Gran Turismo 5, Part 3 (Odds and Ends)

I’d like to just comment on a few things that a player should know before going into this.

Premium vs. Standard Cars

GT5 delivers over 1000 cars to its fans, as it always has.  But this feature has a bit of an asterisk next to it, as many of the cars are “standard.”   Up close, a standard car looks like a higher end texture filter applied to a PS2 quality graphic.  It shows sometimes more than others, but the first thing you’ll notice is how these cars don’t have the cockpit view option.  Damage is also visibly lessened on these machiens (although with premium cars it isn’t much more detailed to be honest).  Ultimately the lack of graphics doesn’t bother me so much, with the only exception being how random it is sometimes it is in which cars are considered premium or not.

Take for example, the Formula GT.  This is a cross between an Indy car and a Formula 1 car.  I’m assuming PDI could not get affordable licensing for Formula 1, so we’re stuck with a knockoff.  For those of you who have made it all the way up the ladder to level 20 and beyond, you are probably aware these are fastest cars in the game.  Nothing comes close.  Finishing the Extreme class of races (levels 20-25, at 25 you unlock Endurance races) has a player going through the Formula GT event to get some major leveling points.  There is only one car you can have in this race, and that’s the Formula GT car (which as I explained in Part 2, is a huge pain to actually get with a $5 million pricetag and a peculiar procurement system involved).  SO, you’d figure that this one car, the fastest car in the game, would be premium?  Well, it’s not.  Granted, it’s not a real car, but it seems to be an important part of the game, and there just was no follow-through.

I found myself frequently driving high end cars that fell outside the premium classification.  Granted choice and options are abound when a player has literally hundreds of cars to chose from, but when there are clear choices intended for certain events, it’s like PDI blew a chance to impress a player and didn’t care.

Menus/Upgrading/Explaining Things

Menus are frustrating, and frequently when you switch out of A-Spec or B-Spec mode to go back to the GT Home menu, the game takes a long time to save/load and it seems to have frozen.  I can’t figure out what’s so memory intensive about a menu, but then again I’m not a programmer.

Upgrading cars is the same as before, a lot of tedious menus.  One obvious upgrade for the future could be a “do whatever you can” one click mod, where you can avoid having to select 100 of the same part over and over again for each car.  One of the most random features is the “Racing Modifications” upgrade; a feature that is only available for like 6 cars in the game and does all these bonus mods that is never explained.  I was surprised with the number of patches for this game that these processes can’t be sped up.  Seems like an easy fix.

Never explained might be another issue that needs tending.  GT always took the time to educate drivers on how to draft, how to drive a RWD car vs. a 4WD car, but was always light on explaining how to tune, when to pit in, or how to work B-Spec at all.  Although the tuning interface now explains what each setting does inside the actual menu, it doesn’t explain it with enough detail to be that usable.  I frequently find myself googling particular races in order to see what settings other players think is ideal for winning.  Sometimes it’s not that intuitive.  A tuning tutorial would be much appreciated and easy to execute.  There is this level out there of playing when you get to the ubercar or the LeMans car, and you just have no idea how to drive it, or tune it, or what it should be doing, and it’s frustrating.  This lack of support even extends to the license tests, which for some reason exclude high powered LeMans racers or the Formula GT car entirely.  Again, this underscores the utter emphasis that Gran Turismo 5 puts on just pure driving, but that view overlooks the off-the road mastery the game demands players to have to win.

Final Thoughts

All in all, this is the worst game that I can’t possibly ever say I’m finished with.  I’m going to keep playing for a long time.  I WILL complete 24 hours of something, maybe, maybe someday if I take a few days off from work.  Still, there were some obvious chances here to make this game experience much better that were missed by PDI.  Other reviews have touched on the poor menu interface and slow loading.  There is even a review out there that broke about the short cuts taken with the graphics and noted the duplicated bushes that can be found on Circuit de la Sarthe (although to PDI’s credit, you would never know it because you’re always going down that particular road at over 200mph).  I’d like to point out the bland soundtrack, unimpressive videos, and thrown together “Special Events” categories (Jeff Gordon should sue for how bad the animation makes him look).  It’s still the same magic I saw over 10 years ago when I first played GT2, a hypnotic mix of realism, skill and determination that make it a super time waster.  Also keep in mind that this review TOTALLY excludes online play, which maybe I will dabble in someday.  Besides that, there is that hybrid level of connectedness that this game offers, already Sony is giving us new events, new cars, and new songs for the soundtrack with the regular updates.  Despite being a brilliant piece of nonstandard marketing for car companies, this type of support brings GT5 to the head of the pack in delivering bang for the buck (I should note that so far there is no pay to play DLC, which is something they could definitely get away with and decided not to).

