Discussion Review: Gran Turismo PSP

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Gran Turismo sure took its sweet time coming to the PSP, didn’t it? It had been in development since before the PSP came out after all! But after more than five years now (yes, over five bloody years!!!), Polyphony Digital’s pocket-sized edition of the illustrious Gran Turismo franchise is finally ready to pull out of the garage and take to the retail race track later this week in conjunction with the launch of the new PSPgo. We were fortunate enough to get early access to the game — both on UMD and PSN — and after a week of putting the game through its paces Mike and I are back to share our impressions.

So buckle up your seat belts and start those engines, boys and girls, because here we go!

Matt: I take it this is probably your first drive around the block with a GT game, but, while I’m not necessarily a series diehard, I’ve had a pretty steady relationship with the franchise since the original PS1 title took the industry by storm and established what has become the preeminent brand in racing video games over the past 12 years. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of the game as a newcomer, but from my perspective GT PSP does the series proud and delivers the slickest, most realistic racing experience you’re going to find on a portable gaming platform. That’s not to say it’s without a few shortcomings, though, but we’ll get around to those in a bit.

But first, let’s dispense with the obvious: GT PSP is absolutely spectacular in terms of graphics and performance. Polyphony Digital and its lead driver, Kazunori Yamauchi, were dead on hyping this as a “fully-specced Gran Turismo,” because that’s just what it is. In customary form, Polyphony painstakingly rendered out over 800 cars for GT PSP, each one accurately modeled down to the tiniest detail. Of course, like every other GT game (until GT5 comes out) there isn’t any damage modeling, but given the amount of graphical horsepower this game is running on I’m not sure car damage was ever a feasible expectation. The game is also stuffed with 35 race tracks (all with reverse layouts), many of which fans will instantly recognize from past games. And while they aren’t quite as awe-inspiring as the car models, the background environments are mighty impressive and incredibly diverse — dirt tracks, drift circuits, cityscapes, mountain passes, oval racetracks, etc. What’s perhaps more impressive than anything, though, is how Polyphony managed to keep the game running at a steady 60fps clip. I’m not sure I’ve played a PSP game that runs this smooth before.

Drool-inducing visuals aside, GT PSP is vintage GT through and through. The car handling and physics are immaculate, without any sense of realism or control lost in translation from the console games. All the different car types handle differently and appropriately based on their make and model (they all sound different as well, which is another nuance car enthusiasts will appreciate), and many of the little features GT and general racing game fans have come to expect are here. Things like recording replays, car tuning (though you can’t buy parts upgrades), and the driving line aid indicating when you need to brake for turns. Multiple camera views are supported as well, including a “cockpit” view, but given the PSP’s limitations Polyphony wasn’t able to render out car interiors, so you basically just see out of the windshield and driver’s side window with the dashboard shaded out.

OK, that should get us going here. What are your initial impressions of GT’s long-awaited PSP debut?

Mike: Indeed this is my first time around the Gran Turismo circuit! My racing experience is fairly thin – while it is an oversimplification, when I look back I feel like I jumped from Spy Hunter to Carmageddon to Outrun Coast to Coast. But in recent years I have enjoyed a good amount of racers – and mostly on the PSP.

I had three immediate reactions when playing Gran Turismo: 1) what a great looking game, 2) amazing how different each car feels, and 3) where the heck is the career mode?

Perhaps my expectations were off-base, but although I know this game has been in development for ages I’ve never really read much about it. Therefore my expectations were based off of what I have seen in other games: you run through a series of tutorial stages, then you launch into the main career mode in order to build up cash or points or whatever allows you to unlock courses and cars and so on to turn around and progress further. Single-race mode is generally an add-on that allows you to jump quickly into a fun and quick tour of the track.

Gran Turismo does have a ‘tutorial’, but it is so much more: it is called ‘Driver Challenge’, and it is a branching series of stages that will help you learn and fine-tune your abilities to handle just about everything possible on the raceway. You complete a series of challenges in one area, which unlocks another area, or sometimes two along different branches. Completing these also earn you loads of cash, with Gold medals getting much more than Silver, which in turn gets you considerably more than Bronze. This way you are encouraged to keep at the challenges until you reach Gold level. Matt – is that how things work in the previous GT games?

