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.