Sony knows when it’s got a good thing going, and so do most of its fans. The Gran Turismo series, for example, has a rabid following due to its graphical excellence and top-notch simulation gameplay, and Sony’s own PlayStation team counts itself among the franchise’s biggest fans. So when it became apparent that Gran Turismo was going to take its time appearing on the PlayStation 3, you’d better believe Sony scrambled for ways to give gamers — and themselves — an early taste of the GT5 goodness.
The result of that scrambling is Gran Turismo 5: Prologue, a game that’s more robust than a traditional demo but not as full-featured as the final version. For $40, either as a download via the PlayStation Store or as a retail purchase on Blu-ray Disc, Gran Turismo 5: Prologue includes 50 cars from the likes of Ferrari, Lotus, Nissan and Mitsubishi, as well as five tracks including Eiger Nordwand, the London City Track and Suzuka, all of which includes an “alternate” racing scheme. This is a decent lineup for many stand-alone racing games, even though it’s much smaller than the finished Gran Turismo 5, which makes it tempting to review GT5: Prologue as a complete product. But because GT5: Prologue isn’t a finished game, and in fact has several issues still to iron out, reviewing it becomes even more difficult, particularly in light of its $40 price point.
Gran Turismo 5: Prologue, like previous games in the series, carries the subtitle “the real driving simulator.” This moniker is right on the money. GT5: Prologue has great handling, with distinct car physics that vary from vehicle to vehicle and class to class (presumably they’re accurate, but we’ve never driven a Lotus, so we can’t vouch for them personally). Likewise, braking in the game has a realistic slow pace, a rarity in the racing genre, which often suffers from sudden and/or jerky braking. And the racing line, an optional new feature for the Gran Turismo series, makes sure players are educated on the best line on each corner of the track so they can race on it just as they would in real life. But because of this realism — or perhaps as a result of it — Gran Turismo 5: Prologue seems to count on players already being driving-simulation pros. And unfortunately, the minute you take GT5: Prologue off its “pro driver” track, the game starts to falter.
Arguably, most Gran Turismo 5: Prologue purchasers will be GT veterans, but there are still some hangups that Polyphony Digital needs to iron out. For instance, all of the above-mentioned excellence is related to the solo experience and has little to do with other vehicles. But if you’re in the middle of a race and accidentally bump into another car, there is almost no loss of control, even if you’re traveling at 90mph. If you cut a corner and kick two wheels off the road, there’s no real handling penalty, even if the shoulder was soft or had divots. When you drive up behind other vehicles, there’s no noticeable drafting effect. In essence, it feels like Polyphony Digital focused so heavily on the drop-dead gorgeous graphics and car-specific handling that the actual racing aspects were forgotten, at least in this “Prologue” release.
In some instances this is definitely the case, as Gran Turismo 5: Prologue doesn’t include any of the in-depth tuning options for which the series is known. Instead, it includes a “Quick Tune” feature that lets you adjust power, tires and suspension before each race, as well as the AI’s prowess. Whether this Quick Tune makes it into the final game is uncertain, as it may have been included just for the purposes of Prologue, but having it there feels almost like a frustrating tease, as it’s not deep enough for series stalwarts and probably not meaningful enough for franchise newbies.
The AI options are a different story, though, as the AI in Prologue seems improved. At times the NPC cars feel “distant,” almost as though it’s driving in a vacuum and without any cares in the world. This is probably because the AI, like the game itself, is so focused on precision and follow-the-best-line racing that the AI prioritizes driving excellence over practicality. Whether that’s good or bad is up to individual gamers, but we felt that it removed some sense of urgency from each race.
If you want urgency, head online instead. Gran Turismo 5: Prologue supports online racing for up to 16 drivers, a first for the series. We experienced some serious issues getting online, from the five tries it took us to download the seven-minute online update to the repeated instances of lag that made the game unplayable, but when GT5: Prologue worked right, it played great. Again, we chalk this up to Prologue being a glorified demo or beta test — albeit one that will set you back $40.
Unlike a traditional demo, though, Gran Turismo 5: Prologue looks remarkable. In at least two places, our trusty editor’s wife actually asked if our replays were real-life movies. GT5: Prologue also includes an in-cockpit view, another first for the franchise, which provides a nice new perspective and includes the real-life dashboard for each car. This is something Microsoft has had in the past two Forza Motorsports, so it’s nice to see it make the next chapter of Gran Turismo, as well. Now if they could finally manage to work damage in there somehow….
The audio is generally solid, with cars each sounding different and the music having a decidedly “upscale” feel, although there are a few instances of awkward rock and at least two tracks that sound like they were ripped straight from PilotWings on the SNES.
Still, Gran Turismo 5: Prologue excels on the multimedia front, and its single-car simulation excellence shows promise. But it’s that same “promise” that makes GT5: Prologue so hard to score. The package isn’t quite a full retail game, and it’s not quite a demo. It provides a good taste of the content coming in GT5, but not quite enough to compel you to play for hours and hours. In spite of this, Sony is asking for $40, which is frankly too expensive for a demo or beta-test, no matter how good it is. If you know you’re going to buy Gran Turismo 5, this Prologue release may tide you over, but we can’t help but wonder whether you’ll feel like the money was wasted once the real game comes along. And, if you’re on the fence about GT5, this Prologue release is probably too expensive to justify the “test.” Our recommendation: wait for the inevitable free demo, even if it’s months down the line.