Gran Turismo (PSP)
Premise 1: Racing cars in real life is tons of fun. Premise 2: Most racing games are not very realistic portrayals of the real-life racing experience. Premise 3: Most racing games are pretty fun. Conclusion: An extremely realistic racing game will be even more fun than those other racing games.
As far as I can tell, this has been the logical motivation behind the Gran Turismo series since its start on the original PlayStation; a logic still in force for the much-anticipated PSP version of the game. But, as my logic professor used to say, the conclusion doesn't follow from the premises.
Don't get me wrong, Gran Turismo is as detailed a replica of real-life racing as you're likely to get on a portable system. The years of development effort are apparent in the almost fetishistic attention to detail in almost all elements of the racing experience. It shows in the hundreds of lovingly crafted car models -- ranging from million-dollar racing coupes to pickup trucks (yes, really). It shows in the dozens of accurately recreated racing locales, including city streets and race tracks but also dirt- and snow-covered rally tracks. It shows in the feeling of power and acceleration as you push your feather-light car forward with hundreds of horsepower, past scenery that seems too beautiful for a portable system. The fact that such a realistic and physical racing simulation has been packed into a handheld system is an amazing technical feat.
But none of it makes the game any more fun.
With all the attention to accuracy and realism, the developers seem to have neglected giving Gran Turismo a coherent, compelling structure. The meatiest part of the game, somewhat surprisingly, is the Driving Challenge section, an extended tutorial encompassing hundreds of short, timed trials that teach players how to handle the game's wide variety of cars, turns and terrains. The game is kind enough to include narrated video demonstrations and a helpful on-track racing line that guides you along the exact best path to the finish. Even with this help, though, the Challenges become much too difficult much too fast, requiring an almost preternatural control of acceleration, balance and steering to complete. The PSP hardware doesn't help here: With the face buttons used for accelerating/braking, and a fiddly analog nub, it's hard to make fine-tuned adjustments without delicate, well-timed tapping.
The structural problems are even deeper outside the Driving Challenges, where the meager single-player options never come together into a satisfying whole. Rather than arranging races in a tiered tournament structure, or into a career mode where you work your way up through more powerful cars and trickier tracks, or in any sort of coherent progression through a set of increasing challenges, the game just gives three rather basic racing options: the obligatory Time Trial mode; a Drift Challenge that measures your ability to slide the back end of the car out during turns; and a Single Race mode that lets you pick your own car and track, and race against three randomly selected computer opponents.
It's this last mode where the game does try to provide a sense of difficulty progression -- but it does so in an extremely annoying way. Every time you choose a new track, you're forced to race against opponents on the "D Rank" difficulty level, where any decent racer can pass the opposing three cars on the first turn and then finish a lonely race by themselves. Only by winning the track over and over do you unlock the C, B and A Rank opponents that can actually provide a decent challenge. Until you move on to a new track, that is.
At the higher difficulty levels, though, I never felt like I was racing against real people. The three opponents always seemed to arrange themselves behind one another, traveling like automatons down a perfect racing line with mechanical precision. It's hard to blame them, I guess, as following that racing line is a surefire path to victory. But it makes the races relatively sterile and dull, especially when compared with less realistic but more action-packed racing games. This isn't the kind of game where you'll be sliding around turns at high speeds, maneuvering carefully to slip past your nearest opponent. This is the kind of game where you'll accelerate behind your opponent down a long, 20-second straightaway before slowing down to 30 miles per hour to take an extremely careful hairpin turn.
Even for fans of extremely technical, realistic racing, Gran Turismo doesn't seem very suited to a portable system, where there are no steering-wheel controllers, no force feedback, no huge screens to make you feel like you're really in the driver's seat. I'm sure there's some breed of car nut that will excitedly play through dozens of largely identical races just so they can fill their virtual garages with hundreds of virtual cars they'll never own in real life. These are the people who will be excited that this game lets you tweak the "rear spring rate" from 2 to 7, just to see if the change squeezes an extra ounce of performance. These are the people who would never bump into the opposing cars or take shortcuts through the grass -- even though the game oddly allows both these things with no penalty -- because they go against the spirit of racing.
For these kinds of car enthusiasts, Gran Turismo on the PSP provides an excellent interactive car museum where one can lovingly collect and play around with a garage full of marvelously recreated cars. For those who prefer adrenaline to accuracy, who prefer fun to realism, this is not the game for you.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.