After over five years in development, Gran Turismo is back today, offering more of the obsessively accurate driving simulation thrills that fans have come to expect from developer Polyphony Digital. Early reviews have been slightly mixed, ranging from outright acclaim, to guarded approval tinged with disappointment. It looks gorgeous, it's overwhelmingly intricate, there's tons to discover, but some believe the handling and physics engines do not reflect half a decade's tinkering.
But while racing fans will be talking about the minutiae of the simulation, tech heads may well be considering another important feature of the game: its support for 3D visuals. While we've already seen several big titles with stereoscopic augmentation (including Call of Duty: Black Ops and Enslaved), GT5 is the in-house giant; it'll be the game that gets demoed in Sony showrooms across the land to show off those rather expensive new Bravia TVs.
Indeed, the promotional charge has already begun. Today, Sony announced that it is fitting 3D displays in HMV stores across the country and will be running a Gran Turismo 5 3D driving tournament. Heats are set to run for ten days from Saturday November 27, with the fastest two players in each region attending a grand final at HMV Oxford Circus on 15 December. Sony is also using GT5 to market its latest Bravia TVs: buy one in a Sony centre between now and December 5 and you'll also get a copy GT5, a PS3, two pairs of 3D glasses and a 3D transmitter – all for free.
Behind all this – and beyond the whole question of cost – the game is an interesting test case for 3D.
Apart from the more arcade-style Motorstorm 3D Rift, it's the first driving title to explore the notion of stereoscopic visuals. Early reports suggest the effect is reasonably impressive – and actually useful. When Justin Towell of Games Radar road tested the game in 3D he wrote, "While the in-car view was good-looking, I found the 3D effect worked best in bonnet cam. Suddenly, the game came to life. At chicanes, I could judge how much distance there was between the protruding lengths of Armco on both sides, and finally I felt like I could 'see' the racing action [...] despite my reservations, there was a real 'wow' moment as sparks kicked up from the car in front as it grazed the wall and bounced right out at me."
The game is also interesting in its formative use of head-tracking. Users with a PlayStation Eye camera, will be able to opt for the in-car option and then look in different directions to get a slightly different view on the action. It's meant to simulate real-life parallax effects, and while the effect is apparently very subtle in the game, it points at where Sony reckons 3D and motion controls are going. Dr Richard Marks at Sony's R&D lab has been experimenting with using head-tracking in first-person shooter games and told me recently, "Your reactions will be directly perceived by the system, expanding your input capabilities. What you're doing with your body and your face will actually matter. You'll be able to have a very rich communication with the game and with other players."
Elsewhere, SCEE Liverpool's studio director Mick Hocking was recently interviewed in Develop magazine, and mentioned that the PS3 has 50 3D titles on the way, 20 of those from in-house development teams. He told the publication about how central 3D is to Sony's entertainment vision (hardly surprising as Sony has equipment at almost every stage of the 3D pipeline, from manufacturing 3D cameras for movies, to providing 3D consoles, Blu-ray players and TVs to consumers), but added that advising on the correct use of the technology is vital:
3D isn't just about adding depth to a picture – developers need to know how to get the very best out of the technology on PS3 and we'll ensure that they do. The problem is that if 3D is applied to a game without proper understanding of the medium then that can produce low quality results and that can bring the whole tech back a step, its very important that players' first experience of 3D is a good one, so we've got to help to ensure that developers get it right.
One of our missions is to help other developers with things like how to optimise their game with 3D, to not only make it technically correct but also to be more inventive with it, how to get the most creatively from it for their particular type of game.
Gran Turismo 5 will no dobt become a key element of that instructional process – so even if we don't play it on a 3D TV, other developers will.
It's the cost that remains a huge issue for most of us, regardless of how well the tech is implemented: the baseline Bravia 3D model – the 40" KDL-40NX713 retails at £1500. But then, GT5 is the perfect showcase in this respect; the title has always appealed to more mature consumers – I know several people who bought a PS2 just to play Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec. It's seen by some as a genuine simulation, in the same way, as say, Microsoft Flight Simulator provides a serious tool for wannabe pilots. GT fans don't tend to be teenagers looking for some drifting thrills; they're 30-somethings who may well actually purchase the cars they're sampling in the game (it's no coincidence that Nissan employed Polyphony Digital to create the in-car computer menus for its GT-R model – the company knows plenty of the car's buyers will have first encountered it on Gran Turismo's virtual test tracks).
Gran Turismo has always been as much about technology and obsessive detail as it has about actually jamming your finger on the accelerate button. The games run at 60 frames-per-second, twice the framerate of many titles, providing a super smooth animation quality – they are technical reference points for the state of console development. By aligning its 3D proposition with this series, Sony wants to grab those chin-stroking early adopters, those simulation purists. It is, as they say in the world of marketing, a good fit.
After it, will come Killzone 3, Metal Gear Solid: Rising and most intriguingly, Team Ico's long awaited The Last Guardian. I think when these titles are all out next year, we'll know where we are with 3D gaming, we'll understand what it actually offers. As with movies, we should be seeing a shift away from just lobbing stuff at the screen and toward the use of the technology to enhance emotional impact. We should, but that doesn't necessarily mean we will.
For now though, we have GT5 and 3D: the perfect elitist duo.