I’ve been finding myself with a little extra free time lately, and given that I’ve pretty much sapped any remaining enjoyment from all the games in the house, renting something seemed to be in order. I’ve had my eye on Gran Turismo 5 since it came out, but my devotion to the Forza Motorsport series and previous sour experiences made me reluctant to run out and buy it without sampling it first.

Boy, am I glad I did. I’ve been playing both Forza and GT since their first iterations, and I feel totally confident in saying that Turn 10 has made more progress and improvements on the Forza series since its introduction in 2005 than Polyphony Digital has since the first Gran Turismo in 1998. Graphics on both have improved with each successive installment, as expected, but aside from that GT5 feels like the same game I played in high school. It’s like PD spent so much time working on making the cars look good in high definition (more on that momentarily) that they ran out of time to do anything else, like develop a consistent, useful, and attractive UI instead of just throwing in the same piecemeal menus they’ve always had.

It’s true, the game can be eye candy. This is provided that you’re driving one of the 200 “premium” cars and not one of the remaining 800 “standard” cars. Yes, there are two different car formats. GT has a long history of including more cars than any of its competitors and GT5 could not be the exception to that rule, so the result is that about 20% of the cars have a much higher polygon count and a modeled interior. The rest are “updated” models that were used in previous GT games. On the surface they generally don’t look too bad, but unfortunately the deficits of the standard cars don’t end there. Standard cars also can’t have any visual modifications applied to them. Most notably this affects the (painfully small) selection of aftermarket wheels, but also applies to any aerodynamic goodies you may have been longing for. The game’s photo mode is also exclusive to premium cars.

But enough about the cars – isn’t the racing fun? Well… sure. It’s okay, but I don’t enjoy it as much as Forza. That’s a subjective thing and I’m not going to sit here and try to convince you that Forza’s gameplay is better. The main issue with any racing game, especially more sim-oriented ones like these, is that you’ll likely be spending as much time in the menus and in your garage as you do racing. And as I said before, the menus and UI are really where GT5 could have used some attention. There are little things that are just wrong, like having an inventory of paint swatches (I don’t really know how this works), or not allowing you to proceed to the next race in a series after winning the current event, or being told that you can’t change your driver’s uniform (suit and helmet colors) after you start the game. What an odd decision to make so final.

Speaking of starting the game, let’s talk about what happens when you put the disc in for the first time. Forget that it recommends a 50-minute installation; Forza 3 has an entire disc of content to install so I call it a wash. But I did spend 15 minutes watching various updates (a noted PS3 weakness), prompts, and restarts before the intro video even started rolling.

Finally, I was able to actually play the game, and by “play the game” I mean “start navigating menus”. Like Forza 3, GT5 has a narrator to somewhat guide you through the beginning of the game. Also suspiciously like Forza 3, GT5′s narrator is a male with a British accent. After filling in some initial profile information and choosing (irrevocably!?) your driver’s apparel, you’re told it’s time to buy a car. Except that you are only allowed to drive cars that are at or under your current level (zero), so your choice is somewhat limited. Honestly, I’m not sure whether you can buy outside of your level – if so, that alleviates one major gripe, as I would’ve bought a level 1 or level 2 car and done the initial license tests until I could use it.

Yes, there are license tests. No, they’re not really that fun. Yes, they’re required if you want to advance to any of the mid to high level races. Fortunately they’re not tremendously difficult if you have some previous console racing experience, but they do expose a couple more flaws with the game – namely that the ghosts are somewhat broken. The purpose of a ghost is to represent a previous effort to complete the challenge; you can use it to gauge your progress as you move incrementally closer to your goal. Or you would, if it worked properly. There are two problems with ghosts in GT5:

  1. It will only record the ghost when you receive a trophy for the first time, instead of automatically saving the fastest. You can back out to the menu and return to the challenge to get around this, but that’s ridiculous for what is essentially an AAAA game.
  2. When racing a ghost, they have a tendency to disappear if your car gets too close (nearly overlapping), so you can’t actually tell where the ghost is.

Finally, PD also bowed to pressure and added the racing line, a feature I first experienced in Forza. Essentially it’s a dotted line on the course that gives you an idea of the best way to traverse the various corners. It also turns red in areas where you need to slow the car. But being used to the Forza version, the GT version seems foreign to me. There were a lot of instances where I didn’t feel like I was in the right place or where their recommended braking area or distance was suboptimal in that it didn’t slow me enough or slowed me too much to remain competitive. It’s almost something that’s better left turned off, which entirely defeats the point.

With all that in mind, I didn’t harbor much regret when I slipped the game back into the return slot at the video store. At some point down the line I’m sure I’ll own it, but to me it doesn’t feel like a $60 (or $50, or $40) game. It’s a title that’s putting a lot of weight on previous games and sentimentality, and we’ve all seen what happens to games that go down that road.