As I waited for Gran Turismo 5: Prologue to load onto the borrowed PS3, I couldn’t help thinking that the line between PC and console sure is getting blurry. As the lengthy installation was followed by a number of abortive (but eventually successful) attempts to download a patch file, that formerly bright, stark line took on the blurry appearance of the lane markers at the bottom of the pool. This intrigued me, of course, because motor racing games are one of the primary reasons I still maintain to the spouse that I need a top-of-the-line PC in the house. I’ve always found console games to be deficient in a number of ways to their PC-based brethren, but I’m nothing if not open-minded and I’m always willing to refresh my BIOS, er… bias. Could this be it? Could this be the game that convinced me that there wasn’t enough difference between the two to justify the additional costs and hassles of maintaining a Vista box??
I suppose I ought to spell out my reasons for preferring the PC-based games over the console games as a precursor to the following discussion. First and foremost, it comes down to the controller. On the PC, there is a plethora of wheel/pedal options, up to and including my current set-up, Logitech’s fabulous G25 force feedback wheel. The separate H-gate shifter and the three pedal floor unit combine with the robust force feedback of the wheel to provide a very realistic driving simulation. Thumb sticks with their quarter inch throws and a collection of seemingly randomly placed buttons can’t come anywhere near the level of control that even a lower-cost wheel provides.
Close behind the controller in the list of console “weaknesses” comes the physics model. Once you get a good controller, you expect to be able to use it as you would with a real car. With a weak physics engine (and with physics calculations being very CPU intensive, that’s what you’d get with the formerly weaker processors of consoles) you don’t get realistic behavior. That’s a benefit, of course, if you’re limited to the default controller – if the driving behavior was too realistic, you wouldn’t be able to control it.
Finally, I’ve never been a fan of the structured game play of the consoles. The entire concept of unlocking cars and tracks offends me; I bought the game, why do I now need to “earn” the privilege of playing it the way I want to? Hey, I’m married – I’m used to acting like a trained seal jumping through flaming hoops to get what I want in real life – I don’t need a simulation of that, thank you very much. I much prefer being able to configure exactly the experience I’m looking for.
So, with that out of the way, what did I think of GT5:P? It’s close. It’s very, very close. I was able to score a few minutes on the 56” HDTV (flaming hoops having been successfully leapt through) to get started, and I think it was about halfway through the splash video when I IMed to Chuck that I was already on my sixth “Wow!” and having trouble retrieving my dropped jaw! Reviewers have been saying this since the days of Pong, but I’m going to do it anyway: the graphics are spectacular! I usually don’t watch the videos more than once, if that, but I went back and watched this one a couple of more times. Really, all I could say was “Wow!”
Of course, for quite awhile incredible graphics have been the biggest benefit of the consoles over the PCs. That’s always been kind of an empty, unfulfilled promise to me, though, since the actual driving experience in the first-person view invariably took the form of a couple of gauges super-imposed on a grill’s eye view. In other words, you weren’t actually “in” the car – you were more or less driving while perched on the hood. With GT5:P, though, that problem has been resolved. Each of the cars now has a fully detailed interior. Bravo! The tracks are also fully detailed and very nice looking. I don’t know if this is new to GT5:P or not, but I even saw fans at the side of the track walking around, and I’d swear that one of them was carrying a camera and pivoted to take a picture of the car in front of me!
Having finally gotten over Fernando’s “it’s better to look good than drive good” mentality, the driving itself was also a lot of fun. With a decent physics engine, drifting and sliding come into play. With good force feedback to allow a better feel for the road, the combination of controller and physics adds a very good tactile component which, combined with good visuals, makes for a great experience.
With two of the five senses satisfied, the next logical progression is to number three: hearing. This is an area where I have a beef with games: I don’t want or need music. I’m the guy that bought a Mustang GT and didn’t even realize it had a radio for a couple of months; the song of the engine was all I needed. It was frustrating to me to jump into my spiffy new GT5 Mazda RX-8 and not be able to hear anything but the noise that passes for music these days (said the curmudgeonly old fart). As usual, I dug around looking for the audio settings in order to turn the offensive auditory ice picks off and tried again. To no avail, as it turns out, because the engine sounds are very, very weak. The only way I knew that there was an engine at all was when I drove through tunnels or passed other cars and heard theirs. Note that this problem was resolved after I finally “earned” enough dough to buy a big, powerful Mercedes which, due to its $125,000 sticker price, came with an engine loud enough to hear. Besides the engine, there is a lot of tire and wind noise to contend with, so it’s not as if you’re driving around simulating Helen Keller’s Track Day. The squealing tires were kind of hard on me as they caused an instinctive contraction in my wallet muscles, though. I’ve bought tires enough times now to know that it pays to baby them. It was kind of liberating to be able to abuse them with pecuniary impunity, now that I think about it. I guess that’s why even old guys like me enjoy playing a game now and then.
Gran Turismo 5 is another data point on the maturation S-curve for console-based racing games, but there’s still room for growth. Great graphics, as expected, and better than expected game play make this iteration worth a look, even for the somewhat snobbish PC crowd.
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