(Pocket-lint) - Any new instalment of Gran Turismo is a major occasion for those who own a PlayStation. Apart from anything else, these games don't come along very often.
Kazunori Yamauchi, the legend who runs the series' developer Polyphony Digital, is renowned for taking his time, and we've had to wait four years for Gran Turismo Sport since the last instalment.
To an extent, it depends on what you're looking for. After the sprawling, somewhat messy Gran Turismo 6, Gran Turismo Sport feels very cut-down: it comes with 162 cars and 37 tracks, whereas Project Cars 2 has roughly the same number of cars but 60 tracks, and Forza Motorsport 7 goes big with over 700 cars, but boasts fewer tracks.
As such, GT Sport has a slight feel of being somewhere between a full Gran Turismo release and one of the "Prologue" games Yamauchi often releases as a taster before a full iteration. So, is it worth getting excited about?
Back to racing school
On the upside, Gran Turismo Sport feels more focused than many of its predecessors, particularly if your priority for a racing game is its online element.
While some will lament the removal of Gran Turismo's signature car-upgrading system – which allowed you to tune engines, add competition clutches and the like – you can still level-up any car's power and weight reduction (by spending points that are accumulated for the mileage you put into the game). That's a simplification which surely has one eye on trying to level the playing field online.
The main Campaign mode might divide opinion, though. Unlike Project Cars 2 and Forza Motorsport 7, it doesn't offer you the chance to vicariously experience a virtual motorsport career. Instead, it consists of challenges, which are pleasantly varied – from knocking over cones to learning about tyre and fuel conservation in GT races, via the odd spot of rallying, top-speed challenges and much more – but are often bite-sized, especially in the earlier stages of the game.
Commendably, Campaign mode's overriding theme is the desire to teach you as many professional race-driving techniques as possible, which contrasts nicely with Forza Motorsport 7, which seems to actively encourage poor race-driving practice. So the GT series' legendary race-driving school has been expanded, and that carries on seamlessly into the Mission Challenges. There's also a Campaign element called Circuit Experience, which lets you learn each circuit in the game sector by sector.
However, the Campaign Challenges – the real meat of Gran Turismo Sport's single-player mode – don't cohere as a whole, nor do they offer the same amount of satisfaction as a full virtual career. And the presence of Circuit Experience telegraphs the fact that Campaign mode is basically a primer for the online side of the game. If you aren't keen on racing online, the chances are that you'll find Gran Turismo Sport a tad disappointing, although Arcade mode, which lets you setup races around your favourite tracks against AI-controlled opposition, is present and correct.
Technically, Gran Turismo Sport is unimpeachable. The car-feel is utterly fantastic, and previous versions' messy mix between old versions of cars and modern-technology "premium" ones has been mercifully banished.
GT Sport looks great, too, especially when upscaled to an approximation of 4K on a PlayStation 4 Pro. However, there's no dynamic weather or track evolution – Project Cars 2 has definitely stolen a march on those fronts – and damage is limited. But the core aspects of the actual racing in the game are simply superb, and streets ahead of the equivalent elements of Forza Motorsport 7.
When you do pluck up the courage to go online, you can't jump in instantly – first, you must complete a course entitled Racing Etiquette, which consists of watching two videos that emphasise the importance of not taking other drivers out and so on. It's refreshing to find a racing game that sets so much store by not driving like a four-wheeled missile online (anyone who has ever gone online in Forza Motorsport 7 before returning to the single-player game in disgust after being continually taken out will surely agree).
And at least rival drivers who bump you off the track do tend to get time-penalties, which can move you up a few places in the final post-race reckoning. But you can still be taken out and forced to recover from way down the field. In other words, all the lip-service to driving in a considerate manner holds less sway than you might hope: online, the racing is still pretty full-contact and brutal.
You've got to be pretty committed to get the most out of the game, too. There's a rolling selection of daily races, which take place at the most regular intervals, and those show a certain amount of variation, from short efforts in hot hatches up to the likes of Group 4 GT cars. There are also two GT Championship formats – one in which you represent your country, and another in which you race for a manufacturer (which necessitates fiddling around in the offline part of the game). The latter are pretty hardcore – pretty much the territory of those who own wheel and pedal setups.
Technically, the online side of Gran Turismo Sport impresses: lobbying is quick and smooth, you get to practice a bit before races start and there's no sign of any glitchiness. But if you're the sort of gamer who generally finds racing games intimidating when you go online, Gran Turismo Sport won't convince you that it's any different to its peers.
Back offline, there are plenty of nice touches. All the way through the game there's a finely judged vibe which is all about celebrating the history of motorsports and of cars in general – leave the game to its own devices and it will throw up little historical factlets, or shots of cars in exotic virtual places.
The in-game achievements system is great, too. You're rewarded royally for covering a certain amount of miles per day, and for exploring every area of the game. Also you can play it on PlayStation VR, which adds incredible levels of immersion, although it crunches down the resolution.
Gran Turismo Sport is undoubtedly a very fine driving game indeed. But it does have provisos. If you're a hardcore online racing-game enthusiast, and have a home setup with a steering wheel and pedals along with a PlayStation Plus account (a requirement for playing it online), you'll love Gran Turismo Sport.
If you seek a more casual experience, you'll admire the game, but end up feeling resentful of how online-centric it is. The single-player experience is thoroughly enjoyable, yet not wildly satisfying.
It's true that on-track, Gran Turismo Sport comprehensively trounces Forza Motorsport 7, but we can't quite say the same of it versusProject Cars 2, the latter which has a proper Career mode, as well as dynamic weather and tracks, which really do add an extra dimension.
Gran Turismo Sport keeps Polyphony Digital's great old franchise up there with the best, but it's not necessarily ahead of them anymore.
GT Sport is out now, exclusively for PlayStation 4, priced £38 via Amazon.