One thing's for sure: few game launches in recent memory have been as dramatic as Gran Turismo 5's. Rumours swirl around its eleventh-hour delay, weeks from its street date of 3rd November, and its subsequent, rushed appearance at the end of the month. Maybe one day, we'll know the full story. But given the state of the final game, there does seem to be an obvious culprit: its online features.
These were completely disabled when we received our review copy of GT5 days before launch, and remained shrouded in mystery until patch 1.01, released less than 24 hours before the game hit store shelves, unlocked them. What we found was a mode that was missing several vital features, was bizarre in its construction, and offered a frightfully unreliable play experience. Even producer/director Kazunori Yamauchi has admitted that GT5 online is in "a critical state".
As I hope my review makes clear, Gran Turismo 5 is a gigantic and in many ways magnificent game, even without its online multiplayer. Whether it's worth buying on its offline merits alone can only be up to you and your personal gaming preferences. But this troubled online mode clearly deserves a closer look.
One of the most interesting revelations of the past few days came in the admission yesterday that online play was blighting the offline experience, because the game is in constant communication with the net.
"Because GT5 performs online access not only when participating in online races and using community features, but also when starting the game and during the various screen displays in GT Mode, unfortunately this online congestion is also affecting standard gameplay," states the in-game news feed. It goes on to advise players experiencing trouble actually to disable their PS3's internet connection if they want to enjoy the offline game without issues.
Embarrassing as this is, Gran Turismo 5 is hardly the first online game to experience serious playability problems due to demand outstripping the servers' initial ability to supply. (Remember the pain of trying to play World of Warcraft in the early days?) Play habits calming down and, one hopes, infrastructure improvements should eradicate this issue.
But the odd thing, given the currently limited online feature set, is that this constant communication should be happening at all. It suggests that Polyphony's ambitions for GT5 as an always-on network game far outstrip its current, slender implementation.
Another clue to that lies in the Community tab on your homepage within GT Mode. Rather than offering online features in GT5's pick-up-and-play Arcade mode, Polyphony has nested them within the game's sprawling career in an apparent attempt at integration. GT5 online is not an afterthought – for all that it's been delivered like one, and currently looks like one.
The Community tab is a sort of bespoke, feature-rich in-game friends list. Here, your PSN friends who have GT5 appear automatically in a tab. You can communicate on Facebook-style walls, give friends gifts (cars and items such as tuning parts, paint colours and Museum cards), follow each other's game progress in the Log, send in-game mail and set up a private racing lobby for friends only called My Lounge.
It doesn't work flawlessly, but this is the best-finished and most interesting part of GT5 online at the moment. It's an interesting and valid approach to community, too.
Xbox 360 rival Forza Motorsport 3 has built an impressive community service around customisation and trading features, especially the ability to create elaborate paint jobs and tuning setups and sell them for in-game money. Polyphony has taken a more limited but more personal tack, appealingly centred around your friends; it shares some of its philosophy with Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit's Autolog. If you expect to have plenty of friends playing GT5, and like the idea of games where you don't feel alone even if playing mostly single-player, the Community screen is a plus.
Before we get to the business end of things, let's talk about two of GT5's ancillary online features, both of which are strictly for car nerds only. Gran Turismo TV offers pin-sharp HD video content for download; it's currently all free, although videos will be sold in future. As a long-time classic car buff, I enjoyed watching the beautiful films of historic racing and concourse competitions, and footage of Yamauchi poring over a six-wheeled Tyrrell F1 car. But Sony will have to come up with superb content if it wants this to make money as a pay-per-view service.
The Museum, meanwhile, offers a collection of "cards" – annotated photos – about the history of several important car manufacturers. These are unlocked at random as a reward for logging into GT5's online servers. It's pure collectible fluff, and would probably be of more interest to enthusiasts if the photos were reproduced larger on screen.
If you want to race others online and aren't using a private Lounge, you'll need to use the Open Lounge, which appears on a sidebar of your homepage – with a conspicuously empty space beneath it, for more features, perhaps. Hopefully, this is where we'll eventually find time trial leaderboards. To sim racers, lap times are just as if not more important than race performance, so their omission leaves a gaping hole indeed.
Yamauchi told us this week that leaderboards are "in the process of evolution" and planned for a future update, along with a matchmaking system. These changes can't come soon enough.
The absence of matchmaking when you arrive in the Open Lounge is a stark and unwelcome reminder of what online gaming used to be like. There's no ranking system in place, and no quick match option either. You're simply presented with a randomly-ordered list of all the rooms currently active, and you pick one. The list can be filtered, but there aren't enough options available for this. Each room generates a string of 20 digits which can be input to jump straight to it, an excruciating longhand version of an "invite" option, but better than manually browsing for it.
