This is probably the penultimate post that I write on Gran Turismo 5, and it's a bit of a round-up of the areas I haven't touched on yet, or areas that I only mentioned briefly in my "first thoughts" post.
I'll start with the cars. As, I think, everybody knows by now, GT5 contains around 200 "premium" cars and 800 "standard" cars. When this split was first announced, many were afraid that "premium" meant "reserved for downloadable content". Happily, this is not the case; the only downloadable content packs for the game right now are the two "bonus" car packs - one for the pre-order, one for the special editions - which contain only re-skinned versions of existing cars. Instead, the difference between the premium and the standard cars is one of quality; not of the cars themselves, as there are some seriously impressive cars within the standard lineup, but of their representation within the game. The premium cars are incredibly detailed, with their surfaces polished to a frightening degree. It's not just the external surfaces that have been given this treatment; the cars also have fully detailed interiors, with working dashboards. The standard cars are far less detailed and are essentially resolution-upscaled versions of the cars from Gran Turismo 4. The standard lineup does include cars that weren't in GT4, but these are only modelled at a GT4 level of detail. Standard cars have no interior modelling and there's no cockpit view. The upshot is this; the premium cars look slightly better than Forza 3's cars (and have a notably better cockpit view), while the standard cars look a lot worse. GT4 was a pretty game by the standards of 2005, but its car models have not aged well.
The selection of cars on offer is, of course, vast. I'll get one thing out of the way now: no racing game which does not include Porsche and Koenisegg can claim to have a truly comprehensive selection, so GT5 falls short on that score. However, if you focus on the list of cars that are in the game, there is a huge amount on offer. Japanese cars obviously form the bulk of the list, with Nissan, Honda and Mazda being particularly heavily represented. This slightly parochial focus from Polyphony looks a little curious, given the more genuinely internationalist approach taken by Turn 10 with Forza 3. It's certainly debatable whether anybody is really going to get much value out of having all of those Skylines and all of those MX-5s on offer. It's disappointing not to see many of the more recent offerings from US and European manufactuers on display. Why, for example, are none of the latest Aston Martins in the game (they're in Forza)? Where is the Bentley Continental GT? Where are many of the more recent Ferraris?
That said, while GT5 has a very Japan-centric view of the current automotive world, it takes a far wider view of classic cars. The game has an impressive array of vintage models from the 1940s, 50, 60s and 70s; an area that Forza 3 just doesn't go into. It's occasionally questionable what some of these cars, such as the WW2 military Kubelwagen, are doing in a racing game, but their inclusion does add a touch of both historical interest and charm. There are a good number of events which capitalise on these vintage cars, and while these suffer from some balance problems (see earlier posts), there's no denying that they offer something genuinely unique to GT5.
So to summarise regarding GT5's car lineup; there is a huge variety of modern cars, which nevertheless suffers from an overly Japan-centric focus. There are some startling omissions in terms of Western manufactuers, both in terms of manufacturers that are missing entirely, and manufatuers that are woefully misrepresented. But the game does feature a veritable encyclopedia of automotive history, with some real curiousities on display that you won't find elsewhere (and all with extensive text information entries). If you are interested in a comprehensive simulation of the latest and greatest cars from around the world, Forza 3 is clearly a better proposition than GT5. If you are interested in a huge variety of common road cars, a more limited selection at the top end, and a wide range of esoterica, then GT5 is the game for you.
Moving onto the tracks, there are a number of startling additions and reappearances, as well as some shocking omissions of previous GT series tracks. I'll start with two obvious complaints about the tracks in general; there aren't enough of them (a problem shared by Forza 3) and they look ugly (an area where GT5 is notably worse than Forza 3). On the number of tracks, any game with as many race events as GT5 is going to involve a lot of races, and the tracks are going to repeat irritatingly often. In fairness, this is a problem shared by pretty much every racer in the same territory as the GT series. I wish that developers would spend more time increasing their track roster, as the current limitations are a real challenge to these games' longevity. On the appearance of the tracks, it's fairly shocking how ugly most of GT5's tracks are. You can do side-by-side comparisons of many of the tracks in GT5 (such as Tsukuba Circuit, Fuji Speedway etc) with their Forza 3 equivalents, and Forza 3 is overwhelmingly better looking in every single case. GT5's city circuits are somewhat better looking, but suffer from a lack of detail and authenticity. I used to work in a building that you pass along the route of GT5's London circuit, so I know that particular area of central London pretty well and I can tell you now that it looks absolutely nothing like its in-game incarnation. Even Project Gotham Racing 3 did a better job of recreating these particular streets.
