Reviewed: April 30, 2008
Released: April 15, 2008
According to various dictionaries and online searches the word “Prologue” has several variations in its definition, usually involving literary work or public address, but the third definition under Merriam-Webster’s Online Dicitionary sums it up perfectly - an introductory or preceding event or development - when it comes to tacking a subtitle on Sony’s much anticipated release of Gran Turismo 5 Prologue.
While the full game is still a calendar year away, Polyphony Digital has granted fans a sneak peek at what they’ve been working on for the past several years, and the results are going to rock your world and perhaps change the face of console racing simulations forever. Gran Turismo 5 Prologue is being delivered as a retail Blu-ray release as well as a downloadable release from the PS Store. Admittedly, Prologue (as the name implies) is not a full game, but merely a taste to whet your appetite for the feast to come.
As such, there is a bit of confusion when it comes to the entire packaging and presentation of Prologue as well as the $40 price tag. But rest assured; there is more than enough racing action packed into this “demo” to keep you sated for the rest of 2008, and with the knowledge that your cars and some of your cash can be taken into the full release, why not get your head start while you can.
Prologue is merely a glimpse of the future, and from what I’ve seen so far the future is good, especially for those who love a serious racing sim. Sure, Prologue has an “Arcade” mode but that is merely a misnomer for Quick Race or Instant Action. Even in Arcade mode the racing is deadly serious; sometimes with challenges that are greater than the tiered events.
With early rumors and estimates putting the final release as more than 900 cars, it might seem like a cheap shot to tempt us with a preview version that only contains 60-some cars and a paltry six tracks. The core of the entire single player experience is a 3-class Event structure that will remind you of those licensing tests from past GT games without the car restrictions. Your only restriction in Prologue is having the finances to buy the car required for the event. The good news is that you almost always earn some cash, with top-three placement earning the most, and you can always redo previously completed events to earn more cash. You’ll need a serious bankroll when it comes times to buy that Ferrari for some of those Class A events.
There is the aforementioned robust Arcade mode and of course, the all-new multiplayer racing for up to 16 drivers via the PS Network. Online racing works surprisingly well from the technical aspects of connectivity and interface. There are still a few issues with minor lag and some odd (and often unfair) racing rules. Drivers are penalized for a variety of indiscretions including riding the rail; cutting turns short by driving in the grass, or intentionally ramming other cars. The problems arise when it comes to determining fault.
If the joker ahead of me locks up his brakes while I’m drafting him and I smack into him, I get the penalty, but if I drive him into a guardrail or off into the grass he might get a penalty. The penalties (which are incurred by locking your throttle for a few seconds) can start to stack up in the larger collisions. To their credit, Polyphony has tried to address this issue by detecting seemingly random or erratic movements of other drivers and temporarily turn their cars into see-through and drive-through ghostly versions of themselves. This is great when it works, which is about 40% of the time.
Another complaint I have for the online play, which seems to be a recurring theme for the PS3 these days, is a total lack of online chat, either in lobbies before a race or trash talking during a race. You can’t even text these guys to compliment them or ask the winner what his car setup was. Hopefully this will be addressed before the final game ships.
Despite these online annoyances most of the people playing Prologue online are a great group of likeminded serious racers. Sure, you get the occasional troublemaker who thinks this is demolition derby, but their numbers are quickly decreasing, and there is even a formal complain system in place whereby repeat offenders can be banned from the game. But the best thing about online racing is the cash payouts. Often, your prize money for finishing in the bottom half of the line-up are more than finishing in the top three in solo play.
After you get done admiring the gorgeous menu backgrounds and floating interface, which includes local time, a calendar, world map, and real-time weather and temperatures from key race locations around the globe, you’ll need to purchase your first car and maybe do a few practice laps or check out the arcade mode. Eventually, you’ll need to start working on those Event classes starting with C and working up through S. As you complete each of the 10 class events the next higher class opens up.
