Like a classic car that has been lovingly but only partially restored, parts of Gran Turismo 5 look as good as new, while others are showing their age. Developer Polyphony Digital's latest "real driving simulator" introduces plenty of great new features to the long-running series, but it also recycles a lot of content. This is undoubtedly the biggest and best Gran Turismo yet, and despite its impressive level of realism it's also the most accessible, but aspects of both the gameplay and the visuals evoke deja vu, while the all-new online play uses a lobby system with about as many modern conveniences as a Ford Model T. If you love to drive, Gran Turismo 5 is a game that you're sure to enjoy; just don't expect it to have that new-car smell.
Though things improve later on, Gran Turismo 5 doesn't make a good first impression. Lengthy load and install times, unwieldy menus, and music that should be swapped out for a custom soundtrack as soon as possible are early disappointments, and sadly things don't get much better when you enter the GT Life career mode. You're told to buy your first car on a budget that more or less forces you to check out the used-car lot, rather than one of the game's many dealerships, only to find that most of the rides there look incredibly rough. That's not because GT5 features faded paintwork, rust spots, or bumpers that look like they've seen some action, but rather because the vast majority of the game's 1,000-plus cars don't look significantly different than they did when they appeared on the PlayStation 2. These poorly textured, jaggy-edged "standard" cars also lack the interiors of the vastly superior "premium" models, so when you drive them there's no option to do so using GT5's new cockpit view. Climb into a premium car, on the other hand, and the attention to detail both inside and out is staggering. The cockpit view is ruined somewhat by nasty-looking shadows that move across the dashboard as you drive, but they're not overly distracting, and the exteriors on these cars are so stunning that you need to take them into Photo mode to truly appreciate them.
Although the used-car dealer invariably has dozens of cars in stock, your purchases are limited not only by your available funds, but also by your driver level, which starts out at zero. You earn experience points toward your next level every time you complete a challenge or race, and as you gain levels you unlock additional events as well as the option to buy more powerful cars. You might think that being prevented from buying the most powerful cars at the outset keeps those early events competitive, but as in previous games, it's all too easy to win most races simply by entering in a car that's significantly more powerful than the rest of the field. The 45 different race series that make up the A-Spec (drive yourself) and B-Spec (give instructions to an AI driver) portions of your career all place restrictions on the kinds of vehicles that can enter, but they're rarely stringent. The result is that you end up winning races easily, which, while rewarding financially, isn't particularly satisfying. Even race series that restrict you to using certain car models aren't competitive unless you go out of your way to make sure that they are, because there are no rules in place to prevent you from upgrading that car in the impressively comprehensive and easy-to-use tuning shop. On the flip side, it's also possible to unwittingly enter races in cars that are hopelessly underpowered, in which case you're likely to quit before you even finish the first lap.
It's unfortunate that the lax restrictions make competitive racing the exception rather than the rule in A-Spec and B-Spec events, because on those rare occasions that you find yourself driving in close proximity with AI opponents, it can be fun to jostle for position with them. AI drivers rarely stray far from the racing line, but they at least attempt to overtake each other in a somewhat believable fashion and occasionally get something wrong and end up spinning their car or driving off the track. It's good to see other drivers getting it wrong from time to time, not only because it's realistic, but also because it makes you feel a little better about the mistakes you inevitably make yourself.
Gran Turismo 5 is quick to punish you if you do something wrong, though you'll be dozens of hours into GT Life mode before the damage to your vehicles becomes anything more than superficial. A number of the game's driving aids (traction control and driving line, for example) are turned on by default, but while these certainly make staying on the track at speed much easier, they by no means guarantee that you're going to do well. These driving aids are nothing that hasn't been seen in racing games before, but what's especially great about Gran Turismo 5 is how scalable the assist options are. If you're a newcomer to simulation-style driving, you can augment the driving aids with a "skid recovery force" option that automatically gives your wheels extra grip anytime they start to slip. You still have to make some attempt to drive believably, because this option can cause understeer if you try to corner too quickly, but it's a huge help if you're finding the game too difficult, and there's no penalty for using it. If you're a veteran of simulation-style driving, on the other hand, you can turn all of GT5's aids off and enjoy a significantly more realistic and challenging drive with wholly believable vehicle handling and physics.
It's certainly very satisfying to win races in which you feel you've had to fight for every position without the benefit of any driving aids, but by the same token it can be incredibly frustrating to see your chances of winning dashed after a seemingly minor mistake sends you spinning off the track. You might occasionally get to blame such incidents on AI opponents that seem oblivious to your presence alongside them, but more often than not in GT5 your mistakes are your own. The game gives you more than enough information with which to make your decisions on the track, but if you choose to ignore the screeching of your tires, the rumbling of your DualShock controller, the resistance of your force feedback wheel, or the fact that you're racing in wet conditions that make the track surface much more slippery, you have only yourself to blame.
Regardless of your skill level, you'd do well to complete GT5's license tests, which, unlike those in previous games, are completely optional. These tests do a great job of familiarizing you with various cornering techniques and the like, and also afford you an opportunity to get a feel for how different types of cars handle. When you reach the final series of tests, you're challenged to overtake cars on a full lap of a circuit without ever straying from the track or making contact with the other vehicles. These tests are among the most satisfying that GT5 has to offer, along with some of those that fall into the special events area of the career mode.