Visuals aside, there are some decent tracks in here. Series-original favorites such as Grand Valley, Deep Forest and Trial Mountain make a welcome return and will be an immedite nostalgia trip for anybody who spent countless hours with earlier games in the series. There's a reasonably good selection of real-world tracks, with Norburgring, Monza and several Japanese tracks on display. There are also some great new additions (some resurrected from the very early days of the GT series). The peripherary version of Cape Ring is a fantastic track, with some awesome sweeping curves that allow for high speed cornering battles.
However, there are also some odd omissions. The biggest shock for me was that Midfield Raceway has gone. This is a GT-original track that has been in the series since GT2 and has been in every single title since then, with the exception of GT5 prologue. It has, in many ways, become the iconic GT track. A wide, generally fast track with a good variety of corners, Midfield was a perennial favorite for multiplayer matchups and the ideal track to stick on if you had friends over. Its wide curves meant that less experienced players could generally stay on the track and not get too familiar with the crash barriers, while there was still plenty of opportunity for experiened drivers to chase after tiny improvements on their best times. Its loss in GT5 will be mourned; hopefully it can be reinstated via downloadable content. It's also noticable that Silverstone has dropped out of the game, which as a Brit, makes me feel slightly aggrieved. That said, there is one omission that did raise a cheer from me. The pretty but insanely tedious New York circuit has finally gone to meet its maker. I don't know what it is with racing games and this series (Forza 3 has a serious hard on for it), but it's about time that it died a death.
Moving along, I finally got around to trying out the game's B-Spec mode. This is a "driver manager" simulation, where you create an AI driver and enter him into events, issuing guidance throughout the race. The events list from B-Spec mode is the same as that for A-Spec mode and there are unique prizes available (the DeLorean, for example, is locked away behind one of the amateur-level B-Spec races). Unfortunately, this mode is crammed with serious problems that make it a tedious and frustrating experience. The series' trademark bad-AI is on full display here. Yes, you can tell your driver to drive too fast and make mistakes, but this just seems to be a case of the driver trying to take racing lines at above the maximum speed and making occasional inexplicable mistakes (such as sudden swerves half-way through a straight). Overtaking is horribly broken, with your AI driver neglecting obvious opportunities to pass, while taking insane risks at other times. The drivers allegedly get more intelligent as they level up, but I've not really seen any sign of this.
And oh boy do the drivers level up slowly. Races only grant the same xp as their A-Spec equivalents, which is to say: not very much. The are no licence tests of event-modes to give an xp boost here, so those level restrictions on the better events are going to feel seriously painful. To make matters worse, B-Spec races are twice the length of A-spec races (to allow more time for your idiot AI drivers to get to the front of the field) and there is no time acceleration feature. As the best strategy in B-Spec is often to take no action for most of the race, things can get awfully boring.
Finally; multiplayer. I've only given this a relatively brief whirl, as multiplayer has been plagued by occasional problems since GT5 launched (plus competitive multiplayer isn't really my cup of tea these days). The problems are to some extent inevitable with any launch on this scale, so I won't harp on about them. However, the multiplayer side of the game is currently extremely limited. There's no match-making; you have to join games manually. Polyphony have belatedly added some more useful options for limiting the cars that can be used in any given race, which does allow for some decent and sensible matchups. However, with no real rewards for success, there's a general feeling that the design of GT5's online mode is something that would have looked wobby five years ago and which is hopelessly dated now. Races occasionally suffer from strange glitches; players will sometimes be dumped into races that have already begun, which is unforgivable in a racing game. There's no market place to trade cars, and none of the third-party tuning and decoration market that Forza 3 did so well. In short, the multiplayer feels like a bit of an afterthought. I should add that Polyphony have given explicit committments to improving the multiplayer side of the game, so I suppose we should watch for improvements, but the current implementation is unsatisfactory.
There's probably only one more post to come from me on the subject of GT5; an actual review which attempts to put scores to the game.