Version tested: PSP
When it was first announced alongside the PlayStation Portable, Gran Turismo 4 Mobile was a statement of intent. PSP, the videos argued, would be the only handheld for which you could buy games that look and feel like the ones you buy for the home. The intervening five years, however, which have also seen the game renamed Gran Turismo, have softened its impact considerably. It's tempting to begin by pointing out that while it does look and feel like a racing game you might buy for the home, that also assumes you're referring to the home of 2004.
But that would be doing Polyphony Digital a disservice. Gran Turismo pelts along at 60 frames-per-second and the developer has wisely sacrificed texture detail to preserve that, safe in the knowledge that the quality of the underlying car geometry will distract players from the odd low-res building in the background, and ensure those all-important replays still exceed expectations laid down by half a decade of portable WipEouts, Ridge Racers and Need for Speeds. They do.
Likewise, the handling model may be cut straight from Gran Turismo 4 - something Polyphony actually claimed to have achieved on PSP as long ago as September 2006 - but that handling model was and remains a cut above the majority of comparable handheld titles. There's real subtlety across the more than 800 vehicles available for purchase, allowing you to appreciate the difference not only between cars with different drivetrains, tyres and performance settings, but between different cars with the same drivetrains, tyres and performance settings.
The issue of realism in racing games is often a thorny one (not least because I doubt any of us has driven a Bugatti Veyron - or indeed any of the Ferraris), but every vehicle is characteristic. Accelerate aggressively into a wide turn with a Honda Integra and you get massive understeer, compared to entertaining oversteer with a Mazda RX-7 and greater stability with a Mitsubishi Evo VII. But the fact you can appreciate the difference between the latter and a similar 4WD car is the more interesting revelation.
All the same, Gran Turismo for PSP is a strange experience. Because while it may look and feel like a serious driving game, it doesn't really function like a game at all for more than a few hours. Following in the tyre treads of pit-stop releases like Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, Polyphony gives you a series of several dozen Driving Challenges to complete - similar to the old licence tests, but with cone slaloms, overtake challenges and beat-the-clock cornering tasks making up the bulk. Once you finish those, which doesn't take very long, you're left to your own devices.
There's no career mode to speak of - just Single Race, Time Trial and Drift Trial options, for which you pick a car and a track and then have at it, without any structured progression or notable unlocks (apart from the option to choose from your own MP3s for the soundtrack, and making that an unlockable just feels cheeky). Instead you just bash away with no particular goal in mind besides accumulating credits to buy cars. The only restriction is that the Car Dealerships only show certain manufacturers at certain times. It's not a great substitute for a career mode.
There is also an Ad Hoc multiplayer mode where you can take part in four-player wireless races or trade cars. There are a few race modes for local wireless, including a couple of ways to accommodate different skill levels (staggered starts and adjustable car performance), along with several options for the host to help keep things competitive (giving cars that fall behind a boost) and fair (punishing players for collisions). You can also fill out the field with AI cars or employ an AI driver on your behalf, whom you can level up by completing races in single-player.
However, that limit of four cars per race is true throughout the game, so it never really feels very populated - a sensation not enhanced by the absence of any online options. Perhaps online racing was a bit much to expect (although others manage it), but what about leaderboards? Drift Trial and Time Trial are crying out for them.
This will be a particular issue for people who struggle to find local competition, because there's limited fun in racing against your own times, and the CPU-controlled cars in single-player are thoroughly boring opponents. With no damage modelling or penalties in this mode for ramming, you can bully other cars out of the way on the first corner and then stay ahead without much difficulty. When you come up against speedy foes, they telegraph manoeuvres, stick to the racing line and make little effort to protect themselves while cornering.
The result is a game that by any reasonable measure is absolutely rammed with content - 800 cars, 35 tracks (most of which can be played in reverse, and several of which have multiple layouts) and a decent amount of tuning options (nothing like a full GT game, but enough to make a difference) and gameplay scenarios - but which feels awfully slight. It's especially galling because Driving Challenge gets better and better while it lasts. The idea of taking world-famous corners (like Nurburgring's Carousel) and making a short task out of them, giving you medal-winning times to compete for, could fill out as many challenges as you get in the whole mode. Instead you get half a dozen examples of each of a few good ideas and that's it.
You could argue that you're getting all the content you could possibly want and are then invited to explore it without restriction, and it's certainly possible to enjoy the game like this. I've lost countless hours over the weekend hunting down slippery sports cars, turning off all the assists and fiddling with Quick Tune, and then pitching them against hectic circuits in Drift Trial, my particular favourite.
But structured single-player career modes are more than just fuss; they're a way to regulate difficulty, excitement and choice so that the player gets just enough of each on an ongoing basis. Relying on players to make their own fun is either lazy or foolhardy. Coupled with archaic AI and the isolating absence of PlayStation Network support, this makes for a game that feels unfocused and regressive, despite its considerable technical and mechanical accomplishments.
7 / 10