Ah, Gran Turismo. All the other racing games were allowed to go out and play after school, strutting around in the latest Goodyears, spinning backwards through corners. Not GT. Not with Kazunori Yamauchi for a dad, sitting next to a roaring grandstand all evening glaring at it over his horn-rimmed driving helmet. "Do you really need traction control?" "Are you wearing the right tyres?" "You're not going out looking like that."
Sometimes though, he lets GT go outside and play with the other games. GT HD Concept is a good example. Ostensibly a chance for Sony and Polyphony to make it look like they're doing some work, and that PS3 Online isn't a total waste of time, it's actually one of the more entertaining things of the last few years to have that famous GT name hung over it. The graphics are irrelevant - of course they look nice, but they're that boring sort of "nice" that makes you wonder whether the artists have all been spayed or something. The real fun comes after pootling dutifully through Yamauchi's Time Trials. After that, you unlock Drift Trial. This is the fun bit.
I'm not giving Polyphony any special praise for working out that it's fun when cars skid round corners. We've known this for some time. But the implementation here is such that anybody willing to sit and watch 625MB of free demo crawl onto their hard disk will enjoy themselves at the end of it. The idea is simple: instead of trying to go round the track quickly, you have to try and "drift" as effectively as possible through corners, with each one measuring your ability by handing out up to a few-thousand points. Leave the track completely though and your corner's worth of points evaporate. When you're done, the game banks the score and uploads the ranking to the Internet.
Okay, we've been here before. Plenty of times. But GT is typically ruthless about it, meaning success is all the more enjoyable, and it also offers a greater number of handling options, meaning there's more for advanced players to explore. Initially you'll just follow the manual's advice, switch off stability management, turn traction control down from 10 to 2, and equip sports tyres to the rear. This will loosen things up as you fire yourself through each turn, forcing you to negotiate feverishly with the controls before you can settle on a course that doesn't turn you round in a circle and leave you destitute in the gravel. But as you improve, you'll want to experiment more with the options available, reducing traction, making more use of the handbrake, changing tyres and so on. Doing so is the difference between a respectable 7,000 points and the sort of jaw-dropping performances you can review on YouTube at the moment.
Whether drifting ends up being a substantial part of the next "proper" Gran Turismo game is unknown, but on this evidence it wouldn't be a bad thing. More rugged and difficult to perfect than the relatively easy equivalent in Project Gotham Racing - the only other series that does the drift-points thing with this kind of intent - it carves itself a niche. Probably using a special sort of tuned-up knife.
Beyond Drift Trial, GT HD Concept is fairly colourless. Eiger Nordwand is a fine set of roads, set on the side of a hill. A Swedish hill with a photograph of some mountains in the background. On the way down, you have to go through a series of incredibly tight downward-sloped S-bends, before scrambling over a bridge and going through a fast and lengthy hairpin, a tunnel, a pair of nippy opposing 70-degree turns, and up into a final, very tight corner through to the finish line. Spectators line the course, waving flags. Views from end to end are crisp and impressive. The PS3 rarely struggles with what's on display, as well it shouldn't since there's only one car to worry about. Once you've done the Time Trials in ten different cars, unlocked one by one, as well being able to drift you'll also be able to play the track in reverse.
For now, that's your lot. It's free, so we can't complain - nor would we, though we half-expected to. Gran Turismo may sell in stupid quantities, but it's often felt like a bit of a ruse. Its distinguishing characteristic wasn't really that it was "the real driving simulator". The biggest gains weren't made because you'd practiced stopping distances in a Mazda; they were made because you'd cunningly shunted a Skyline out of the final turn. You didn't fight your way to the top of the racing ladder by perfecting your line through hairpins; you did it by doing the same winnable race over and over again until you'd bought every car under the sun.
Volume and visuals have always been its real gaming elevators: the volume of things to do, and visuals that are usually beyond compare. The fact that we can talk about it in different terms for once is refreshing, and we only hope Polyphony takes note of the reaction when it's thinking about how best to put Gran Turismo 5 together for 2008. Another endless series of dull races against thick opponents preceded by driving lessons will struggle to excite; a game that focuses more on the amazing things it's possible to do in a car, and replicating those with enthusiasm - as they've done here - will do a lot more for cynical old grumps like me.
In the meantime, PS3 owners, download this. It's ace.
Gran Turismo HD Concept is available to download for free from the US and Japanese PlayStation 3 stores. Polyphony Digital plans to update it every now and then with new features. We'll let you know what happens.