I’ve been staring at my screen for way too long, trying to come up with a clever and witty introduction to this review. But screw it. Let me just cut to the chase: Gran Turismo 6 is all over the place. Its one part pure genius, one part ridiculous over-achiever, one part check it wrote but can’t afford to cash, one part greatest racer of all time, and one part victim of its own wonderful legacy. It hits outgoing-generation highs, sometimes tricks you into thinking you’re looking at a new-generation game, and then slaps you with something that looks like it’s from the generation before last.
It’s a wild ride. A wonderful ride. But after a somewhat bumpy relationship with the last two outings of the franchise, I’m finally back in love with it again. Warts and all.
This time around, Gran Turismo 6 really does set out to do exactly what is says on its packet: The Real Driving Simulator. It’s not a racing game – at least, it’s not all racing. Nope. This is about driving. Driving all manner of vehicles in all manner of ways, and the game delivers that by presenting a veritable smorgasbord of vehicular challenges that are quite mind-boggling in scope and variety.
First up, you get to drive on the moon. Hello! This game has a lunar rover, and you drive it on the moon. How utterly pointless, mental and bonkers is that? Yet here I am, bouncing along in my AWD electric space car, trying to figure out how to drive this thing over rocks without the low gravity causing me to do a Sandra Bullock. It’s sort of racing, but it’s also a driving puzzle in many respects.
There are Coffee Breaks, a suite of strange challenges designed to test your skills in all manner of ways. For example, drive as far as you can on the Nurbugring on one liter of fuel. Easy? Hell no. In the Nismo racing car you’re given to drive, a liter of fuel lasts for about 100 yards if you're leaden of foot. So instead you need to figure out how to drive delicately, sipping fuel, conserving momentum. I loved this challenge, because it made me think about driving in way that I normally never would.
Other Coffee Breaks have you doing things like trying to knock down a specific number of cones within a time limit. Sounds easy, but the challenge takes place in an open area with cones all over the place, forcing you to figure out the optimal route – which is never quite as obvious as it seems.
Another kind of challenge is one that we’ve seen in every Gran Turismo so far: License Tests. They’ve become an increasingly arbitrary pain in the ass over the years, but this time around are less so. They're a little more forgiving than the tests of yore, and instead of the usual ten, there are only six to complete to earn a ticket to the next tier of racing. I aced the first two sets with golds, and only a few required multiple attempts. Indeed, I actually found them quite fun, which was a pleasant surprise because I expected them to be the usual teeth-grinding chore.
I really enjoyed participating in the new Goodwood Speed Festival – a historically significant English hillclimbing event where you race cars along a legendary point-to-point course against the clock. Absolutely wonderful, and really bloody hard when you start dealing with some of the big horsepower monsters. Goodwood's treacherously thin road gives you no margin for error, and this event in particular made me twitch and sweat in a way that few other racing games have.
Mission Races are yet another automotive throwdown. There is a quintet of these per license level: four of them require you to navigate a specific part of a car-filled track within an extremely tight time limit, and the fifth has you racing a full lap against a quite competent AI opponent who’s given a headstart. Since bumping an adversary or accidentally driving off the track while racing results in disqualification, these are particularly taxing tests.
And then of course there’s the racing. Tons and tons of it. The game structure is typical Gran Turismo: six tiers of driving licenses, each featuring a wide variety of race series and championships. As usual, winning earns you money – but this time out, you’re also awarded stars. Collect enough of them, and the License Tests that enable you to progress to the next level are unlocked.
Racing itself is quite tightly regulated, with most series requiring you to drive specific models or types of cars - usually within strict performance limits. This structure is great, since it essentially forces you to drive different cars and experience everything the automotive world has to offer, from vintage sports cars through hybrid vehicles to the cutting edge supercars of today. What I like most about this is that it's an excellent excuse to go shopping. Gran Turismo 6 is bursting at the seams with more than 1200 cars – many of them old friends from prior editions – and shopping for a particular car for a particular race is usually a highly gratifying hunt that, if you're a car nerd, can often involve a lot of obsessing over the technical minutiae of competitive vehicles.
