The moment Gran Turismo 5 clicked for me, I was tackling the tarmac rally stages in Special Events. These point-to-point time trials take place on twisting country roads crossing the rolling landscape of Tuscany.
At the intermediate level in the rallies, the game whipped away my habitual crutch, the racing line guide that traces the best line through every corner. But that wasn't the half of it, because these rally stages are never the same twice. They're procedurally generated by the Course Maker system – one of innumerable gadgets and modes that developer Polyphony Digital has crammed into this bewilderingly eclectic release.
I couldn't even restart and painstakingly learn the track, because it wouldn't be the same track. So I watched the road, listened to the pace notes and felt my Impreza countersteer out of bends and buck over bumps, taking my heart in my mouth with every blind crest.
Suddenly – after two days' play – I wasn't playing a sim racing game any more. I wasn't learning a litany of trackside cues and cornering rhythms I might as well perform with my eyes shut. I was driving with the seat of my pants on the open road, feeling a powerful car under me, mapping the next bend with my intuition.
This is an experience I'd always longed for, something I'd glimpsed parts of in Project Gotham 2's Nordschleife Nürburgring or Test Drive Unlimited's untamed roadmap – but never so vividly, and never with such profoundly realistic handling.
For me, this is the Holy Grail of driving games. And yet it's one throwaway and all-too-brief event tucked away in a corner of Kazunori Yamauchi's sprawling empire of digital motorsport. I could quite easily have played GT5 for dozens of hours and written this review without even knowing it existed.
That, in a nutshell, is everything that's extraordinary and infuriating about this vast, mad, once-in-a-lifetime game.
I don't need to repeat that Gran Turismo 5 has been in development for a long time. What's more important is that it seems to have been developed at this ridiculous length and expense in a vacuum, by a studio pursuing its own unique agenda (I mean, procedurally generated roads?) and ignoring everything that was going on around it.
This, as you might imagine, causes a few problems, such as archaic online multiplayer, an unwieldy interface, terrible optimisation and obtuse structure. But it has its compensations too, not least the fact that Gran Turismo 5 is unlike anything else out there – including Microsoft's Forza Motorsport, a series that was made in its image.
The first impression – at least, after you've recovered from a hilariously self-important intro that sets film footage of steel refineries and car factories to modern classical – is one of familiarity. Here are the glossy, slow menus with their cheesy elevator jazz. Here is Arcade Mode, with two-player split-screen, a selection of cars and almost all the tracks.
Here is GT Mode, where you will scour the used car market for a cheap MX-5 or Civic and drag it round Autumn Ring and Grand Valley, taking the first steps on an epic, RPG-style grind of cashing up, customising, tuning, window-shopping and lapping, and lapping, and lapping some more.
Here are those famous Polyphony graphics, which have somehow kept an unmistakeable house style – a hard, pristine CG look to the cars against grainier, more photographic backdrops – through the generational leaps. They're not perfect. Shadows jitter and crawl, frames drop below 60 per second at busy times, the screen tears, and from some angles at some times the game can look quite plain.
At other angles and times, it's astonishingly real and beautiful, even while it pushes 12 fanatically detailed cars around a busy environment bathed in time-of-day and weather effects that lend an atmosphere so precise and identifiable to the real world, it's eerie. Suzuka's suffused in that fine, mist-like Japanese rain; dusk in Tuscany has a perfect, mellow half-light; Route 5's night-time cityscape surprises with an orchard of cherry trees hung, gratuitously, with fairy lights. It is a spectacle all right, but a spectacle you knew you were getting.
You know how GT5 will feel in your hands, too, not least because Sony's controller design hasn't changed much over the years. Once an asset, the Dual Shock is now a handicap to the Polyphony team, and though they continue to coax remarkable rumble feedback out of it, the steering is a touch twitchy and the throttle and brake lack play.
GT5 doesn't control that well on a pad, then, but plug a good force-feedback steering wheel into your PS3 and the game is transformed. This is undoubtedly the best way to experience the phenomenal physical handling model. It doesn't have Forza 3's delicious pliability, but Forza 3 doesn't have its tremendous bite, or its amazing communication of the weight and attitude of your vehicle and the bumps and camber of the road. The range of difficulty settings isn't as wide as others, but you don't need GT5's handling to come to you – you will go to it.
Let's deal with those two old bug-bears next: damage and AI. There is cosmetic deformation of the car models from the biggest impacts, but it's very unconvincing, as if the coachwork was made out of plasticine. You sense Polyphony's heart really isn't in the task of smashing up its beautiful babies.
Worse, the impact physics still have the racers either bouncing off or snagging on each other like toy cars. It's about the audio as much as anything – that hollow thud sounds like you've kicked a cardboard box, not crashed two tons of metal together – but it unsuspends your disbelief at the game's looks in a hurry.
The drivers' AI is much improved, however, with the processional drones of old replaced with conservative but canny pilots who will visibly race each other, make moves to overtake instead of driving blindly into you, and even occasionally run wide or deep into a corner, leaving a tempting opening.