Each event within the class has various restrictions for cars, tires, and such. Races that are open to your current car are lit up, while darkened icons mean you either need to switch cars in your garage or head to the dealership to buy a qualifying car. This can get a bit clunky at times with a lot of menu hopping, since you need to open the unavailable event to see what car types are allowed, then back out to the main menu and go to the dealer to buy the car, then go all the way back to the event menu, pick the class, and pick the event. It would be so much nicer to have instant access to the dealership from the actual event you currently wish to race, perhaps with a filter only showing cars you might want to purchase for that event.
Events cover all sorts of racing challenges including standard races, beat the clock, and passing an entire pack and come in first. These variations often serve to teach you valuable racing techniques, as is the case when you are forced to pass the entire pack on the Daytona track in a single lap. You will need to master drafting and passing strategies to win this event.
Being a simulation, Gran Turismo has always boasted immaculate control and physics, but nothing can compare to the ultimate realism you’ll experience in Prologue, especially when you start driving with any of the supported racing wheels. The game is certainly playable with the SIXAXIS and slightly more enjoyable with the rumbling goodness of the new DualShock 3, but you can only drive so well with these game controllers. If you really want to compete and win races, especially online, you will need a good wheel.
I’ve tested three wheels (all Logitech) with Prologue so far and each has their pros and cons. I started with the Logitech Driving Force Pro, which has basically been in storage since I finally gave up on Gran Turismo 4. I then moved on to the G25 Racing Wheel, designed for the PC but fully compatible with Prologue and the PS3. If offers the added value of a clutch pedal and slightly improved shifting while sacrificing actual PlayStation buttons. And finally, the crème de la crème, the Driving Force GT releasing in May, brought all new meaning and realism to Prologue, as I am sure it will the final full game next year. You can read my full review on the Driving Force GT for all the details, but Prologue now offers on-the-fly racing adjustments and this is the only wheel that has the control inputs to select and adjust those variables while you drive.
You really can’t go wrong with any of these wheels, although some are better than others. The added realism and level of fine control that a wheel offers is invaluable to a simulation such as this, and you almost instantly believe you are driving a real car, especially when you start working that stick shift like a pro, and especially if you are driving from the all-new cockpit view which almost mirrors your real-life actions on screen, since you can watch the fully rendered driver working the wheel and the gears just like you are doing.
Gran Turismo has never really offered the most scenic venues when it comes to racing, at least when compared to other racing games. For the longest time the franchise just kept rehashing the same tracks over and over. It was only with Gran Turismo 4 that we got some truly stunning tracks like Yosemite National Park – one of my personal favorites. In Prologue we only get a 6-track sampling of whatever Polyphony has in store for us next year. A few tracks like Daytona and Suzuka will be familiar to real race fans, but none are terribly glamorous with the exception of London. This curvy course that twists through downtown city streets is the closest thing to PGR or NFS tracks that we get.
Prologue skips over the aftermarket parts and upgrade system for now, so we are left with only the stock cars as provided as well as a limited tuning shop where you can adjust variables for gear ratios, weight, and horsepower. The trick here is that you must first complete all the Event classes up through A before the tuning shop becomes available.
Gran Turismo has never featured damage, either visible or performance based, and Prologue is no different, but there are rumors floating around that there may be a downloadable patch or that the final game may actually have a functioning damage model. I respect Polyphony’s love for these driving machines and not wanting to see (or render) them in a state of disrepair, but until body and mechanical damage is added, Gran Turismo can never attain true “sim” status.
Polyphony continues to put most of their work into the cars, which ultimately shows up in their less-than-stellar tracks. Don’t get me wrong…technically, these tracks are as real as it gets without you actually driving on them, right down to specific elevations, banked turns, and even specific tree placements used a braking markers that mirror the real-life tracks. Where the visuals fail are on the little things like textures and models.
Trees are still those cardboard 2D constructs that look fine from the track but reveal their true nature on fly-bys. Fans come in a greater variety but still look like cardboard figure used to populate the stands and dot the side of the tracks. I did notice that small patches of 3D grass flutter in the breeze of passing cars, but the rest of the grass looks like blotches of green. The pavement on the tracks looks pretty good but could be a bit rougher, perhaps some bump mapping is in order.