I feel like I have seen enough to agree with you that this is the best looking racing game I’ve ever seen on the PSP – so I was also surprised that it performed phenomenally! It really doesn’t matter whether you are driving fast or slow, on dirt or open road or tight city – things always run perfectly smooth. The level of detail on the cars was obviously the most important thing to the developers, but that doesn’t mean the tracks or backgrounds looked lousy: as you said, the entire visual experience is impressive, and I was amazed at how they made you feel the speed of these cars without losing any detail.

While I want to talk more about the variety of cars and how each feels so different, I was rather flummoxed about the lack of a career mode. Matt – is this typical for a GT game?

Matt: Ah yes, the lack of a career mode. It’s quickly become a point of contention amongst many of the early reviews I’ve seen and it’ll surely become bait for folks to complain about on forums and such. Typically, GT games do have an extensive career mode, but GT PSP takes a more streamlined approach along the lines of GT5 Prologue. That will obviously anger some, especially the many gamers who ripped (unfairly, if you ask me) Prologue for being a glorified demo when it really had more to it than that, but personally I think it’s a perfect structure for “in and out” portable gaming.

Initially, I too saw the lack of a career mode as a disappointment. But as I continued to chug along I realized something: the entire makeup of the game is basically one giant career mode! While all of the modes are splintered, everything you accomplish earns you credits and stats towards your driver profile. Whether you are playing quick single races, time or drift trials, or taking on the Driver Challenge mode you mentioned, it all ties into your overall progress in terms of unlocking new cars and tracks. While this setup still isn’t a dedicated career mode with pre-determined circuits and an ultimate prize to strive for, I think it’s a suitable equivalent that keeps you coming back for more.

The Driver Challenge mode in particular, as you started on, becomes highly addictive with its short-burst timed missions challenging you to complete tricky driving situations for medals while also teaching you the basics of the road, like judging braking distances, taking on hairpin turns, and how different cars (front/rear-wheel drive vs. four-wheel drive, for example) handle on the track — it’s similar to the license-testing system built into the career modes of the previous console titles. These challenges are generally in the 15-30-second range, but if you’re like me you’ll find yourself replaying them over and over for hours trying to improve your times and medal ranks (and earn more loot too, of course).

Continuing on the topic of performance, what are your thoughts on the game’s load times from the perspective of playing the PSN version downloaded to your Memory Stick? As we touched on in our Dissidia discussion, you’re sort of a PSP load time watch dog, so I wanted to get your thoughts. Some of the load times can be fairly intrusive playing off the UMD version, but really only when you first enter a mode of play or are backing out to the main menu to access another. Once you get into a specific mode, you can keep racing along without much loading downtime in between. For those who have enough Memory Stick space free, the UMD version does have a data install feature. Unfortunately my storage is running low at the moment so I couldn’t test out how much it improves loading speed, so I was hoping you could share your experiences with that, Mike.

Mike: The funny thing I noticed was that even my PSN version offered to do a ‘Data Install’ … but I chose not to try that out for fear of corrupting something if it actually did try to do something! As for load times, my general threshold is that once I start to notice them, I’m annoyed. That might seem like a sort of ADD statement, but it doesn’t mean I’m completely intolerant of loading screens – heck, I’ve dealt with them on the PC for decades! It is when they are long enough to seriously interrupt the flow of the game, or represent a disproportionate amount of time relative to what is being loaded. In other words, I’ll wait a minute to load a level without issue, but waiting as long to load a vendor store inventory as to load an entire zone in a game is something that raises a flag with me.

Why mention that? Well, as you said, there are times when the pretty ‘GT’ loading screen seems to hang around too long. But for me it wasn’t when entering a race, but rather when I was going to the options menu or returning to the main menu area. The problem was that it seemed to make me wait about the same amount of time regardless of what I was doing. And while I was certainly willing to allow extra time to load a race given the excellent visuals and performance, I was less forgiving of waiting 20 seconds to load up an options menu! The problem for me is that when I start seeing things like this it changes the way I play the game, and ultimately stops me bothering to play. Fortunately, the load-times were never so long that they really got annoying enough to stop me from playing – we really are no longer in the 1 minute load-time era (thank goodness), but I had expected a game in development for so long and being used as a centerpiece of the PSP Go hardware to have optimized performance and quick-loads, which apparently isn’t the case. So I’d put the loads as a minor criticism, but not a show-stopper.

