Nobody does demos quite like Polyphony Digital. There are times, in fact, when it feels like Sony's celebrated racing studio has given up on making games entirely in favour of turning out an endless series of demos - drawn in, perhaps, by the allure of offering up games in bite-sized chunks rather than preparing three-course feasts.
Well, perhaps not. Gran Turismo 5, we're assured, is still on its way, and Polyphony would prefer if we viewed the string of content they've drip-fed onto PlayStation Network as tasters, rather than evidence of an extraordinary demo-fetish. Gran Turismo HD was just a proof of concept. Then there are the curiously recursive releases which appeared late last year, demos of a demo, morsels of content extracted from GT5 Prologue - itself a mere demonstration of work in progress.
Prologue, however, is a sufficiently chunky - and sufficiently polished - slice of game to merit being released not only as a paid-for download, but also on a Blu-Ray disc. It's a carefully selected tasting menu at a knock-down price, designed to whet our appetites for the full meal - but, as we discovered, also surprisingly worthy on its own merits.
A La Carte
Arguably the most remarkable thing about the game is that we're not bursting with excitement to tell you about the graphics. That's not to say that the visuals are not extraordinary, beautiful and detailed - they are all of those things, and it is no exaggeration to say that a new high watermark has been set for racing game graphics. However, the thing we're most enthralled by is not GT5's visuals, but rather, the potential it displays in other departments.
That potential is visible right from the outset, with the home screen of the game - which replaces the traditional main menu with a rather more dynamic dashboard, topped up with info pulled down from the network. Alongside the standard racing options, there are live weather reports from top race locations around the world, a calendar of upcoming racing events, news feeds from car manufacturers, and a high-definition motorsports video service called GT.tv.
As well as the feeds on My Page (as the menu is described in the game - hinting at plans for a lot more customisation in the final version), the concept of grabbing data off the network continues right throughout the game. So, for instance, you can opt to watch a guide to each course, a high-def video tour of the track, its surroundings and its history. It's exactly the kind of detail that you might expect from the car nuts at Polyphony, and the fact that it's taken off the network hints at plan for plenty more such content down the line - although hopefully by then the game will be able to download clips in the background, a missing feature in Prologue which feels like an incredibly basic and silly oversight.
Whether you're excited about that kind of feature or not, of course, depends entirely on what sort of gamer you are. Plenty of people will roll their eyes and click straight through to the racing - which is fine - but we suspect that plenty of others will love the effort that has gone into making this into the full monty for any fan of motorsports. The potential for online content to actually influence the game is huge, too; if you're downloading the weather conditions for racetracks, for example, it's only a small step to being able to play on those tracks in the exact weather they're experiencing right now, or perhaps the weather they had for a real-life race last week, or a famous race a few years ago. Such features are hypothetical - but Prologue makes it very clear that this is the road Polyphony's thinking is travelling down.
For the eye-rollers, though, rest assured - Gran Turismo 5 isn't taking an age to arrive because they're tweaking the menu screens. Prologue also gives a clear look at how the driving experience is being tweaked for GT5, and we're not just talking about a tantalising glimpse - the amount of content in the game is actually pretty hefty. It's got five courses, each with two alternate layouts, and seemingly chosen deliberately to showcase as many different driving styles as possible - and 37 cars, a number that puts some full games to shame.
While you'll have to spend a lot of time playing to unlock all 37 cars - you start with just about enough credits to buy a decent Honda for your garage, and you'll be finishing a lot of race events before you're moneyed enough to splash out on a shiny Ferrari - all of the courses are unlocked from the moment you start playing Prologue. Suzuka Circuit (which was in the demo of Prologue, but is substantially brushed up in this version) and Fuji Speedway are present and correct, as is the GT5 version of the Eiger Nordwand course seen in Gran Turismo HD - a clear indicator of just how far GT's technology has come since then, with vastly improved lighting, piles more detail on the trackside and a gorgeous lick of pixel-paint on the scenery.
Arguably the most interesting courses, though, are the Daytona Speedway - a dull oval track which provides an excellent demonstration of the game's physics, of which more in a moment - and the London course, a twisty and occasionally nigh-on photorealistic dash around the famous landmarks near Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and Shaftesbury Avenue.
London is a superb demonstration of GT5's beautiful lighting, thanks to its tall buildings and narrow streets, and the level of detail in the buildings by the track is astonishing - even the poles and drapes of scaffolding on buildings which were being renovated when the track was created are lovingly modelled. On the downside, this track does have some nasty screen-tearing - but Polyphony seems to be gradually fixing this on other tracks (Suzuka Circuit had horrible tearing in the original demo, which is gone now), so hopefully it'll be a thing of the past in GT5 proper.
