As I sit down to share my thoughts about Gran Turismo Sport, the latest iteration of Polyphony Digital’s PlayStation-exclusive simcade car racing/driving game, I think it’s important for the reader to know where the writer comes from with regards to these types of games. Starting at the beginning, I played with Speed Race, one of the earliest arcade racing games, if not the very first. My first 3D-ish title was Atari’s Night Driver. From there, if it was a racing game, I had to have it and/or drop coin to play it. With notable exceptions, that is. As I chose the PC to be my platform of choice, I have played plenty of console-exclusive games, but by no means all of them. I also eventually developed a strong preference for more of a simulation experience than a gaming experience. This manifested itself in utter devotion to titles like Grand Prix Legends from Papyrus. A strong interest in iRacing was completely inevitable.
When offered the opportunity to take a look at Gran Turismo Sport, I leapt at it. I may not have been the World’s Greatest Dad, but I did manage to raise a daughter that saw the value of marrying into a PS4, her being pretty much an Xbox gal. Long story short (if it’s not already too late for that), I have been able to borrow PS4 time from my son-in-law. Given my lack of historical reference to Gran Turismo versions of the past, the only basis for comparison with other similar PS4 titles that I have is Project Cars 2. I will also be using iRacing as the measure of online multiplayer racing.
Also of note is the fact that I consider pretty much all modern driving sims to be effectively equal in their prettiness. Realistically, the only time I notice that kind of thing is when I'm nestled right up behind the car in front of me. Track side objects are nearly meaningless to me - I'm just here to race! All of that having been said, other than the amazing descent there is nothing quite as glorious as the beginning of the climb up Mount Panorama at Bathurst.
Now that we all know where I’m coming from, let’s get started.
The ugly stuff first: after dropping quite a bit of cash to buy a game, there is nothing I resent more than having to “earn” access to the cars and tracks included with the game, at least when it comes to racing offline against the AI. I understand the need/desire to have players gain some advanced racing experience before jumping into a powerful and difficult to drive high-performance racing machine and potentially disrupting races intended for more experienced drivers, but there are other ways of dealing with that and I will talk about those shortly. For now, I’ll just say that car progression is not only unnecessary in solo offline racing, but also unwarranted to the degree of being unfair to the player that just wants to be left alone.
With those rants out of the way, we can start looking at the really important stuff.
Starting from the beginning as a novice player, and/or one that is unaccustomed to driving with a game controller, there is quite a bit of help available for those willing to take the time to use it. Driving school, for example, provides a very smooth and sedate learning curve, starting with the absolute barest necessity: driving in a straight line. That said, the lengthy load time required to load something as simple as a quarter mile piece of road tested my patience to the limit and given my experience with sim racing, I gave most of it a pass. As it turns out, that was the only pass I as to accomplish for the next hour or so.
An aspect that was well worth the cost of time required to load, however, was the ability to practice just a segment of a track rather than the entire track all at once. This is perfect for a track like Brands Hatch that has a diabolically difficult off-camber, blind apex turn (Paddock Hill Bend) that is orders of magnitude more difficult than any other turn on the track. Being afforded the opportunity to practice just that section over and over without having to circumnavigate the entire track is a huge time saver that completely moots any objections to the load time.
Having skipped the training sessions, I decided that single player racing against the AI would be a far less disruptive way to get a feel for the handling of the cars and to hopefully retrieve some of the lost muscle memory needed to race with a game controller rather than a force feedback wheel and the pedals that come with it. These are found under the Arcade menu, which might explain what I later felt that seemed an awful lot like rubberbanding, one of my dozen or so other pet peeves. Under that menu, I could either jump into a fixed-settings race (the defining trait of which is very short 2 to 4 lap races) or build my own custom race. I opted for the former choice which turned out to be a hideously bad decision as I found myself far behind the rest of the pack almost instantly, although I did catch up with them once I got to the point of being able to at least keep my car on the road, albeit at what felt like a snail’s pace. This is what caused me to suspect some rubberbanding, but I encourage you to not take that as gospel. It could simply be the level of competition (beginner, intermediate, pro) that I selected at the start of the race.
What I discovered in that early experience is one of two things, although I am not entirely sure that they are mutually exclusive: the cars exhibit far less road grip than I’m used to, and I am utterly incompetent in racing with a game controller. With regards to the aforementioned off-camber, blind-apex turn at Brands Hatch, I felt like I needed to slow to a veritable crawl to get through the turn with even a lightweight, front wheel drive Honda with extremely weak brakes. Again, please note that this could be entirely realistic; I have very little, if any, experience in racing with a light, front wheel drive car, mostly because when given my own free will, I will almost always gravitate to a “real” race car. I was able to eventually adjust to the slippery feel of that car, but I was never able to make myself like it.
