After waiting five years, the agonising 40 minute install process for Gran Turismo 5 stings like the slap of a wet towel against an exposed buttock.
Throughout all the delays, the promises, the hype and the anticipation, it's the final reminder that not only do good things take time, they'll usually take your time as well.
When it comes to racing games, nothing quite approaches the level of intense scrutiny applied by the PlayStation community towards Gran Turismo. Polyphony Digital's Kazunori Yamauchi, having percolated this release for about as long as realistically possible without including a defibrillator in the collectors edition, has traditionally stepped up to the challenge with aplomb. He's produced some of the finest, most richly detailed racing simulators available on any platform, and in many respects Gran Turismo 5 deviates little from his exemplary track record.
At first glance, the inclusion of over a thousand licensed cars seems like a preposterously overinflated achievement, and this is really where the gaps in the mortar start. Gran Turismo 5 has a Jekyll & Hyde demeanour just bubbling below the surface, ready to present itself at the most inopportune time; roughly 800 of these vehicles have been lifted from Gran Turismo 4 without any real makeover at all. They have no cockpit modelling, and their tinted windows afford less of a view than the average Hollywood limousine.
The tracks we know and love from years past make a comeback; Autumn Ring, Deep Forest, Trial Mountain, Cote d’Azur, they're all here. But instead of adding to them in any measurable way by harnessing the considerable artistic scope of the PS3, they're flat, lacking in detail and wholly representative of the kind of technology that wouldn't make a PS2 break sweat.
Delve a little deeper and you'll discover a game that appears to have been designed by a committee. The new menu interface replaces the easy-to-navigate map system found in previous Turismo releases with a bland series of graphical banners and icons. At one point I wasn't sure whether I was playing one of the most anticipated racing titles in history, or stuck in the lobby of a Westfield shopping centre using the electronic information kiosk to find Whitcoulls.
There's an endless series of submenus that force you to go further and further down the rabbit hole to get to the particular challenge you're after, most of which aren't connected in parallel with any others, requiring you to retrace your steps back to the main screen in order to try something new. Sure, you'll get used to it eventually, but why should you have to?
It's no secret that Blu-Ray, as a delivery media, isn't anywhere near as fast as a hard drive, which is why enduring the aforementioned installation process is paramount. So you may well question why there are there load times of up to thirty seconds before racing, during which an "installing" icon will flash infuriatingly; Isn't that what I did in the background earlier whilst vacuuming the office, taking out the rubbish and mastering Cantonese? It wouldn't be so bad if the otherwise black screen was populated with detailed information about the thousands of vehicles in the game - it's all there when you go to purchase a car, and makes for entertaining reading. But at best you'll get a list of AI drivers scrolling across the top of the screen. Thanks for the trip back to 1995, guys.
The inclusion of the Top Gear Test Track will win favour with fans of the highly-rated BBC series, at first. Unfortunately it's not actually possible to drive any of the "reasonably priced" cars featured in the television series. The Suzuki Liana, Chevrolet Lacetti and Kia Cee'd simply aren't in the game at all. Those who had grandiose dreams of beating Jay Kay or that smug guy from Grand Designs in the comfort of their own lounge have every right to be annoyed at this oversight.
The B-Spec challenge, whilst an interesting curiosity, serves as little more than a distraction. You'll enter your fictitious racing driver in a series of races, all the while issuing commands at various points in the action. By checking the mental and physical exhaustion levels of your driver, you can decide whether or not to issue a directive to speed up, slow down, maintain the current pace or overtake. After watching your driver lose, you can then choose to recreate the same race and take control yourself. You'll most likely destroy the opposition and be left wondering why this AI vs. AI struggle has been included in the first place.
AI has always been a cause for contention in Gran Turismo, and despite a few improvements there's little to crow about this time around. Cars will lurch off the start line sideways to stick to the racing line. They'll brake far too soon and plow into you if you happen to find yourself stationary at any point. Not that it really matters, the inclusion of a damage model appears to have been wrung with considerable force from the hands of Polyphony, with all but the most spectacular of crashes barely bending an aerial, let alone causing the type of real-world destruction you might have been hoping for. Granted, the damage model scales as you level, and some cars have better collision damage effects than others, but it feels clumsy and prohibitive.
The age-old argument regarding licensed vehicles showing realistic damage doesn't hold water here either; Forza 3 has shown it can be done. It's clear that Polyphony have no interest in rendering accurate damage on the vehicles they've spent hundreds of hours slaving over. Even the impact noise sounds like someone has inflated a wet paper bag and slammed it against a cardboard box.