As a hardcore sim racer, I’ve found it pretty entertaining to skim through the more casual-oriented communities to monitor the reception of Gran Turismo Sport. Response to the game’s timed demo, which has been available starting this week and will end at some point tomorrow, falls into one of two very distinct categories: some have cancelled their pre-orders and pledged allegiance to a rival franchise, while others proclaim to love the new direction the franchise has taken; eschewing car collecting for ranked online racing.
I’ve found responses of the latter to be most intriguing; in my time with Gran Turismo Sport, I’ve been left with far more negative impressions than positive, and I’m a bit confused as to how people could unironically enjoy this title. There are two distinct photo modes – one of which isn’t necessary in the slightest, clunky menu systems, multiple power point presentations, and a livery editor that pales in comparison to Forza’s, while the actual driving experience is shockingly dated, lifeless, and inaccurate – Mazda’s coupes are not boats, and GT3 cars are not hovercrafts. It’s a very weird game; Gran Turismo Sport can’t decide whether to be an art project, a classic Gran Turismo game, or iRacing for consoles, so it takes the worst parts of all three and blends them together in an unholy trinity. Or just, to kill the hyperbolic statements, a mix of very bad design choices.
Which is why it’s very awkward for me to catch wind of positive reception in regards to the online portion of Gran Turismo Sport. Truthfully I’ve seen comments such as “that event sold me on the game” and “today’s event is 10/10,” yet the ranked online racing is objectively the worst aspect of Gran Turismo Sport – in fact the game utterly fails as a competitive platform, which is pretty insane when you consider for what purpose this game was built in the first place.
Yet instead of using these people as examples of how retarded the average racing game enthusiast happens to be, let me explain why Polyphony are utterly clueless when it comes to creating an online racing ecosystem.
Though there will be a handful of real-world circuits available in the retail copy of Gran Turismo Sport, an overwhelmingly large portion of the track roster is confirmed to be populated by scratch-built facilities crafted by the team at Polyphony Digital. While the surrounding landscapes indeed give a nice sense of variety, and obviously help to demonstrate the graphical prowess of Sony’s new-ish PlayStation 4 Pro, there is a downside to treating asphalt playing fields as art pieces first, and a competitive environment second. Unlike real-world auto racing facilities, which have been constructed by professional engineers and refined over decades to ensure the on-track product is captivating enough to put spectators in the grandstands, Gran Turismo Sport’s first major problem is that many of its’ tracks do the opposite; they look nice, but aren’t fun to drive or race on.
The worst offender of the bunch happens to be the Tokyo Expressway environment, which has been a mainstay of the franchise dating back to the original iteration in 1998, and has obviously been tossed into the lineup as a nod to longtime Gran Turismo enthusiasts. Regardless of the layout you’re racing on, the Tokyo Expressway circuits commonly force you into claustrophobic ribbons of tarmac just two lanes wide, with massive concrete walls on either side.
Unlike the Monaco Grand Prix, which features several heavy braking zones allowing drivers to build and close natural gaps to help string the pack out, the gentle corners and high speeds of Tokyo ensure the pack of cars for the most part remains incredibly bunched up. While talented drivers won’t really have a problem with giving each other a bit of room, overtaking is where the problems really start. You cannot launch an overtaking maneuver on a human opponent in good faith, because there is so little room to work with you’ll probably run them into the wall on corner exit whether you’re intending to or not. And when contact between two vehicles breeds something more disastrous, unlike the Long Beach Grand Prix, drivers approaching the chaos have zero extra tarmac to work with – they will plow right into the wreck.
Provided the pack does get strung out into a single file conga line, the ideal racing trajectory for Tokyo circuits requires drivers to remain in dangerously close proximity to the wall for an extended period of time. Failing to run the absolute precise racing line and accidentally scraping the wall scrubs off so much speed, any trailing vehicle is prone to slamming into the back of you. Factor in the insane drafting effects Gran Turismo as a series has been notorious for and has still failed to rectify in Sport, and you’ve essentially got a chain of circuits that have almost been genetically engineered to breed chaos. In a normal Gran Turismo game, these tracks would merely fall out of rotation among the playerbase, and primarily be used for fancy screenshot competitions on sites GT Planet. Sport not only forces you to race on them as part of the game’s primary mode of play, it also punishes you quite severely for incidents that are largely the fault of poor track design.
