SCEA would never come out and say it was canceled, but trying to get details on a release had become nearly impossible. But as we all now know, Gran Turismo (minus the “mobile) reappeared this past June along with GT 5 at Sony’s E3 conference. And despite word that Polyphony Digital had retained the reigns of the project and the game was running at a solid 60 fps, one question still remained; Is Gran Turismo on the PSP any good?
The first thing that jumps out at you is the new interface on this Gran Turismo. But don’t worry GT faithful. The new streamlined interface is a nice leap forward. For those of you who’ve spent hours learning how to navigate the convoluted menu system of the Gran Turismo series, you’ll still feel at home. You’ll just be able to find things faster. Gran Turismo for the PSP almost seems designed for casual racing sim fans with a streamlined menu that offers just the bare essentials. Arcade mode is gone. Sim mode is deceased. Say goodbye to B-Spec, oil changes, and car washes. All you’ll find here is single player, multiplayer, buy-a-car, and a few driving challenges that reside in the top menu. The only frills here are some minor stat tracking functions.
Are you anxious to complete the insane career mode contrived by Polyphony while on the go? Not here old friend. In this new Gran Turismo mobile it’s all about racing! Pick a car, track, and maybe tweak a couple things before you’re racing. It’s extremely simple and very satisfying to get it going so fast. Some of the Gran Turismo purists will certainly find fault with and complain about this new laid back version of GT. But gamers on the go are different. They want something they can play fast and enjoy. And don’t freak out too much as the game compensates you with additional credits for the more laps you race. So you’ll still be able to afford that NISMO powerhouse in no time. The new system where gamers set up their own racing structure really works on the go.
Novice racers will also be comfortable with GT’s mobile cousin. Difficulty on all the tracks (which are all available from the start) begin with a level “D” difficulty. Beat the race and get first place, you’ll open up level “C”. I bet you know what happens when you finish first in level “C”. The AI gets increasingly difficult with each new letter you unlock. By the time you reach A and S, you’ll feel right at home with GT on the PSP.
Technically speaking, you can probably complete the entire racing mode with just one car. The difficulty scales not only to the AI, but also adjusts to the make and model of what you'll be racing against. That’s not really a problem, however, as collecting and learning how to drive an excessive amount of cars is one of Gran Turismo’s calling cards. The daily rotation and rationing of manufactures and their vehicles to buy is a bit puzzling (must have been memory related), though. And, while you're not able to buy new parts or appearance modifications, you can still adjust the various suspension variables and, in some case, the weight and power of a car with the quick tune option. And, thankfully, the rumors turned out to be true, as there is an option to export your hard earned cars out to the upcoming full version of Gran Turismo 5.
If you need a change of pace time trial, rally racing, and a completely separate Drift Trial mode are present. I've always found drifting to be a mindboggling and inefficient practice in turn negotiation but, much like the rally courses, trying to successfully kick the rear end out and go sideways for half the race can be a good deal of fun. While finding success on the rally courses is a bit more forgiving (provided you use a rally car and not your NSX), I found the Drift Trial to especially cater toward more hardcore players. For maximum effect in Drift Mode the game recommends you turn off all driver assists, boost the power, and slap on less sticky tires which, in turn, makes rear wheel drive cars hard as hell to manage. Finding the sweet spot can be an exercise in trial and error, but once you nail it, drifting through the game’s two separate drift modes can be a blast.
Speaking of the driving challenges, it came as quite a surprise that they consumed the bulk of my time. I hated having to methodically clear the license tests of previous Turismo games and, while the new driving challenges are not all that different in terms of mechanics and instruction, the portable paradigm has somehow transformed them from necessary evil into and engaging challenge. Rather than blow through it, I found myself wanting to go for the gold ranks instead of settling for bronze. And my addiction becomes harder to deny once the challenges began to increase in difficulty and the margin of error closed. Negotiating corners was fine and playing around with different drivetrain layout seemed necessary, but learning how to overtake opponents and getting to play around with supercars I couldn't quite yet afford was a great deal of fun. Much to my surprise, once all challenges on the first page are completed, a robust assortment of bonus challenges opens up (and if my profanity laced outbursts were any indication, getting even bronze on most of those felt notable).
A rather unexpected and appreciated feature of the driving challenges was the presence of narrator. Jay Leno, of Popular Mechanics (and that whole Tonight Show thing) fame narrates the whole game, but the text he's assigned to read over videos of challenge demonstrations provides tremendous insight. For example, with the slalom test on 4-E, Jay's tips concerning using momentum to your advantage exchanged knowledge in ways simple text or watching a plane-Jane video couldn't otherwise convey. It may seem like a needless detail, but even the slightest bit of input was sometimes all it took to lift me out of bronze.
Multiplayer, which is unfortunately restricted to ad-hoc, unfolds in a fairly straightforward manner, though I admit to not being able to play anyone due to the pre-release nature of this review. From a purely observational standpoint (and with help from this developer diary), a standard head on challenge is present, but it's joined by party mode, where slower cars get a head start, and shuffle race mode, which presents each player with "slower or faster cars to even the playing field." Again, none of this was tested, but it doesn't seem too far outside the realm of possibility.
While the content is safely intact (in a controlled sort of way), a portable Gran Turismo's other big question mark lied with its control. The precision of analog is typically preferred to an all-or-nothing dpad, and I wasn't quite sure if the PSP's overly stiff and short-ranged nub would get the job done. And after two dozen hours invested, I don't think it can. On driving challenges like H-2, where a slow, precise maneuver had to be completed, the twitchy analog nub came off as feeling incomplete. I simply could not make a slow, deliberate turn of the wheel at such a high speed, and I found the dpad far better tailored to the game's needs. Far worse of a translation was made to the manual shift mechanic, which was mapped to the up and down portions of the dpad. If you use the dpad to drive, and you have Shaq hands like me, shifting is almost a lost cause. In any other game this wouldn't matter, but Gran Turismo is a driving game first and a racing game second; precision is its calling card. The game still works and I managed to get used to the dpad and an automatic transmission, but the PSP's inherently poor input methods leave much to be desired (Note: I was playing on a PSP-2000, the Go's smaller analog nub may travel better).
While input is unabashedly flawed, the breadth of the presentation takes strides to make up for it. Gran Turismo, even on a mobile platform, is one of the deepest simulations in the realm of interactive entertainment. Overtly, this is best conveyed via the modest in-cockpit view, which, with its mirrors and faux dashboard, does well (though obviously not as well as its console counterparts) to create a sense of place and perception of inertia. On a personal level, I have participated in SCCA Solo II autocross events for a number of years and, while our speeds rarely reach 40mph and my vehicle is an entry level car, the lessons I have learned in real life racing (and at yearly accompanying driving school) remain consistent in a videogame. The back end of my MR2 got away from me in the game in a manner consistent with actual racing, and Polyphony Digital's ability to recreate that experience on a portable platform was quite impressive, to say that least.
So while there are those who like the instant thrills of more arcadey racers like EA’s Burnout, the investment of time and one puts into learning the intracacies of a single car in Gran Turismo for the PSP is far more gratifying. Sure both are racers, but it's apples and oranges; both are fun, and both appeal to distinct, if not slightly overlapping, crowds. But if you like Gran Turismo style of simulation racing, and you have a PSP, you need to stop reading this and get the game. It's not the greatest racer of all time. Just the greatest on a portable available right now.
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