Oh Gran Turismo, forever a series that comes up with ways to delight just as often as it comes up with new ways to disappoint. So it's been for coming up to 20 years, and so it is with Gran Turismo Sport's big July update - all of which amounts to the most profound change that's been made to Polyphony Digital's PlayStation 4 exclusive since it came out last October, a patch that alters the fundamentals while adding a suite of new features on top, with some decidedly more welcome than others.
There's good stuff in there - plenty of it, in fact. For the nerds and the tinkerers - and I'm very much talking about myself here - there's the ability to design your own overalls and helmet. It's an absolute blessing if all you've ever wanted to do is get your own Derek Bell replica helmet design in-game, all while serving up some Toyota and Denso realness with a new set of overalls that look just lovely when sitting in a Supra and hotlapping the Nordschleife. And thanks to Gran Turismo's active, talented community there's no shortage of designs to choose from online - so if there's a particular era of Alonso lid that you're after you've pretty much covered.
Under the hood there's been some significant alterations too, and indeed the biggest change made by the July update is the one that's hardest to quantify. The handling model has undergone a fairly big overhaul, and it's a noticeable improvement. This isn't the first time there have been tweaks in this department, though the changes made post-launch never quite sat right with me - cars became too pointy and too planted, but now after the July update they're much more analogue beasts, and the importance of staying on the racing line seems to have been underlined with the new tyre model.
It feels wonderful, and after a short break it's lovely to get reacquainted with the tangible sense of weight transfer working together with suspension dynamics to create some real magic. Gran Turismo Sport might not quite be best in class in this department anymore - if it really wants to keep up the pretence of being a sim it'd do well to give us control of the DRS system in the newly minted Mercedes W08 F1 car, or take a leaf out of Project Cars 2's book and be a bit more explicit in how it manages ERS in the LMP1 cars - but feeling the weight of a GT3 car wash up against the extremities of a track as you guide it round has something of the sublime.
A new track joins the mix, too, and while we all wait for the inevitable and overdue arrival of Spa-Francorchamps we'll have to make do with Sainte-Croix - a long, complex track that's so light on assets it looks like it was conjured up in Gran Turismo 6's track editor. Some of those layouts aren't particularly inspiring, either - with the abundance of 90 degree turns in a fair few of them it brought to mind nothing less than Phoenix's short-lived F1 street circuit, host to a grand prix in 1991 that's gone down in infamy for failing to attract as many spectators as an ostrich festival going on elsewhere in town. Still, there's at least some variety in the longer layouts, as well as a lovely lavender field to race by, so it's not all bad.
All of which is gratis, a nice fact that doesn't quite do enough to make up for the more unwelcome of Gran Turismo Sport's new additions - the microtransactions. There's been some controversy thanks to Polyphony's own comments at an event last year that there would be no microtransactions in Gran Turismo Sport (I wasn't there myself, and I dimly recall it being said that free updates would continue to a certain point with it being left open to suggestion what would follow, though being the fine journalist I am I can't find that recorded anywhere).
However they've ended up in there, it's another sign of Polyphony operating in its own little bubble - and at a time when Forza is stripping away its loot boxes and other games look to distance themselves from certain in-game purchases, it says everything about how detached this series is from the outside world that it's chosen this particular point in time to introduce microtransactions into Gran Turismo Sport. It's a tone deaf move, to say the very least.
Are they that bad? There's no random element, at least, and you know up-front what you're paying for - but the fact you're paying to unlock something you already own, tied into the not particularly generous payout of Gran Turismo Sport's events, leaves something of a nasty taste in the mouth. I myself was livid, up to the point until I put down a couple of quid for the newly introduced Mazda 787, and then spent the best part of a 20 minutes just ogling the model - a high-end piece of art that looks like a premium Spark 1:43 diecast as opposed to the cheaper Bburagos you see in other games. Maybe I'm part of the problem, having gotten used to dealing with all sorts of nonsense to get to the good stuff in Gran Turismo. So much of Sport has been a step in the right direction, but with this new update Polyphony's proven that old habits die hard.