With a mid-October release date for the full package now officially confirmed by Polyphony Digital, and the beta period reaching a definitive end after months of trial races, we’re rapidly approaching a time in which we discuss Gran Turismo Sport’s closed testing process solely in the past tense. A game that was intended to thrust sim racing into the eSports spotlight, eschewing longstanding, brutally dull single-player progression mechanics the franchise has been known for in favor of a more modern approach to virtual motorsports, Gran Turismo Sport was constructed not to appeal to longtime fans, but to give the series a proverbial kick in the ass it so desperately needed – especially with titles such as iRacing and Forza Motorsport stealing its status as the ultimate car guy playground over the past several years.
However, after reflecting upon my time spent with the closed beta, I can’t help but feel exponentially underwhelmed by what Polyphony had put together for us to mess around with, and it certainly won’t entice people to grab the premium product on launch day – though I’ll probably do so anyways because that’s how sim racers are when it comes to new automotive titles. Rather than being left excited for the flurry of new car games that await us at the end of our real life racing season – highlighted by Gran Turismo Sport itself – I’m instead perplexed at how a team who rose to popularity many years ago by pushing out a critically acclaimed hardcore “driving simulator”, could come back to the scene with everything they’ve learned and instead crafted something as misguided and uninspired as Gran Turismo Sport.
Granted, the game as I’ve been playing it was a closed beta with minimal features, but I’m not criticizing the game from a feature-complete standpoint. The reality of the Gran Turismo Sport beta was that the two key areas Polyphony had focused on for this game in particular – the driving physics, as well as the online racing experience – were nowhere close to being what’s required for this title to succeed in the manner which they’ve intended. The Gran Turismo Sport beta was boring, bland, counter-intuitive, and above all, a regression compared to other racing simulators on the market.
For Gran Turismo Sport to work, someone like myself needed to be left in awe at what we could play, yet I was instead completely apathetic to what had been presented to me with each passing build. Beyond the gorgeous visuals and pretty main menu screens – depicting my vehicle of choice in a photo-realistic environment – the game feels as if it hasn’t progressed past what many of us can play through a PlayStation 2 emulator. That’s an experience that would have been fine in 2009 or 2010 – right around the release of Gran Turismo 5 – but in July of 2017, the whole thing just feels extremely dated. A couple guys on 4Chan used to joke that series creator Kazunori “Kaz” Yamauchi has spent the past handful of years using the Gran Turismo brand as a stepping stone for his own personal interests – primarily an auto racing career – placing the video game franchise itself on the back burner, but with Gran Turismo Sport, I’m actually inclined to jump on the bandwagon in regards to that particular speculation.
I didn’t have fun with the Gran Turismo Sport beta, and I don’t expect many others to, either. Like many, I have been left wondering what the hell Kaz has been up to, because I certainly don’t see any widespread improvements or innovation in Gran Turismo Sport compared to past iterations of the franchise.
Part of this problem, as I’ve discussed in previous articles breaking down GT Sport throughout this spring, boils down to the lack of talent in online races. The hardcore sim racers that would benefit from a structured, organized title such as Gran Turismo Sport, they’re not playing on the PlayStation 4; they’ve already built a dedicated gaming PC, signed up for iRacing, and are perfectly happy with it. What this means is that the remaining virtual auto racing fans on the PlayStation 4 are not diehard sim nerds who want to dickwave over online rankings, but rather dedicated Gran Turismo fans, and this is a crowd that are typically more interested in the grinding, progression, and free-form elements of the Gran Turismo franchise, versus the door-to-door racing aspect of elite sim racing.
So you can probably imagine what happens when you herd semi-casual Gran Turismo fans into a hyper-competitive, ultra-restrictive environment that forces them to focus on driving a clean race. It’s a bit of a mess.
Though my own skill set saw me rocket up the charts and quickly earn a place in the top split of most nightly race sessions, one aspect that never changed throughout my time with Gran Turismo Sport was the overall quality of drivers in each lobby. A lot of guys struggled to go more than a few corners without hopelessly careening off the circuit, with only the top three or four cars in a sixteen-man race being within the leader’s zip code. The highest level of online racing in Gran Turismo Sport was comparable to a 2am weeknight race in iRacing, where there are a couple of guys running a reasonable pace and level of consistency; the others establishing themselves as non-drivers only seconds into the event. The tangible increase in the field’s overall skill that you’re used to seeing in iRacing just didn’t exist in the GT Sport beta; I was at the top and people for the most part still sucked. In terms of growing an eSports community surrounding the title, right now it’s just not possible – there aren’t enough good, active drivers online at any given time for the highest split of each event to produce a compelling on-track product.
