Why Gran Turismo Sport is a milestone

For console racing games

9 June 2018
Played on PlayStation 4

I recently wrote about what’s wrong with online racing games in quite some detail (there’s a video on that page as well if you’d rather).

Gran Turismo Sport takes a very different approach from most console racing games, and it has managed to set itself apart in a major way. It’s not that it’s a fundamentally different driving experience from other racers, or that it does something wacky and innovative with the racing format, like Codemasters’ Onrush.

Instead, it focuses primarily on one thing: a great online experience. And, importantly, it succeeds.

Shedding the skin of the past

The Gran Turismo of old was a series steeped in motorsport history and collectors’ fantasies. Back then, at the end of 1997, consoles were not online and there was no multiplayer element at all, save for grabbing a second controller and running a split screen game with a buddy in the same room.

The roster of cars, was, in theory, massive, with over 170 to choose from. In reality, many were different editions of the same car model, like nine Skylines and ten Imprezas, but it was still the beginning of the “collect-a-thon” style game.

It was the self-proclaimed “real driving simulator”, although this was just hype from the marketing department rather than a truth within the virtual racing world. Even without the huge selection of cars, the original Gran Turismo would have stood up well against the racing games of the time, but that “real driving simulator” strapline would eventually come back to haunt the series.

Gran Turismo Sport: pink Mazda with Sony livery with fronts lights

Through the generations

Skip forward sixteen years and two console generations, and 2013 saw the release of Gran Turismo 6. It boasted a roster of over a thousand cars (but I did some analysis on this back in 2013 and it really wasn’t a fair total; the true count was, by my reckoning, fewer than 500).

It was, essentially, the same game, with modern graphics. It was a largely single-player experience, where you got the chance to build up a collection of vehicles of your own, and take on the AI in a series of ever more demanding races.

By now, of course, online multiplayer was a must-have, and Gran Turismo 6 fulfilled it, in a minimalist way. It suffered from the age-old problems present in so many online racing games. There was no real punishment for colliding with other cars, no reward for driving safely, and there was never an incentive to learn the circuit properly when you could just jump in a car, race immediately, and benefit from wreaking havoc all around you.

By 2013, Gran Turismo and its creator, Polyphony Digital, found themselves in a totally different world. Advancements in physics simulation and modelling were thrust into gamers’ hands in the shape of the ever-popular RACE and RACE 07 titles from SimBin, Codemasters had struck a balance between realism and arcade fun with F1 2013, and the PC-only hardcore simulator iRacing had been around for five years.

That’s not to mention Turn 10’s main competitor over on the Xbox, Forza Motorsport 5, which had a major edge in a number of departments over Polyphony’s offering.

There’s only so far you can run with the strapline “the real driving simulator” before people stop to take a look at the competition. The claim of realistic driving physics was only partially true. iRacing had claimed that crown, and the highly competent Assetto Corsa would see release less than a year later.

The collectors’ fantasy was still present, but Forza 5 was rapidly encroaching upon that territory as well, with the introduction of the Forzavista mode, allowing players to explore their cars in detail, opening the engine bay, doors and checking things out in minute detail.

When Polyphony Digital stopped to look at their position in the virtual racing marketplace, I truly believe they had a difficult decision to make: continue down the existing path, where each aspect of their long-standing, much-loved franchise was gradually being superseded and improved upon by other titles, or take a different approach entirely; step into the unknown and take a risk.

Gran Turismo Sport: front quarter view of pink, white and black Mitsubishi Evolution at night

Online focus

Let’s face it: no video game has really been that successful at recreating a true-to-life racing experience in a single-player format. Many admirable attempts have been made, including the “Drivatar” system from the Forza series, but there’s never really the sense you’re racing against capable, human-like opponents.

Online is where the fun is to be found, racing against real human beings, and there was, in 2017, only one online racing game that was really worth pursuing. That game was iRacing.

It had both a driving rating and a safety rating system, forcing players to start in easier cars, proving their safety on the circuit, before progressing to the fast-paced world of high performance racing. It did something nobody had done before: it actually stopped you from enjoying all aspects of the game until you could prove you were willing to play by the rules.

