As I may have mentioned elsewhere on this site, I'm a huge automotive enthusiast. I've visited the Circuit de la Sarthe for the Le Mans Classic, watched the Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s roar past the start/finish line. I watch Top Gear with a religious fervour. I read car mechanic's textbooks for pleasure.
I was a huge car enthusiast when I was a young child, but something changed after a while. I discovered computer games, and wasn't as interested in cars any more. Somewhere around the age of sixteen, though, I rediscovered my love of cars and since become a fanatical enthusiast of cars, catching up in knowledge in an extremely short time, as those childhood memories of car-spotting returned, and me with a new weapon of learning - the internet. Two things probably encouraged this re-emergence of an enthusiasm which had largely been lost. The first, and most important, was Top Gear, which I was encouraged to watch, and whose extremely humorous antics re-ignited that spark and got my cylinders firing again. The second, and not-as-important, but still imperative to my current interests, was a computer game, ironically, considering that computer games probably created my loss of interest in cars in the first place.
Those of you who have read my other reviews may have realised that I haven't yet reviewed a game which was not on a personal computer first. I make an exception for an incredibly important console game, one that changed the face of console gaming forever.
Gran Turismo - A Retrospective Review
Gran Turismo is a 1998 PlayStation-format driving game, developed by Polyphony Digital and released by Sony Computer Entertainment. Billing itself as "The Real Driving Simulator", it took a realistic approach to driving games in an era when the market was dominated by arcade racing games.
That's a title it takes very seriously.
Starting with 10,000 credits, the player takes the role of a beginning racing driver, and by purchasing their own car, passing licence tests to compete in more advanced races with more powerful opposition and completing race series, the Gran Turismo series was one of the first games to emulate the experiences of real driving.
The line-up of cars consists of two British, two American and six Japanese car manufacturers, and herein lies a problem with the game. There simply isn't enough choice when it comes to cars. Yes, this was a problem that was soon fixed the subsequent Gran Turismo games, and the manufacturers from said countries don't exactly represent a bad picture of the automobile industry, but where are the Italian, the German or the French cars? Where are Jaguar and Ford? And that's not even counting companies such as Lotus, and the perennial missing marques, Ferrari, Porsche and Lamborghini. Where are they, Polyphony Digital?
They're missing, of course. The game claims 178 cars, but many of these are simply different specifications of the various Japanese cars that are present, particularly the Nissan Skyline or Subaru Impreza. It wouldn't be the last time that Polyphony Digital over-represented certain car models, particularly Japanese ones, but at least the other games in the series included a wider variety of manufacturers to make up for it.
Regardless, the variety of cars is enough for the purposes of the game, and while many automotive enthusiasts may be disappointed at the lack of their favourite car in the original Gran Turismo, it's still a more comprehensive and complete list than most racing games possess, and I have to respect the developers for making the arguably best and most-rounded car in the game a British homologation special by TVR - the TVR Cerbera LM - rather than an over-tuned Skyline.
As befits a game which unironically calls itself a driving simulator, the gameplay is highly realistic and accurate. Using all of the data that the developers could summon, each car fits very well to its characteristics in real life, with some of the Japanese cars being tunable to ridiculous lengths, proper oversteer from the rear-wheel drive cars, et cetera, all the way up to the TVRs being terrifying, unrefined beasts that you have to take by the scruff of the neck and pound into submission. You know, just like in real life.
Most of the cars that you can purchase come as stock, but it is possible to tune each car with everything from turbocharger upgrades to adjustable suspension, with the ability to strip out the unnecessary trim, just as you would if you were changing a stock car into a racer. Most of the time, because of the competition, who will not hesitate to do this themselves, you'll want to tune up the car as much as possible, but this can sometimes create somewhat unfavourable characteristics in the car, with the most powerful turbochargers creating enough turbo lag to make the car almost unstartable without revving the engine right to the red line, creating a dilemma - will you put in that top-rated turbocharger and have to thrash it through all of the corners, or will you hold back, with less power when it comes to the straights? All of these tuning options are presented accurately, and knowledge of real automotive settings will go far in this game.