For many races, I was extremely bored. There was a night not too long ago where we went to Willow Springs in the street cars, and I think I was passed once in three races, with the guy choking the lead away after clipping the dirt. Part of the fun in iRacing is that you can run nose to tail with somebody, lap after lap, for eighth place. In GT Sport, you can tell most people on the grid are casual GT players, forced to partake in these online events due to the new direction of the game. And let me tell you, forcing non-drivers to get their shit stomped in an online match against literal aliens is a quick way to demoralize these players into never touching the game again, especially considering this isn’t what GT fans particularly wanted out of a Gran Turismo game.
This is compounded by the downright brutal track design regarding some of the fictional circuits available in GT Sport. Though the re-creations of Brands Hatch, Willow Springs, and the Nordschleife are fantastic, Polyphony have insisted on including bizarre fantasy circuits into the mix, I guess to give their fictional Gran Turismo world championship its own unique flair. The problem comes in just what kinds of circuits are available; the claustrophobic oval tracks breed disaster among even the most talented of iRacing restrictor plate drivers, meaning any journey to the two super ovals available in the game is an exercise in frustration; cars careening wildly off the concrete walls, and back into traffic for massive pileups that are basically unavoidable. On the road course side, atrocious layouts, such as the Tokyo Expressway, lead to prolonged chain reaction collisions which are virtually impossible to recover from.
How a team that has spent their entire professional existence studying auto racing and created layouts such as Midfield Raceway and the High Speed Ring, were able to go out and produce such horrific abominations that detract from the hyper-competitive eSports environment the game has been centered around, is pretty mind-blowing. The GeneRally World Forums boast significantly more driver-friendly track layouts, and in many cases they’re created by dudes with little more than Microsoft Paint and the standard track editor at their disposal.
Straight up, these tracks need to be removed from the final product. Maps like Killhouse and Shipment are fun in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, not the latest iteration of Gran Turismo.
Yet it’s in the driving physics where Gran Turismo Sport drops the ball in an enormous way. Though I did not personally grow up playing the classic known as Gran Turismo 4, I’ve at least done my homework and turned some laps at speed on an Emulator, as well as spent a decent chunk of time on Gran Turismo 6, making use of a custom save to unlock all the cars and try exactly what I’ve wanted to try. By comparison, Gran Turismo Sport is perplexing in that these prior games on inferior hardware actually handle a bit better than what Sport is trying to convey a race car drives like. I still have to reiterate that the street cars aren’t terrible – passable, even – but it seems anything that sends power to the rear wheels is pretty nonsensical to drive.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact tire model issue, primarily because Polyphony kept changing tire behavior in pretty fundamental ways from build to build. There were some updates where rear wheel drive cars had to be kept well below the limit, as any slip angle would cause a spin, only for the next update to introduce absolutely insane slip angles allowing you to carry downright ridiculous drifts, transforming GT3 machinery into D1GP participants. Polyphony’s inability to retain a consistent, somewhat realistic tire model is a huge cause for concern; the fact that the team was constantly pushing out drastic changes from build to build, all of which required completely different driving styles, is downright bizarre for a veteran team who should supposedly have their shit together given their time spent in the industry. This game has been development for a number of years, and yet it was like every few weeks we were being handed a brand new, amateur rFactor mod with experimental tires. I just don’t understand how all of this money, time, and legacy can result in such questionable tire behavior.
At 80% attack, it was okay. But the moment you started to push, it’s like you could physically feel the tire model calculations generating absurd oddities.
Now given my extensive time spent on iRacing in the past, I’m not opposed to sitting down and learning the nuances of a crazy tire model, but the biggest problem that arose from this situation is how GT Sport calculated force feedback, and then sent those effects through the steering wheel. GT Sport does not let you completely disable force feedback effects, resulting in a situation where even at the lowest settings, you are still subjected to what Polyphony thinks a race car steering wheel does at competition speeds. Long story short, their assumptions are incorrect.
