E3 2016: Gran Turismo Sport Is Playing Catch Up – Hands-On Preview

It’s been a long time coming, and that’s certainly nothing new for fans of the series. Gran Turismo is considered one of Sony’s most important IPs and it’s always been willing to let developer Polyphony Digital get away with remarkably long development cycles. The result is we’re nearing three years into the current generation and its next release is only now beginning to show up at gaming conventions. Good things come to those who wait, right?

Gran Turismo Sport was relatively quiet at this year’s E3. For one, it only received a few seconds of screen time during Sony’s E3 Press Conference, and commanded a small portion of Sony’s floor space despite having multiple simulation rigs set up. With a release date only five months away, this was my first sign that things might not be in as great of shape as I hoped.

Gran Turismo has been marching to the beat of its own drum for many years. For the most part it’s been able to get away with this since it continues to sell millions of units in Europe where it’s beloved as a top IP in many countries. But, well, there’s more competition today than there’s ever been due to the ascent of Project CARS, Dirt Rally, and especially Forza. In many ways, Gran Turismo has fallen behind. But that doesn’t mean it has to stay there.

As a racing game enthusiast who began his hobby in 1998 with Gran Turismo (I still own my original copy), I find Gran Turismo‘s “decline” to something below the top of the totem pole a surprising change of events, to say the least. However, Gran Turismo Sport is a fresh slate for this generation, with plenty of potential. It goes without saying that I was excited to get hands-on time with Gran Turismo Sport while at E3. As a matter of fact, it was intentionally the very first game I played at the show.

Gran Turismo Sport looks exactly how you would expect it would, and that’s a good thing. The PS4’s magical horsepower has been leveraged to deliver something that is a cut above what the series has achieved in the past with high resolution textures that are as close to emulating asphalt, concrete, and dirt that I’ve ever seen. Even the small details like rumble strips and metal guardrails are incredibly lifelike thanks to a new lighting system. It might seem like a needless detail to talk about, but in a game like Gran Turismo where you spent more than half the time staring at surfaces, it makes a difference.

Speaking of vehicles, the detail of cars, inside and out, is remarkable. I saw roughly 40 different vehicles during my time playing (there’s no indication of the total car count currently) and all of them were gorgeous, even the unspectacular Hyundai Veloster. I wanted to get up and out of my seat and admire the Aston Martin and Ferrari’s around me as I would in real life. Speaking of which, at this point in time I have absolutely no idea how the PS4 will be able to support PSVR on such a beautiful game (I suspect PlayStation Neo might have been birthed from such questions). What’s here visually goes a step beyond what Driveclub achieved, which is quite a feat when you consider this game is apparently aiming for a 60 frames per second standard.

Before you ask, yes, Gran Turismo still sounds awful. I can’t speak to the soundtrack, which will likely consist of elevator music like its recent predecessors, but the vehicles sound like vacuum cleaners. Not next-gen vacuum cleaners, either.

Each of these vehicles handled exceptionally well. There’s a great steering and brake feel in Gran Turismo that does a great job of functioning well for both racing wheel and controller users, to a point where I’d go as far as to say it has the best handling model of any console racing game. In recent years Forza has slowly closed the gap, while the games that come close to emulating it are usually barren in terms of content (i.e. Assetto Corsa). For enthusiasts such as myself this quality is not to be understated and is perhaps the game’s greatest asset.

I’m happy to report that Gran Turismo Sport will make a better effort to create balanced races, a serious concern in past games. You can expect to have more competitive races where you don’t leave your A.I. opponents in the dust. What’s here is an extension of the performance points system, where the game limits the effectiveness of vehicles to properly emulate the “draft and overtake” elements of real world racing.

While Gran Turismo is catching up to the competition in this regard, which is where Forza particularly shines with its incentivized custom difficulties and car ratings systems, it’s still behind when it comes to conditions. More specifically, the game is missing any form of day/night cycle or rain. Coming from Forza Motorsport 6 and Forza Horizon 3, each of which not only include both, but genre-leading puddle physics, makes Gran Turismo Sport feel half a generation behind. On the plus side it does include multiple racing disciplines, so fans of rally will have content to chew on.

With all this in mind, you might be able to come to the conclusion that Gran Turismo Sport‘s more eSports oriented frame of mind isn’t the craziest idea that anyone has ever had. What I took away from my experience and brief discussion with others was that the game will have a Campaign mode, which is where myself and virtually every gaming friend I have prefers to spend time in Gran Turismo. But the breadth of content in this mode isn’t going to meet many expectations. This is by design, as Sports Mode is the focus.

Sports Mode is all about encouraging social racing. Whereas Gran Turismo 5 and Gran Turismo 6‘s multiplayer were rough proofs of concept, what’s here is the main selling point. Polyphony Digital has gone as far as to form partnerships with various manufacturers as well as the FIA. This is a full fledged multiplayer mode that will be marketed in Europe unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Whether or not it’ll be successful is yet to be determined.

At the end of my brief time with Gran Turismo Sport I walked away with mixed impressions. This is certainly a beautiful Gran Turismo game, and one with some welcomed new content. But somewhere in the long development cycles of the past decade the franchise has fallen behind on features and car count. It lacks the depth that progressed the genre in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. For that, I can’t help but feel disappointed.

I hesitantly anticipate the launch of Gran Turismo Sport, which will be November 15th, 2016.