When discussing the simulation racing genre, there is one franchise that towers over the rest: Gran Turismo. There have been many pretenders to the crown, most notably the Forza Motorsport series, but nothing has been able to truly swerve the appeal of Polyphony Digital’s behemoth. Since the release of the original in 1998, the Gran Turismo games have sold over 60 million titles, making it the most successful racing simulation series of all time (Need For Speed holds the record for the most successful racing franchise) and meaning that it is has sold more than franchises like Street Fighter, Halo and even The Legend Of Zelda. I happen to have contributed to its success in a very small way, by buying copies of the first three titles in the series. This article will comprise of my reviews of these games, and a small roundup on where I see the future of the franchise going.
And so, without further adieu let’s travel back to 1998
GRAN TURISMO (1998) – POLYPHONY DIGITAL
Before the original, there weren’t that many quality racers on the Playstation. You had Ridge Racer for the arcade fans, Wipeout for futuristic fans, and TOCA for those who liked touring cars (myself included). Gran Turismo changed the scene completely. You had two modes available to you from the start; Arcade mode, where you could pick whatever car and track you wanted and race, or Gran Turismo/Simulation mode, which was unlike anything we had ever witnessed. You had to pass simple tests of driving, like braking and cornering, to earn a license before you could race. And then when you attained the relevant license, you could participate in cup races for credits and new cars, building up your garage. Earning more credits allowed you to buy better cars and the parts to upgrade them, before you had a car that could dominate the AI opposition.
The game was also helped by the fact it had an enormous roster of real life cars; around 180 from the likes of Honda,Toyota and Chevrolet, all of which looked like real life and sounded as if they were passing you by in the street. Crucially, the cars all feel different; cornering fast in a small family car was awkward, whereas doing the same process in something sporty like a Nissan Skyline was a piece of cake. The game also features some excellent tracks; there was no real life tracks to play on, but the tracks made by Polyphony offered a suitable level of challenges. For example, the High Speed Ring was a test of acceleration and speed, whereas Special Stage 11 required sharp braking and good turning. There are 11 tracks overall, and reversals of each of them as well. The AI was also surprisingly competent; if you were in a similar class of car you can be easily given a run for your money. It set the benchmark for how a racer should play out
Gran Turismo also set new standards for graphics. When this game came out, it was a sensation. All of the cars were rendered to look similar to their real life counterparts, right down to the alloys on the wheels. Some of the supercars, with their custom decals, looked stunning. The tracks were also well fleshed out, with different levels of scenery and some excellent lighting effects in the special stages. And all of this was helped along by one important new feature: the replay option. When you finished a race, you had the option to watch it again from a variety of camera angles, along with telemetries showing you when you were braking, accelerating and turning. If you squinted, you could have been forgiven for thinking that you were watching Top Gear (the old version of course…the one with cars in it). As mentioned previously, Polyphony also worked hard to ensure that the game sounded right. The cars all sound different when racing, there are various growls and tempos that help create the atmosphere that the grid was different. If you get bored of listening to the revving however, there was a soundtrack to go along with the racing, featuring the likes of Ash, Garbage and Feeder.
I simply couldn’t wait to play this game when I bought it, and I was not disappointed. If nothing else, this is the game that taught me how to use a game controller properly; I could no longer win by holding down the X button and moving because I was going to crash, so I had to learn to co-ordinate button pressing for direction and turning. I also have very fond memories of some of the races, winning my first trophy by one point, the first time I lapped the entire field, and the day that I finally amassed enough credits for the Subaru Impreza Rally Car, which remains one of the best cars I have come across in a racing game.
The game is far from fault though. Getting the credits for a good car can take forever, because the payouts from tournaments are measly. This means that you can become bored long before you ever get what you want. Also, if you want to race in a European car, good luck. The roster is dominated by Japanese cars, which is fair enough considering that Polyphony is based in Japan, but you get the feeling that out of the 180 cars on show you only ever need about 20 to comfortably own the game. It’s also worth noting that the graphics have aged horribly, and that you cannot damage cars at all. Driving into a wall at 200mph will not even scratch your paintwork, which in a game that promotes realism, seems a bit off. And the hairpin bend halfway through Special Stage 5 when I was going for my S-License gave me nightmares.
These complaints are made largely in hindsight however, at the time I loved it and it seems many others agreed; Gran Turismo shifted 10.85 million copies, meaning that it holds the distinction of being the best selling Playstation game of all time ahead of Final Fantasy 7. Based on the overwhelming success, it was agreed that Gran Turismo needed a sequel.
GRAN TURISMO 2 (2000) – POLYPHONY DIGITAL
Not the most inspiring of titles for a sequel, by my god this game was good.
Like all good sequels, Gran Turismo 2 kept everything that had made the first game unique and great. You still have Arcade and Simulation modes, although they now belonged on two separate discs. In Arcade mode everything is still open to race on, and in Simulation you still had to earn licenses. The replay function was back (having been given more exposure in Driver, and you still had to earn credits to buy new cars and parts. But that is where the similarities end. When designing Gran Turismo 2, Kazunori Yamauchi said he wanted to create ‘an even better product’, and he sure lived up to his word. Sure, Gran Turismo had 180 cars: now you have an astonishing 650, with loads more from Europe and America. Whereas you had 11 tracks, now you have 27 (plus the 27 reverse tracks), including a track based on Rome, one the recreates the famous Laguna Seca track from America, and rally tracks including the fearsome Pikes Peak. There were more championships to enter, and you could choose what order to complete them in by selecting the individual race. There was a new test track to see the limits of your car. The licenses had more tests and were tougher to complete. Cars were more individual than before. It was more of everything and became the petrolhead’s dream.
