There are those in this industry that cry with anticipation for a new Halo. Others for a new Mario. I'm neither of those. My kryptonite has, and always will be, the most ambitious racing franchise in existence: Gran Turismo. For the past ten years now, Gran Turismo has been Sony's most successful franchise, in addition to being one of the most popular in the world. With only four games under its belt, the series has sold an astonishing 50 million copies to date.
To put this into perspective: the entire Final Fantasy franchise, which spans numerous consoles, over 20 games (spin-offs included), has sold just over 80 million. There are eight Grand Theft Auto games, again, spanning multi-platform releases: and it holds just over 70 million sold. It took Nintendo over 20 Pokemon games to sell close to 175 million.
And with only four games, on the same family of platforms, GT sells 50 million. It's mind boggling, but automobiles are a passion that nearly everyone can agree on, and when you're talking about an industry dominated primarily by males aged 18-35, it's no wonder that Gran Turismo is such a phenomenon. What other franchise has ever been responsible for a car manufacturer's (Mitsubishi & Subaru) decision to bring out its four-cylinder turbos to the Americas, solely based on their popularity in a videogame? Gran Turismo is influential, so influential, in fact, that Kazunori Yamauchi (Creator) was chosen to work on an aspect of the Nissan GT-R. GT is an icon of culture, and it is the one franchise I hold dearest to me.
With that long rant out of the way, here we are…or at least, here I am, with the first proper sampling of Gran Turismo 5 spinning along in my PlayStation 3. It's Gran Turismo 5: Prologue; a 40 car, five track demo of sorts that gives you a brief glimpse into the world of the fifth Turismo game, and before you think it's similar to the GT:HD Concept demo or the GT5 Prologue demo, it isn't.
First off, forget what you played in GT:HD Concept, it was indeed conceptual, as the final physics engine is tighter. Moreover, forget the Prologue demo, as the complete Prologue offers additional physics management, such as the ability to configure what someone translates as "active braking." I'm not quite sure what "active braking" could be, but perhaps its an option for ABS intensity? And Logitech G25 wheel owners: the clutch works in the actual Prologue game, as does the Dual Shock 3 – so rejoice away.
What's great about the track offerings in Prologue, is that even though you have five tracks, you technically have seven. You see, you can race on alternate versions of both Suzuka and Daytona. Fuji also has an "alternate" version, but the difference is the addition of one tiny bend – nothing remotely noticeable. The remainder two tracks, London and Eiger, can be driven in reverse. The Eiger track is the mountainous Swiss track we all first saw in the GT:HD Concept demo. It's received a slight face lift, with better road textures, more responsive audience (they look at your car as you pass by, some even get scared when you crash), and a minor aesthetic adjustment at the start of the track.
Visual cues such as lighting have also been corrected in the final Prologue, and you'll no longer be blinded by reflected glare. The game looks much better for it too, with a more vivid and natural presence. The visual details here are nothing short of flawless. I looked, and looked, and looked…and couldn't tell the difference between the 350Z in the game, and the one in my garage – that goes double for the interior. They've even got the texture of the steeling wheel, and the windshield sunlight repellent down. The car models are downright flawless – and the only thing to look forward to in the final Gran Turismo 5 is to have some of the screen tearing fixed up, in addition to having some of the aliasing smoothed out. I found that the game looks particularly fantastic on native 1080i and 1080p sets, plasma especially, as it minimizes whatever fragments of aliasing the game has (it isn't much).
But we all know that Gran Turismo 5 Prologue is a graphical madman, so how does it play? Well, like heaven, as you'd expect. Gran Turismo 5 Prologue offers two ways of playing the game – using the standard physics mode or the professional physics mode. Standard is more akin to what you had in Gran Turismo 3 or 4, where as professional is an all new physics code put together for GT5. Standard is still fairly realistic, especially if you turn off the driving aids, but professional pushes it just that much more. Professional is definitely my cup of tea; turn off the 'hold-my-hand' driving aids such as stability control, active-braking, turn down or turn off traction control (depending on the car), and try not to race with R3 tires – and you've got, arguably, the most accurate physics presentation of any racing game.
You'll be able to guide your car around corners with the throttle more so than ever before. But be careful, because oversteer is a bitch. If you shoulder off too much and find yourself riding the sand with two wheels, or even one, apply extreme caution, as any sudden moves may send you into a spiral. Counter steering now becomes more pivotal, and control of it feels especially solid thanks to the in-dash view. Controlling the cars altogether feels a lot more connected when you're playing using the in-dash view as opposed to the rear-cam. Now, you'll make it a point to find a car's 'catch-point' which will allow you to straighten it back out when things get slightly sideways.
The weight of a car also comes off very precise, as the 3800lb AWD Nissan GT-R feels noticeably heavier going into a corner as opposed to a smaller, shorter wheelbase, RWD Nissan 350Z or BMW 135i. Weight transfer clearly has a lot to do with that, in relation to how each car brakes going into a corner. And it doesn't simply affect the car front and back, but side-to-side, as well. You'll easily learn the quirks of each car you drive, when you notice their individual resistance (or lack thereof) to body roll, how balanced they are through corners, and whether or not they understeer or oversteer.
And the most impressive thing of all? This is just how the game plays using the controller. Rig up the Logitech G25 wheel with clutch, and witness time waste away, as you're endlessly immersed into the most sublime racing experience you could've dreamed of. I'm behind the wheel of the clutchless Logitech Driving Force, as I passed-on my G25 some years back – but I have played GT5 Prologue with it at various events, and it's certainly worth the extra coin for the clutch alone. But there's no denying that the Driving Force, with its flappy-paddles, is still a solid bet for aficionados.
There's a beautiful soundtrack to be found in GT5 Prologue too, consisting of all kinds of heavenly engine ranges, sung anywhere between 150 to 600 galloping horses. The engine and exhaust notes are all true to each car, and they rumble through a low-range woofer with authenticity. The Mustang GT sounds like the roaring V8 monster that it is, and the 350Z's high-revving 7700RPM V6 lets out both a bassy-mellow tone and an exotic scream as it approaches redline. And the Ferraris are also definitely some of the most pleasing cars to listen to in the game, too.
All of this adds up to something very special, which is exactly what Gran Turismo 5: Prologue is. It demonstrates a taste of what's to come, and what's in store is borderline perfection. So yes, GT5 Prologue is not quite perfect, but in relation to everything else out there, it stands head and shoulders above everything else. It's a monumental achievement that will change the way we look at this franchise once we get the final game. The crazy thing is that Sony has yet to launch the online component for Prologue, which will occur next week, and I'm absolutely on edge in anticipation to play GT5: Prologue online, against 16 others.
American PlayStation 3 owners can expect to see their Prologue, complete with close to 70 cars (it'll include all of the downloadable content for the Japanese Prologue), sometime around the end of March. In the meantime, if you're eager, import the Japanese version, as it'll freely play on any region PlayStation 3 – and there's minimal Japanese text to read.