What you say about Career Mode make sense, especially in the context of everything in the game feeding into your individual progression. As you improve your skills you can gain better and better cars, race on tougher tracks, gain higher racer skill levels, and so on. All of that brings me back to something I alluded to earlier: that each car feels different, as does each track. I worked as far as I could with my little standard-issue Honda Fit, but then bought an NSX – and the difference was staggering. The speed was thrilling, control through drifts was much better, and the ability to brake and accelerate out of curves was astonishing. So naturally I progressed from skill level ‘D’ to ‘C’ after finishing in first place for both races in my first try.

Then, as I gained ranks I found that the other drivers improved considerably – yet they were no less beatable so long as I made fewer mistakes. That is because while I consider myself a mediocre driver in these games, I really try to learn as I progress and work with the strengths and weaknesses of my car and not just stick to the driving line and run the track identically each time. In fact, since there is no damage modeling and no penalty for driving aggressively, it is simple enough to race for second place, bump the driver in front of you at the last opportune moment and then head on in for the win. As a result, I found the races to be much more a measure of my abilities than a challenge between my ability and that of the computer AI.

Well, I guess I have moved on to criticisms, so why not just keep going? If this game is all about the ‘personal challenge’, why is there so little customization? I was impressed by the ability to tweak some settings, but this is much less than I was led to believe was characteristic in a GT game, where you can often make serious upgrades to your vehicle. I was hoping that through the ‘auto-tune’ there would be options to spend money to trick out my car, but that just helps you pick tires and gear ratios and other settings appropriate for the course. Another area I was hoping for more options was in the Single Race mode. For me this was the center of the game, and I really wanted to use it to the fullest. I wanted to take my NSX on to dirt, I wanted to take my Impreza onto an oval speed chase, I wanted to use my Fit against a bunch of Lamborghinis and so on.

And yet … I still found the lack of a career mode disappointing. I wanted to move through a long series of races against a bunch of others (i.e. not just four) and work towards some greater goal. To me, the progression of ‘buy car, try new loop at lowest level against 3 similar cars, grind through ranks, rinse & repeat …’ is no substitute for some central structure – even something like Test Drive Unlimited where it is about you on the Hawaiian Islands buying cars and houses and so on I found much more satisfying.

I think I have ranted long enough and need to let you get a word in here! Another question, though: what did you think about the ‘rotating’ schedule of car dealers? Also, what about the fact that you are racing against 3 other cars? Any other complaints or criticisms?

Matt: You make some valid criticisms I’m sure others will share — the one about the lack of car damage and the ability to basically exploit the AI racers by bumping them through turns with no penalty has been a lingering flaw in the series for a while now, especially when the series strives for such extreme realism — but honestly, the only part of the game I can muster up any disdain for is the multiplayer.

For me, the lack of online play is a more significant omission than the career mode. I know with the game being such a technical powerhouse that getting a stable online infrastructure in place would’ve been a tall order, but with the races limited to four racers at a time it seems like something could’ve been worked out in the 5+ years the game was in development. Hell, I would’ve taken a pared down two-player online mode, the ability to download “ghost racers”, or even something as simple as online leaderboards. But there’s none of that.

I don’t want to downplay the multiplayer content the game has in place for local ad hoc play too much, though, because if you have friends around with the game there is some fun party mode competitive racing to be had. You can also hook up to trade cars, and once GT5 comes out you’ll supposedly be able to sync the two together and transfer your PSP car collection over to the PS3, which is a feature I’m looking forward to using down the road. But frankly, I doubt many of these ad hoc features will find much use with most players. I mean, how many PSP gamers out there actually have at least three other friends in close proximity with a PSP and the same games? I doubt the percentage is very high. That’s why game sharing is something I always find very important about ad hoc only games, but sadly not even that feature is supported here.

Multiplayer beef aside, I’m amazed at what Polyphony pulled off with GT PSP. I certainly understand your misgivings about the nonexistent career mode and car upgrade system — two things that have always been GT staples — but I guess it’s all a matter of expectations. The PSP is a powerful piece of portable hardware, and with that power comes higher expectations from its games. However, I generally don’t expect big franchises that get downsized to a portable to contain the same breadth of content, and I think it’s somewhat unrealistic to expect otherwise. It’s always easy to complain about what’s not in a game and demand more, but sometimes you must cast hype aside, take a game for what it really is and just enjoy the ride.

Polyphony never cuts corners in terms of getting the most out of whatever platform they work on, and with GT PSP they’ve produced a portable sim racer with unprecedented levels of detail, polish, realism and authenticity, and I for one couldn’t be any more impressed.