There's no shortage of tracks to throw these cars around on, either. With eleven custom-made tracks, covering different sorts of circuit and street racing, each of the tracks is well-designed, with its own particular characteristics, and even though some of the circuits are billed as being larger versions of other tracks, the strategies for each are very different, and will take a long time to master.
The objective of the game is obviously to win races, and the game presents these in different race series. From the simple Sunday cup, where your opponents race in simple saloon cars or small sports cars, to the GT World Cup, where only the very best homologation specials will be able to compete, each of these race series presents new challenges and gives appropriately large awards on completion. On winning a series outright, the player is rewarded with a car, which is a way to expand one's garage and is the only way to obtain certain cars. The races can be extremely exciting, particularly with the more difficult races, culminating in the three-plus hour endurance races, where only the best and most consistent players will succeed.
But before the player can compete in these race series, they must first pass licence tests, another addition to the game from real life. As a feature, this presents a hit-or-miss moment in the game. While they serve admirably as an extended tutorial and show the player the steps to success, they can also present a huge frustration, particularly as the licence tests are among the most difficult in the series. To this day, I still haven't completed the International A licence in the original Gran Turismo, which is only made more difficult because the two cars used are the lairy Dodge Viper, and the TVR Griffith, which is a TVR and is thus designed to eat small children.
Looks great, goes like stink, but has an unfortunate habit of killing its occupants.
This inability to complete that licence locks me off from some of the highest-echelon races, and while I suppose I could sit down and work my arse off until I got there, the fact remains that I was easily able to get the S licence from Gran Turismo 4. The International A licence in Gran Turismo is too difficult to obtain, and the game locks out a significant amount of the gameplay until you get it.
That said, the gameplay is extremely tight, making a player work for their victories, and doesn't condescend to the player who simply wants to thrash their cars around corners without proper regard for racing strategy. It'll punish the person who thinks that high power is the be-all and end-all of automotive racing, the sort of person who doesn't take proper regard for their suspension and transmission settings. The controls are intuitive and well set-up, and the game plays astoundingly, especially for a game of its vintage.
But the sort of unflinching realism that I enjoy in games, and which is very evident in games like Gran Turismo, is not going to be enjoyed by everybody. While there is an arcade mode for those who want a quick race, this is largely subject to the same realistic gameplay as the campaign mode. The in-depth tuning settings may well prove to be too in-depth for many players. The licence tests are very difficult and often frustrating, especially the International A licence, which occupies you with lairy and ill-tempered rear-wheel drive cars whose only ambition and primary directive in life is to send you through into the Armco barriers at a considerable speed.
There are another couple of aspects of the game which are flawed, and some of these haven't even been sorted in the later installments of the game. The artificial intelligence is poor, sticking with no deviation to a standard racing line, making the player the only variable in the race. The cars, due to various agreements with the companies whose cars they have licensed, do not take any damage whatsoever, meaning that a race can be completed and even won by using the barriers or even your opponents as bumpers, which harms the realism factor in a game claiming to be a driving simulator, and compares unfavourably with competing PC driving simulators, most of which have not only car damage, but visible car damage as a feature.
Surprisingly, though, for a game from 1998, the graphics haven't held up badly. Gran Turismo was one of the most technically ambitious projects on the PlayStation, taking the technology to the limit.
A bit grainy, a bit blocky, yes, but it held up a hell of a lot better than Final Fantasy VII.
Considering the technical resources of the PlayStation, which only had 2MB of main RAM, and 1MB of video RAM, the graphics are still a lot more serviceable than many games from the era, and were advanced enough to show the dirt marks on cars during replays, a very technically impressive feature for its time. The game even managed to look better than its immediate successor, which is an achievement in itself.
While the gameplay of the original Gran Turismo has been succeeded by its sequels on the PlayStation 2, they would not exist without the success of the original, which brought a formerly PC-exclusive genre to the console market while actually distilling the gameplay during its transition - PC fanboys may now allow their jaws to drop in surprise. If you're looking for nostalgia, or the sort of challenge that the modern Gran Turismo games don't have, the original Gran Turismo is a definite recommendation, and a supremely fantastic example of its genre.