Genre: Simulation Racing
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Developer: Polyphony Digital
Release Date: TBA
Gran Turismo HD's title sort of says everything that needs to be said about this next-gen racer: it's the same old Gran Turismo, but with the sheen of next generation graphics. It's not an unreasonable approach to use to the material; Gran Turismo's traditional selling point has been the visuals and meticulous (but not indigestible) simulation-flavored gameplay. If you have absolutely no interest in a title that's just last gen gameplay with shinier textures and higher resolutions, then you can just stop reading here. I am not going to be writing anything you will ever care about. If you're interested in the classic Gran Turismo experience with a high-definition visual facelift, then read on.
Fans and media have been regarding Gran Turismo HD as a placeholder title in the series, something to keep fans busy while Polyphony works on the true Gran Turismo 5. This is essentially the case. Fans will notice a lot of the environments and visual assets are right out of Gran Turismo 4. Most noticeable is the lack of AI and background improvements, other than the res-boost. In many Xbox 360 racing games, for instance, audiences will pull away from the wall in surprise if you wreck into an area where they're standing. In Gran Turismo HD, they remain in static positions and don't seem to mind that a car is crashing towards them.
Supposedly the game's AI is going to receive not one but two different patches once it's released, which will probably address issues like this. Only 10 cars were selectable, and only a single but beautiful cliffside track. The playable car selection included the Lancer Evolution IV, Mazda Eunos Roadster, Toyota Celica GT-4, Suzuki Cappuccino, Subaru Impreza WRX, and superlative Lotus Elise. The slashed load times promised by the developer, thanks to streaming data off the HD, are evident just in the demo version. The final game has promised online multiplayer via the PS3's completely free online service.
What won't be free is much of the in-game content, although that really depends on which version of the game you buy. If you go to GTHD Premium, you get two tracks and thirty cars that have been totally remodeled from the ground up, with tens of thousands of polygons comprising them. An additional two tracks and thirty more cars become available for purchase via micro-transaction later. These cars and tracks display at the level of detail that fans can expect to see in GT5. This isn't the version that was available in demo form. What we played appeared to be the more controversial GTHD Classic.
The base demo for GTHD Classic is essentially free, but instead you have to pay for which in-game assets you want. While each individual download will probably cost less than a dollar, Classic's price tag will really add up over time. With 750 cars, 50 tracks, and an unknown assortment of other items to purchase, early estimates suggest that purchasing the entire game could easily cost upwards of $400 dollars. The assets you'll be paying for are higher-res versions of tracks and cars from old Gran Turismo games, and its Tourist Trophy spin-off motorcycle racing series. The models involve polygon counts that are in the mere thousands, but are still far more beautiful than anything the series could manage on the PS2.
Of course, there's nothing that would force every prospecting player to purchase every possible asset for the game. It could easily be viewed as a customizable demo, letting you put only the tracks and cars you prefer best into your personal vision of classic GTHD. It's an interesting, and controversial, idea for distributing game content to say the least. It seems especially controversial for Gran Turismo, where gameplay has always emphasized car collecting. How many fans will resist the urge to download every car?
More importantly, how's the gameplay? Well, it's classic Gran Turismo, with a steep difficulty curve and slightly floaty controls. Developing your skills is outright difficult and requires much of the same judgment ability and braking control as real-world racing. There are no clutch controls, but even Gran Turismo isn't that much of a sim. Your cars still don't have damage models as a constraint of the car licenses, but this game will introduce the high-performance Ferrari line of cars into the Gran Turismo roster. When you do begin to win races, it feels like an accomplishment - and in the meantime, you can enjoy the gorgeous scenery passing by.
You can also play with a variety of camera angles, although the controls for swapping between them are somewhat awkward. It is very repetitive gameplay, but that's how Gran Turismo has always been and fans aren't going to start complaining about it now. The lack of rumble feedback in the SixAxis controller does feel very strange after it being a standard feature of racing titles for so long, but a Gran Turismo purist is unlikely to complain about that. Chances are he'll already own the Logitech Driving Force Pro custom steering wheel controller designed to support the original Gran Turismo 4, and GTHD does support the steering wheel's force-feedback feature. Such a gamer is far more likely to appreciate Gran Turismo's emphasis on simulation gameplay to begin with.
Much of the emphasis of the HD game is on the beauty of the driving experience, and that will come through with crystal clarity, especially if you haven't spoiled yourself by abandoning GT for the Forza series on the Xbox hardware. No, die-hard Gran Turismo fans are going to delight in seeing their favorite game brought into HD with absolutely no alterations to the basic gameplay. The free online multiplayer means that serious GT fans with serious skills can pit them against each other quickly, since obviously they won't suffer much of a learning curve as they get used to old tracks.
The selling point of Gran Turismo HD is detail, and with the PS3's 1080i display modes, Polyphony Digital can cram more details onscreen than ever before. Or, well, you can see the details that were already there better than ever before. The main difference between GT4 at high resolution and GTHD is just how clean and sharp the graphics are. The only noticeable "new" improvement is in the lighting, which takes better advantage of ambient sources and puts real shine on the car. You can also select your car's paint job, which has a surprisingly dynamic effect on how light reflects off of it.
A glossy black finish reflects light in a noticeably different way than a flatter silver or candy apple red finish. It's hard to imagine how realistic the Premium version of the game is going to be, let alone GT5. What's equally hard to imagine is one of the supposed additions that will debut in GTHD: damage models. Right now it's not clear how extensive car damage is going to be; it's possible damage amounts could vary from car to car or from manufacturer to manufacturer, in accordance with licensing agreements. Still, the fact that GT is incorporating it at all is an enormous concession to longtime fans.
GTHD is one of the most difficult PS3 games to write about. Much of the game is outright unfinished, and much of what's on the horizon challenges fundamental assumptions about game distribution on an extremely basic level. As a title, GTHD will either be a release that transforms the gaming world or one that falls hopelessly out of step with the desires and trends of the gaming world around it. If nothing else, it's unquestionably an infusion of change into a franchise that's been widely accused of stagnating. Whether it's the kind of change anyone wanted is the real question.
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