Selling 423,000 copies per day for a whopping 5.5 million units sold in its first 13 days, Gran Turismo 5 is now officially the best-selling videogame for the PlayStation3. It's also a solid contender for game of the year.
Five years in the making, GT5 is a behemoth title packed with hyper-realistic visuals, an unprecedented selection of 1,031 cars, 71 different racetracks and environments, all painstakingly detailed to the micro-polygon level.
But knowing that isn't the same as playing that, not out of the gate, anyway.
You see, unlike that other so-called driving simulator known as Forza Motorsport 3 from Microsoft, which gives you free cars each time you sneeze, press a button by mistake or scratch behind your ear, GT5 doesn't give you access to all its marquee and cover-page cars right away - and it certainly doesn't make accessing new cars easy.
"Arcade" mode aside, which is basically a fluff mode with no progress or reward system in play, you start your GT5 experience with a modest amount of money, just enough to purchase a Honda Civic, which you need to race in order to win money. And almost right away you'll discover that racing skill is secondary to vehicle performance; you need to get used to the idea of tuning each ride in order or eke out every ounce of its power, stability and race-ready potential.
For some players, the deep and detailed modification aspect is the most endearing aspect of the Gran Turismo franchise, the fully realized opportunity to get down and dirty and modify your car in every minute detail. Others, of course, would rather just buy the thing loaded and tricked to the max, but they're missing the point of the whole automotive love affair thing.
Nonetheless, there are issues with GT5's tweak n' tune approach: It takes and inordinate amount of time to just get to it, mainly because the game's menu system is an embarrassing mess. That you go from racing and earning to tweaking and spending in way too many steps with huge load screens in between doesn't make for a particularly intuitive experience, but there it is.
The races themselves can quickly degenerate into a hapless (or financially unrewarding) rounds of rubbing it up in over-priced bumper cars. The trick, as it turns out, is to get out ahead early and stay there. If you don't, you're stuck in the middle of the pack with no hope of winning anything other than a cold, hard reality check.
Still, very few games have the distinction of being as fun to watch as they are to play. Gran Turismo has always had this advantage and is arguably as enjoyable as watching a live race on TV.
Even if you're not the slightest bit interested in cars or racing, this is a gorgeous game to look at. Once you see the blowing leaves and swaying trees, the accurately rendered cobblestone paths of Old Europe, the electric city buzz of Tokyo by night, and the exhilarating vastness of the Nurburgring Nordschleife with demonic red Ferraris tearing through its corners, you begin to realize why this game took so long to come into being - 5 years in the making.
Even the voyeuristic replay mode, which brazenly exposes all your horrid driving habits as it reruns the race frame-by-frame, is something you can spend hours watching. The slickness of the paint, the reflection of the clouds and trees on the car bodies, the precise tire movement and uncanny skid-marks they leave behind are all super realistic.
No other game, racing or otherwise, even comes close to the detail, accuracy and execution of in-game graphics that GT5 has achieved (though it must be said that people amidst the scenery look a tad cartoonish, but hey it's a racing game, not a bystander simulator). In this respect, GT5 is the Taj Mahal of videogame visuals.
Even with all that going for it, GT5 is a simulator, first and foremost. Its strength is that it can bring real world physics, dynamics and interactions into a highly advanced game paradigm.
But while it's got the accuracy part down pat, GT5's enjoyability is nonetheless a tad tarnished.
Only the arcade and 16-person multiplayer modes offer a lot of instantly riveting and viscerally stunning moments - especially when competing with friends. But GT5's career mode, the deep and meaty driving simulator aspect by which the series lives and breathes - is seriously ponderous; making your way from race to race with much loading and menu plodding in between actually feels more like, well, a job.
Granted, there are a lot of hardcore race-freaks who are fine with putting in 40 hours of their lives towards that rare McLaren F1. But if you're even moderately impatient - or 'normal' by most psychological standards - be warned that you might give up on GT5 simply out of frustration.