My biggest complaint with the visuals is the overall lack of speed sensation when driving in the cockpit view. When using the traditional bumper cam (with the two instruments in the center) you get a much greater sensation of speed because the tarmac is whipping by under you nose, but with a lack of trackside items and a claustrophobic cockpit view, you really can’t judge your speed visually until you find yourself swing wide into the outside of a turn…and then it’s too late.
But Gran Turismo is all about racing, so I suppose I can forgive a few of the smaller visual oversights, especially since we finally get a PS3 game that runs in 1080p and can manage a respectable framerate. The cars are intricately modeled and designed with precise care. The real-time lighting, shadows, and reflections off their pristine bodies almost makes you understand the lack of a damage model. And for as much complaining as all of us have done about no cockpit views, I think we can all agree it has most certainly been worth the wait. These are by far the best car interiors ever rendered in a video game.
The North American version of Gran Turismo 5 Prologue’s soundtrack offers fans a dozen exclusive singles from some of today’s hottest new artist such as Justice, The Klaxons and Friendly Fires, and pulses with new tracks such as “Love Love” made famous by Jimi Hendrix and interpolated by DJ Shadow, a pioneer in instrumental hip-hop and famed producer. In addition to the exclusive North American tracks and a new version of Gran Turismo theme song “Moon Over The Castle,” the soundtrack offers an international flare of recordings from Goose, Alloy Mental, naomee, Daiki Kasho and Nittoku Inoue.
The music is most noticeable in the menus and pre-race screens, but it can be a bit glitchy when it comes to racing. Sometimes you have music and sometimes you don’t, and I can’t really tell when or why I may or may not be driving in silence. I really don’t mind either way…actually I think I might prefer the musical silence, as I am quickly learning to drive these courses by feel and the variable hum of the RPM’s makes this much easier.
The engine sounds are flawless, and if you have seen any of the behind the scenes videos you can watch these sound guys with their microphones recording engines and tailpipes. When you combine the unique sounds of each of these cars on the same track you get this harmonizing roar that is most impressive. And with support for Dolby Surround all the way up to 7.1, you can be sure you’ll hear all these cars as they try to pass. The soundscape changes dramatically when you enter the cockpit, with everything getting slightly muffled.
If this were a full game then 60-70 cars and six tracks would be an evil joke, at least when those numbers are associated with a Gran Turismo game. Interestingly enough, those numbers are actually right on par or even a bit high when you compare to a few other full games that have been released, so even as a demo of sorts, Prologue surpasses a few full games.
If you are here for the solo experience then the offering is a bit light and you will likely have everything wrapped up in a week or two. The main thing that will keep you coming back for more is the online racing action, which, while still not as refined as other racing games, is still a fun experience that will surely be tweaked to perfection by the time the final game arrives.
Online support also carries over into downloadable content with the suggestion that more cars and tracks are forthcoming. We also have GT-TV, which is not nearly as fleshed out as PGR-TV. We don’t get to watch other people race or view best lap replays for those perched on the top of the leaderboards. Instead, we get periodic video morsels that will download to our GT-TV Guide menu that we can watch at our leisure. So far, these have been about the design of the game and a two-part feature on the cars. If you purchase the Blu-ray version of the game you will also get a fantastic behind the scenes movie entitled, Beyond the Apex.
Gran Turismo has always been a serious sim for serious racers, which has either turned off a large group of gamers or slowly converted them into hardcore racers. Prologue doesn’t stray from the sim formula – if anything it takes it new heights of clarity and new depths of realism.
Some gamers might balk at the thought of paying $40 for a demo of a game that won’t even arrive until next year, but I challenge you to keep in mind two things. First, this demo has as much, if not more content than a lot of other racing games out there, and second, a lot of the profits from this “demo” will certainly be rolled over into the final game, making it even better than ever. So think of Prologue as a playable investment in the future of the franchise.