Special events run the gamut, from races around the BBC's Top Gear test track and multistage rallies, to go-kart competitions and NASCAR challenges. Like the license tests, these challenges don't give you an opportunity to choose or customize your car, which makes them a far better test of your driving prowess than many events elsewhere in the game. Taking the twitchy controls of a kart makes for a welcome change of pace, though it's unfortunate that your AI opponents in this particular motorsport don't pose much of a challenge. Still, racing around in these diminutive open-wheelers is both a lot of fun and a great way to start honing your race craft on a level playing field. Similarly, the NASCAR challenges that are presented to you by an awkward-looking likeness of driver Jeff Gordon do a good job of preparing you for the oval races and NASCAR series of events that you unlock toward the end of your GT5 career. Other highlights in the special events include the AMG Driving Academy's wet weather time trials at the Nurburgring and Sebastien Loeb's fiendishly tricky rally challenges.
Outside of the GT Life mode, where you can participate only in events that both you and at least one of your cars are eligible for, you can set up custom events in Arcade mode that include both solo and two-player (with no AI opponents) split-screen races, time trials, and drift trials. There are more than 75 different tracks to choose from if you include those that can be raced at different times of day or in wet weather, though for some reason wet conditions are unavailable if you're playing split-screen. Regardless, it's a great selection, and after you've decided where you want to race, you're presented with an equally impressive array of vehicles to choose from. More than 50 premium cars spanning the game's entire garage are available for use in Arcade mode. In addition to those, you can nominate up to 100 of your GT Life cars as favorites so that they appear here, and you can import up to 50 cars from your Gran Turismo PSP garage as well. When racing in Arcade mode, you can set the difficulty level of your AI opponents to beginner, intermediate, or professional, though as in career events, tougher opponents don't necessarily equal smarter opponents; they're just faster.
To find smarter opponents, at least in theory, you need to head online. Gran Turismo 5 supports up to 16 players simultaneously without any noticeable lag, and it smartly deals with those who think it's hilarious to drive backward or to park their cars across the track by making them translucent and possible for others to pass through unscathed. Furthermore, as the host of an online session, you have numerous options with which to customize your races, including one that temporarily reduces power to the engines of anyone who collides with other racers or ends up riding rails around corners rather than slowing down for them. It's true that you might occasionally be penalized for minor and accidental collisions, but that's a small price to pay for encouraging everybody to race clean. As the host, you also get to decide which cars are permitted in races, and although you're free to let players use cars from their own garages, the more interesting option is to have everyone be allocated comparable cars at random, with an additional option to make sure that the winner of the previous race gets the slowest car.
It's a lot of fun to race online in Gran Turismo 5, and provided the host of the session you're playing in allows the use of driving aids, there's no reason you can't enjoy close contests with players of very different skill levels. You don't even need to race if you don't want to; in the online free run mode, a group of you can just drive laps of your chosen circuit as if you're at a track day, while the game keeps a note of who has recorded the fastest times. The only major weakness of GT5's online suite is that it's not nearly as easy as it should be to find sessions that you want to join.
There's no automatic matchmaking in GT5 whatsoever, so the only way to find a game assuming none of your friends are already playing is to pull up a list of lobbies that aren't already full, determine which of them offer the best connection speeds for you, and then hope that the lobby names typed in by the hosts give you a clear indication of what sorts of races they're running. Sadly, there's no good way to filter your search by, for example, the maximum power or level of the cars being used. The only search filters you get are the course being raced (which is likely to change after a race or two anyway), the region that the host is playing in (which defaults to your own), and whether the host has disallowed the use of the skid recovery force option (though not whether the host has chosen to allow it since your search options are "off" or "all"). Furthermore, there's no easy way to invite friends into sessions that you're playing in or even hosting. Friends can join the game you're playing in by visiting your in-game profile, but there's no quick way for you to send them an invite that they can simply choose to accept. Each room is also assigned a unique 20-digit code that you can distribute to anyone who isn't on your friends list via forums and such, which is a functional if inelegant way to get people into your room, and a necessary evil given the lack of matchmaking.
When you're not behind the wheel or looking for online races, you might find that you spend a lot of time checking the used-car lot for rare or favorite vehicles. Among the 1,000-plus vehicles on GT5's roster are some real gems: one-of-a-kind prototypes, classic racecars, modern supercars, and all manner of historically relevant models from mainstream manufacturers. There are also an awful lot of vehicles that bring very little of worth to the game; for every car you ever contemplated putting a poster of on your wall as a kid, there are several that look more like something you were probably dropped off at school in. There's something to be said for the novelty of racing in a station wagon, or for trying to score points drifting in an underpowered antique, but there are a large number of cars in GT5 that aren't useful for a single event. And even if you get a kick out of trying to collect as many of the game's cars as possible, do you really want more than 25 variants of either Honda's S2000 or Mazda's MX-5?
You can try to ignore cars that you have no interest in, of course, just as you can do your best to drive only premium vehicles, but less desirable and standard rides are everywhere. Even if you avoid buying them when there's nothing else at the used-car lot, you end up racing against them. It's not just the standard cars that disappoint visually; many of the tracks in the game are also recognizable from earlier games, and while they clearly look a lot better in GT5, they're still not up to the standards being set elsewhere in the genre. Taking advantage of GT5's 3D functionality doesn't help matters either; not only does it add little to the experience and occasionally cause noticeable drops in the frame rate, but it's tricky to calibrate correctly because you don't get to see what effect your changes are having as you mess with the parallax and convergence settings. Just as they don't look as impressive as premium cars, many of the standard cars don't sound great, and when the soundtrack jarringly switches between forgettable rock and forgettable jazz, it's hard not to wonder if so much attention was paid to the premium cars during development that other aspects of the game were neglected.
Regardless, if you've ever fantasized about a Ferrari or dreamed of driving at Daytona, Gran Turismo 5 is a game that you're sure to get a lot out of. This is simultaneously the most accessible GT game yet and the most uncompromisingly realistic driving game on a console to date. It's unfortunate that much of what makes Gran Turismo 5 so great is under the hood rather than on display for everyone to see, but a powerful engine trumps a perfect paintjob every time.