This made sense for the audience: hardcore racing simulation nerds who wanted a true-to-life experience that wasn’t ruined by people just jumping in for a casual game without really knowing what they’re doing.

Polyphony Digital realised something. It’s something I’ve been yelling for years, hoping some developer might take note. This restriction on multiplayer racing doesn’t only work with the hardcore crowd. It applies to everyone.

More than that, unlike most online games, which have ranked multiplayer, where highly skilled players are matched with other highly skilled players, online racing has two indicators, not just one: a driver’s ability to go fast, and a driver’s ability to go safe.

Refusal to accept or include both of these systems results in a broken mechanism: you have very fast drivers, together on a circuit, some of whom are likely to cause crashes and ruin others’ experiences. It turns out though, Polyphony recognised this, and evolved.

Gran Turismo Sport: rear view of a car brakelight at sunset while driving under a bridge

Reinventing online racing

It’s important to stress that Gran Turismo Sport’s approach to online racing has been done before. However, it’s only been done properly in iRacing, which is PC-only and attracts a very niche audience. It was also attempted by Project CARS 2, but with a lack of dedicated servers, it really didn’t work.

Gran Turismo Sport has two online modes. There is a lobby system, where any player can host an online race, and any player can join those races. There’s also “sport” mode, which is the one I’m going to focus on here.

Each player has a persistent account, which consists of a driver rating and a safety rating grade. It’s not called “safety rating” in Gran Turismo but I’m going to use that term here because it really does represent a driver’s ability to race safely.

The driver rating ranges from E at the bottom to A+ at the top, and represents how well the driver is performing in terms of finishing races. Consistently finish in the top positions and you will slowly advance towards A+, whereas finishing poorly will expedite your descend towards the E grade.

For reasons I can’t explain, the safety rating letters work differently, and range from E to A and then S at the top, but it’s the same principle: drive safely, without contact and without leaving the circuit, and you will progress towards an S rank.

Matchmaking takes both of these into consideration. You are very likely to face up against drivers with the same driver and safety racing as your own. In my experience, it’s not always the case. Sometimes there won’t be enough drivers to ensure everyone is a B rank, so there will be a small difference in rating throughout the field.

Gran Turismo Sport: Crimson Chevrolet Camaro against a rocky desert backdrop

Scheduled races and qualifying

In another nod to iRacing, races in sport mode are run at specific times of day, on specific circuits. This means that on any given day, there are three different choices available for all players. There is typically a shorter, one-make race, where the car is provided. This is so that players without a large car collection can still take part. There’s also a fairly short race in middle-tier machines such as group 4 or group 3 (the names Gran Turismo uses to represent the GT4 and GT3 disciplines in the real world). Finally, there’s usually a higher tier race, in a specialist high performance vehicle or group.

You can only race at times when an official race is scheduled. If there’s a race at 15 minutes past the hour, and it’s 5 minutes past right now, you can’t just jump into a race. You are required to wait ten minutes before the official race begins.

What do you do for ten minutes instead of sitting around waiting? This is where qualifying comes in. You can enter a qualifying time for any of the three daily races at any time, and this is done on a circuit on your own. You simply drive around the circuit setting the best possible time, which is then saved, and your best time is used in all official races.

Your qualifying time determines your grid position when compared to the qualifying times of all the other drivers who are in the same race. This means not only is qualifying something to do while you’re waiting for the next race to begin, it’s an incentive to participate because by setting a good time, you’ll be moved higher up the grid and it will be easier to get a good finish.

Qualifying isn’t required, though. If you choose not to set a qualifying time, you can still enter races, but you’ll be on the grid behind anyone who has set any kind of time at all, so it still gives players the choice, instead of locking them out of the online fun.

Fixing the car and track selection for an entire day at a time has some potential problems. You might not like the circuits on offer for that day, or you might lack the cars required to enter some of the races (although you’ll always be able to enter at least one, because the car is provided for you).

These small problems are easily mitigated by the fact that you will get to know the circuit if you enter multiple races in the same day, and you’re given a great opportunity to perfect your racing on one circuit, before moving to another one tomorrow.

