Top 10 “Needs Improvement” Areas for Gran Turismo 6 (part 2 of 2)

I was ready to finish this post back in September, but a lot of other things came up. Another interesting thing happened before I finished it; I decided I’m not going to get in on the Gran Turismo 6 bandwagon. Still, I feel obligated to finish this, especially since the first post did pretty well with respect to site traffic.

6. Better Driving Tutorials

Back on the PS1, the great tutorials offered in the License Exam segments really made the GT series stand out against other rivals. The License Exam segments came back in GT5, but in the context of the content as a whole, they weren’t adequate.

But for a game that really, REALLY prides itself on being such a simulator, GT5 did a very poor job at offering guidance in a lot of key areas. Major aspects of the game, like Formula One were not part of the licensing tests at all. The “NASCAR” academy was equally unsatisfying given how different and challenging the NASCAR segments of the game were.

7. Kill B-Spec

B-Spec should actually be a lot higher on this list. It’s not only that a major aspect of the game is frankly terrible, it’s that you’re positively forced to do so very much of it if you want to unlock some really important cars.

B-Spec operates essentially as a counterpart to the driving part of GT5, which is called A-Spec. You’re required to pick a rookie driver from a set of personality types, and eventually build a team of drivers who will go out and use your cars to win the A-Spec races. B-Spec seems like a simple proposition, but the execution is completely flawed. What B-Spec requires you to do is issue a very limited set of instructions to a bot that must gain experience using your cars.

There’s a whole bunch of problems with this system of playing. First, you’re required to do pretty much nothing to win races. At lower levels, drivers don’t really respond to your commands as it is, and the computer may lose even if it has a car that completely outclasses the other computer bots. This makes the actual races less like a coaching exercise, which I think is what it was supposed to be, and more like just a passive watching exercise. It’s boring. And there’s no tutorial or guidance on how to be proficient at being a racing coach. Generally you can tell your driver to speed up, or be conservative, or do a pit stop. That’s pretty much it. I can’t say skill or actively trying to manage the drivers really does much to outcome. Second, the game doesn’t offer any sort of time compression, meaning you’re watching computer race versus itself in real time. Unlike sports games which shorten the length of passive play styles, there are usually MORE laps in certain B-Spec races. I think practically speaking I used these long B-Spec binges as a great opportunity to catch up on my ironing. The AI for your race team is usually terrible; I guess this is because GT has always had pretty lousy AI anyway. But perhaps the worst requirement of B-Spec is requiring the player to build and level an entire team of racers at the same slow pace as A-Spec. Leveling the drivers usually just requires you to win the races, which isn’t especially difficult given you probably have the overpowered car you used in A-Spec to win the same series. The catch is that your race team only has a limited amount of “endurance,” meaning longer races the AI will basically just give up on driving and blow a huge lead. The endurance state builds up very slowly though, making multiple losses in endurance races necessary to get better. Remember, this is a game with the real-time endurance race “24 Hours LeMans.”

It’s not hard to see that B-Spec isn’t fun in any sort of way. It’s a driving game that requires no skill to complete, just an insane amount of time. That’s why is maddening that the game offers a gigantic number of cars that can ONLY be unlocked by winning B-Spec races.

To mitigate the insane time requirements B-Spec, a novel “Remote Play” feature was added in a subsequent patch. What did this feature add? The ability to manage B-Spec races taking place on your PS3 remotely from a PC. This feature doesn’t fix the root problem that you shouldn’t have to watch 500 hours of racing just to earn a car to do something in A-Spec mode. The B-Spec achievements shouldn’t be tied to A-Spec at all. A racing game shouldn’t put some much emphasis on waiting around. It’s anathema to the actual draw the game is supposed to offer.

8. Fix Formula One

Formula One, despite recent controversies and shaky financial support, is and likely will be the king of auto racing for the foreseeable future. Despite being the pinnacle of the A-Spec mode of play, GT5 offers little support.

One clear problem with the Formula One racing was the inability of GT5 to actually allow you to buy the car you needed. In addition to needing over $4,000,000 of race money in the game (average race payout maybe is $100,000), the Formula One car had to purchased USED for some reason. Compounding this problem at launch was that the used car inventory was populated randomly over the course of the game. Effectively, it was impossible to advance in A-Spec because you could never buy the next car. Eventually Sony corrected this problem by creating an “Online Used Car Garage,” which was prepopulated with the bottle-neck race vehicles that couldn’t be purchased new. Still, it was a sloppy execution and not necessary.