You can see the latency of the room and its "race quality" in this list; race quality dictates how much information is being sent and received in order to fit the speed of players' connections, and thus the smoothness of the race. Inadvisably perhaps, this is actually a manual setting.
Either way, they're not a reliable indication of the quality of the experience. Even high-quality, low-latency races can be glitchy on the track, but menu responsiveness is by far the bigger problem. It's not at all uncommon to find yourself stuck in the "lounge" area of a room and unable either to join the race or quit. On one occasion, I found myself trapped for 15 minutes in a purgatorial Free Run phase with no-one able to start the race proper.
Four times in the course of one evening's play, I ended up having to use the PS3 XMB to quit a frozen game and reboot. I'm not sure the blame for this can be laid at the door either of server congestion or poorly optimised netcode; it has to be both, working together in awful tandem to ruin the online GT5 experience.
Not that it would be fully satisfying even if it were perfectly smooth. When selecting your room, you can also see which track is currently being used and the race type: Normal, in which you choose your car, and Shuffle, in which the game selects it for you. But many other important parameters can't be seen and it's up to the owner of the room to advertise them in a text field. Since most don't bother, and since rooms change ownership and their tags end up being inaccurate, you end up taking pot luck. Absentee hosts are also quite common, and there's no way to deal with them.
Race selected, you arrive in the Lounge screen where you can tinker and chat. GT5's support of text chat is rare and welcome for a console game, although voice chat via the PlayStation Eye camera is somewhat bizarre – you can eavesdrop on players moving furniture and arguing with their children. If a race is currently under way, there's a good spectator mode with all the features of GT5's excellent replays. You can pick a car from your Garage and adjust your tuning and driving options here, but unfortunately you still can't view the parameters the host has chosen for the room.
If that host is you, the options available are a mixed bag of interesting, novel inclusions and silly oversights. You can either have total control over the track selection or put it up to public vote, but even in the latter case you still have to pick one from the vast available list: there's no shuffle option to keep the racing pace up.
Shuffle race – which assigns cars randomly, but offers faster cars to players who placed lower in the previous race – is a great idea, but it's currently unpopular. That could be because, no matter where the room owner sets the "Shuffle ratio" for the quality of cars, they all seem to come from the lower end of the performance scale.
I like the concept of Free Run, too – a period where players can try test laps together as the room fills out, and which can even be used for grid qualifying – but its implementation is botched. You can't set a time limit for it, and any player can end it and start the race, which means it's never used properly. The host should be given partial control over automatic limits here.
More satisfying options are the tense "false start check", with which it's possible to jump the starting lights and end up penalised, and the choice to set the grid order by fastest first, slowest first or a reverse grid based on the previous race result. An optional boost for slower cars is another thoughtful inclusion.
The real problem in the room settings is the regulations. Tyre restrictions and toggles for the various driving aids are all present and correct, but the only car restriction options are for racing karts, Ferrari F1 cars (only available at obscene expense in GT Mode) or to manually piece together a permissible selection from your personal favourites and the recommended cars in the Garage.
Other than that, it's a free-for-all, so most Normal Race rooms end up with a ridiculous melange of hardware, from superminis to racing cars, in totally unbalanced competition. Thankfully, this will be the first thing about GT5 online to be fixed; Polyphony promises weight and power restrictions will be added this weekend. They won't function as well as Forza's brilliant performance grading system, but they'll do.
It's not top of our fix list for GT5 online – that would be network performance, then leaderboards, then matchmaking. (Some kind of reward for playing the online game, prize money at least, would be nice, but that is a distant pipe-dream.) However, it's a start, and Yamauchi is at least talking the talk as far as listening to players and making improvements is concerned.
Knowing his perfectionism, it's possible that the GT overlord is privately very unhappy about the state of the online game. Indeed, some will have you believe that Polyphony was so dissatisfied with online that it wanted to ship Gran Turismo 5 without it, but that Sony effectively held a gun to the developer's head.
Should it have been allowed to? Maybe – or maybe not. There's nothing like the baying of a dissatisfied community to focus a developer's mind. Polyphony has consistently underperformed in this area, from the cancellation of GT4's online mode to GT5 Prologue's disappointing offering, and perhaps the only way for it to learn is on the job.
Like the offline game, some strange choices have been made in how Gran Turismo 5 online has been put together. But, like the offline game, that doesn't mean it's without potential. It's just that almost none of that potential is realised in the current compromised and broken experience, and it's going to take a lot of work to set that right.