A Mixed Bag of Brilliance and Failed Execution
Gran Turismo 5 is really a hard game to wrap your head around. At times it's a gorgeous-looking showpiece of a game with the most precise car physics model available (on a game console) - and incredibly fun. Unfortunately, there are other times when the game is littered with odd design decisions, needlessly complex menus and loose ends that were clearly never completed. It's odd that a game that took this much time has so many aspects of it left incomplete.
First, The Good
Given the right circumstances, GT5 looks amazing. The light effects, sky and car detail (on premium models) look as realistic as you're going to find on any other driving sim. And it's not just the visual appearance either - in replay mode cars look very natural as their suspension realistically handles each turn and dips under hard braking. At a distance it might be difficult to distinguish the game from reality - at least more so than any other game available right now.
GT5 also has a lot of variety. There are car models here that you won't find anywhere else - from the 1944 VW Kubelwagon to several variants of the Mazda Miata (a must-have for starting a driving career with a limited budget) there is a lot to play with here. GT5 also starts off with a decent amount of variety in racing types - allowing early access to abbreviated Kart racing and Nascar games which keeps things interesting.
On the premium cars, there are also visual indications that you've modified the cars which is great! You can actually see that big coffee-can exhaust aft of your civic.. it's pretty cool and more complete that anything else.
The photo mode is also stunning - though clearly just a toy to show off the rendering capabilities of a PS3 un-encumbered by driving physics and AI. Regardless, it's a great way to enjoy your car and take some amazing photos.
Now, The Bad
One of the biggest issues that I have with GT5 is the omission of much of the car customization on non-premium models. The game comes with ~200 premium cars - which sounds like a lot, but some of these are specialty cars that you'll never really want or need to use. The non-premium cars work just fine, but the modeling is below the quality of most other racers in this generation of game. Just as an example, there are races early on which require a pre-1970's European car. I opted for a used Jaguar E-Type - an iconic sports car. The Jag's emblematic wire wheels look horrible - like a low-resolution texture was pasted on and you'll get no reflections, cabin rendering or sound tweaks as you modify the drivetrain. You're also unable to put new wheels on the car or make exterior modifications.
GT5 also omits and handicaps things like brake and wheel modifications - which is a strange design choice. While it is possible to change the look of your wheels (from a somewhat limited selection) in a premium car, you can't purchase larger, smaller or wider wheels and while the text mentions that lighter wheels improve handling, there is no indication of weight reduction when you install new wheels, and the weight of wheels is never really recorded anywhere. If you're scratching your head wondering where the option to buy sport or racing brakes went.. forget it. Someone clearly ran out of time tuning the driving physics, so instead of allowing the player to purchase upgraded brake setups, carbon ceramic discs etc.. every car comes standard with a simple brake balance controller which allows 10 steps for both front and rear.
Beyond the problems with Modifications, GT5 still suffers from the same weird driving dynamics that the previous games did. It's still perfectly fine to use your opponents as bumpers to sling shot around turns, and while the AI is definitely improved, there is still a tendency to bump, block and ram cars - something that would never fly in a realistic racing scenario.
The addition of the other modes like Karting and rally racing are also nice on the surface, but lack enough depth to be considered real features. Snow and dirt rallys - for example - don't take into account surface degradation and ruts (like other rally games have) and that's a major component of this kind of racing. The Top Gear challenges are all novel but are an exercise in tedium as the AI opponents crash through cones without recourse, but you are disqualified if you do the same - forcing a re-load and re-do.
Used car selection is also a bizarre design choice, as you can only pick from a handful of constantly randomizing cars at any one point in time. I'm assuming that this was designed to make the game feel more alive or more complete, but it's more frustrating that anything when faced with a race series that requires a car that is otherwise unavailable through dealerships.
Finally, The Ugly
Since there are so many more standard car models (versus premium) the chances are very good that you'll be driving one. If you are, prepare for last-generation models, terrible shadow effects and unimpressive audio. They just don't look that good.
Other strange omissions include low-res textures that appear throughout the tracks - and are particularly odd when contrasted with the premium car models and car cabins that are either great-looking (Mazda Eunos Roadster) or terrible (Lotus Elise 111). I thought this was an error or something, but the interior model of the Elise 111 (from the second top gear challenge) is aweful - the spedo is a blurry mess and the stereo looks like a clumsy mess of half-shaded primitives.
The sound design might be thorough (we've seen the videos of the PD team setting mics next to exhausts) but in practice it's incomplete. While driving, the exhaust note is unaffected when passing through tunnels and even with a supercharged McLaren the throaty growl of a powerful engine seems oddly muted, even when positioned behind the car.
Multiplayer was also a complete mess. In fact the servers have been off and on so it's hardly worth commenting on them right now.
For all of it's flaws - and there are many - GT5 is still a fun game. I hope that PD plans on releasing updated premium car models via DLC and perhaps patching some of the more minor bugs (there have already been 2 patches).
If you've got a PS3 and like driving sims, you could do a lot worse than GT5 - just don't expect it to be a revolutionary leap beyond what's already out there.