I suspect the problems with Formula One dealt with licensing issues. It’s not technically a Formula One car you’re buying anyway, it’s a “Formula GT.” Whatever. The lack of support in teaching you how to drive these cars though is perplexing. Although GT5 makes you appreciate the difference between a family sedan and a true sports car, the leap of performance the Formula cars make over even the Le Mans class racers is significant. If Sony couldn’t get the licensing issues, this feature should have been scrapped altogether. After all, would it have been so bad to just get Indy sponsorship and use similar Indy cars?

9. Create a Tutorial System For Tuning

Although most of the tuning aspects of GT5 and its predecessors is straightforward (spend as much money as possible to make your car more power and lighter), other aspects of auto-tuning were never adequately explained. In particular, the intricacies of suspension tuning are incredible. Without the exact right setup for even individual legs of racing series, it’s not possible to win at the higher levels. If this is such an important feature of the game, why not have some sort of instruction available? I’ll confess, the best way to figure out how to make a perfect tuning setup seems to be typing your car and “Gran Turismo 5” into Google.

Other aspects of the tuning system are equally perplexing. For example, in the customization section of the garage (which is NOT where you purchase upgrade parts for some reason) there is an option for something called “racing modifications.” Despite the 1000 cars in GT5, only a literal handful can receive these modifications. What do they do? Well, they make the car really good, but it’s hard to say exactly how or why. Most importantly, it’s not possible to see which of the cars in the game can be subjected to these modifications. I guess you can use Google to figure this out too.

10. Introduce Horsepower Limitations Into Single-Player Mode

The critical flaw in any game that has RPG or leveling style elements in it is that those run counter to the aspects of the game that require skill. This has always been a problem with Gran Turismo; winning races is based on having more power than the other cars on the track. But this doesn’t really let you learn how to race any better. It’s a big loophole that this game doesn’t address in single-player mode (multiplayer has such limitations though). There isn’t an obvious explanation as to why limitations on tuning aren’t implemented, especially because GT5 is usually very specific about needing a very particular car or limited set of cars for each race challenge.

Closing Thoughts

I could easily criticize the fact that Polyphony is releasing GT6 for PS3 when it arguably should be a PS4 game, but if the last console generation has taught us anything, it will be a long time before any next-gen console makes it into 100 million households. But given the phoned-in nature of GT5, and the fact that a lot of obvious improvements or design flaws weren’t addressed, I’ve lost faith that this installment will really take things to the next level. Going back to all those lost weekends where I was doing laundry and having B-Spec run in the background, I have come to realize that this franchise needs to some time in the penalty box. I expect the initial reviews for GT6 to be good, but that’s only because there’s always a release bias. I learned my lesson though. If GT5 is any indication of the way GT6 will be, I’ll be able to drive the exact same cars when they’re imported over to whatever the PS4 version will be anyway.

Top 10 “Needs Improvement” Areas for Gran Turismo 6 (part 1 of 2)

I feel a little nostalgic talking about Gran Turismo again; my first posts dealt with that game (and it’s significant shortcomings) way back in 2011. I’ve played all the main Gran Turismo titles and I’ve already come to the conclusion that I will almost certainly be playing GT6 when it comes out in December. Maybe it’s some sort of battered-gamer syndrome I’ve developed, but I’ll keep coming back to this franchise. Rest assured though, come December 6, 2013 I won’t bullshit you if this falls short of what it should be.

And GT6 SHOULD be Sony’s hallmark game.  Polyphony Digital is Sony.  It’s a subsidiary. So this is what Mario is to Nintendo. It’s a flagship franchise. It’s also coming out on a console that’s mature. There’s no reason to have a chunk of coal here. With that said, here’s what I think are the top “needs improvement” areas for GT6 (the usual five items turned out to be woefully inadequate unfortunately).

1. No Misleading Advertising

There’s a good chance you didn’t read about this in 2010, but the marketing with GT5 was incredibly misleading. Take a look at this commercial I managed to dig up on YouTube.  See that Subaru spinning out?  Super cool!

Here’s the problem though; that’s not in the game. At least it wasn’t when GT5 was released. The Subaru’s in the game, sure.  But that door coming off, the car spinning out like that? Not so much. There was basically no cognizable damage system in GT5 at launch. The fact that the commercial says there is “realistic damage” is a huge stretch. Here’s a video of some car crashes I found. You can be the judge as to how good the damage system works.