After getting to the point where I was at least able to stay with the AI drivers, I thought I was reasonably capable of an online race against real human drivers. Gran Turismo disagreed. I was required to watch a couple of videos prior to being allowed to join a race. One talked about the do’s and don’ts of racing (no swerving, no bashing, etc.) and one about “sportsmanship.”
The former was reasonable, but the discussion of sportsmanship was irritating: their definition of being a good sportsman was literally “Don’t do things that make you look bad.” Wow. Really? It’s all about yourself, is it? I have always thought sportsmanship had far more to do with treating others fairly, not about your own self interest. Just to be sure our contemporaneous belief in self-esteem as being of the utmost importance hadn’t completely redefined the concept of being a good sport, I googled it: “Conduct and attitude considered as befitting participants in sports, especially fair play, courtesy, striving spirit, and grace in losing.”
Yeah, that’s more like it.
Pressing on, I jumped into the Sport menu, where I was able to quickly and easily join a short race.
I lost. Dead last. I feel like that made me look bad. But… I didn’t wreck anyone else’s race - I recognized my lack of experience and courteously avoid causing any disruptions. So there ya go.
The nice thing about the way the quick online race things works, though, is that you’re only a few minutes away from the next race at any given time, so I was able to just jump in and try again. Eventually I was finishing just about in the middle of the pack. The races were short, of course, but there’s definitely no rubberbanding in online racing, so it was terribly lonely if I lost contact with the pack, but I didn’t have to plod around doing slow laps all alone for very long before I got to start over in a fresh new race. It was almost like respawning.
I noticed a few more things about the online racing that I found to be very useful. First and foremost, Gran Turismo has attempted to solve the problem of disrupters, both intentional and incidental, but adopting a couple of ideas from iRacing. If you aren’t aware, iRacing is an online-only, subscription-based racing sim; there are no AI drivers at all. If you want to hot lap alone, that’s fine, but if you want to race other cars, then online is your only option. Given that people paying to play aren’t going to consider the monthly nut to be worth the expense if their races are being ruined by the inept and/or ignorant, iRacing keeps track of your behavior with a couple of performance and experience ratings. It also makes racers work through a class system - rookie drivers are not allowed to enter Formula 1 races, for example, although they are more than welcome to buy (literally, with real money) the car to practice in. Gran Turismo has something eerily similar. Bumping into other cars or spending too much time off track lowers your ratings. When you join a race, you are placed into races with other drivers having similar ratings to yours. Positively karmic, that. Or 'carmic', if you will.
Gran Turismo goes a step further, and I’m not yet sure how I feel about it. In iRacing, it is very far from uncommon to get taken out by another driver’s mistake. Let’s say you’re hot on the tail of the car in front of you and the pressure gets to him: he spins in a turn and you, having nowhere else to go, plow right into him. iRacing makes to attempt to assess blame: in an incident like this, both drivers receive incident points (not good) and both cars are damaged (also not good). Gran Turismo takes some of this pain away. When a car is headed off the track or attempting to rejoin the race post-foray, it gets ‘ghosted’ and cannot cause contact with another car. In iRacing, the expectation is more based in realism; you eventually learn to recognize a driver that’s trying to hard or has made a mental mistake so as to take the correct evasive action (which can be as simple as just lifting your foot off the gas pedal) to avoid being caught up in the wreck. Initially I viewed the ghosting as something of a cop-out, but once I reminded myself that Gran Turismo is not iRacing, I became more comfortable with it.
Having made reference to similarities to iRacing, I’m going to drift off into a little postulation. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but a major and oft-noted complaint about Sport, as compared to previous versions of Gran Turismo, is the deplorable lack of car and track content. I count roughly 7 real world tracks and a relatively sparse garage of cars. When compared to Project Cars 2, these counts are far, far below what’s come to be expected. One possible explanation for this would be if Polyphony Digital is planning to also copy certain aspects of iRacing’s business model. If we were to stipulate that more cars and tracks are planned for the future, we have to wonder if they will simply be added as updates, or if they will be paid DLC. If it’s the latter, I think it’s a horrible decision. You’re $60 into this thing already, you have to grind to get access to cars that you already paid for, and now they want more money??? If that is their plan, I suggest they take a look at what’s currently happening to Fallout 4’s Steam reviews after mere rumors of paid mods started making the rounds.
