Its long been a reason to own a PlayStation console and is considered by many to be the pinnacle of its genre, but Gran Turismo has also caused controversy and met with its fair share of criticism over the years. In anticipation of Gran Turismo's next-gen debut with GT5 Prologue, we take a look at the franchise's highs and lows, in this full in-depth retrospective on gaming's greatest driving sim. Ladies and gentlemen, casual and hardcore gamers, race fans and car fanatics... start your engines!
History of Gran Turismo
Gran Turismo is one of the most divisive series in gaming. For car aficionados it's automotive heaven. Fuelled by a vehicular love that borders on obsessive, it has consistently raised the bar for racers, delighting digital drivers with realism, detail, handling prowess and visual polish. For many players, Polyphony Digital's hardcore driving template has been oft imitated, but never bettered.
To others, Gran Turismo is just a great racer. For them, tons of tuning options and a succession of increasingly obscure, exotic car models mean less to than the sheer triumph of passing a license test or making it first to the finish line by mastering gaming's greatest handling and most painstakingly detailed car models.
There are those, of course, who altogether don't 'get' Gran Turismo - don't go for its lifelike physics and sophisticated seriousness - while others still seem bemused by the lack of vehicle damage. But even amongst these gamers you'd be hard-pushed to find one that disputes the overall quality and value-for money packed in each edition of this seminal series.
The Real Driving Simulator - Gran Turismo (1997)
There really was nothing like it, and it's difficult to imagine the gaming landscape had GT not hit when it did. Released in 1997, Gran Turismo followed Sony's award-winning 'double life' PlayStation marketing, waving lifelike visuals and a commercial licensed soundtrack in the collective faces of a 90's culture still pigeonholing videogames as hi-tech children's toys.
A symbol of gaming's growing mainstream acceptance, GT soon became the poster plaything for a new generation of teen and twenty-something lifestyle gamers. Where WipeOut and Ridge Racer piqued interest, GT did away with the fantasy and made driving games at once ultra accessible, and completely cool.
Predicated on the type of tinker-happy, wideboy-pleasing authenticity found in Max Power magazine, Gran Turismo's 178 cars, 11 tracks and myriad modification options set a new standard. The feeling of accomplishment at collecting a garage of world-beating beasts was similar to that in developing a character in today's MMORPGs. The seemingly mundane license tests, meanwhile, ingeniously drip-fed the intricacies of GT's handling mechanic, gleaning a new appreciation for the subtleties of each individual auto.
And controlling them was a masterstroke. Gran Turismo's release coincided with the launch of Sony's first Dual Shock Controller, giving gamers total mobility and a new appreciation for the bumps, twists and collisions of racing real-life cars.
That reality-check shows why GT endures. The goal may be to amass a garage of juggernaut autos, but you began in Gran Turismo with the kind of ride ran by many a fresh-faced 17 year-old boy racer. A GT career was a slow, believable rags-to-riches tale of hard gameplay graft, meticulous motor tuning, real racing skill and hours of watching replays and committing tracks to memory. Revolutionary at the time, Gran Turismo remains today a how-to dossier for driving game design.
The Real Driving Sequel Gran Turismo 2 (1999)
Inevitably, Gran Turismo's follow-up soon saw the light of day. Rushed to retail, it arrived shortly after Christmas, helping draw attention away from Sega's impending Dreamcast console. Due to this, GT2 was found to have some notable bugs, and despite receiving universal critical acclaim, didn't sell quite as well as its fantastic forebear.
Nonetheless, Gran Turismo 2 went on to be another huge smash-hit for Sony's market-conquering console. Offering a bigger, better, enhanced take on the template, Gran Turismo 2 was enormous by PSone standards, delivered on two discs and boasting over 600 fully licensed cars, a grand total of 49 tracks, and six license tests of which the first three could be instantly bypassed by upgrading old GT1 save data.
Despite the short development time, the term 'fan service' comes to mind with Gran Turismo 2; in which Polyphony encapsulated the game's schizophrenic appeal and tailored its offering to GT's two core audiences.
The first disc of Gran Turismo 2 delivered arcade and multiplayer modes, replete with unlockable cars, aimed squarely at the casual gamer. The second gave hardcore car nuts a refined, fleshed-out Simulation mode, with cleaner menus and all-new off road rally racing amongst the biggest draws.
Where GT had polarised opinion, GT2 delivered far-reaching racing nirvana. With handling still spot-on and visuals pushing the PlayStation to its limit, Gran Turismo 2 is regarded as arguably the finest technical tour-de-force on Sony's original system.
The Third Place Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec (2001)
Two steps back, three giant leaps forwards; Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec hit PS2 with less cars and tracks than its predecessor, but realised jaw-dropping visuals, a focus on the world's most exotic motors (hence the subtitle), and a few notable brand new features.