The problem is compounded by the fact that GT5 actually hides the damage features until relatively late in the game. Damage isn’t turned-on until level 20, a feat likely to take at least 50 to 60 hours to reach. It’s not fully turned on until level 40 apparently, an amount of time commitment likely to rival most part-time jobs given that the levels are usually exponentially apart from each other. Without the aid of Google, the conclusion for most players is that damage just isn’t in the single-player game until you’ve sunk in significant hours. Considering how long it takes to reach level 30, level 40 is just simply ridiculous.

Occasionally, and unpredictably, visible damage would pop up on a car after a bad hit. This is usually a hood dent or messed up lower spoiler. But GT5 doesn’t kick you out of races if you slam into the wall at 200mph. It arguably should; by not punishing huge mistakes the game doesn’t force the player to develop the driving skills you actually need to advance (regardless of whether you are “leveling”). I can remember an old Playstation 1 Need For Speed having both a comprehensive damage system for each car, and a cost of repairs deducted from each race winnings after every run. Although this was frustrating, it’s certainly doable.

I obviously understand why there is no comprehensive damage system in GT5, at least for non-standard cars (I’ll talk about that below).  Such a system would significantly increase the amount of work per car and would never be perfect. That Need for Speed game was able to get away with it because it had 10 or 15 cars and PS1 graphics. Certainly this falls short of Gran Turismo’s 1000 car standard. The cost of repairing the cars would be oppressive in a lot of instances too, especially during the Ferrari, Formula 1, or NASCAR events. I can remember having to an awful lot of farming in that Need for Speed too. These are legitimate design decisions here to leave these features out. What’s not a legitimate design decision is to put into advertisements a feature your product doesn’t have.

I think the gaming review industry really screwed up not calling out Sony on this back in 2010. It’s not like this was a feature in the game that everyone was excited about because of a press release or Q&A session at E3. It’s in the commercial! It’s not ambiguous as to what they’re showing. Polyphony put this issue front and center. I suspect that part of the reason the damage system is hidden is to cover up the fact that maybe it doesn’t work so well, and instead reflect the blame onto a player who hasn’t invested the time. It was obscured and basically unavailble at launch, and didn’t seem to work right after. The “you’re not ready for my game” attitude is paternalistic nonsense. This was both a bad design decision and a really bad marketing decision that the franchise managed to avoid being stained with. Honestly, I could care less if the door falls off my Subaru. Just don’t tell me that it might if it won’t.

2. No Imports

No, I don’t mean non-Chevy/Fords/Dodges, I mean imports from PS2. Part of the amazing roster of modeled cars in GT5 came from the fact that 3D assets were imported from prior Gran Turismo installments. Given that this was the first PS3 Gran Turismo (I think it’s fair to exclude the essentially incomplete version, Prologue), I can see that maybe the number of assets to be produced was burdensome. Would fans criticize GT5 if it had only 200 cars instead of the normal franchise setting 1000? To be honest, I think there’s a chance they might.

The solution that was developed was to recycle old body graphics, which clearly have lower resolutions and look out of place. What bothers me the most about this is not that Polyphony did this, but that they did it in a half-assed way. Key races needed to advance the main objectives in single-player mode restrict the player to the use of certain makes or models of cars. Take the “Tous France Championnat” for instance. At the early parts of the game there are only a few cars that are reasonably affordable that you can get to do this race. All are “non-premium” cars, meaning they have these terrible graphics. It’s jarring to buy this game which is supposed to be a quantum leap in graphics over the last installment, and be back to PS2 graphics that just look out of place. The pixels don’t look good and don’t respond to the lighting effects and other environmental image factors the way the premium cars do.  Simply put, GT5 delivers you GT4 graphics in instances you can’t avoid. These non-premium cars also have lame damage modeling (already a pretty low bar for GT5).

There’s some sort of tension with the Gran Turismo series as a whole as to whether it wants to be a complete car encyclopedia, or whether it wants to deliver a stock experience. It’s cool having the car you drove in high school in this racing game, even if its not very good. But at the same time, does it really add anything? Is driving a souped-up 1991 Accord or 1986 Corolla anybody’s fantasy? I don’t know. My only point here is that if you want to be known for doing a great job, you can’t do a great job half the time. Again, Gran Turismo got a pass on this. Those non-premium cars look terrible though.

3. Better Menus

A cardinal sin here. Thou shalt not have terrible menus! There are two huge problems with the menus in GT5: 1. They’re too slow, 2. They’re poorly organized.