As well as the traditional Gran Turismo races, there's also a host of One Make races, which are exactly what you think they are. The first one I entered was Prius racing, which was simultaneously lame and yet strangely entertaining. No grip. No oomph. Almost no noise. Thinking I could skinflint my way through the race, I stupidly chose the cheapest, oldest Prius model and ended up having to work my ass off to weave my way past the other nine racers on the track. But no matter how well I drafted my rivals, I just couldn't get gold, and ended up having to give my hybrid econobox a bit of a tune-up to make it competitive. It annoyed me that I had to spend more money on it, but at least I can also use it in the Electric Car Race, as well as a bunch of B and A License races I haven’t yet completed. I'm sure it’ll end up paying for itself, and might even earn out. But here's the thing. I'm thinking strategically about racing my non-racing-car racing car. Again, it's just not the usual way I'd think about a driving game.
I think this point is as good a time as any to talk about microtransactions. When the dreaded m-word was uttered in conjunction with Gran Turismo 6, my heart really did sink. I’ve been playing Forza 5 solidly for the last week or two, and while I absolutely love it to bits, I really, really dislike the way its microtransactional model has influenced the design of the game. In-game currency is earned at about half the rate of prior Forza games, and it seems that this is the case simply to generate revenue. It feels like a completely cynical exercise and really takes the shine off what is otherwise a terrific racing game.
I had similar fears about GT6, but you know what. So far it’s been business as usual. Admittedly, I’ve been fairly frugal in my approach to the game up to this point. I've made a few strategic car buys and spent the time to get golds in the license tests and earn a few more cars, but I don't think I've had to work particularly hard, and I’ve got a nice chunk of change sitting in the bank. I find that with most GT games, there’s usually a point where you overspend and end up having to grind a bit for cars, and I’ll probably hit that point sometime soon. But I’m not noticing it so far. What is different this time around is that you earn fewer cars through racing, but for the most part, it seems Gran Turismo’s microtransactions really are what Sony boss Shuhei Yoshida says they are: the means for someone who can’t play the game much to buy their way through it. That's fine by me: GT6 can have as many microtransactions as it wants as long as it doesn’t feel like the game is being fixed to milk cash out of me like Forza 5 does.
So it’s good news so far, but unfortunately there is some bad. The fundamental problem with Gran Turismo 6 is that it’s so vast, so huge in scope, that it can’t possibly hope to get everything right. It’s like Polyphony has built the ultimate automotive theme park, but don’t quite have the staff to run it. As a consequence, bits of it are not quite right, and in some places parts of the game aren’t even finished yet.
Racing continues to be riddled with issues. The car handling model is absolutely brilliant, and after spending a couple of weeks driving Forza 5, hopping into Gran Turismo 6 instantly reminded me why I love the series so much. From soggily suspended muscle cars to tight FWD hatchbacks, the game captures the full spectrum of car handling characteristics, and it does it with a sublime subtlety.
Yet, here I am plotting a creative line across a series of grass verges, followed by a nice cannonball off a barrier so that I can win a race with an underpowered car that by rights should never reach the checkered flag first. Yep, all your old Gran Turismo bad habits can be used once again. Sure, you can play honorably and honestly, but sometimes at the end of a long race where you know there's no way to pass the car in front of you legally, it's difficult to resist the option of knocking it off the track on the last corner so you can take gold. That’s annoying to me. GT6 has a cutting edge car handling engine, yet I can blaze across a sand trap and 200 yards of grass infield to gain an unfair advantage. Why doesn’t Polyphony put some freakin’ sticky crap on the grass to stop me from doing that? How hard can it be?