The right thing for a person to do when evaluating whether they want to start playing this game or not isn’t to read the reviews though, it would be to go back and read GT3 or GT4 reviews and see how good those are.  That might be the best thing to do.  If you want to wiki the top selling PS2 games of all times, both those games are in the top 5…

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Gran Turismo 5, Part 2 (Leveling)

I elected to forego the overnight shipping (a bad habit I try to reserve for games that I order 6 months or more in advance) on GT5.  The consequence of this was that I that I started obsessively checking reviews on Metacritic.  I probably read about 10 reviews, a significant number of which, surprisingly, are probably close to the reviews I’m writing now; good core game, but frustrating execution that requires a serious commitment.  Gameplay is addicting if it turns you on though, and it has this type of hypnotic fashion that can’t be ignored.

Damage

Ok, so here’s where I build some value for myself; one thing absent from all of those reviews was a word on the newly anticipated damage feature.  Damage has never been part of GT, so this was a hotly anticipated feature.  If you recall from the commercials, the CEO of Sony (the same guy who incidentally works at eSurance in the commercials…) is talking about the realistic damage feature along with the thousands of cars in the game.  The commercial shows a Subaru ( I think), with the door being sheered off.  WOW.  Great.  Nice.  But it’s not right.  At least not from my experiences.

After something like 100 hours playing this game nothing even close has happened.  YES, the cars have damage elements, but this is pretty limited in a vast number of the models, and is borderline texture/modeling deformation as opposed to being a good damage proxy.  Sony has since attempted to release press statements clarifying how the damage system works; depending on whether a car is standard or premium, or racing premium determine how much effort the developers put into the level of detail in the car, and the level of damage the car will show if it’s in a collision.  Generally “damage” is just a stretched texture or slightly deformed fender, even after a major head-on collision.  No doors coming off, and importantly, no readily perceivable degradation in how your car performs.  Long story short, the commercial is just downright misleading.

I can understand that it is impossible to get this stuff right, given the level of content provided.  But it’s not certainly not a good idea to advertise a product that is missing key features.  To make things worse, these damage videos aren’t old 2009 and 2010 videos from E3 or press releases, these were airing around the time the game was released until several months afterward.

If you read a number of game reviews, it’s clear that nobody understood this at the time.  A number of reviews I read indicated that the damage system had to be unlocked at higher levels, (levels that, if the reviewers weren’t sure of, it means they didn’t get there).  One review for a major periodical indicated that the damage was phased in at higher levels to allow players to accumulate funds to pay to fix their cars.  Totally wrong, as there is no cost for repairing your car, which magically occurs after each race.  The fact that most of the game reviewers didn’t get far enough into the game to comment on the actual implementation of this feature says enough about how steep the climb is with this game.

Levels

The leveling system seems to be the primary limiting factor preventing a new player from tackling higher powered races early on.  The old method of this limiting factor (other than money), was accomplished with license tests, which are still around but don’t seem to be as relevant).  This is like a JRPG; the difficulty of a race gives the player EXP, and this is used to unlock more features.  At the lower levels, the game not only won’t let you do certain events, but also prevents you from driving certain cars.

The only real gripe about leveling I have is how the curve is set; it encourages a player to always advance to the next set of races, most efficiently in order.  Beginner race one, then beginner race two, then three and so forth until you’re up to the big league Endurance races.  That’s all well and fun, but starting out this process is totally unwieldy.  In order to get to the next race, you need a car of the right class that’s suitable.  At the lower levels, you’re forced to basically buy a Yaris or a beat up used Miata.  These cars can’t go anywhere, so you’ve gotta start all over again to compete at the next level.  Then you need a 4WD car, which, you can’t have at the beginning because your level isn’t high enough.  Then you need a “Sports Truck.”  Ok, big problem, you can never actually buy a sports truck new at a dealership, so your only hope is that one RANDOMLY appears in the used car garage for sale.  Not an oversight PDI made once but twice in this game, a player alternatively needs a Formula GT car to complete later races only to find that it also randomly appears ONLY USED at the dealership.

FYI, the Sports Truck and Formula GT bottlenecks were fixed with the addition of the “online used car garage,” which always has the missing vehicles in it for sale.  A curious update, considering it would have probably been easier just to patch the used car garage or add a new truck to the actual dealerships.  Also, this wasn’t much of a fix when the Sony network was done for 6 weeks and a certain player REALLY needed that Formula GT car.  Being used car, the Formula GT amazingly has a standard car layout, meaning cockpit view is unavailable.  It’s borderline crazy.

