GT game for the first time here. The button layout is logical and can be tweaked to suit your personal taste. Unfortunately, damage modelling is still a notable omission, so hitting a wall at 180mph and bouncing off unscathed pretty much shatters the otherwise convincing illusion of reality.
There are four views available during races: normal (bumper height), bonnet, above-car chase view, and a new in-car driver's-eye view. The last of these makes the visibility of the track somewhat restricted, given that part of the screen is taken up with a detailed view of your car's frame, dashboard, steering wheel (complete with manufacturer logos), rear-view mirrors, and even working gauges. Resting on the wheel are your driver's hands, clad in Sparco racing gloves that move realistically at your whim. It's a nice addition to be able to appreciate your new ride from the inside (you can also look out of the back window when you press the rear-view button), but it's not very practical. Though the inclusion of this feature is in keeping with the authentic replication of the vehicles, you'll likely end up opting for a less-restricted view of the racetrack once the novelty wears off.
Although the vehicle lineup is respectable at 70-plus cars, it's still only one-tenth of the 700-plus cars seen in GT4. Annoyingly, there are no Lamborghinis, Porsches, or race-bred touring cars, and the 1995 Toyota Celica rally car from the GT HD demo has disappeared completely. Much has been made of Ferrari's debut in the game, especially because there are several models, including the 599, 430, and F40, as well as its 2007 Formula 1 racer. Nevertheless, the popular Enzo is nowhere to be found. Other brands synonymous with racing, such as Mercedes Benz, Audi, and Honda, boast only one or two cars in their showrooms. These misgivings aside, the lineup is broad and even has space for such curiosities as the Suzuki Cappuccino.
Each model's characteristics are reflected in its price tag, with the cheapest cars being rather sluggish and unresponsive compared to the exotic supercars on offer. Despite this, high-powered cars won't necessarily have the best handling available. With so much juice on tap at the press of a pedal, you'll need to give just as much attention to braking and steering if you want to beat the rest of the pack.
The game's AI is quite competitive, and working your way through the game's events will be a challenge for all but the most dedicated racing fans. AI competitors race with seemingly effortless skill and very rarely deviate from the optimal driving line, but they're not bulletproof; on occasion they'll slip up, as evidenced by clouds of dust emerging from gravel beds alongside the track. They'll use your slipstream to their advantage, just like you can with theirs, but they will generally drive defensively. Taking advantage of this by nudging your competitors off of the track can be satisfying, but it's hardly in keeping with the game's sense of realism. On occasion, AI drivers will force you off of the track as well, though this feels more like the act of a driver unaware of your existence than of a fiercely competitive rival. True to the series' past form, your opponents in GT5 Prologue exhibit no personality or distinct behaviour, and as a result you'll never get the feeling that you're racing real drivers.
It will take a reasonable amount of time to unlock all of the cars in the game, but the same can't be said for the tracks, given that there are only six and they're all available from the start. Each track does feature an alternate version, but most of them are simply the primary track in reverse. Thankfully, there's some variation to the racing styles, with four race circuits (High Speed Ring, Daytona Speedway, Fuji Speedway, and Suzuka), one rally course (Eiger Nordwand), and a street course in the city of London that takes in such landmarks as Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus.
Prologue's menu system is logical and well-presented, offering all of the various game modes along the bottom of the home screen. These include news, GTTV, online, online rankings, arcade, split-screen, single-player events, your garage, dealerships, replay options, general options, and a decent digital manual for those of you opting for the downloadable version of the game rather than the Blu-ray Disc. The My Page feature dominates the screen's real estate, showing your current car in a range of stunning locations, including Ahrweiler and Nurburg in Germany, as well as several locales in Japan.
The series has earned a strong reputation for its soundtracks, and Prologue's selection of music doesn't disappoint, with rock numbers during races and relaxed chillout, electro, and jazz music when you're navigating the menus. The in-game sound effects are also as realistic as you'd expect from a game that prides itself on being a simulator. Those of you who are using a decent speaker system will be able to rely on the soundtrack for audio clues of screeching tires, asphalt surfaces, rumble strips, or nearby competitors. The sound effects are spot-on, and really help to enforce the game's realism.
You'll need to download an update to access Prologue's online features, which can be a lengthy and occasionally unreliable process. Once you have it up and running, the online mode is quite disappointing. Intermittent lag causes cars to jump around the track, which makes it hard to predict where they'll land. It's still fun to battle it out online against real opponents, but the faceless nature of the matchmaking system means that the experience lacks the social nature of some other online racers out there. However, racing online isn't completely without its merits as the prize money you win carries over to your Career mode. As Prologue focuses more on simulation than on gameplay there's no auto catch-up for those of you bringing up the rear. Your skill behind the wheel won't always make a difference if the driver in front has a significantly more powerful car, either.
Although the online mode feels rather tacked on, the GTTV feature has plenty of potential to grow in the future. Only four videos are accessible at launch, one of which is the game's opening cutscene. The three other videos are short documentaries on the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X and the 2007 Nissan GT-R, featuring Polyphony's Kazunori Yamauchi, as well as members of the cars' development teams. The videos are a nice addition to the package and should become more numerous as updates are released over time. Worthy of a mention if you're a big fan of the Gran Turismo series is the 20-minute-long Beyond the Apex documentary, which is presented in full HD, though available only with North American Blu-ray versions of Prologue.
Gran Turismo 5 Prologue is a good simulation for PlayStation 3 driving enthusiasts who have a penchant for exotic cars. It doesn't veer from the course set by its predecessors and still features top-notch driving, accurately recreated vehicles and tracks, and a good learning curve that forces you to step up your game as you progress. However, the lack of vehicle damage, the relatively small number of vehicles and tracks on offer, and the shallow online mode conspire to make this a tough sell when pitted against some of the competition.
Gran Turismo 5 Prologue's price tag goes some way toward addressing the fact that this isn't nearly as comprehensive an offering as a full Gran Turismo release, but paying 25 pounds (or US$40) for what is essentially an extended demo of an upcoming game still doesn't represent good value for the money. If you're willing to overlook the dearth of content, the lack of damage modelling, and the problems with online play then by all means get behind the wheel. Otherwise, you're probably better off waiting for Gran Turismo 5 proper.