Platform: PlayStation 4
If Project Cars 2 is the Dark Souls of racing games and Mario Kart is God of War, then Gran Turismo Sport is Rise of the Tomb Raider. It sits in that Goldilocks “Just Right” space between hardcore simulation and escapist fantasy. Anyone in the market for a racing game on PS4 right now will be choosing between PC2 and GTS, so I'll be making some comparisons between the two.
While GTS certainly pushes you to be better at every turn (pun intended), it also feeds you a steady diet of encouragement in the form of a constantly leveling player profile. Every race, exercise, and driving school class you complete earns you credits, miles, and experience points - even when you come in dead last. As you level up, you receive new cars, slowly building your garage from “overzealous gearhead twenty-something” to “eccentric billionaire” levels of ridiculousness.
Whereas Project Cars 2 throws every single car and track at your face as soon as you install the game, Gran Turismo Sport only lets you race on advanced tracks and drive exotic cars once you’ve unlocked them. This is total Skinnerbox psychology working against me (or is it for me?), but I enjoyed GTS’s approach. All things, even virtual cars, are better when it feels like you earned them. Many interface elements help contribute to the feel of progression - every time you earn credits, mileage, and XP, you have to press X to collect each one, and each time feels like cashing a paycheck. If only earning enough cash to buy an exotic car was so easy in real life!
GTS’s Campaign mode is probably my favorite part. It starts with a terrific Driving School that takes you all the way from Sunday driver to Dale Earnhardt. Racing sims are not a transparent genre (only fighting games have more buried complexity) but the Driving School helps clarify the techniques that you need to master in order to stand a chance on the track. Did you know that you can control your turning radius using your accelerator? I didn’t. But once you learn how to do it, you realize how integral it is to winning races. This Driving School aims to break you of the dozens of bad habits you’ve accumulated from a lifetime of MarioKart, GTA, and driving the Batmobile. And it does an admirable job.
From there, you can try the Mission Challenges and Circuit Experiences. Mission Challenges let you apply what you learned in Driving School on pre-set bits of track, with AI opponents. Can you navigate a highly technical set of curves while fighting your way from fifth to first place? Can you reach 155 top speed on the Subaru WRX track, while avoiding aggressive drivers? These bite-sized challenges help prepare you for the bigger challenge of real racing, against AI, and online opponents. Meanwhile, Circuit Experiences help you learn each track, turn by turn.
In every section of the campaign mode, your performance is rated as bronze, silver, or gold with increasing rewards for each level of achievement, giving you a shiny, chrome incentive to push yourself further. But more importantly, you get to see that the difference between bronze and gold is often less than two seconds - that’s the difference between a decent racer and a great one. Most games don’t provide direct instruction on where that line is and how to cross over it. But GTS is not most games.
If you want, you can turn on the serious hand holding. In autodrive mode, the game will actually slam the brakes down for you as you enter curves. This felt incredibly odd, and I can’t imagine it working in any other game. If this were an FPS, this would be an aimbot. That being said, not everyone who might play GTS has the patience for the challenge that it can offer - some folks just want to drive fast. And this is for them.
But if you practice, no beginner mode is necessary. The learning curve here felt much less steep than PC2, and that might be because GTS activates settings like traction control by default, making it much harder to spin out and completely blow a race. I’m not qualified to speak to the realism of each game’s physics models, but I will say that out of the box, GTS was more fun and less finicky. The PS4 triggers, in particular, felt perfect for controlling acceleration and braking. If you’re into motion controls, you can actually steer by tilting your PS4 controller from side to side. This is more than a gimmick - it’s sensitive and accurate and worth giving a try if you don’t own a steering wheel controller. But if motion controls give you Wii bowling flashbacks, the analog sticks steer just fine.
Online multiplayer is present, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll be matched with someone of your skill level. You can create rooms and join them, and that seems to be the extent of the game’s matchmaking capabilities. It’s possible that the game is only showing me the rooms hosted by players of similar skill level as me, but there’s no way I could tell. This is disappointing given how well thought out the rest of the game is.
GTS makes a point of forcing you to watch two sportsmanship videos before entering multiplayer, which scold you repeatedly about how weaving back and forth to prevent passing and well as bumping other cars will make you “look bad” - their exact, repeated phrasing. Given that explanation, I expected a graceful, polite experience. What I got was much closer to Grand Theft Auto meets bumper cars, and folks didn’t seem to mind slamming me from behind. GTS seems to love to make you spin out after such an act. I know that might be realistic, in terms of physics, but I can’t say I enjoyed that experience.
Also, if you make contact with something, the game turns you into a “ghost car” that passes through other cars, which seems like a good idea - it minimizes the amount of havoc that a novice or intentionally disruptive driver can cause. Ghost cars also seem to accelerate from a dead stop rather poorly, giving you an incentive to not crash into other people. But this feature was also used to phase directly through and past me once, so I find myself hesitant to give it my full endorsement.
All caveats aside, racing against other folks is a lot of fun. Learning the twists and turns of each track is key - it’s not unlike memorizing where to pick up your favorite weapon in Halo. In large races, I often found myself in the middle of the pack, but the folks behind me would rage quit when they realized they were far enough behind that they weren’t going to catch up. There’s no real drawback to rage quitters in a game like GTS, but it would’ve been nice for me to be beating someone.
The final turn
As I said in my previous review of PC2, I’m not the world’s biggest racing fan. But even non-racing fans can appreciate the high-gloss polish of Gran Turismo. The graphics look fantastic, edging PC2 out ever so slightly (at least on PS4 Pro, with appearance favored over frame rate). GTS sounds fantastic, with roaring engines and squealing tires, but I feel like it’s slightly edged out here by PC2.
GTS also lacks PC2’s advanced weather modeling. If you’re looking for real-time puddle simulation or blizzard racing, you’re in the wrong place. Similarly, PC2 gives you a walkthrough wizard for customizing your cars’ settings, whereas GTS just throws a bunch of settings at you and says, “figure it out.” (It’s interesting how GTS hand holds you for the actual racing, but PC2 handholds you for car modifications and literally nothing else.)
Even outside of the racing, the experience is excellent. You can restart a challenge or race nearly instantaneously, and given how challenging Campaign mode can be, you’ll be doing this a lot. The interface is clear and easy to understand, and menu navigation is fast and easy. Project Cars 2’s interface feels laggy in comparison. This is a little thing, but so is a nail in your tire. Every little bit of drag is one more thing between you and racing, and no one wants to slow down for a menu screen.
One drawback worth mentioning is that GTS is an “always online” game, which loses a great deal of functionality - even single player functionality - without an internet connection. In fact, when I first tried to sign on and write about the multiplayer, the network was down for maintenance and I couldn’t get in. For some folks, this is a deal-breaker, and understandably so.
And of course, you can pore over every detail of your cars, modify your livery, customize your rims and paint, and even place your cars in exotic locations and take photos of them. While I didn’t utilize this last feature at all, it made me realize that someday, I want to love something the way that Gran Turismo fans love cars.