GT has always required players to drive virtually every type of car while exploring the game.  This is a lot of fun, as you really get to appreciate the difference between balancing a RWD high powered car with that of a FF or 4WD car.  GT5 takes it to the extreme, at some points extremely limiting what a player is forced to drive.  Of course not all races in a set need to be completed, but if you really want to optimize leveling up you probably should do all the races.  Frustrating to say the least.  Sure, you needed the right stuff to move forward before, but now it seems that only one thing one particular way is effective.  The whole process seems a little stifling to have such a big game world with all these cars, and yet never seem to have any real choice on what’s needed for advancement.  Obviously you can’t take your starter Miata to 24 Hours of LeMans, but you also can’t take it to compete against high-end Preludes either.  The constant gear changing required clashes with the necessity to level grind.  Players want to naturally maximize their abilities by focusing on cars they like to drive or can drive well, and without spending too much to get to that next level.  Punishing this intuition plainly just doesn’t make sense.

Adding to this quagmire is the question “what type of car do I need?”  A question that often is not actually answered clearly, at least in the races that have pretty loose vehicle restrictions.  GT5 often misses a good chance to test players driving skills by allowing excessive upgrading, or failing to balance the skill ability of opponents.  This could be accomplished easily by restricting maximum engine power, a rough approximation for top lap time.  Sometimes computer opponents seem to have WAY more power or performance ability compared to the same stock car you have, but other times they seem totally overwhelmed with no improvements to the standard car at all.  GT has always had this problem; the fundamental question of whether upgrading should even be in the game.  Fortunately, the high end cars are all race cars and eliminate these choices altogether.  But this, in of itself, is an odd quirk to the GT series.  Players need to learn how to upgrade in a cost effective manner to control their costs and save money for better cars, but ultimately it doesn’t matter because the cars you’re driving at the end always have 100% customization and no upgrades available.  Another curious choice is the old race car where the only mod that is missing is the turbo that gives it another 250hp.  Why bother even putting these decisions in?  Why can some race cars from the 80s or 90s get turbo upgrades when others cannot.  The logic is lost on me.

About grinding.  I’m maybe 100 hours into this game, but there was a good few weekends of running B-Spec just to earn credits (for that damn Formula GT car) or trying to do alternate activities in order to level up.  Sometimes the Special Events activities are a lot of fun (great job with the Mercedes Nurburgring stuff by the way), but there seems to be too much grinding just to keep the status quo.  I just feel this was a big turn off.  All in all though, I would not say this is up there with an MMORPG though, it’s just something different.

I’ll finish up my review with some odds and ends in another post.  Thanks for reading guys (just kidding nobody’s reading).

Gran Turismo 5, Part 1 (B-Spec critique)

Ok, so I’ve spent the better part of what I’d consider a sort of busy Sunday playing Gran Turismo and I thought I would start off with a two-glasses-of-wine incentivized first post.  I’m hoping to fill in the gap out there for those of you who might want to buy GT5, but aren’t  full time gamers (like myself).  The real question when time is the finite resource, as opposed to money, is whether or not the experience in the game is worth it.  I’m going to start where I’m going to end; it depends with GT, as it always has.

My love affair with Polyphony Digital’s masterwork began with Gran Turismo 2, when as a high school student I was utterly amazed at the vast world of motorsports and the thousands of cars Sony could offer me.  That was back when Gran Turismo could be nothing else other than a religion for one, as the world was much smaller and unconnected.  GT was a lonely world back then before the days of DLC and online play, especially considering how completely involved the game could become.  Flashforward to later in high school where I tried to desperately cram a few laps of GT3 in before work.  GT4 was another one.  Needless to say, in November 2010, I eagerly awaited GT5’s eventual arrival.  I preordered with special edition upgrade; a true believer’s dedication (although I totally skipped Prologue, so maybe this is a bit of an overstatement).  It’s now been roughly seven months and, amazingly, I’m still playing this game.  But to say this is some sort of bees+knees scenario wouldn’t be fair either.  And that’s the point of this post.  When I say I spent the better part of a Sunday, you’d have to consider the time I spent doing laundry/dishes/cooking dinner/checking work emails with the time I actually spent playing.

Huh???

For those of you who are confused, this anomaly is called “B-Spec.”   B-Spec, as near as I can figure, is managing a race team where you give the orders a coach would give a football team to AI controlled drivers competing against other AI drivers using cars you’ve unlocked in the game.  Of course, to say it’s like a football coaching game like Madden would be giving this feature WAAYYY too much credit.  B-Spec is an important part of GT5, but was also clearly added carelessly or at the last minute.  What the practical effect of B-Spec is due to its poor execution is a very tedious series of cool race videos that are incredibly time consuming.  The races are generally double the distance of the single-player “A-Spec” races (I’m assuming because PDI doesn’t have the confidence that it’s AI will have the right outcome without a longer data sampling set…).  I’m told in sports games, generally most of the modern titles (like a decade old or so), allow a player to do some time-shifting and simulate games or a season to give some sort of leveraging to otherwise one-sided contests.  Likewise, it would make sense to have a festival of Toyota Yaris end the second you enter with a Ferrari or a blown Nissan GTR.  No such luck with GT5, you have to do it the hard way and get all that laundry done while watching.  Additionally, I’ve noticed the rate of growth for EXP (needed to unlock increasingly difficult levels of playing in A and B-Spec modes), seems to be slower in B-Spec, virtually locking you inside for a day.