A stranger departure is that Polyphony's rabid completism has overcome its other primary impulse – recreating automobiles down to the tiniest detail. Eight-tenths of the staggering line-up of over 1000 cars are Standard models imported from previous GTs. These cars, available in the used car mart, have been reworked, but still almost look rough – their notched wheel arches, heavily smoked windows and lack of in-car view betray their origins and contrast starkly with the 200 simply unbelievable Premium models in the dealerships.
There's no question which you want more, and the move unbalances the game's roster towards cars from the nineties and early 2000s which will never top your shopping list. 200 of them saved for posterity in glorious Premium detail might have been better, but I guess Yamauchi couldn't bring himself to choose between his children.
He's a great curator, though, and his eye for everything from ultra-rare concepts to historic race cars, tuner specials to iconic workhorses, ensures Gran Turismo remains the only game for the true car enthusiast. The huge number of tracks, too, encompasses racing legends, glamorous cities, rugged nature and Polyphony's signature originals – of which the new Cape Ring, with its sci-fi mountaintop spiral, is a gorgeous, fanciful highlight.
Gran Turismo has a reputation for sterility which it really doesn't deserve. If you know cars and know where to look, there's passion and fantasy and even humour here. And most significantly, there's variety.
This is where GT5 trumps both its predecessors and its rivals. You see, the heart of the game has moved. It's no longer in the GT Mode, despite its improved pace, nor the tuning screen or parts shop. It's certainly not in the vestigial licence tests which are still there but no longer serve much purpose, Polyphony finally having given in and implemented a simple, sensible levelling system to unlock cars and events instead. The game's heart is in those Special Events.
Here you can take part in a wonderfully disparate suite of driving challenges: the rallies (on dirt and snow as well as tarmac), very realistic karting, learning the principles of NASCAR racing with its shuddering 200mph stock cars, racing VW camper vans round the Top Gear test track, piecing the Nürburgring together in section-by-section time trials, and the opulent Grand Tour with its terrifying Tuscan night race in a Lamborghini Murcielago.
It's a more impressive achievement than 1000 cars; this one section of GT5 communicates the spirit of motor racing in all its forms better than any other game. The events are testing but well balanced, and they reward you handsomely with experience and money, which in turn means that GT Mode's grind is greatly alleviated until the later stages.
If that weren't enough, there are half a dozen other variations and crazy interactive trinkets. Take HD snaps of your cars in picturesque locales with Photo Travel. Indulge your armchair driver with B-spec mode, where you level up and instruct AI drivers (not really sophisticated enough to propel you through a full-length mirror career). Arcade Mode has a compelling Drift Trial option, and there's the semi-automatic Course Maker (detailed by Digital Foundry), more toy than tool, but still very impressive.
Steep yourself in the world of cars through the HD video content available to download on Gran Turismo TV, or by poring over the collectible and tradeable photographs in the Museum. Indulge your tech lust with 3D graphics – oddly better in replay mode than during gameplay – or by using the PlayStation Eye head tracking. The latter is sadly too jerky to use reliably, which is a shame, because actually looking round a corner when using the interior view is not just an immersive party-trick, it's useful.
This isn't feature creep, it's an explosion in a feature factory. Most of it is just diverting or, at best, specific in its appeal. Would we trade it all for a year off GT5's development time? No – it turns an accomplished racing game into a charmingly eccentric hobbyist lab, and offers plenty of options for downtime. Would we trade it for a decent online mode? Well, that's a tougher question.
Delivered in an eleventh-hour patch, online multiplayer is not wholly bad. There are neat racing ideas, like shuffle races that dole out cars semi-randomly and a free run phase with a 'track day' feel before the race itself (not that anyone's using that, currently). The "community" presentation within GT Mode, focusing on your friends' profiles, is great; you can gift cars and items, chat on messageboards and follow each other's progress here, as well as start private races. Racing is highly customisable and it will suit a consenting group of friends very well.
As a public game, though, GT5 needs a lot of work. There's no matchmaking at all, so you have to browse a list of rooms and pick one, or enter an alphanumeric code, as if you're playing a PC game and it's 1999. The netcode is unstable; after a long pause I started one race alone on the grid, with the rest of the field halfway around the track already.
The game's lack of a car classification system (less of an issue in the offline GT Mode than it used to be) means an unruly free-for-all that will soon stamp out the use of anything other than thousand-horse monsters. There's no persistence or reward for participating in multiplayer: no experience, no money, no ranking, not even points carried over consecutive races.
Polyphony was left behind by online gaming long ago, and it has a lot of catching up to do. The gulf to its upstart rival on the other console is wide indeed. Forza's marketplace for cars, paint jobs and tuning might not be GT's bag, but its brisk matchmaking and comprehensive time-trial leaderboards should be standard-issue in this genre. They're nowhere to be seen.
Half-formed multiplayer is easily the most damaging symptom of Gran Turismo 5's long gestation in Kazunori Yamauchi's parallel universe, and thankfully it's one that can be fixed. Dreamed up five years ago and served up yesterday, it's an off-kilter vision of the future, a cumbersome game with odd priorities, certainly. But it's equally a game that heads off in unexpected and exciting directions, makes a few notable improvements, and overflows with love – for cars, for games technology and for its own mad pursuit. It's good that Gran Turismo's been away so long, because it's all the better to have it back.
9 / 10