In typical Japanese fashion, GT5 with all its statistics, custom-tuning options, and general philosophy of any-way-you-like it, means that Gran Turismo must be stuffed to the brim with menus. The load time on these menus takes forever though. It’s not so bad individually, if it wasn’t that you’re required to change so much at the higher levels in between races. Most importantly though, it doesn’t seem to make much sense as to why the response time is so slow. The graphics in the menus aren’t why people are clamoring to play Gran Turismo, and they’re not that impressive anyway. The slow speed makes the tedious process of buying each racing part option on a new car in the tuning menu excruciating (why can’t I just buy the car with the race parts on it to save me 15 minutes?).

A problem that is compounded by the slow load times on the menus is the fact that they’re poorly organized. Granted a home button has been added so you can get back to your digital garage if you’re trying to enter a race with the wrong car, but it’s a tedious process to have to go back to the start and then have to drill down all over again. Please, if you really can’t make these things faster, at least let me switch cars without having to go all the way out of the menu first. The menus become oppressive in late game where settings need to be adjusted with every different leg of a series of races. I honestly wouldn’t be so bothered by this if there was some sort of obvious reason why these menus are so slow. But they’re just menus. They should do their job well.

4. Improve Collision Physics

Gran Turismo has always really tried to pride itself on being a great simulator for all things driving. But one key area that this racing series has always consistently under-delivered on is car crashes.  GT5 is no exception.

You will know something is wrong the first time. Do these car crashes look right? There’s no way you can say yes to that. What that means is that GT5 is a great simulator, provided you don’t hit anything. The real problem I have with collision system is the lack of penalty imposed by making mistakes. Mistakes aren’t tolerable in the license test portions of the game, they probably shouldn’t be in the Formula 1 races or NASCAR races either. There’s no real downside to being super-reckless in these races. Moreover, multiplayer updates after the initial launch actually had to be aimed at introducing driver penalties because the administrators felt that players were using barriers in order to actually increase their lap speeds in some instances. In other words, the pinball physics were being used to cheat.

If there is any indication that the modeling isn’t right, it’s when causing an accident can be used to create an advantage. If Polyphony Digital wants players to earn the right to have damage and real consequences, it needs to impose at least some sort of penalty early on to prevent bad habits from forming. The lack of cars flipping over, catching fire, or otherwise being disabled is a gigantic blind spot for this series.

5. Dull Environments

I wish I could find a blog post I read back in 2010 on the Circuit de la Sarthe. Pausing the game during the very long straight-away on the track, a blogger took some images of the bushes on the side of the track. Now this is a real track in France. Sarthe is where they hold 24 Hours of Le Mans. The photos clearly show the same bush has been copied and pasted over and over again along the side of the straight. This is straight-NES BS. Granted, this a portion of the track you’re likely to be topping out at +200mph, but the poor attention to detail was right there in the photos.

It’s not just that bushes look bad, it’s that stands look empty, that crowds don’t come out for Grand Prix races, and that the environments look soulless.  There’s no activity going on in the background. Pit stops to change tires and refuel are uneventful. The AI doesn’t get desperate. There’s no sense of drama or urgency being conveyed to the player outside the ever-ticking clock.

I can remember the game Pole Position for Atari having a little blimp fly over head announcing race updates. And the Nintendo series Cruis’n’ USA game having scantily clad bikini girls wave the starting flag. This is the playboy lifestyle that’s obviously part of what we think about when when think about auto racing. Professional racing is a brutal meritocracy; a high-stakes game the well-off play that’s akin to professional football for the less physically inclined. The dangerous celebrity lifestyle of a dare-devil race car driver is drilled into our consciousnesses by mass-media. We think of superstars like Senna or Michael Schumacher. It’s inescapable when we see a $250K sports car drive by.

Gran Turismo has always eschewed from having any sort of excitement other than what happens on the track. I can remember the same kind of blandness from the Microsoft flight-simulator, or alternative from Jane’s F/A 18. There’s just no sexy in GT5, other than the beautiful cars. Gran Turismo doesn’t make you feel like a race car driver, it makes you feel like you’re grinding away in a basement playing an MMORPG hoping to get some magic sword. It’s all just stat tracking and leveling. Maybe the concern is that fans or funny pit crews would be distracting, or alternatively would sap precious processing power from the actual driving. These are fair points, but Gran Turismo is supposed to be fun and it often makes simulating a race feel like a desk job.