When I say B-Spec is important, I mean it; the only way to unlock a very important series of cars is by having your computer-controlled drivers win races and money for you (if you disagree, I’d like you to figure out how to do the classic racing car event without the Toyota 7 race car.  20,000,000 pesos is a lot of pesos).  When I say B-Spec is terrible and clearly thrown together at the last minute, I mean that too.

B-Spec is Thrown Together: FACT.

What really struck me about this feature was how I had no idea how it worked initially.  Arguably, I still don’t after 6 months of playing.  There are bars, and all sorts of data, but no where is there any manual support for this stuff.  Although MPH in a racing game is pretty self-evident, the role of mental strength and strength is a bit more nuanced.  I’m still trying to learn exactly what this means, although I’ve pieced it together from other internet posts.   Unlike the game’s neat license tests, there doesn’t seem to be any indication or training as to exactly how one succeeds at B-Spec.  Although there is a plethora of metric data and polished camera views, there are surprisingly few commands available.  You can tell your driver to pace up, pace down, maintain pace, or pass another driver.  These commands work, for the most part, although your driver needs to be a reasonably high level before this becomes apparent.  After you issue a command, there is a cool down when you cannot issue another, although it’s only for a few seconds.  Without specific explanations, I’d be hard pressed to say whether these commands last after the cool down time.  As I am close to lv. 30 right now with my B-Spec team, I’d say the answer is no, but I wasn’t sure of that until recently.  Again, lack of support and explanation of your driver’s stats make this entire feature a load of guess work.  Why put the meticulous effort into creating  a detailed license system explaining all the finer points of first-person driving and then just totally leave a player hanging with this critical mode?   The answer is unclear.

Then there is the actual level of control possible; shouldn’t it be obvious to tell your drivers to speed up and pass when they can?  It’s obviously, they’re racing for Christ’s sake.  There is no other way to build up a driver’s particular abilities such as stamina or top speed (which again, aren’t exactly explained what exactly these mean anywhere), by using training.  You have no option other than to enter into races, which seem to give relatively light experience.  Considering that at first your driving team seems unresponsive, it makes the whole process seem like a waste.

The short comings of B-Spec eventually prompted the developers to provide an online support which lets you remote race cars on a PC.  Neat feature, but it basically admits the actual feature is a waste of time.  PDI either wants players to become so obsessed with GT5 that they get fired for screwing around with their remote PS3 games all day, or they are admitting that players think it’s a huge waste of time and they got the scaling as far as time commitment completely wrong.  I will confess I haven’t played around with this yet.  Maybe KPMG won’t mind if I set this up…  Would be nice to get through the next race at Suzuka doing this.

I can remember the first game with directable replays was Driver for PS1.  It was a lot of fun directing your own car misadventures then, but now watching a digital reproduction of something that’s realistic seems kind of lame.  And the lack of control over B-Spec mode, which is supposed to be interactive, puts this feature into the same class.  And developer’s who think their game is so cool that the player doesn’t need to play it need to get their heads out of their asses (I’m looking at you Metal Gear).  Letting B-Spec go on autopilot leads to frustrating results where a 4 hour race is lost by a second, or a driver automatically pits in and blows a major lead.  Huge frustrations on races that log in an hour or more (sometimes 4 for me right now, and 8 at the next endurance level).  A core criticism of the level of interactivity of B-Spec can be summarized as thus: “Shouldn’t you always be going as fast as you can?”  An answer that I don’t have a good example too.  Needless to say, if you read other blog posts on how to win particular races, they all say the same thing, “Spam Pace Up/Pass until you’re in first.”  It would be the equivalent of hitting a button for touchdown in Madden, a true-no brainer.

I don’t know how many posts for GT5 I will make, but when I’m done talking about it, the analysis will look like this: it’s great if you like GT5, but if you’re truly a casual gamer might be a good pass.  I can complain all I want, but I spent a ton of time on this today and pushed off a ton of other stuff I needed to do to keep playing it.  Although the passive nature of GT5 is a criticism, it succeeds in the sense that it gets a player who is not playing to stay thinking about the singular world of all-encompassing autoracing that GT5 creates and thrives on.  More updates are coming, I hope I’ve helped somebody out.