Developer: Polyphony Digital
Release Date: April 15, 2008
Gran Turismo is one of the most successful and respected franchises in the racing genre. For over a decade, the hardworking men and women behind the series have crafted beautiful, technical racers that allow average Joes to take exotic cars for a spin on some of the world's most challenging courses. It is with this pedigree that Polyphony Digital brings forth Gran Turismo 5: Prologue, a tasty sampling of what is to come in next year's full release.
Prologue seeks to take the full driving simulator experience offered by the franchise and shrink it down into a more bite-sized version. This means that gamers will have to make do with only 70 available cars (as opposed to the over 700 that were available in GT 4) and just six tracks.
Even with these restrictions, there is still plenty to do and see in Prologue, with a deep single-player mode as well as some standalone races and online content. In the single-player, rather than putting players through license tests as have been done in previous installments, you are immediately thrown into the C Class with the instruction to get out there and get racing. Events range from the standard (three-lap races, time trials) to the more exotic (overtaking all other cars in a single lap), and winning events earns you credits to use toward purchasing new, more powerful cars, as well as unlocking the higher difficultly classes.
Unfortunately, though, unlocking of all the cars is going to take you a long, long time. The real powerhouses aren't available until you've earned several hundred thousand, if not over a million, credits, and you won't find that kind of scratch just lying around. Most early races pay peanuts, and even the later classes don't see purses in line with the challenge it takes to win. Considering that the highest payout you'll ever see is 30,000 credits, filling your garage with expensive cars is not going to be easy, and impatient gamers will likely quit long before they're able to land their first Porsche.
Outside of the single-player mode, the game features a few standard races (laps, time trials, etc.) as well as a rudimentary online mode that will hopefully see more refinement before the full version of Gran Turismo 5 lands next year. Right now, the race setup and matchmaking systems offer almost no room for customization, and the title sets up all races on a blind matchmaking format, meaning that you can't even establish a private game amongst friends. On the upside, though, the money you earn in online matches carries over into your single-player pot, so if you happen to find a particular car and track you can constantly own, then you may not have to worry about the slow rate of payouts and repetitive races you get in the solo experience.
Of course, once you start to fill up your garage, you're going to want to know how the cars handle, and that is one area where Prologue couldn't be any better. Each car, from the lowly Ford Focus all the way up to the Ferrari F2007, all accurately conveys its specific driving mechanics and abilities. Each car moves slightly differently around corners, accelerates at a different rate, and features a unique weight distribution, so every time you buy a new ride, you'll likely spend a few races trying to feel out what specific driving tactics to use. Some more casual players may see this as an inconvenience, but for the core audience that this title is trying to reach, such touches are exactly what set Gran Turismo apart from every other racer out there.
To further complement the feel of the cars, they look amazing. As always, the development team's legendary attention to detail is here in full force, with every shape, contour and manufacturer's logo painstakingly represented in the utmost detail. This devotion is most evident when you choose the "cockpit" view and see your driver's hands gripping the wheel of the vehicle. All of the dials, dashes, knobs and buttons are right where they'd be on the real thing, and for one fleeting moment, you might forget about the beater you drive and envision yourself ensconced in the luxury car of your dreams as you whip about the track.
The only drawback in the visual department is that, much like all the other games in the series, Polyphony continues to insist on not including damage modeling. Apparently, when you work so hard to make the cars look good, it's simply unthinkable to let someone smash them up and turn what was once a work of art into a mangled wreck. The team is promising to include a downloadable patch for the full version of the game when it is released to allow players to include damage if they so choose, but as it stands now, you can slam into a wall or another car at full speed and not so much as break a headlight. It completely snaps you out of reality just as you've been pulled in the deepest.
At this point, you're probably thinking that, aside from some online matchmaking issues and race grinding, this sounds like a pretty sweet game. Well the one thing you need to remember if you're new to the series is that it's all about challenge and technical skill. Anyone who has been raised on Burnout and other racing games where speed and drifting rule the day will likely find himself consistently getting his butt handed to him on Prologue's tracks. Sure, there are moments where you'll find a nice big straightaway where you can open up the throttle and hit top speed, but just be warned that these stretches of track are usually followed by hairpin turns designed to punish fools who just tried to pull a stunt like that. While some games reward the squealing of tires and fishtailing around corners, this isn't one of them, as that familiar screech will be your warning that the back end of your car has slipped and you begin losing speed as the other racers, in complete control of their cars, pass you by. Thankfully, the game isn't entirely brutal to newcomers, allowing you to turn on the racing line, which will not only show you the best route to take, but also the recommended speed for turns and proper setup to make it around the bend gracefully.
Because this is a simulator, races are all about sticking to the race line, driving in a controlled, sensible manner, and waiting for the perfect moment to get around your opponent. As such, the action is slower and less exhilarating than that of a game like Burnout, but that's because it has been created with a different type of player in mind. So let's just put this out there, and you can take it however you want, but if you like your action fast, furious, and frantic, then you will not enjoy Prologue.
Gran Turismo 5: Prologue is the sort of game that was made with its core audience in mind, and it does well to deliver those individuals an experience they will enjoy until the full version of Gran Turismo 5 arrives. These individuals likely already have the game in hand and are constantly working to perfect their lines in preparation for next year. For everyone else, this will likely be a game you either love or hate, depending on your tolerance for new things. For those who have been waiting for some time to jump into the Gran Turismo pool, this $40 release gives you a chance to dip your toes in and see if you like it before you devote yourself to the real thing. For skeptics, it's hard to justify spending any money on a game you may end up despising. All I can say is that Prologue is a gorgeous, well-made technical racer that will test your braking and turning abilities just as much as your ability to jam on the gas and hold on tight. If that sounds like your idea of fun, then buckle up and get yourself to the starting line.
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