GT Sport is not a Gran Turismo game. It’s a confusing way to think about it without having played the game, but that’s the best way I can describe Polyphony Digital’s latest entry into the GT series – it’s not a typical GT game. In fact, it’s dramatically different in many ways that may even put fans of the series off from purchasing it, but that seems to be something the studio is comfortable with. It’s a fork in the road for the team, another branch of the series that might take on a life of its own, and for that reason, it should be considered as a standalone title.
When Kazunori Yamauchi debuted GT Sport, he described the game as a sort of testing ground for unproven drivers that want to get into motorsport. It’s the kind of game he’s been working towards building ever since Gran Turismo 4 featured online multiplayer. Suddenly, fans of the series had a way of racing amongst themselves, and unofficial leagues sprouted up. As Polyphony began to embrace online play with GT5, and finally formalising the GT Academy and online leagues in GT6, the ultimate goal behind the series became clearer – Yamauchi wanted everyone to have access to the sport and to enjoy it, but he also wanted to legitimise the platform he was building for esports, acting as a bridge into racing for teams in the real world with real cars.
That’s kind of what GT Sport is – a virtual racing academy. When you’re first launched into the game, you’re given the option of picking what you want to do first – start racing online, try a few challenges, or do license tests. The license tests are optional but become necessary when you’re participating in the online leagues of which there are two. And before you start racing, you have to sit through a two-part briefing about racing etiquette and your behaviour on the track. The idea is that you have to drive in such a way that you don’t endanger the lives or progress of others.
The challenges are a set of tasks you need to perform, like overtaking a number of cars before the finish line, or running a hot lap to beat the time, or knocking over traffic cones. These are all fun, but they are limited. We’ll have to see if Polyphony adds more challenges as time passes.
I managed to get gold trophies on my first two licenses and proceeded to start racing online. I think this is the correct way to go for anyone picking up the game because you are handed free cars and credits for finishing license tests. That’s an important first step given that the game’s economy is super slow. There’s no way to grind credits with offline races. There’s no way to buy cars in a second-hand shop. If you don’t have cars to compete in the other classes, or if your rank isn’t high enough, you’re stuck with racing in the lower ranks until your driver level increases, or when you have enough money. Cars are awarded for levelling up occasionally, and can be sold to raise funds for the one you want.
The bundled arcade mode, then, finally serves its purpose as a testing ground for cars you might want to buy. The stakes are pretty high in the online racing, and it makes sense to pick a car that you’re comfortable with that’s easy to drive. I made this mistake with a Porsche Cayman GR.4.
Without hardware modifications to buy, or body kits to customise, car ownership becomes a simple process of buying cars in the store and letting the game homologate them for online racing. There’s no need for massive garages and sprawling car collections in GT Sport (then again, there aren’t many cars to buy either).
From the main race menu, you can submit your entry into the N-series, GR.3 series, and GR.4 series races. The latter two will have much more powerful cars than the base class, and higher payouts for finishing in a better position. The N-series is limited to cars that are not modified for racing, like a stock Honda Civic Type-R, or a BMW M 3-series, and is also divided into N200, N300, N600 and so on. GR.X is limited to concept cars, and I’ve yet to see a GR.X race online.
Getting into GR.3 or GR.4 is a long process, but there’s some benefit to doing things this way. They’ll have some stake in the race and in their continued success if they behave themselves on the track, and that’s the place where you will find proper respect between drivers. That’s why the racing takes on different moods depending on what you’re doing – if you’re in the N300 class, you can expect anything from some light bumper-bashing to full-on dirtbags ramming people out the way to ruin the experience. In GR.4, you might find some inexperienced drivers don’t brake at the proper limits and end up causing a pile-up in the first turn at Monza.
If you’re set on winning as often as possible, putting in a good lap time in the qualifying rounds is highly recommended, and will allow you to enter any of the races for that day with your fastest posted time. However, because you aren’t awarded cars for finishing these races, or finishing a set number of races and placing on the podium, you may have to buy cars with the credits you earn to remain competitive. There is an alternative, where you sign a contract with a manufacturer and end up racing under that brand for the coming FIA-sanctioned season. Still, following the in-game meta will see you spending more money in the long run thanks to car nerfs and stat changes.
