Gran Turismo has transcended what any of us ever imagined it would become. This isn't a racing game. It's car culture in digital form. Back when the first game was being developed, Polyphony Digital had to approach car manufacturers in order to include their vehicles, now it's the other way around. It's gotten to the point that both the car and video game worlds actually wait to see what Kazunori Yamauchi and his crew are going to do next. And with GT5: Prologue, we're getting a tantalizing taste of what the full game will hold when it finally comes out next year. Or are we paying to beta test some new features?
Gran Turismo games usually feature a ridiculous number of events to partake in, including multi-race series, hours-long endurance races, some time trials, and a bit of rally racing for good measure. Don't expect all that here. Remember, Prologue is just a glorified demo of the full game. Here you get three tiers, each with a handful of races and challenges to complete. Finish on the podium in each, and you get to move on to the next tier. And for those who finish the first three, there's a secret, fourth group of challenges to unlock.
More importantly, though, Gran Turismo 5: Prologue marks the first time the GT series is playable online. Up to 16 people can hook up and race across various events over the world wide web. The setup is a little backwards--the game doesn't support friends' lists or allow you to freely pick your track and settings. Apparently we should feel honored to have the functionality at all.
Rounding out the package is the ability to download various videos, which promise to showcase new cars and events in the future. Sony apparently plans to expand on the track and car rosters through downloadable updates, as well. Still, it's hard to look past the fact that you're paying $40 for game with less than half the content you'd expect.
Let's face it – anyone who cares about Gran Turismo has played one of these games at some point in the past. And if you played GT3 or GT4 on the PlayStation 2, chances are you'll feel right at home with the gameplay in Prologue. Here you'll find a driving simulator that almost perfectly balances realism with fun. No, it's not so hyper realistic that it's like you're driving a real car, but it's pretty darned close.
And car nuts should definitely invest in either one of the many racing wheels the game is compatible with, or at the very least, one of the new Dual Shock 3 controllers. The game is so much more enjoyable when you have a bit of feedback to let you know when you may have drifted too far, or might be losing traction in a turn.
And now, the bad news. Online play is up and down in Gran Turismo 5: Prologue. Along with the muddled setup options and complete lack of voice chat, connection issues crop up fairly frequently. There's also a server-side “feature” that eliminates the collision detection based upon perceived issues. Sometimes you can bump and grind, and sometimes you can't. In a game that's so incredibly polished otherwise, the hamstrung online component stands out that much more. Here's hoping a patch will fix the problems sometime down the road.
The visuals are what set Gran Turismo head and shoulders above all other racing games thus far. Never has anyone ever been able to capture the beauty of the automobile the way Polyphony Digital has. Electronic Arts, Turn 10 and Bizarre Creations have come extremely close, but Gran Turismo games always feel like a work of art, from the title screen through every menu, and right onto the track.
The real draw is the cockpit view. Again, this is nothing new, as gamers have been seeing spectacular cockpit views since Project Gotham Racing 3. But the in-car visuals in Prologue look just a bit better, and feel much more functional thanks to a better field of view that does more to include all of your rear-view mirrors. This is one of the best-looking PlayStation 3 games yet.
Gran Turismo 5: Prologue holds a lot of promise, but there's not getting away from the fact that it's a stopgap while the world waits for the real thing. The price of the game is a bit high for what you're getting, but there's no denying that what's available here is some top notch stuff. Hopefully the online issues will be ironed out before the full-on release, but if you simply can't wait to get a horsepower fix then bite the bullet, pay the ticket, and put it to the floor.