Two years have now passed since the release of Gran Turismo 5: Prologue, an elaborate teaser that has left eager fans gasping for more. To my dismay, Gran Turismo 5 is still pinned for an uninformed release some time in 2010 however, and to ease the pain, Polyphony have conjured up Time Trial Challenge, a free playable demo of sorts designed to give us a fleeting taste of what to expect for the full works.
As the resident racing devotee, I am naturally fixated with even the smallest morsel of what is expected to be the most comprehensive driving experience for the current generation. Read on to find out how it performed after taking it for a thorough spin.
Time Trial Challenge is an interesting proposition – as well as a playable demo for the belated Gran Turismo 5, it acts as a compelling competition for devoted racing enthusiasts. Dubbed as the GT Academy 2010, this slim slice of driving diligence is essentially Polyphony’s proving ground to track down the world’s most proficient racing drivers.
The premise is simple: set a time around the Indianapolis GP Circuit in a Nissan 370Z, and revel in sly smugness, or churn with envy, as you are ranked alongside every other candidate of your respective country in an online leaderboard. The resulting winner will then be rewarded with the opportunity to hone their skills on a real life racing circuit and be crowned God of the GT Academy. Oh, I should mention now that the competition is not open to the United States, but access to the demo itself has still been granted. Sorry Yanks, but Polyphony just doesn’t like you enough.
And so, eager to tear some tyre treads, I set about my very first run, determined to make my mark in the competitive rankings. It didn’t go well. Unfortunately, I immediately forgot this was Gran Turismo, pounded the throttle and ended up understeering into the nearby gravel trap before slamming into a wall. And because the cars in Gran Turismo are constructed from solid blocks of granite, my car was left completely unscathed, and I was able to soldier on in my quest to complete a respectable lap time. This answers a prevalent question: there is still no damage, so we will have to wait for the final game to fully test that attribute.
As a demo, the available content is all too slender, with only one track and two variants of the Nissan 370Z. However, what is significant about Time Trial Challenge is the fact that it is indicative of the final game’s physics engine, as it proudly proclaims upon start-up. It’s also fair to say the results are sublime.
While there are only two cars to try out (a standard road going Nissan 370Z, and a tuned version of the same car), the differences between the handling characteristics are profound. The stock version feels sluggish, yet realistically weighty, requiring you to gently feather the throttle to avoid unwanted understeer and approach corners with a level of caution, whereas the tuned version is a different animal altogether. Here, there’s a much finer level of control allowing you to be braver around the corners, and the increased horsepower and better grip results in a more thrilling ride overall.
The handling certainly takes some adjusting to, however, as the physics are locked to the professional settings. Polyphony will only accept the most advanced drivers, and, as a result, all driving aids are turned off by default with no tweakable options available. This leads to some truly unforgiving physics; taming either car is no easy task, as even on my coveted G25 wheel, being overly enthusiastic with the throttle will cause the car to spin relentlessly. Of course, there will be a wider variety of options in the final game for those who can’t drive without stabilisers, but then you would be missing out on the advanced and realistic physics that Gran Turismo 5 has to offer.
The handling model is noticeably tighter than that of Prologue and both cars feel incredibly responsive, particularly with the addition of a racing wheel. Unlike before, you really feel every jolt and imperfection on the track, which actively affects the cockpit view. Since you actually have to brake once in a while, infants accustomed to the likes of Need for Speed will find much to grumble about, but if you take the time to master the characteristics of each car, then the experience is ultimately rewarding and wholly addictive when everything falls to place. Honestly, once you get to grips with the tricky new physics engine, you soon remember why Gran Turismo is so highly regarded in this department, and the fifth installment looks set to surpass the competition if this demonstration is anything to go by.
And then there’s the graphics. While the cars are objects of unbridled beauty than ever before, the track fares less well; it’s blemished with low resolution grass textures and a completely lifeless atmosphere – thanks to a gratingly gormless crowd. Granted, the circuit is comparatively bland in real life, but some track details look downright ugly, such as the trees, which appear to have been stencilled with a blunt set of Crayolas. However, the engine sounds are a definite improvement; the cars no longer sound like vacuum cleaners. I could also complain about the lack of smoke, tyre marks, reverse lights and damage, but that would be unfair considering it is, after all, a work in progress merely designed to demonstrate the prowess of Polyphony’s new physics engine.
It’s difficult to fully ascertain exactly what stage of GT5‘s enduring life cycle this represents, but what has been presented looks very promising and should help to reinvigorate anticipation for the long-awaited chequered flag. Such a teasingly small sample won’t quench fans’ lust for very long, but for now, Time Trial Challenge serves as an enjoyable, free Christmas treat wrapped up nicely by Polyphony.
And for those who might have been wondering, my best time in the tuned 370Z (which I’ve spent the most time with) currently stands at a modest 1.42.75. While I was most pleased with my efforts, my glee was short-lived after sifting through the leaderboard, which is already crammed with skillful drivers that would make Polyphony proud.