When it comes to the driving experience, it’s a top-notch one. The cars feel weighted and solid. There’s hints of body roll when you’re trying to shift weight to get ready for the next corner, and GT Sport replicates grip levels and traction very well. The physics of this game are pretty solid. If you had picked up the game on its opening week, though, you may have been disappointed with the way ABS and traction control worked (or not worked, as was the case), and that was only fixed in a recent update. There was an issue where you would actually lose control of the car when powering out of a corner, even with traction control on its lowest setting.
This game should be experienced with a racing wheel. Playing with a controller is possible, but a wheel is a must-buy when you’re trying to extract maximum enjoyment from GT Sport. Although a lot of testing may have gone into making controller input good, the lacking input range shows when you’re trying to take tight corners and maintain grip on high-speed tracks.
And the visuals! This game is beautiful. The lighting engine permits Polyphony to include some very realistic shadows and realistic tracking of the car’s headlights. The trees are fully 3D and the spectators don’t look like cardboard cutouts with derpy faces and animations. The details on the cars themselves, and the interiors is extremely impressive. GT Sport might not have the most realistic physics of any driving game, and it may have some flaws in its execution, but it is undeniably solid, robust, and pretty. A recent update even added in the ability for designers to upload custom decals for their cars, and you have a fully featured livery editor at your disposal to customise your car.
A personal highlight is night racing. When the sun is down, things get a lot more tense without the ability to see your opponent easily. You can’t gauge your speed based on track markers, so most of the time you’re using your gut instinct to get through the course. GT Sport allows night racing to feel like the terrifying experience it surely is in real life.
If there’s anything that dampens the visuals a bit, it’s the engine sounds. While it’s a far cry from the cars that sounded like vacuum cleaners with whistles attached to them, it’s not yet on par from the throaty, more pleasing engine sounds from rivals like Forza 7 and Project Cars 2. It doesn’t distract from the experience, but it could be improved.
There’s also a distinct lack of races in the rain. I’m better on a wet track than I am in dry conditions, and GT Sport just doesn’t have enough races in the rain or options to set up one with your friends. The same goes for night races – they’re rare because the daily races only change once a week, curated by hand by Polyphony.
There are two things that would, in my mind, draw away considerably from the experience of GT Sport, which is otherwise a mostly enjoyable experience each time I pick it up – rubber banding netcode, and other people. In my experience, it is possible to be racing the same car as someone else, with their location being geographically closer to the local server, and they seem to have a higher top speed than you thanks to a lower latency. When you bump into other cars, sometimes the server turns you into a ghost to avoid crashes, and you can move through other cars to gain a better position. I’ve seen players use this to great effect. The server tick rate seems to be rather low, and sometimes you can encounter another player’s car teleporting along the track next to you.
But the most frequent frustration is players that bump into you on purpose. In the event of an accident with force, the game hands out identical time penalties to both players. The theory behind this is that a good driver would be able to avoid the accident by moving out the way, but often this happens without warning because you’re always concentrating on getting ready for the next corner. The penalties do get added on to your total time, which affects your finishing position, but it’s not always possible to make up for it. To take away a penalty, you have to slow down until the timer counts to 0.
However, there’s a strategy for dealing with penalties that I’ve used myself. If your penalty is three seconds or less, you can shave off time driving normally around the track, and corners where you slow down a lot, dropping to first or second gear, allows you to take your foot off the accelerator and reduce the penalty further. Used in the right way, penalties become a powerful tool with which you can harass other players.
Overall, GT Sport is an experience that is markedly different from other games in the series. It’s an online competitive multiplayer racing game. It’s closer to the setup used by iRacing and similar racing simulators, but its benefit is that it has Sony’s enormous marketing engine behind it, along with an existing foothold in the esports market. Spectator viewing options are also implemented much better, which means that online races are much easier to track for the race commentators and the audience.
If you think of GT Sport as an esports title rather than another installment in the long-running series we’re all familiar with, then it makes the decision to purchase it or not easier – those of who you who are competitive by nature will probably love this. Those who don’t might be better served with something else while we wait for GT7. But it is, genuinely, one of the better racing games of this year. It’s going to be an amazing platform for young drivers looking to make their mark on the sport, and Polyphony will have their hands full managing the game’s meta, nerfing cars left and right, and trying their hand at crafting an online racing league with a healthy community and good sportsmanship.