Gran Turismo Sport: two Porsches driving side by side on a road in front of water

Safety first

There really is an incentive to race sensibly. Making contact with another car, or leaving the circuit, will do two things. Firstly, you will receive a time penalty, which can be one second or more, and this penalty will require you to lift the accelerator and slow down until it is served, or it will be increased at the end of the race, and move you to a lower position. It will also put a “penalty” flag over your car, so others can tell you’ve been punished.

Secondly, you will receive a hit to your safety rating. If you take enough hits, you will move down a grade, and this will affect the safety rating of the other drivers you’re racing against in the next race.

Race consistently and fairly without leaving the circuit or making contact with other cars, and you will gradually increase your safety rating. A further incentive is a 50% bonus to money earned at the end of the race if you have incurred no penalties whatsoever.

This is very similar to the iRacing method, although there are a few differences. Since this is a console game, it’s a lot more lenient. I was able to reach the top safety rating by competing in just five races. It takes quite a bit of bad driving to lose enough safety rating to go down a rank.

There’s also the problem of unavoidable contact. Usually, if you’re hit from behind, you won’t suffer a penalty. This makes sense, but sometimes being hit from behind can cause you to leave the circuit, and you will then pick up a penalty for that, which you couldn’t avoid.

It’s also much more important than ever to be aware of your rivals’ braking points. If you’re close behind someone who is a bit uneasy on the brakes, it’s worth taking a different line, because if they brake early and you touch the back of their car, it’s you getting the penalty. This will mean you often compromise your line through the corner though, so there’s an element of trust at play, and it pays to learn your opponents’ strengths and weaknesses as you follow them.

In some races, I was struck from behind by another car, and ended up unavoidably hitting the car in front, which got me a penalty, even though it seemed unfair.

In other situations though, cars missing the braking point in a desperate attempt to get the overtake on the next corner were turned into ghosts, so no contact could happen. This is somewhat problematic itself though, because you’re never sure when the ghost will turn back into a solid car. Do you sacrifice your line through a corner in case the slow car turns solid just as you get there? Or do you press on anyway, hoping that the ghost remains ethereal and you keep your speed?

This system, though, is far better than having no system at all.

Gran Turismo Sport: A dirty yellow BMW Z4 in front of the grandstands at Circuit la Sarthe

The end result

Where Gran Turismo excels is its sport mode. I’m a pretty safe driver anyway, so I haven’t experienced the bottom tiers of the safety rating system, but there’s generally a far higher standard of racing here than in any other game outside of iRacing.

Players are motivated to avoid penalties while racing, and by doing this, they are naturally motivated to race properly.

There are still plenty of times where you’ll get trouble from online opponents. People can still make mistakes, and in the adrenaline-fuelled arena of online racing, it’s easy to get carried away and do something dangerous.

The start of races is often the most difficult part, and I’ve been most likely to receive a penalty here, just from unpredictable behaviour around me.

There is no doubt in my mind though: this is far and away the best online racing experience you can have on a console, and so far ahead of the competition that there’s little incentive to look elsewhere.

Gran Turismo Sport: A Renault Clio in Dark Dog livery, climbing a mountain road in bright sunshine

Missing the cut

In creating such a superior online racing experience, Gran Turismo Sport makes cuts elsewhere.

The vehicle roster is drastically reduced, back to the Gran Turismo 1 era of fewer than 200 cars to choose from. This is bad news for collectors who enjoyed having a huge garage of weird and wonderful cars to try out.

The single-player campaign is also cut down as a result of the online focus. It’s present, and it works, but the single-player racing career is a tiny fraction of gameplay on offer.

Instead, the game focuses on the driving school and exercises that get you familiar with each corner on each circuit. This is a smart move, especially as this is where the prize money and bonus cars are at their most frequent. You can be rewarded as much as 40,000 credits, enough for a cheap car purchase, just for rounding one corner in the circuit experience mode, and completing any circuit in full will net you a bonus car, which is randomised, but could be worth up to a million in theory.

Gran Turismo also avoids trying to emulate its major console competition, Forza Motorsport, by choosing not to provide a Forzavista style view where you can explore each car in fine detail.