What’s frustrating is that any idiot and his friends can run a quick pickup race here in private, and come away with the conclusion to never race in Tokyo again. How Polyphony did not play test these circuits internally and determine “our target audience will become frustrated with this very quickly” is beyond me.
This lack of foresight on the part of Polyphony extends to the game’s oval tracks, which I will refer to by their real world counterparts as I have not been dedicated enough to memorize all of their in-game pseudonyms. Bristol, Pocono, and Trenton – yes, that crazy Trenton from the 1960’s – visually all look great, but that’s where the positive remarks cease. Even as a stock car guy, these ovals are a chore to run and arguably the worst tracks in the game because Polyphony have failed to do their homework and understand why American oval racing works as a form of auto racing. Yes, there is some method to the madness.
Here is the crash course in NASCAR history; NASCAR tracks rarely if ever feature a racing surface that’s smooth as glass; most eat tires and require a bit of throttle management over the course of a lap because concrete is a dynamic entity unable to hold a consistent shape. Irregularities in the paving or mending process – bumps, dips, and imperfect transitions – all further assist in giving each location their individual character. The Gran Turismo team have ignored this vital element of oval racing and instead modeled all three of their oval circuits as pristine facilities featuring progressive banking, which essentially takes throttle management and strategic line choice completely out of the equation. There is no threat of losing traction or being punished for your line choice over the duration of a lap, creating a situation where the only way you can legitimately pass people is by hoping they blatantly choke or get taken out by a lapped car. This isn’t racing.
The average Gran Turismo player in my experience seems to be pretty shitty at the game, so the initial days of GT Sport will see some okay-ish races take place at the three primary oval tracks. As the talent level increases and a tangible field of competent drivers establish themselves within the community, these races will quickly turn into frustrating affairs based more on luck than on skill. So not only are the Tokyo circuits extremely poor for competitive online racing, you now have three ovals where even in a field of good drivers, there isn’t much racing to be had; just an automotive procession in which the first person to mess up kills everybody behind him, and genuine overtaking maneuvers are difficult to manifest.
Again, this is all something Polyphony could have discovered internally during light play tests around the office, but seemingly didn’t.
As for the remaining array of fictional tarmac circuits, they too adopt at lot of the same problems as the ovals. They are too pristine, too perfect, and too well-maintained to be enjoyable in a competitive environment. Rumble strips are gigantic, run-off areas can be conveniently exploited by leaderboard drivers such as myself, the surface itself is usually immaculate (which as you learned, means no throttle control), and the width of these tracks are roughly 30% larger than what you’d expect from a real world racing circuit. These work in tandem to generate artificially high speeds and insanely wide, sweeping racing lines that abuse the simplistic engine powering Gran Turismo Sport.
And the more you’re full-throttle with a mostly-straight steering wheel, the more it’s less about the driver and more about the car, which leads to…
I’m not going to give everyone a complete breakdown as to what vehicle classes are available in Gran Turismo Sport, but it loosely follows the classification of real-world sports car racing. You do have various classes of street cars, as seen in games like Project Gotham Racing, but then the purpose-built race cars come in four different flavors; Rally, GT4, GT3, and P1. Personally I think Polyphony did a fine job of implementing the right number of classes in Gran Turismo Sport, as there’s usually a very robust list of cars to select from within that class, but the problem is that none of them are equal.
The overwhelming leaderboard consensus is that the Bugatti VGT prototype is by far the quickest vehicle in the P1 category, with the actual prototypes racing alongside it almost six seconds per lap slower. I was awarded a Toyota TS050 for completing my “daily workout” of driving a handful of practice laps, but unless I want to have my anal cavity penetrated by upwards of twenty other people online, I’m best off saving up for the leaderboard car. Now in other games, like the aforementioned Project Gotham Racing, you could select, say, a McLaren F1 LM and still hang with the Ferrari F50GT’s online provided you kept your stick skills up. This sadly is not possible in Gran Turismo Sport; the leaderboard cars are in their own zip code.
