You'll need three things to get the most out of Gran Turismo 5: patience, a steering wheel, and a deep, almost senseless love of cars and all things Gran Turismo. Of the three, only the steering wheel is optional.
Of course, patience won't be a problem for fans of the series. GT5 has been delayed so many times over the last few years that they’re getting used to waiting. All the same, even they might be surprised how simultaneously bewildering and disappointing the first few hours of GT5 can be. The front-end, which was threatening to get silly in Gran Turismo 4, is now ludicrously over-complex, with its tabbed windows, multiple widgets and opaque icon bars arguably getting in the way of what you really want to be doing: buying cars, tuning them and taking them out on the track.
And when you do start driving, the experience is all a bit same old, same old. Visit the used car store, purchase your choice of starting motor and take to the track and - whether you opt for the B license tests or enter the beginner-level competitions - you’re back in well-worn GT territory, with many of the same old tracks, the same old tests and - to a lesser extent - the same old cars you've seen so many times before. More worryingly, the key things that we all moaned about with Gran Turismo 4 - the lack of car damage, the dubious AI, the ease with which you can either bump or upgrade your way to victory - remain fundamentally unfixed.
True, your rival racers aren’t as glued to the racing line as the mindless drones of old. They show some interest in blocking you, and even signs of a desire to overtake, but compared to your opponents in Forza III or Need for Speed: Shift, they’re almost laughable. The same goes for car damage, which is unconvincing and almost imperceptible unless you start hitting heavy objects at really high speeds. On both counts, the game needs serious work.
What's more, the result is that you can storm through most of the early races just by (a) braking slightly later and accelerating slightly sooner than the gutless competition and (b) cheerfully bumping your opponents from the inside when you need to slow down. And when these tactics fail? Well, that’s a sure sign that it’s time to either buy a new car. or head off to the tuning shop and invest in a new engine upgrade, gearbox, exhaust system and some suspension to keep your new beast on the track.
The other shock is that, after all this time, GT5 isn’t even technically that polished. Loading times, even after a good half-hour and some 20GB of installation, are painfully long, and the graphics run the full gamut between the sublime and the ridiculous. Most of the time, the cars look beautiful and the best tracks, particularly those running through Rome, Paris, London or the Tuscan countryside, are incredibly, almost photorealistically detailed. Yet, despite this, you’ll see odd-looking shadows, objects that pop suddenly into view, awful looking crowd models and some surprisingly angular geometry. And why anyone at Polyphony Digital thinks that the mountain background in the Eiger tracks looks remotely convincing is beyond us. Sometimes the clean lines and rather flat lighting work, sometimes the effect is shockingly artificial. Much as we hate to say it, Forza III just looks better. In fact - dare we say it? - Need for Speed: Shift looks better.
Yet, despite all this negativity, GT5 is far from the disaster that the Xbox fanboys are currently gloating over. Its biggest triumph - and where most of the money and time appears to have gone - is the handling. Forza III is great, but nothing matches GT5’s raw feel for the connection between tyres and tarmac or the effects of weight, balance and momentum. It's good with the dual-shock controller, and amazing with a good force-feedback steering wheel. It's unlikely that most of us will ever really know what it's like to drive a tuned-to-death Nissan Skyline GTR through the turns of Monza, but GT5 makes it feel like you think it should feel - and that's close enough for us.
Weather, too, is a massive improvement, not just in the visual effects (which are fantastic) but for the realistic way in which rain and snow change the whole driving dynamic. It's one area where GT5 is putting in a new benchmark.
What's more, put in the hours and the game really opens up. Driving performance cars is a lot more challenging and entertaining than hot hatches, and there really is an incredible amount of content here. The boast of having over 1000 cars isn't significant on its own, but it means that enthusiasts will find almost anything they're looking for, from vintage sports models to big-name supercars to the kind of underpowerered family runabouts that most of us actually drive. Dozens of different events and competitions await you, each cued in to a specific type or class of vehicle, and these can be punctuated with new special events, with kart racing, Nascar and oddball jaunts on the Top Gear test track amongst them.
The breadth of driving experiences is breath-taking. One minute you might be racing a little Alfa Romeo 147 through the streets of Madrid, the next you could be driving a Mitsubishi Lancer Pro Evo through night-time Tokyo, or taking a Megane for a spin along a Tuscan dirt track. Each one feels entirely different and, the more you play, the more you realise that, while GT5 leaves much to be desired as a racing game, it's one hell of a driving game. It's not just a feast for car fanatics; it's a full-on Vegas all-you-can-eat banquet where you've snuck in early and locked all the fatties out.
Now, those of us who prefer racing - who're more interested in the thrill of stealing victory with a daring last-minute manoeuvre than authenticity and detailed reproduction - still have plenty of grounds for complaint. GT5's racing should be more dynamic, and the less said about the multiplayer - flaky, lacking options and hamstrung by a bizarre, unconventional lobby system - the better. Things like the photo modes or the B-Spec mode, where you train AI racers rather than race yourself, will go right above our heads, and it's arguable that Polyphony could spend less time on these niche features, and more time building the benchmark racing game it hasn't delivered since GT3.
It's also true that GT5 feels a bit like it has been developed in a vacuum, and that it might not have hurt to look at what Forza, PGR and Race Driver: GRID have been doing during the series' absence. Forza III, for instance, trumps GT5 in every respect except car numbers and feel. It's a slicker, more accessible, more inclusive and more exciting game.
All of this is true, yet GT5's core appeal - the realistic driving, the addictive delights of tuning and upgrading - remains as powerful as ever. It's still a dream game for the sort of serious petrolhead for whom GT has always been the gold standard of driving games and - while that's no longer the case - GT5 will still give them week after week and month after month of pleasure.