Gran Turismo 6 review: a familiar excellence under the hood

There is no more shining emblem of mankind's industrious nature than the motor vehicle. From the lowly Honda Civic to the Lamborghini Aventador, cars embody not just a mode of transportation, but a sense of freedom and fun unrivaled by anything mankind has created before or since (no offense, astronauts).

It's simple enough to create a video game about cars racing against other cars, but Polyphony Digital's Gran Turismo franchise isn't just a series of racing games. It's a celebration of mechanics, car culture and that primal excitement one only gets from revving a turbo-charged Ferrari.

Now, the only question that remains is whether or not the developer's undeniable affection for cars can again translate into something that is both entertaining and informative. On release, Gran Turismo 5 featured far less content than Polyphony had promised fans, and this problem was only rectified by a massive patch released nearly a year later. Gran Turismo fans are a rabid lot, so with Gran Turismo 6 Polyphony has to be firing on all cylinders to once again earn their trust.

Fortunately, Gran Turismo 6 is the series' best entry, though it achieves this not through revolutionary design, but by incrementally building on past successes.
Gallery | 95 Photos

Gran Turismo 6 (E3 2013)

It's impossible to discuss Gran Turismo 6 without mentioning the elephant in the room. Last month marked the debut of the Xbox One and Forza Motorsport 5, the latest iteration in the heir apparent to Gran Turismo's racing simulation crown. Given that Gran Turismo 6 runs on nearly decade-old hardware, it might seem unfair to compare it to Microsoft's flagship racer running on the publisher's brand new console, but Gran Turismo manages to compete the same way it always has: with meticulously designed tracks, an almost pathological attention to detail and more cars than you could shake a carbon-fiber stick shift at.

The main bullet point Sony is using to promote Gran Turismo 6 is its 1,000-plus cars. It's definitely an impressive figure, but it's also as padded as the seats in the yuppiest Tesla Roadster in Silicon Valley. Sure, the Mazda Miata is one of the most entertaining, functional cars you can buy, but do we really need 31 slightly different variations of the thing? Other common cars (particularly Japanese models) are likewise overrepresented, but by force of sheer numbers, you should still be able to find your ride of choice somewhere in the Gran Turismo 6 garage.

Though Polyphony is blatantly inflating its stats here, it makes up for it by pouring obscene levels of detail into each car. Not only do the vehicles look great from the outside, they also feature heavily-detailed interiors. I personally drive a 2005 VW Golf GTI, and the interior detail of the in-game version is so spot-on that Polyphony even included the poorly-placed cruise control stick that I'm always hitting by accident.

The game's tracks have been given the same borderline-romantic level of attention. Every major course from around the world is represented, from American classics like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Laguna Seca to international greats like the Circuit de la Sarthe and Japan's Twin Ring Motegi Super Speedway. Even the relatively simple Nüburgring looks better than it ever has before. This depth is where Gran Turismo 6 pulls ahead of its competitors, as racing each course forwards, backwards and with special variations will keep you occupied for months.

The biggest problem with packing in all of this great content, however, is that the aging PlayStation 3 has trouble keeping up. This issue doesn't arise during races – once you're flying down a straightaway the game is a rock-solid 60 frames per second at 1080p resolution – but rather prior to them. From the moment I hit "Start" to the moment a race begins routinely takes more than 30 seconds. Sony representatives told me that a period of pre-loading would occur when you first start playing the game, and that these delays should be expected, but after dozens of races I've yet to see an event start in less than half a minute. That's a lot of waiting, and it's only compounded by long-running design quirks. Why is it that when I win a race the first option presented to me is not "Exit Event" or "Go To Next Race" but is instead "Retry?" I already won gold, why would I want to race again?

Likewise, the PlayStation 3 hardware is forced to skimp on certain features, namely: impact physics. This wouldn't be an issue given that your AI opponents seem competent, but the damage modeling leaves a lot to be desired. Technically it's possible to do enough damage to degrade your car's performance, but it's been toned down to such an unrealistic degree that it's very easy to win many of the earlier races by playing bumper cars every time the pack enters a sharp turn. Nothing short of slamming your car head on into a wall at 150MPH is going to truly break your ride, so casually "nudging" other players out of the way is usually your best strategy.

That however, is a minor gripe when compared to how familiar Gran Turismo 6 feels. I don't mean that as a compliment either. If you've played Gran Turismo 5 Spec 2.0, you already know everything you'll need to succeed in Gran Turismo 6. Even the returning Photo Tour mode is basically the same as it was years ago, only with a few new backgrounds and camera settings. I don't want to say that Gran Turismo 6 is lazy – its wealth of features do have a more streamlined layout – but there's apparently only so much a developer can do on specific hardware to simulate the minutiae of racing cars, and Gran Turismo 6 demonstrates that Polyphony has evidently hit that apex.

At least that's true when it comes to single-player content. From a technical, purely pragmatic standpoint, Gran Turismo 6's multiplayer offerings are perfectly serviceable, but they come across as anemic. Forcing players to complete a good number of single-player races before going online is a nice idea, and setting up races across the 'net is simple yet effective, and largely lag-free. The returning Seasonal Events – special races that only appear at certain times of year – extend the game's online longevity with periodic sparks of new content, but that's it. There's nothing more to be seen. As in previous Gran Turismo entries, multiplayer is overshadowed by copious single-player content.

For all its flaws, though, Polyphony Digital clearly loves racing, and the new additions to the game go a long way toward proving it. When you get tired of working your way through the various car ranks and corresponding racing events, you could try a few Mission Races that have you perform special tasks like navigating a slalom of cones as fast as possible. Or you could go for a quick diversion known as a Coffee Break Challenge. My favorite is the one that gives you one liter of gas, drops you onto the Nürburgring in an RX-8 and asks how far you can go before running out of fuel.

The best diversion by far is the Goodwood Festival of Speed. For those not in the know, think of Goodwood as the Superbowl of ultra-fancy cars. Not only does this mode allow you to admire cars that you will never be able to afford and likely won't ever even see, it also lets you race them through some of Gran Turismo 6's more scenic tracks. There's a real beauty to shredding the Goodwood Hillclimb in a 1971 Ferrari Dino 246 GT that you won't find elsewhere, and it's things like this that demonstrate the care Polyphony has infused into its latest racer.

That right there is what makes Gran Turismo 6 a joy to play. It's not the realistic driving models, the encyclopedic variety of vehicles available or even the on-track action; it's the game's fondness for driving culture. Don't get me wrong, all the other aspects of the game are top of the line, but the heart and soul of Gran Turismo 6 is a love of cars that glorifies the high points of the medium with almost idolatrous devotion.

With a massive number of cars, the gorgeously-realized tracks and the love for motor vehicles apparent in each facet of Gran Turismo 6, it's hard to imagine a more comprehensive racing game. The problem, however, lies not in what Gran Turismo 6 does right, but how little it's improved since the last entry in the series. There are more cars, granted, and the feeling of speed and tinkering with vehicles is as good as ever, but that's to be expected given how little has changed. Don't get me wrong, Gran Turismo was already the top of the heap when it comes to hardcore console racing simulations – the additions presented in Gran Turismo 6 just push the top of that heap a few feet higher.

Update: An earlier version of this review erroneously mentioned the number of cars Gran Turismo 6 can simultaneously render on track. We apologize for any confusion.

This review is based on a retail copy Gran Turismo 6, provided by Sony.

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