Gran Turismo Sport review: A brilliant, but very new, direction for the series
Gran Turismo Sport is a great racing game. What it's not is a simple PS4 port of the last GT game. Almost everything about this latest release is different from every game that has come before it in the series. There are way fewer selectable cars than the competition (and previous GT games). There aren't many tracks. You won't spend hours buying new parts for your car or taking it for an oil change or a car wash. Gran Turismo Sport might not be the world’s most accurate driving simulation, but it’s fun—a lot of fun, particularly with a steering wheel. And refreshingly, it doesn't try to make you open your wallet to unlock anything.
But if racing against other humans online isn't something you care for, GTS is not the game for you. Unlike GT games of old, GTS is all about racing online, and maybe—just maybe—becoming a real racing driver at the end.
You can count on some game franchises to release new titles with metronomic regularity. Not so for the irregular and infrequent installments from Kazunori Yamauchi and his team Polyphony Digital. Deadlines were always a problem with the series, horribly exacerbated by the "nightmare" caused by the PS3 and its Cell processor. But now there's a new GT for the PS4, packed full of super-high definition and virtual reality. By my count, it's the 16th game (including the two-wheeled Tourist Trophy) in a series that dates back two decades with over 70 million copies sold.
Pretty much all of those games followed the same formula. You earn credits in races, then you spend those riches buying and tuning cars to win more races. Gran Turismo Sport bucks that trend in ways that make it quite clear why the developer didn't name the game Gran Turismo 7 (even if Yamauchi thinks that name would have worked).
Late to online, but early to e-sports?
The focus here is very much on the online experience, an emblematic example of an industry trend away from big-budget single-player games. The online focus is present to the extent that the game is quite limited when it can't speak to its servers. This has generated a lot of consternation in certain corners, and anyone looking for an updated version of the excellent GT6 is going to be disappointed. There are only 170-odd cars, and only one of those is a Mazda MX-5 Miata. The solo "Campaign" mode will probably keep you busy for a week, if that. And a lot of favorite tracks are missing—although the 'Ring is still present and correct.
Polyphony Digital was late to the whole idea of online multiplayer racing, only adding it in for 2008's GT5: Prologue. In some ways, GTS can be seen as making up for lost time.
But the series was way ahead of its time in taking the venture seriously enough to boost it from being a mere game to an e-sport. Back in 2008, and together with Nissan, Sony created the GT Academy, which has used the game to find promising talent to turn into actual racing drivers. GT Academy did a lot to legitimize racing games among the professional racing crowd, and e-sports features are now standard issue for any racing title released in 2017. (It's a must-have for actual racing series like Formula E and Formula 1.)
In GTS, that online competition is the core of the game. Polyphony Digital has even partnered with the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, or FIA, the body that organizes world motorsports and series like Formula 1. The two got together in 2014 with the idea that an FIA-approved game could earn players a "digital" FIA racing license that may translate to the real world. Racing licenses are required by sanctioning bodies to compete in their series, and they aren't cheap to obtain, which is a major roadblock for many aspiring racers. However, it's still a bit early to see how this "digital" version will pan out; we asked Sony if there is any fresh info but were told to expect news about licenses in the next few weeks.
Officially sanctioned online racing is the game's Sport mode. There are a number of regular Daily Races, which take place at 20-minute intervals throughout the day. Then there are two different FIA series and a Polyphony Digital Championship. Those three all get underway in early November, so our only experience is currently with the daily races, each of which is a 15-minute affair on a relatively short track suited to beginners. (Right now, that's the Brands Hatch Indy circuit, the East Course at Suzuka, and the fictional Northern Isle Speedway oval, although they will change periodically.)