January 14, 2010

Is Gran Turismo Still Relevant?

Troy Benedict Says On January 13th, Sony announced through a press release that the oft-delayed Gran Turismo 5, scheduled for a March 2010 release in Japan, would see yet another delay. No official release date was given other than the game would be postponed an additional month.

Gran Turismo is a very popular series, selling over 50 million games, but I can't help but wonder if the series is still as relevant as it was 10 years ago.

According to Metacritic, critical reception to the series has fallen significantly with each consecutive release over the past decade.

1998 - Gran Turismo (PSOne) - 96%
1999 - Gran Turismo 2 (PSOne) - 95%
2001 - Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec (PS2) - 94%
2004 - Gran Turismo 4 (PlayStation 2) - 89%
2006 - Gran Turismo HD Concept (PS3) - 82%
2008 - Gran Turismo 5: Prologue (PS3) - 80%
2009 - Gran Turismo (PSP) - 74%

Granted, none of these review averages, even at the lowest with 74%, is by any means a "bad score." But it's hard not to see the significant downward trend following Gran Turismo 4's release.

The original Gran Turismo games were brilliant, because no other driving game at the time came close to offering the amazingly deep and involved aspects of a driving simulator that Polyphony Digital did with the Gran Turismo series.

The level of quality in driving games has changed significantly over the last 10 years, and a lot of it is probably due in part to Gran Turismo's strong sales and critical acclaim, with fine dash of good-old competition.

in 1998, there was a relative void of decent non-arcade style racing titles and Gran Turismo ruled the roost. However, new driving franchises have sprouted, touting some amazing games that have clearly outshined Gran Turismo's most recent offerings. Competition in the racing genre over the last decade has been quite fierce, but the results have been impressive!

Recent offerings from established racing series like Project Gotham Racing 4, DiRT 2, Burnout: Paradise and Need for Speed SHIFT have all received favorable review scores. Even newcomers like GRiD and Pure have garnered high marks. Microsoft's Forza Motorsport series has probably come the closest to unseating Gran Turismo as the reigning champion of console racing games, with 2009's release of Forza Motorsport 3.

Forza Motorsport 3's overall praise was not only in its ability to be an extremely competent racing simulator, but also in its ease and accessibility to the casual racer.

Accessibility has played a HUGE role in the success of the latest console offerings. For the last 3 years, the Wii has been clearly dominating the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in terms of sales, and a lot of that is due to the fact that the system, as a whole, is family-friendly and accessible to the mainstream gamer. While the 360 and PS3 each have more highly-reviewed games than the Wii, the Wii has consistently outsold both systems (sometimes even combined sales) year after year after year.

Only within the last year has Sony's PlayStation 3 started to really gain its own ground with a decent slew of high quality games. Who would have guessed, even back in 2001, that Microsoft and its Xbox console would one day be a powerful and well-respected competitor in the video game industry? Who would have guessed that Sony would limp along for the first year with its PlayStation 3 console? Who would have guessed that Nintendo's followup to the GameCube would EASILY outsell them both?

Does anybody remember many years back when Nintendo announced its new console, and how it would use a non-traditional, wireless, motion-sensitive controller, and people said, "Huh?". Remember when Nintendo said that the system would be small and compact, and wouldn't have HD output, or a hard drive, like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3? Remember when they announced that the console would not be called the "Revolution" and instead would be called the "Wii"... and nobody could stop laughing at the whole ridiculousness of it all? And yet here we are more than 3 years later and Nintendo has almost sold more Wii consoles than the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 sales combined! Who's laughing now?

My point with the whole Wii, 360, and PS3 comparison alongside the Gran Turismo series discussion, is that things can change drastically over time, even over a very short amount of time. What was once great years ago, perhaps isn't quite so great today.

Perhaps even as a bit of irony, as I write this article mentioning the greatness of the Wii, it too is losing its popularity and luster. HDTVs are much more affordable, and the high definition experience that can be found with games and movies on the 360 and PS3 cannot be found on the Wii. The Wii is also getting criticized for releasing too much shovelware: games of extremely low quality that are pushed out in hopes that even a small percentage of the Wii install base will purchase it.

Technology is constantly progressing and improving, and the competition to be the best is at its fiercest in the gaming industry now. Today production companies are becoming less and less tolerant of games with questionable quality and, at a moment's notice, will not hesitate to shut down a development studio.

As it often happens, suffering from multiple release date delays can often sound the death bell for a game. Look at Duke Nukem Forever. Developers at 3D Realms have stated that part of the game's cursed history was that they couldn't keep up with the technology. New and better 3D engines would show up every couple of years, and the team would adopt it and have to start over from scratch. It was a constant downward spiral until the decision was finally made to close the studio doors.

Polyphony Digital's latest Gran Turismo console releases, HD Concept and GT5: Prologue, have been nothing more than sample tastes of what we can hope to see with Gran Turismo 5. These bite-sized console versions may have helped satisfy the hunger pangs from the huge lapse of a full console release since Gran Turismo 4 in 2004, they have also made us hungry for more. Will another month in the oven for Gran Turismo 5 really make a great difference?

Are these delays due to Polyphony Digital taking note of the best aspects of today's racing games and trying to incorporate them into GT5?

If GT5 is released in the coming months and doesn't offer a similar "accessiblilty" to a game like Forza Motorsport 3, will anybody outside of the hardcore simulation fans and Gran Turismo enthusiasts care? Will today's gamer care if Gran Turismo 5 holds on tightly to its traditional values and refuses to let go, despite the new things that current games offer?

Or will Gran Turismo 5 come out fighting and impress everbody? That would silence skeptical people like me, and setting (and raising) the new standard in simulation racing games, outdoing even today's best games and showing the world that nobody outdoes the Gran Turismo franchise -- nobody!

Sure, good things are sometimes worth waiting for, but if you keep something in the oven for too long, you may find that the end product is dry, overcooked, and unsatisfying, despite the quality of the chef.

I suppose we'll all find out if the wait has been worth it, sometime in April, when Gran Turismo 5 hopefully sees the light of day.