Currently, the P1 class has been dealt the most damage out of all categories when it comes to Polyphony’s unwillingness to balance out the vehicles. Highly unrealistic Vision Gran Turismo concept cars are allowed to compete alongside Le Mans prototypes without any regard to the obvious differences between experimental concepts, and WEC competition entries built to rigid specifications, so as a result the WEC cars get absolutely murdered out on the racing surface.
However, lopsided performance figures exist in slower classes as well. The all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X is heads and tails above its’ street-legal contemporaries thanks to the drivetrain alone, as the other vehicles the car is allowed to compete against are all front-wheel-drive shitboxes that can’t turn and continuously spin the tires under power. And as mentioned in several articles already, the GT4-spec Nissan GTR is virtually unstoppable in the hands of a competent driver; two seconds per lap quicker than cars that have found success in real-world GT4 racing. Buddies of mine have speculated that this may be due to Nissan’s working relationship with Polyphony Digital as the major driving force behind GT Academy, and they want a Nissan GTR to be at the front of the pack to keep the financial stream flowing, but based on our races together, it just seems like Polyphony – like Turn 10 many years ago with Forza Motorsport 4 – cannot figure out how to prevent AWD domination from occurring.
Regardless of which specific class we’re talking about when it comes to the topic of vehicle balance, this poses a serious problem for the longevity of Gran Turismo Sport. In a game with somewhere around 150 cars that users are encouraged to purchase, tune, and personalize using in-game credits, you’ve created an ecosystem in which only five of these cars are worth obtaining if you want to actually enjoy the competitive elements of the game – which is the entire focus of this Gran Turismo iteration. The car-collecting meta-game and challenge of setup-building both cease to exist if the primary task is to purchase a Nissan GTR or Bugatti VGT, not carry the flag of your favorite automaker into battle as was intended.
Yes, in real-world auto racing, there are dominant cars. Toyota has destroyed NASCAR this season, Mercedes and Red Bull made Formula One almost unwatchable for a better part of the decade, and Audi practically owned Le Mans save for one Peugeot victory to split up their dynasty. The whole point of an eSports competition however is to rule out the real-world variables and put things in the hands of the drivers. One car lapping two to six seconds faster than any of the others in its’ class doesn’t accomplish that; it instead pisses people off who in the spirit of the game acquired a car they wanted to drive, and promptly got their shit pushed in because they chose poorly.
The worst part of all this is that upon booting up a race in the demo, Polyphony have not allowed users to tweak their own car setups save for the ability to adjust traction control and brake bias, instead informing users the game has applied some sort of Balance of Power formula to all of the vehicles in the field. Obviously, it’s not working, and that’s not good to see less than a week from launch. This is something that should have been fully sorted out in the closed beta over the summer, and for whatever reason, it wasn’t.
We didn’t even know there was a 125cc shifter kart in the game, but yesterday Polyphony believed they would be a perfect candidate for a ranked race at the simplest Kyoto Driving Park layout. Both races myself and Ian participated in were nothing short of disastrous despite being in the highest ranking North America room and surrounded by opponents the game deemed to be “safe.”
The karts were highly unstable, meaning drivers would side-swipe you at a moments’ notice because only a portion of the room could figure out how to turn consistent laps without wrecking. Those who did maintain control ran in giant Daytona-like packs, as the game’s draft model was so absurdly over-done, the pole lap of a 43.206 set by Ian was obliterated both in practice and race sessions just by hanging out behind someone for a bit and only marginally adhering to the preferred line. The track layout lent itself to full throttle affair save for a gentle lift in one corner, adding to the chaotic environment.
Like the oval races mentioned earlier, no talent was required to partake in these events, which goes against the entire point of an eSports competition. There were, however, a lot of massive wrecks, and a lot of people pissed off that they’d lost precious safety rating for some idiot sitting in the draft, running into the back of them, and then receiving a penalty for contact that they weren’t even aware was coming. This was NASCAR at Daytona, with extremely twitchy go-karts, which of course is great when the vast majority of your customers are playing with a DualShock 4.