Not content to rest on the original product, Polyphony also sought to refine the presentation. All the new cars needed rendering, so every car was redone from scratch to look even more authentic. In order to get the sounds, they actually stuck microphones up the exhaust of each car to get the right sound and put it in the game. The tracks looked more realistic, and there were more options to play around with in replay mode. It was a great leap up from what had gone before, and when the thing before was the greatest racing game to date, you can tell how impressive it was.
I think using a reasoned argument, I would say that this is the greatest racing game that I have ever played. I absolutely adored it, and it never left the disc bay of my console for four months after buying it. Collecting cars in my garage became a hobby, meaning that I could flip one moment from having a 22bhp Fiat 500 to a 1000bhp Nismo drag racer. I spent hours getting the Super License and competing in the endurance races (a new addition where races were literally about 100 laps – proper race time). Some of the cars and tracks in this game have also stuck hard in my memory; the likes of Red Rock Valley, Grindelwald, Tahiti Maze and Pikes Peak are some of my absolute favourite tracks, and the Cultus and Espace F1 are insane. I would estimate that I put a good 150 hours plus into this game.
Again though, Gran Turismo 2 is not flawless. Polyphony seemed to have cut some elements short to make up for the massive increase in content. The soundtrack for example; there’s about five songs and none of them are any good. Also, there are some annoying glitches in this game, some copies will not allow 100% completion, and sometimes cars will magically disappear from your garage even with save data. Polyphony also found it difficult to find a balance to the credit system; whereas the first game was stingy with credits, this time round you are swimming in them. Factor in that cars awarded for winning races are given out indefinitely, and you can blitz this game. I have seen a friend manage to get from 0 credits to the best car in the game in 12 races. And speaking of the best car, the Escudo is the most overpowered car I have seen in gaming. It can break the laws of physics with its speed.
No-one really seemed to care though. Gran Turismo 2 predictably flew off the shelves, and while not quite reaching the levels of its predecessor, it sits as the third best selling game on the Playstation with 9.37 million copies. It established Gran Turismo as one of the top brands for Sony alongside the likes of Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Solid, and people anticipated a next gen game from Polyphony. They wouldn’t have to wait long.
GRAN TURISMO 3: A-SPEC (2001) – POLYPHONY DIGITAL
Gran Turismo 3 was originally meant to be a launch title for the PS2, being shown off at E3 2000 as ‘Gran Turismo 2000’. A year later, gamers got their hands on the finished product. Its relatively early release on the console, combined with positive reviews, meant that it became the essential title for the PS2 in its early years. It was rewarded with about 14.89 million sales, a figure that makes it the best selling entry into the Gran Turismo series and the second best seller on the PS2, behind Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
I got Gran Turismo 3 bundled in with my PS2, and considering my past experience with the series it was the first game I played on the system. Sadly, unlike the first two games I am filled with mixed emotions about GT3. The core of the series is still there in the licenses and credits etc., there was a great soundtrack (anytime I hear Feeder I imagine this game) and it looked truly and utterly wonderful on the more powerful PS2 (seriously if you have played it in a while, go back to it for five minutes or so and compare it to Forza now…it has stood up remarkably well), but on the flipside it felt like it had lost a lot of its soul. For example, the massive roster of cars from GT2 has been stripped back, and you now only have access to about 180 cars. They also removed a lot of the tracks, all in order to give the space required for the new graphics. It was also unfortunate that by this time I had developed what I like to call ‘Gran Turismo Syndrome’, a state of mind where you simply give up a game due to the tedious repetition of tasks; put simply I couldn’t be bothered with it, especially when the likes of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City were around to play. It’s by no means a bad game, but I always had the feeling that it could be better: quite similar to my views on Pro Evolution Soccer 5 afew year later.
Still, it gave me some good moments. Finally unlocking the Polphony 001 Formula One car after 2 gruelling hours of the Seattle endurance race. Getting the Escudo on two wheels doing a thousand miles an hour. Challenging friends to a race and then having a barging match. Good memories, but not as many as the originals had given me.
THE FUTURE OF THE SERIES
I dropped Gran Turismo at the third instalment, but without my support it has continued strong regardless. Gran Turismo 4, released in 2004, brought back large numbers of cars and tracks, as well as pioneering 1080i output on the PS2, and Gran Turismo 5 marked the debut of the series on the PS3 in 2010 (featuring amongst may other new and exciting features, the Top Gear test track: the irony that Gran Turismo would eventually look like Top Gear). Both have been welcomed warmly and sold very well, with GT5 being the best seller on the PS3 to date. The difference between when I played Gran Turismo and now however is that there is proper competition around. Forza Motorsport has proved to be a formidable rival on the Xbox 360, and Project Gotham Racing/Blur provides a good balance of realism and arcade action. I anticipate that Polyphony will one day be able to make the perfect driving simulator, but in the meantime they need to look over their shoulders.
And thus ends my look into the Gran Turismo series. The best alternative to actually driving a car? Probably. Check out the rest of my blog for more reviews and features, including my look at football on consoles through the ages, and I’ll be back soon.