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.
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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.