Instead, it offers what it calls “museums”, which are basically highly detailed slideshows of different car manufacturers throughout the years, from their inception to the present day. This is a nice addition, although it leaves me longing for the ability to drive some of the vehicles features here that aren’t included in the game.

Circuits are hugely lacking from the game, in general. There are a scant few familiar favourites, like Brands Hatch, Monza, and Suzuka, but there’s far too many imaginary circuits, and too few circuits in general. The likes of Zandvoort, Zolder, Donington, Silverstone, Paul Ricard and many others would go a long way to prolonging interest in the game.

Social awareness

There are a number of new and improved features in Gran Turismo Sport, and most of these, unsurprisingly, revolve around the online experience as well.

Photo mode is a thing of true beauty. There is a comprehensive set of tools here that allows players to choose a background, choose one or more cars, and fine tune the image to their liking, before uploading it and sharing it with friends or just posting it online.

Photo mode is appearing in an ever-increasing number of games, and with graphics on the level of modern Gran Turismo, it’s become a treat and a bit of a distraction to waste a few too many hours in this mode.

Livery editing is also present here, and surprisingly complete. Paint colours can be chosen from any RGB value, and paints have different finishes like gloss or metallic. There’s a wide range of decals that can be applied anywhere on a car, in any number of layers, and some really nice options like automatically copying decals to the opposite side of the car in the correct place.

Custom decals are easily available via a simple upload tool on the Gran Turismo website. Importantly, it’s possible to search and download decals from any other player, and then use those decals in your own uploaded liveries, something that Forza has, so far, shied away from.

There is also a fairly limited helmet and racing suit editor. I can only think this was an attempt to match Forza Motorsport 7’s efforts in this area, but there’s almost no time you will actually see your driver avatar on the screen while playing, so this really serves no purpose at all.

Gran Turismo Sport: A Porsche in pink Hello Kitty livery against a dark urban background

Improving the formula

For me, at least, Gran Turismo Sport has made giant leaps in the right direction. I love the ability to race against people online who are motivated to race properly, in balanced vehicles, with the ability to set qualifying times whenever I like, and be matched against people of not only similar driving ability, but similar safety as well.

There’s more to be done here, and I’m hoping Polyphony Digital will evolve this remarkably fresh formula into something even better.

Even though you have a persistent account, with a driver rating and safety rating that evolves over time, all the races are currently “one off”, meaning that there is no progression. You turn up, race on today’s selected circuit, and then either repeat it or log off for the day.

It would be nice to see a championship-style formula evolve, where players would earn points for completing each daily race, over the course of a few weeks, and stack up in a championship table at the end, perhaps with a range of prize money.

Although not every player will be able to make each race, it’s easy enough to discard the bottom three results over the course of a championship, to allow players to miss a few. This also gets players coming back every day, with further incentive to do well.

The rate of change of driver rating and safety rating is definitely worth slowing down as well. I was able to get to the top safety rating after only five races. I think it’s too easy at the moment, and it’s worth having a much larger range of ratings, with only slow progression in either direction, to reward players more for having the decency to race safely over the long term.

Currently, because it’s so easy to regain the top safety rating, it’s fairly trivial for a player at the top rating to become reckless for one race, lose a bit of rating, and then quickly gain it back again.

Online races can feature multiple cars in the same group, but the “balance of power” concept ensures that they are all equally matched, by either increasing or decreasing their weight or engine power.

This system works well, but is very limited. The only customisation options available are traction control and brake balance. It would be nice to open up non-performance tweaks here, so we can play with suspension settings, camber, tyre pressure and other handling features.

The best yet

There is no doubt for me that Gran Turismo Sport is easily the best online racing experience you can have on a console. It works beautifully and it provides really close, fun racing where people are genuinely motivated to race fairly.

Stacked up against the PC competition, it still falls far short of rivals like iRacing and Assetto Corsa, but then, Polyphony Digital aren’t really competing in that space. They’ve always been a PlayStation-only developer, and if they can continue down the road they’re currently on, either with updates to Gran Turismo Sport, or with a new title in the next few years, they can’t really lose the console race.

Now read…

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