As Polyphony warms the engines ahead of the next entry in its racing series, we were in attendance at its unveiling in London.
With the newest Gran Turismo due this fall, Polyphony Digital aims to fuel not only gamer passion but empower the world from which it draws inspiration.
Sony chose The Copper Box Arena in London's Olympic Park to stage the unveiling of Gran Turismo Sport. While the assembled journalists were surrounded by super cars worth millions of dollars, Polyphony Digital president Kazunori Yamauchi was modest in his presentation of his vision for the franchise debut on PlayStation 4. This is Gran Turismo 7 by nature, if not by name - a fully-fledged new entry, if not a reboot in many ways. The Sport in the title mainly helps the audience appreciate the crux of the mission: to share the joy of competing in the world's most desirable automobiles.
Yamauchi's dream of uniting the real world of motorsport has become a reality, GT being the only Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) sanctioned racing simulation. As a show of confidence, meanwhile, the latest iteration is playable though under construction. By his own estimate, GT Sport is currently 50% where it needs to be in terms of visuals, sound effects, physics and AI. With PlayStation VR looming on the horizon, and plans to have support for the headset in place at launch, there's a lot to do, but if we are to take Mr Yamauchi at his word, GT Sport will eventually showcase "a level of innovation not seen since the first Gran Turismo."
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Embracing 'The Spirit of Maximum Quality', Gran Turismo Sport is poised to offer 137 premium car models available to drive at launch around 19 locations. In the interest of accessibility for newcomers and pros alike, the cars will be grouped into four basic classes: GR1-4, each one containing a fusion of real and fantasy cars. They are being remodelled from scratch since Gran Turismo 6, with interior and exterior views to admire. With regards to the tracks, the Northern Isle Speedway brings the first half-mile oval to the series, while Tokyo Express Way is another new experience, leading drivers on a tour of iconic Tokyo districts. Brands Hatch returns, as does Willow Springs International Raceway and the challenge of the Nürburgring. These, alongside two dirt tracks, are being completely remodelled too.
In addition to the non-committal Arcade Mode, with its Single Race and Time Trial options, the more serious business of GT Mode is now 'Campaign', divided into four sections rich in tutorials with the hope of enabling fast progress for beginners. Driving leads to racing, and then further from racing to drifting. There's even a training section on Racing Etiquette, learning about true sportsmanship.
In the offline section of GT Sport alone, there are 117 events to explore. If you're unable to race competently after all of that, well, we guess driving really isn't for you, old pal.
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Throughout his on-stage presentation, and later behind closed doors in the round-table press interview, Yamauchi kept returning to the theme of revisiting the original spark. Brand Central, which used to be known as the Dealership, is another example of this; redesigned to become a place of discovery. Visitors to Brand Central can view the cars inside and out, there are manufacturers' videos to enjoy on the big screen (Yamauchi mentioned how he is constantly dismayed to see so much of this engrossing content go unnoticed online). The museum section not only gives background to the cars themselves through history, but provides context in the form of popular art and culture to bring more colour and depth.
As mentioned earlier, Sport Mode is the main game mode, and it's this that is hoped to inspire future champions of real world motorsport circuits. It features two professional leagues, recognised by the FIA: Nations Cup and Manufacturers' Fan Cup. The latter being all about brand loyalty, while the former will be populated by patriotic fans - comparable to FIFA's World Cup, only with cars. Classes for entry are broken down in detail by age and region, with awards and rewards for class winners doled out every month. To this end, events are placed on a calendar that features official FIA races at weekends to include live commentary, and live-streamed/broadcast worldwide. The top ranking players of each region in the National Cup will advance to the World Championship. Winners of the Manufacturers' Fan Cup get invited to a real world FIA event at the end of the season.
One of the most compelling reasons to get deeply involved with Sport Mode is that players can acquire an FIA Gran Turismo Digital Race License. This puts you on the radar of regional car clubs throughout the world, with 22 participating countries across the Americas, Europe and Asia/Oceania. Your literal track record is passed on to these clubs who may decide that you're good enough to invite for some real trials. In doing so, the Polyphony/FIA partnership endeavours to be "driving the next 100 years of motorsports".
Linked to all this, but on the much lighter side, Gran Turismo Sport is heavy on all-important social features that replicate the likes of Instagram but in Gran Turismo format. The series is in a habit of stunts like this, ever since 'GTML' (a play on HTML, the browser-like presentation). Players create a Profile that can be shared among friends. The GT Sport timeline is viewable in-game, and also via a Companion App or simply on a standard PC/Mac web browser. Oh, there's now a livery editor too, for the first time in Gran Turismo... this really was offered as a 'you asked for it, you got it' kind of deal. Not much info was added at this stage.
The stage presentation concluded with a very long look at 'Scapes' - a photographic feature that allows players to place their favourite car in over 1000 idyllic Photo Spots. Locations that include Las Vegas, Monument Valley and 'somewhere in the UK', contain lighting and spatial information allowing for creatively minded virtual photographers to adjust depth of field and aperture settings for maximum, jaw-dropping effect. The results can then be saved in up to 4K resolution for sharing as you see fit. It was impressive, but not a deal breaker.
We grabbed some hands-on time with GT Sport on the show floor, driving using the official wheel and pedals. Nürburgring and Brands Hatch were the least polished, suffering frame drops when rival cars crowded the scene, but Tokyo already looks splendid. The lighting is especially spell-binding, something that the Polyphony team is working hard to perfect.
During the round table interview later in the day, Yamauchi advised on the 50% complete status, but was clearly confident in the presence of a fun-to-drive experience. As physics evolve, handling becomes more natural - the sensation of speed is more pronounced, and believable vehicle behaviour allows for intuitive control. Mastery over the handling comes after a few laps, and Gran Turismo Sport still handles as well as you'd expect. There are undoubtedly some rough edges in the build we played, but looking at it glass half full, Polyphony seems confident that they can deliver on their ambitious vision. It needs polish, sure, but there's a base there to be built upon.
Our biggest take-away in terms of promise and belief that GT Sport will arrive in top form is how visibly relaxed Yamauchi appears about this work in progress. He says that developing GT 5 and 6 for PS3 was stressful, owing to the hardware being so difficult to tame. But with PlayStation 4, development is now fun again. Here's hoping that the lightening mood makes itself felt on the racetrack.