The virtual steering rack has been designed to convey what’s happening at not just the front tires, but the rear tires as well, meaning the team are awkwardly trying to convey wheel spin from a rear wheel drive car, through the steering rack, which is something that does not happen in real life. I was like a fish out of water taking my virtual Corvette C7.R to the Nordschleife, as anytime I tried to power out of a corner and get up on the outside rear tire, the force feedback would try to shimmy the steering wheel out of my hand, showering me with canned effects that were counter-intuitive to the driving situation at hand.
Here you have a professional developer with what’s probably the biggest budget in sim racing, believing wheel spin at the ass end of the car generates hand-of-god forces through the steering wheel on corner exit. It’s insane, and it’s the biggest reason as to why I dropped the beta of Gran Turismo Sport. Polyphony are genuinely clueless on this front, with the entire force feedback model being loaded with intrusive canned effects at all ends of the handling spectrum. It’s just… Dumb…
And that’s a sentiment that summarizes the Gran Turismo Sport beta – and possibly the full game itself – in a nutshell. Helping turn the subgenre of racing simulators into a household name which now adorns race car windshield banners across the globe, it’s incredible that a prestigious team like Polyphony Digital, with their endless resources available to create a top-flight modern simulator, have instead come across as profoundly amateurish and unprepared for their jump into the world of eSports.
Unaware of what’s transpiring within the sim racing ecosystem, blissfully ignorant of already established trends and player bases, they have gone out and built a structured online environment for a crowd who largely aren’t interested in such a thing. Gran Turismo Sport is fun for those who finish on the podium, but for those looking for that all-encompassing world of car culture, the beta was an exercise in frustration, constantly belittling casual players for their driving mistakes, and forcing them to play only when they were allowed to. And with races so woefully short, and the competition unable to hold a candle to the elite fields on home computers, waiting around all day for the nine chaotic sprint races per night isn’t something a lot of people want to do. iRacing worked because it took direct aim at the diehards and built something precisely for them. Gran Turismo Sport built something for the iRacing crowd, and then targeted it at an audience expecting the next Gran Turismo.
See a problem? Polyphony didn’t, but everyone else sure as hell does.
They also didn’t do a good job of building their own version of iRacing, if the beta is anything to go by. Track design is woefully inadequate and doesn’t provide exciting races, but rather enormous wreckfests thanks to fictional circuits loaded with an abundance of concrete walls within close proximity to the racing surface. iRacing works because it makes use of solely real world circuits, professional and amateur motorsports facilities that were obviously designed with safety, excitement, and door-to-door racing in mind. Gran Turismo Sport’s trial facilities are clearly designed to be artistic masturbation with a racing circuit thrown somewhere in the foreground. We get it Polyphony, you make pretty games, but there’s a cluster of cars blocking the track, and no Tokyo sky scrapers will offset the mess in front of me that’s no fault but your own.
It’s frustrating, because we’ve been told by marketing propaganda and mainstream websites that Gran Turismo is the pinnacle of modern driving simulators, and one of Sony’s flagship pieces of software to persuade you into buying whatever model of PlayStation is currently being sold on store shelves. Unfortunately, Gran Turismo’s driving model is simply not convincing in the slightest, and the drastic changes between tire iterations in the beta make it hard to believe Polyphony even understand what the fuck they’re doing. If DiRT 4 by Codemasters confused the shit out you with questionable off-road physics, Gran Turismo Sport has somehow managed to bring that same experience to tarmac circuit racing. For an indie team, many would be able to look past this, but we’re talking about Polyphony here. It’s not simcade by any means – the general speeds, feel of mass, and shifting points are correct – but the tires are flat out nonsensical. How they’ve gotten to that point despite all the resources available, I have no fucking idea.
Overall, the Gran Turismo Sport closed beta was a disappointment, and I am not looking forward to the final product this fall. The online competition was lackluster, the driving physics were not satisfying, the track design was poor, races were too short, and vehicles were incredibly unbalanced. For a team the size of Polyphony to shit out something so underwhelming, it’s clear their best days are behind them, and Gran Turismo does not deserve the widespread recognition it currently possesses.