A-Spec's 185 car selection allowed Polyphony to present their most polished Gran Turismo yet. Gone were most of the everyday vehicles, meaning this GT lost some of its real-life feel but it turned out to be a triumphant decision, delivering the freshness the franchise needed and with it branching out to offer new and exciting challenges.
In came a selection of speedy retro F1 cars. In came multi-hour endurance races. There was another reworking of the famous front-end, now categorised by country and manufacturer. Driver A.I. was criticised for hugging the racing line, however, meaning Arcade Mode's later stages were more of challenge than Gran Turismo mode itself. A lack of online play, meanwhile, was only partially made up for by a six-console system link option. In all though, Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec was a sensational shift onto Sony's second hardware, and a must-have for the fledgling console that is second only to Grand Theft Auto 3 in the system's all-time best sellers list.
Bright Ideas Gran Turismo Concept (2002)
Polyphony then turned the GT3 engine to making a racer based around concept cars. Following releases in Japan and South Korea than contained cars from the from the 2001 and 2002 Tokyo and Seoul Motor Shows, 2002's European release was the most complete version, adding a further 30 cars from the Geneva Motor Show and going on to sell a million units.
4-Play - Gran Turismo 4: Prologue (2004)
With Gran Turismo 4 failing to make its original Christmas 2003 release, GT4: Prologue was issued as a budget-price stop-gap taster for hardcore fans. Putting together 50 cars, five courses and including cut-down version of GT stalwarts like license tests, a Free Run mode and early renditions of GT4's courses, GT4 Prologue whetted appetites, but ended up being less representative of the final Gran Turismo 4 driving experience.
4 To the Floor - Gran Turismo 4 (2005)
After an agonising year and a half wait, Gran Turismo 4 finally arrived and was instantly hailed as hands-down the most comprehensive title of its type.
Not even GT2 had been this big or well-polished. 50 tracks, including real-life circuits like the famous Nburgring, and over 700 cars from 80 different manufacturers, made GT4 the most good-looking, well-balanced, finely-tuned, minutely detailed, compulsively authentic and accomplished driving simulation of them all.
In realism stakes, GT4 was a stellar success. Indeed, Sony even invited auto journos to try real life vs GT4; same track, same car. Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson commented that Gran Turismo 4 'would only be more real if a big spike shot out of the screen and skewered your head every time you crashed'.
As a racer, however, GT4 met with criticism. Polyphony's obsession with the minutiae of car technology granted Gran Turismo 4 a far less forgiving edge; this was less an exhilarating race experience, and more about tinkering for maximum track performance. With GT4 the divide became even more pronounced; car nuts adored it, but casual gamers were left a little alienated.
A more sophisticated arcade mode provided some relief, extending GT3's three speed variants to a whopping 21. But the real draw of GT4 was that the career could be played in two modes, with A-Spec your usual progression, and B-Spec letting players speed up races by three times (reducing endurance races to a manageable playtime) and step out of the car to give direction to an A.I. driver. In effect, this meant the game played itself, players allowing the game to simply achieve wins on its own, earning them prize money for parts and cars with little of the original GT's invested grind.
Lacking the planned online mode (apart from in Asia, where an online test version was released), retaining computer A.I. that blindly followed the racing line, and boasting a novel but superficial Photo Mode, GT4 is considered the apex of videogame driving, yet fixed few of the franchise's existing problems, and felt to fans like an Nth-degree refinement of what had gone before instead of the revolution begun nearly nine years prior.
GT Goes Next-Gen - Gran Turismo 5 Prologue and Beyond (2008 - ???)
Having whetted PS3 player appetites with the free-to-download Gran Turismo HD demo (20 vehicles, Time Trial and Drift Trial modes, one course also playable mirrored, and online leaderboards), Polyphony's first retail PS3 GT presents a succession of three's.
Three years; three home PlayStation consoles; and three promises of online play later, and we finally get Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, delivering long-awaited 16-player head-to-head races, as well as two-person split-screen play, to a console capable of eye-bulging HD visuals and more sophisticated driver intelligence.
Gran Turismo 5 Prologue is a low-cost precursor to the first full next-gen GT. 71 cars are present, playable on six courses, with mirrored versions taking the total tracks to ten. A new high-detail in-cockpit view, Quick Tune facility and Dual Shock 3 compatibility make it more realistic than ever, boding well for a final version of GT5 that promises the Top Gear test track amongst its course quota.
Community events, online leaderboards, and the automotive program-providing GT TV channel give Gran Turismo 5 Prologue a sizeable amount of content for a budget release, really giving gamers a flavour for the upcoming final version of Gran Turismo 5.
One thing is an absolute certainty; With existing and prospective PS3 owners all eagerly awaiting a triple-A system-seller, fans demanding a sequel that exceeds GT's own high standards, and seemingly everyone expecting GT's next-gen debut to have a massive impact on mainstream lifestyle culture, Sony and Polyphony Digital are pulling out all the stops to ensure Gran Turismo 5 redefines the term 'The Real Driving Simulator'.
Article by: Mark Scott