First shown when the PSP was unveiled in 2004, the portable Gran Turismo has tantalized fans for a half-decade. Launching alongside the PSP Go, the handheld racer is finally ready for the starting line. Can the granddaddy of sim racers really be contained in such a small package?
Gran Turismo PSP's structure is very do-it-yourself. There are no dreaded license tests, no overarching driver profile, and no career mode whatsoever. Instead, progression is measured per-track with each course starting at D-level competition, and rising to C, B, A, and S ranks if you continue to place first.
You can also challenge yourself in time trials and drift competitions, but each course is a blank slate. There are no times or scores for you to beat, and you can't share times with friends or post them online. So after a few laps, there's little incentive to push your performance even further.
Where the game does put you to the test is in a separate series of brief driver challenges that test your skills to stop on a dime or navigate curves at high speed. You're awarded trophies and credits based on time, and the tests really make you appreciate the difference between a few tenths of a second.
Gran Turismo includes local multiplayer for up to four competitors as well as the ability to share or trade vehicles with friends, but there's no online functionality in any form. It's a glaring omission for such a huge franchise, especially when fans are accustomed to downloading ghosts and replays and making names for themselves in the community.
It's a good thing, then, that the game does have a strong track selection. There are 45 in all, with a variety of real-world circuits, dusty off-road races, snowy mountain trails, and urban courses through major cities like New York and Paris. There are a few locales that are repeated with only slight differences, but there are more than enough unique layouts.
Equally impressive is GT PSP's line-up of over 800 vehicles, including classic sports cars, modern supercars, professional racing machines, and everyday consumer vehicles. Much of that number, however, is made up of minor variations-for instance, a pair of Ford GTs with identical specs that count as separate models simply because one has a stripe.
There's another major catch with the game's massive vehicle lineup. Instead of being able to browse the full collection of vehicles, you're limited to four random manufacturers per in-game day, and each dealer displays no more than ten cars at a time. This means that there's no dependable way of determining whether a particular car is even in the game. Purchasing vehicles basically comes down to the luck of the draw, which is incredibly frustrating for the car collector.
Gameplay in Gran Turismo PSP retains many of the pros and cons of previous titles. It's a technical approach to driving that's all about carefully managing your speed, taking corners at the right angles, and learning and tweaking the subtle nuances of each machine. Mastering your technique and perfecting a line around the track is just as satisfying as placing first. The main difference is that players used to driving with analog sticks and racing wheels will have to re-adjust to light taps of the directional pad or brave the PSP's sliding nub.
Races are limited to four vehicles whose AI drivers follow the race line religiously, which keeps you on top of your game. Gran Turismo has avoided damage models for years, and beyond crunching bumpers, there isn't much impact from collisions. You can bounce off walls with little consequence or get bumped from behind without even knowing it.
The level of challenge varies based on which vehicle you select and the other three cars you're matched with. Some cars, like the Daihatsu Midget, don't seem to stand a chance in any conditions. Off-road courses also seem to be significantly easier than the tarmac. You might have a tough time competing with a great car on the track, but in dirt, a Nissan Cube can blow by S-rank opponents with little difficulty.
While it might seem like fun to zip around in an old Volkswagen Beetle, in practice, it can be downright boring. The sense of speed just doesn't match what's on your speedometer, and going 75 MPH feels more like 15. So it's a good idea to stick with the high performance machines.
Many of these issues are a matter of the series continuing to do what it has always done. There's a strong driving experience that grows on you the more you play, but the model desperately needs to evolve.
Gran Turismo's visuals are impressive given the platform, but still somewhat rough around the edges. The game runs at a smooth 60 frames per second, which is no small feat on the handheld. The car models look great in replays, with detailed textures and reflective highlights. Switching to different cameras in-game, however, can be quite a shock. Cockpit views are nothing more than empty black silhouettes, while the awkward roof cam just places a motionless car model at the bottom of the screen.
You race in a variety of striking locales, but blurry roadside textures and flat cut-out background elements are all too visible at times. Most distracting are the numerous seams between polygons throughout the courses, whose dotted white or black lines just make the game feel poorly stitched together.
There's a wide range of engine sounds to suit the vehicle selection, but the music quickly gets repetitive as the game only loops one song per race. You can unlock the option to play your own mp3s, but just make sure they can last a lap around the Nürburgring.
Gran Turismo is a rewarding driving game with plenty of courses to master and vehicles to acquire. However, it's held back by a lack of key features and frustrating limitations that will aggravate car collectors most of all. After such a long wait, GT fans deserve better.
Reviewed on Sony PSP.