These two courses couldn't be more different. London is all about hair-raising slides through tight corners, giving the game a chance to show off just how precise its control system is - each car is solid and realistic to handle, and each one has a unique driving feel. Even controlling it with a pad, you get a strong feeling for the balance and weight of the car; for real car fans, of course, a steering wheel will be the only option.
Daytona, meanwhile, is a showcase for the game's newfound ability to handle 16 cars on the track at once - and for the superbly realistic drafting system, which allows you to speed up in the slipstreams of your rivals by listening for distinct audio cues in the flow of the wind across your vehicle. Yes, they've accurately modelled the wind noise across the bodywork. Come to that, Polyphony has also accurately modelled the engine noise of each vehicle, and the acoustics change depending on which view you're using.
Speaking of views, there's also a new in-car view, which features a perfectly realistic model of the interior of each car, which you can look around while you drive. By the time we were playing around with this feature, we confess that we felt that the obsession with detail had become a bit ridiculous - but we don't doubt that more diehard GT fans than we will adore this kind of extraordinary demonstration of vehicle worship.
One detail we're not sad to see the back of, though, is licences - long the bane of any more casual driving fan who dared cross the threshold of Polyphony's domain. We don't know if they'll return in GT5 proper, but in Prologue, you can load the game and go right into one of the arcade modes or an Event Race challenge (there's a nice selection of these, each with an interesting and challenging set of objectives) without having to successfully stop a car that handles like an angry rhino on a square the size of a paperback book first. Hurrah!
If one failing of GT seems to have disappeared (albeit perhaps not for good) in Prologue, others do remain. Our biggest criticism of GT5 Prologue has to be that the cars are still, after all these years, absolutely invincible - coming away from the most appalling prangs without the slightest scratch to their gorgeously curvaceous and realistic bodywork.
At this stage, GT's stubborn refusal to contemplate a damage system is starting to feel ridiculous. Given the amount of work that has been put into creating the stunning graphics and realistic physics and handling, having cars that bounce off one another without even scraping their paintwork is downright odd. Of course, there are plenty of GT fans who would argue that we're missing the point - if you want a game about crashing, there are plenty of them about. GT is a game about racing.
We'd argue in response that crashing, bumping and grinding is an integral part of racing, and the whole discussion would go in circles until we were forced to admit that we only watch F1 for the crashes and then someone would mention Ayrton Senna and accuse us of being horrible human beings and it would all go a bit wrong. Anyway, the point remains - it's silly that in the most realistic driving game we've ever seen, the cars are invincible. Silly silly silly.
One of the other big appeals of Prologue - and of GT5 itself - is online play. This has long been the holy grail for Gran Turismo, and it's functionality with which Polyphony seems to have struggled for some time. Indeed, it didn't quite make it in Prologue; it wasn't until Christmas Day that it was enabled in a patch for the game, released over the network in Japan.
Sadly, as a result, we haven't been able to get multiplayer working on our test PS3. We can tell you that the game supports up to 16 players online, and that a variety of events (such as races with specific cars and configurations, or online time-trial contests) are available. We also know that Prologue's online functions are rough and ready in some regards, as befits a demo; it's got basic matchmaking functions, but no way of playing against people on your friends list or using in-race chat.
Obviously, this is work in progress (like everything in Prologue) - the My Page screen boasts a section for integration with the yet to be launched PlayStation Home, which strongly suggests that GT5 will have far more advanced multiplayer at some point in future. For now, reports from Japan suggest a solid, lag-free racing experience, but we may have to wait for a European launch for Prologue to give you first-hand details on that. The real news here, of course, is that GT multiplayer is emerging from the mists of vapourware - at last.
We're not sure how keen we are on the idea of paying for a game demo, and there's no question but that Prologue is a demo - the multiplayer is unfinished, the number of tracks and events is limited, and even the game engine itself is clearly a work in progress to some extent. However, we're actually pretty impressed with Prologue. The amount of content you get for your 4500 Yen (about 21 quid) is enough to keep you going for quite a while, and it's not so much a glimpse of the upcoming GT5 as a long, hard look.
For fans of Gran Turismo, then, it's well worth looking forward to the arrival of GT5 Prologue in Europe - and we suspect that for a lot of PS3 owners, this kind of graphical tour de force is exactly what they were hoping for when they bought their console. Whether it can achieve its goal of becoming not only the game, but the media centre of choice for motorsports fans is tough to say at this early stage - but it's clear that Polyphony's next opus is going to be, yet again, a stunning showcase for Sony's hardware, and a bloody good racing game to boot. Look out for Prologue in Europe in the coming months, with any luck - and for GT5, er, some time later.