A day earlier, Polyphony had sent the game’s rally cars to Suzuka East, which is a fantastic abbreviated layout of an iconic Japanese racing facility. However, Polyphony locked car setups to the default configurations in the name of “fairness”, meaning a field of rally cars competing for safety and skill points were forced to use off-road tires on a tarmac circuit. Posters on Reddit began warning others not to participate in this event, which is of course exactly what you want as a company – users telling other users to adhere from playing a time-limited demo. Check the guy’s rear-view mirror in the above YouTube video; they don’t even make it through turn one.
As an online racing organizer you have a duty not just to provide server infrastructure, but to ensure your competitors will actually have fun behind the wheel. Wrecking the shit out of each other in turn one because the cars aren’t adequately prepared for the track isn’t fun. It’s shitty.
And then there are the oval races. Oval racing works in real life and provides a captivating on-track product for both fans and drivers to appreciate because most purpose-built oval track cars are on the edge of control; high horsepower with minimal downforce and rudimentary mechanical grip that can’t fully be realized, even when nailing the setup. This is more or less how stock car racing works, and it’s how IndyCar works as well – albeit to a lesser extent. A lack of aero grip, a difference in car setups, and a track with unique surface characteristics all contribute to a racing discipline where plenty of passing opportunities arise each lap and generally make things really exciting in comparison to road racing
High downforce GT cars on ultra-smooth fantasy ovals do not allow any of these unique elements of oval racing to occur, meaning that anytime Polyphony send their fleet of GT3 cars to one of the game’s three oval tracks, it’s a complete chore for all involved. Provided the field of drivers are at least somewhat talented, you basically sit in a conga line for the duration of the event as pictured above. No driving skill is required, as the car is literally sucked to the track thanks to thousands of pounds of downforce providing all the grip you’ll ever need, and this means the act of passing someone because you’re a better driver than them just doesn’t happen. The enjoyable parts of oval racing, running down drivers using alternate lines or pushing the car beyond its means for a few laps just don’t happen. Foot to the floor, turn left, and hope you don’t die while passing the people who do. That’s not racing, and certainly not a good basis for a competitive eSports platform.
For whatever reason, Polyphony continue to schedule these events in abundance.
Poor track design. Unbalanced cars. Questionable event organization. These are just some of Polyphony’s problems with Gran Turismo Sport, and it more or less confirms what a lot of us feared but were dismissed as pessimists or shills upon vocalizing. Polyphony dove head first into the deep end of the eSports pool by turning Gran Turismo into this massive online racing platform, only to have precisely no idea what the fuck they were doing. Though the game does feature highly questionable vehicle physics, Gran Turismo Sport would be a lot of fun if the races were still something to look forward to at the end of the day. Instead, for a variety of very amateurish reasons, they aren’t.
I understand there’s a reason to have a fictional circuit like the Tokyo Expressway in place of Spa or Le Mans – you’ve got to show off the processing capabilities of Sony’s new PlayStation 4 model. But at the end of the day, people are eventually not going to care about the cluster trees in the distance, and they’ll want to race. Ultimately, Spa puts on a better show than Tokyo.
And I acknowledge that the Vision GT cars give vehicle designers a way to express their artistic side without the traditional restrictions a major manufacturer will undoubtedly impose on them for production models. But when the Bugatti or McLaren VGT concepts are six seconds quicker than Porsche’s Le Mans entry, and they’re in the same class competing directly against each other while the game still uses the tagline of “The Real Driving Simulator,” maybe it’s time for a second look at how the vehicles are balanced.
Lastly, flat-out shifter karts or GT cars on an oval may sound interesting on paper, but forcing people to partake in events that breed chaos while also telling them to be mindful of contact and to race cleanly is borderline retarded. Yes, nobody can die in a virtual world, so we can be free to try some stupid shit if the opportunity arises. But there are also combinations that just outright don’t work because different types of race cars work better on some tracks than others, and Polyphony of all people should know this given their involvement in real-world racing. Some of us sat out today because the list of races were so horrible, and that’s something as a developer you don’t want to do; give people an incentive to not play your game. Because you never know if during that period of time, they’ll just go and find something else.
Gran Turismo Sport was an interesting concept on paper, but Polyphony’s incompetence at understanding how virtual auto racing works will prevent it from turning the genre upside-down and being anything more than an awkward off-shoot of a beloved franchise.