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Pros:
+ Jaw-dropping graphics and smooth engine performance
+ Impeccable car handling physics
+ Tons of cars and tracks
+ All play modes tie into a centralized progression
+ Addictive Driver Challenge mode
+ Good ad hoc multiplayer options, if you have friends nearby

Cons:
- No online play or leaderboards
- No game sharing
- Lack of a career mode and car upgrades may not sit well with some

Mike: I completely agree with you about the multiplayer. For a short time after the PSP launch I was fortunate to have someone I worked with who was also a PSP owner and so I got a bit of ad-hoc multiplayer action in on a few games. Other than that, it has depended on me getting second copies of games so I can play with my kids, which means waiting until the price comes down considerably. So as far as I’m concerned – games without Infrastructure mode have very limited multiplayer. I know that ad-hoc mode is very popular in Japan, and that makes sense for games like Monster Hunter that sell 90% of their copies in Japan, but the Gran Turismo games have sold the majority of their copies in the US and Europe where internet multiplayer is a regular expectation for games.

However, I understand that few other racing games support Infrastructure, but just looking at early games and seeing Ridge Racer and Twisted Metal feature online racing of 8 and 6 cars respectively, and also Test Drive Unlimited featuring up to 4 players online while also rendering a view of the Hawaiian islands nicer than any background in Gran Turismo … well, I guess I agree with you: after all these years it seems like they should have done better.

And while it seems like I’m just complaining here, I’m tired of PSP games that look like shills for the PS3! Specifically I’m referring to what you mentioned about transferring cars from the PSP to the PS3. This is nice if you are a dual owner … and really even then just for the PS3 side. I understand that since Sony wants everyone to own both systems they put in linkages, but as a PSP-only owner it has felt from the moment the PS3 was announced like we were made second class citizens. And so here we are with another PSP game that is lacking certain features that many gamers will call ‘core’, but not lacking in a significant set of link-up features for the PS3.

Since I started playing Gran Turismo I pulled out copies of older race games for the PSP such as Burnout and Ridge Racer and Test Drive Unlimited, and both positive and negative thoughts came to mind: the positive was that those games reinforced the feelings I had that the game looks great and has wonderful handling physics. But they also reinforced other things – that the AI of the other cars barely keeps pace with games that are more than four years old; that the lack of Infrastructure mode is something we shouldn’t necessarily forgive so easily; and finally that having a race-centric game with only four cars in such a high-profile game in late 2009 is amazing to me.

Maybe it seems like I am being really hard on this game, and perhaps you are right in saying that eventually it comes time to push aside the hype and just look at the game. Admittedly that is hard – because back in early 2005 there were two games being talked about that would be ‘system sellers’ when they came out some months after the PSP launch: Crisis Core and Gran Turismo . My opinion is that Crisis Core was a solid but unremarkable game that ends up being somewhat disappointing based solely on the unrealistic expectations … and that pretty well describes Gran Turismo for me, too. It is also difficult not to compare Gran Turismo to the other top games in its genre. Most of the best PSP race games have up to 8 cars at once and look very nice and perform very well and even have crazy stuff like career modes and online multiplayer, so it is hard not to have expected Gran Turismo to deliver those sorts of things.

Believe it or not, I actually enjoyed Gran Turismo. I think that genre fans and fans of the series will likely be disappointed by the lacking of certain features, but should realize that there is actually a lot of game here: tons of cars, loads of tracks, multiple driver levels and so on. Cars feel different, tracks offer amazing variety, the handling is excellent, and the car details are nicely done.

But today someone who saw me playing at lunch asked me that simple question: is it worth $40? And I had to honestly say “I wouldn’t put it in my top 5 PSP racing games, if that helps.’ I hope that they offer a demo, since this sort of game seems like an easy target to lock-out certain functionality and give a good taste. That will let people make their own decision – but as for me, unless you consider yourself ‘pre-sold’, I suggest waiting for a lower price or a really good sale, or renting the UMD version before buying. For anyone getting the PSP Go, however, there is only one route – the PSN version … and like the little porcelain figurines in the curio shop, once you touch it, you own it!

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Pros:
+ Gorgeous graphics
+ Wonderful handling physics
+ Different cars feel different!
+ Expansive ‘Driver Challenge’ mode
+ Loads of cars and tracks to explore

Cons:
- No career mode
- Limited multiplayer
- Only four cars in a race
- AI is weak and predictable

Game Info:
Platform: PSP
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Polyphony Digital
Release Date: 10/1/09
Genre: Racing
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-4 (ad hoc only)

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!