And now, having referenced what is probably Gran Turismo’s primary competitor on the PS4, Project Cars 2, there are other salient comparisons to be made. Again, I need tread carefully here: while I have spent 200+ hours of very enjoyable driving using the PC version of Project Cars 2, I have not driven even a quarter mile in the PS4 version. Reviews indicate that they are very similar in all aspects, but even so it remains incumbent on me to provide this caveat. In the interest of good sportsmanship, if nothing else.
The most obvious difference is, naturally, the amount of content. In this aspect, there is very little comparison to be made. Project Cars is the clear winner. Graphically, there may be differences, but I suggest that they are so close that they might as well be considered identical. Frankly, though, as more and more people experience these sims in VR, the quality of the graphics is not going to matter nearly as much, at least until the 2nd or 3rd generation of VR hardware.
Despite the overwhelming disparity in content, the most important difference is in the feel of driving the cars. Again, it is important to note that my sim experience on the PC is based on a force feedback wheel, so I dumped the hand controller in favor of a Thrustmaster T500RS. On the plus side, Gran Turismo happily supported the wheel, albeit only after I found the quiet little Mode button hiding down on the lower left corner of the wheel base - prior to that I was using my left foot for gas and my right foot for braking. Quite awkward, that.
My experience with the force feedback wheel in Gran Turismo was, in a word, disappointing. While I had been blaming my ineptitude with the hand controller for my difficulties in controlling the car, driving with a very good steering system proved otherwise. There is force feedback, of course, but it can only be as good as the modeling of the track surfaces and the physics modeling of the cars. In my opinion, both of these are severely lacking in comparison to Project Cars 2. Without a doubt, the feeling of what's happening to a simulated car driving on a simulated track as transmitted to my hands through a simulated steering wheel is almost entirely subjective, but I know what feels best to me. Obviously there are lot of arguable aspects being stated here. Also controversially, I will say that 100% accuracy in modeling does not necessarily equate to the best possible game feel if deficiencies in communicating those subtle reactions to the driver cause a loss of fidelity.
The most notable difference between Gran Turismo and Project Cars 2 to me was in the feel of the tires. In PC2, I can feel grip lessening as I get closer and closer to asking too much from the front tires. As I feel the delicate loss of grip, I can modulate the front-to-rear weight distribution of the car by using the gas pedal. If the car is pushing to the outside of the turn, I can slightly lift off the gas and some of the weight of the car will shift to the front tires. I can feel the additional weight on those tires through the wheel, I can feel the front grip increase, and I can continue through the turn in the fastest way possible just by modulating my pressure on the gas pedal. Fun fact: the majority of control in a racing turn is done with the gas pedal, not the steering wheel. In Gran Turismo, front wheel grip felt almost binary: you’re either full-on skidding, or you’re not. That said, I was able to use the gas pedal to control the turn in Gran Turismo, but nowhere near to the degree that I could in PC2. Your mileage will vary, but to me this is an absolute show-stopper. It’s more or less moot if you’re using a game controller, at least on the subject of force feedback, but I grant that there are likely folks that are so good with the game controller that they can feel this too.
At the end of the day, I think there is great promise in Gran Turismo Sport, but there are a few couple of caveats. First and foremost, there is the issue of content. If Polyphony intends to flesh out the garage and add more tracks gratis, then it’s a no harm, no foul scenario, although it is quite an ‘ask’ to expect buyers to be all that patient. If they intend to add no additional content at all, then this is pure caveat emptor. If it all comes down to paid DLC, well, I wish them luck with owning the biggest bait & switch ever seen in this market.
Second, and again related to content, if you want access to what you paid for, Project Cars 2 is your better choice. This is also the case if you’re racing with quality equipment - a good force feedback wheel is going to unveil weak physics modeling, much to your chagrin.
Conversely, if online multiplayer is your chosen form of competition, the requisite components of Gran Turismo are well thought out and well executed. Given the lack of native PS4 support for iRacing and Project Cars 2’s more run-of-the-mill implementation, the trade-offs mentioned above are moot. In this aspect, Gran Turismo is well positioned to grab a very large chunk of that pool of players, although I would caution them to note the very real differences in the way iRacing handles the question of content delivery versus acquisition cost, along with the critical differences in car/tire/track physics. Also on the positive side for Gran Turismo are the ancillary parts of it that are more focused on the actual cars, rather than the driving of them. Photo mode and livery design are very strong features for the artistic-minded player, and there are social features for those that value that kind of thing.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.
My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.
While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.
My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.