The damage modeling is also laughable. Every collision, whether it's a cornering love-tap or a violent 100-mph crash is accompanied by a sound akin to a large sofa cushion being hurled against a garage door. The result? No more than what looks like a chocolate milk stain at the point of impact. The consequences? None whatsoever. Keep calm and race on!
This aspect of the game feels weak, and needs work. You feel it most of all when you jump from something like a rail-running bump-fest on one of the high speed tracks to one of the more strictly monitored tests where putting a wheel off the track or the tiniest of collisions with another car results in a fail. It’s just inconsistent, and I believe solving it would require little more than looking at how Turn Ten handles collision and off track excursions in Forza – which I think is much better than this.
Another disappointing aspect of GT6 is something that was also apparent in GT5 – the legacy car models. It's clear that they've all been worked on, but while some look okay, others look like the gussied-up PlayStation 2 models that they are. I don’t know what Polyphony is going to do when it’s time to step up to PS4, but those models need a serious makeover. Fortunately, they’re in the minority, and most cars look terrific. I wish they sounded terrific too, but unfortunately engine sound is another area where this game doesn't feel up to par. Some exhaust notes almost sound like vacuum cleaners, while others are more rorty, but there just seems to be something lacking in the audio. Like Polyphony recorded the exhaust note, but didn't mix in other engine noises to create something that feels more immersive.
The environments look better than ever, however, and the new lighting model brings them to life in an almost uncanny fashion. Replays look fabulous, and all you need to do is take a few in-game pictures using Photo Mode to see just how much Polyphony is wringing out of the PS3. At this point, I really don’t think it’s got anything more to give.
The AI is decent this time out. It’s not brilliant, but much improved over prior editions, whose AI drivers seemed to be desperately trying to follow a predetermined line the whole time. GT6’s drivers also feel like they’re doing that, but they move off that line and stay off it if circumstances dictate they do so – rather than them trying to drive through other cars to get back onto the line as they did in the past. Ultimately it’s good enough.
But really, GT6’s true racing is not about the AI - it's about competing with other humans. To that end, GT6's online mode has been comprehensively expanded and improved over GT5. Couple that with the seasonal races and ghost challenges, and you have the real heart of the game. Long after you’ve completed the Coffee Breaks, Missions and career races, there’s the endless challenge of online racing – which will likely keep many PS3’s spinning until GT7 finally shows up on PS4.
Oh, and one last criticism. The load time of some races is painfully long. There’ve been more than a few times when a race has taken so long to load, I’ve looked at my PS3 suspiciously thinking that it had crashed. It's very disconcerting. Just you wait and see.
But after all that, I still love the game. Really love it. It’s packed with a vast array of tracks, including all the old favorites and several new ones. The interface is a lot better than prior editions. It’s still not perfect, but it does the job nicely. And I almost forgot about Vision Gran Turismo, a new feature that'll gift players new concept cars as they’re made available throughout 2014. The first is the extraordinary-looking Mercedes-Benz Vision GT, and man does it love going sideways.
Like I said at the beginning, Gran Turismo 6 is an over-ambitious, huge, sprawling, messy masterpiece. It has its highs and lows. It has its perfections and its flaws. Sometimes it’s annoying. Sometimes it’s infuriating. But most of the time it’s simply the best driving game you can buy.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: Excellent for the most part, but the quality varies wildly in some areas. At its best, the all-new parts of GT6 look almost next-generation. But some of its legacy standard car models look a little too much like they've been upscaled from Gran Turismo 4. Which they probably were.
- Music: If you know Gran Turismo, you'll know the music. To be blunt, I turn it off and listen to my own stuff.
- Interface: It's not perfect by any means, but it's a quantum leap forward from the clumsy mess of menus we've had to endure in prior editions of the game.
- Lasting Appeal: Almost mind-boggling in scope. Whatever you're in the mood for, whether it's track testing cars on your own, racing with friends, or participating in one of the seasonal racing challenges, Gran Turismo 6 will keep racing fans happy until it finally arrives on PlayStation 4.