Gran Turismo 5 – review

Five years in the making – racing fans have had a long wait for Gran Turismo 5. At the game's launch in Madrid on Wednesday its creator, Kazunori Yamauchi, explained to the Observer the connection between the long gestation and the rationale that drives him: "There is quite a gap between just completing something and perfecting it…" GT5 was not to be merely about the brute simplicities of gaming. Beyond pointing and pushing, more than merely steering a sim, it was to be his team's every ambition incarnate – racing perfection.

As light turns to dark at Le Mans' Circuit de la Sarthe and the headlights flicker on (dipped or full beam – wonderful), it feels like it was worth all those years. Full darkness descends and, upon entering the Porsche Curves, fireworks begin to explode from the campsites (as they do in real life); this detail, both beautiful and distracting, is extraordinary.

As is a downpour at Monza. Using cockpit view – the first of the genre to really, really work in detail and playability – the racing line disappears in the rain, opponents in a wall of spray in front, while through the rear window a mist of brakelight-tinged red mist obscures everything. Weather and time differentiation have never been done better. GT5 offers many such gems to revel in.

And so many ways in which to revel. More than 1,000 cars populate the game, 200 of them branded as premium – modelled in painstaking detail, offering a sense of more than just simulated metal and rubber. A palpable love of the subject matter almost turns them into works of art. There are the circuits, innumerable with swathes of variations, Madrid and Rome joining London as unique street venues. The Nürburgring may be GT5's talisman but it has strength in depth here as well.

Then there is the physics, with exemplary modelling (in full, impressive, 3D if you have the requisite kit). A real feeling of being in control of a heavy, powerful machine is conveyed, particularly under braking. Cars can be differentiated purely by how much the back end slips out and how they perform turning-in when lunging toward an apex. Attention to detail – with any amount of assists and under-bonnet upgrading and, of course, set-up tweaking – is so extensive that GT5 simply demands to be played with a steering wheel for the full experience.

The "experience" lies at the game's core. Levelling-up and unlocking tracks and cars is central to the game and, although enhanced by special events, be warned, as a labour of love the designers will not let you just jump straight into a muscle car; the time they spent will now become yours…

And yet in certain ways it seems like the five years weren't quite enough. The front end is still clunky and the AI, although much improved, can verge from too conservative to occasionally wilful at times. While, for an immersive sim, the hollow "bonk" noise engendered by hitting a rival is noticeably unrealistic. Perhaps it can be fixed. The 16-player online experience, a mighty but flawed achievement, was especially marred by a lack of performance classification, making racing in anything other than supercars pointless. It will be added, Yamauchi promised, within days. Equally, the single most jarring omission, the absence of mechanical damage affecting performance – fundamental to any racing sim – is to be incorporated in an upgrade this Wednesday.

Yamauchi-san has indeed created an artifice of marvel and wonder. But it seems his quest for perfection must continue – one doubts he would have it any other way. And in the meantime Gran Turismo 5 is one hell of a ride.

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