Put your foot to the floor: Gran Turismo is back.
The granddaddy of console sim racers has been doing the rounds on PlayStation for years, but it's been three long years since the last entry. New upstarts like DriveClub have tried to steal the crown, but Polyphony is finally back to defend it with GT Sport.
With some serious sponsorships and FIA approval, the first Gran Turismo to hit the PS4 is gearing up for its parade lap, but after I got the chance to sniff the virtual petrol at Sony's London launch event, I'm wondering if there have been a few missed gears in the run up to launch.
Maybe we’ve been spoilt by graphically gorgeous rivals like DriveClub, but GT Sport doesn’t exactly scream “next-gen game”. It looks, sounds and handles a lot like 2013’s Gran Turismo 6.
You expect a menacing exhaust note and screaming tyres when you get behind the wheel of a V10 racer, but GT Sport's fastest cars just didn't have that level of impact.
The visuals aren't exactly eye-popping, either. Every single car has a fully modelled interior view now, but not all of the dashboard lights and dials work as you'd expect them to. The cockpit view feels disconnected from the track - if the speedo wasn't on screen you wouldn't feel you were going particularly fast.
Gran Turismo hasn't ever been focused on graphics, though, so perhaps that doesn't matter - it's about how the cars feel on the road, after all.
Pedal to the metal
I took the 2017 Nissan GTR for a spin on returning track Willow Springs, which Polyphony says has been redesigned to make the most of the PS4. Quite honestly the desert circuit looked a little barren, but the frame rate mostly held up with a grid full of AI racers.
On a racing wheel, everything felt cemented to the road, with force feedback fighting me through every corner. With a controller in hand things didn't feel quite so refined, with microscopic movements required to keep the car facing the right way through tight corners. Admittedly I've been spending more time on arcade racers like Need for Speed, so seasoned sim racers might feel right at home.
Brands Hatch and the Nordschleife also make a reappearance, joined by new tracks Northern Isle Speedway (yup, it's a NASCAR oval) and the Tokyo Expressway street circuit. There'll be 19 tracks at launch, with 37 different layouts.
The bends and bumps are all there, but overall the visuals are just that little bit clinical - there's no day/night cycle for different lighting conditions, and the only weather on show was clear skies. DriveClub's intense night races through stormfronts still come out on top for me.
At least GT Sport delivers when it comes to cars. There were 20 on show at the reveal event, with 137 promised for the full release, split between four power groups. Beginners should stick to the hot hatches and stock sportscars of Group 4, but eventually you'll progress up to the mental race-spec road warriors and fictional GT Vision concept cars of Group 1.
I only got to sample a sliver of what's going to turn up in the full game, as the campaign mode was locked off. It's split between four disciplines: Beginner's School, Racing Etiquette, Circuit Challenge and Mission Challenge.
The lessons learned here are apparently so true-to-life that you can actually earn an FIA-approved GT racing license, officially recognised by the autosports authorities in 22 different countries. The idea is to open the door for more people to get involved in motorsport, although a plastic ID card won't keep you stocked in tyres and petrol - you'll still need the cash as well.
There are a few quirkier modes too, but we wouldn't expect anything less from series creator Kazunori Yamauchi. The Museum mode puts videos, photos and specs from each manufacturer front-and-centre, but throws in a taster menu of opera, art and high culture from the year each car was made. Madness.
It's the Scapes mode that should keep car fans salivating over bodywork. It's a photo mode that lets you drop any of the game's cars into one of 1000 different backdrops. Each one has full depth and light information, so the cars look photorealistic, and you can control the virtual camera like a real one - think shutter speed, aperture and white balance.
I haven't tried it yet, but I'm expecting a few Instagram-like filters thrown in for good measure.
Earn a place on the podium
Single player racing might not feel like a big departure from the norm, but GT Sport stands out with some lofy multiplayer ambitions. Polyphony has teamed up with the FIA, motorsport's official governing body, to give virtual racers a full calendar of events to look forward to.
Two championships will run in parallel: a Nations Cup and a Manufacturer Cup. The Nations Cup will pit countries against each other, while the Manufacturer Cup will let fans compete under the flag of a particular marque. Anyone can jup into an official FIA race weekend, with winners from each region progressing to an international finals event, with full race commentary and global broadcast online.
It's as close to being a real racing driver as it gets without actually having to put on a race suit.
I saw the first races at the launch event. Polyphony has a long way to go to hit the eSports big time, but the in-game spectator camera looked as slick as anyting you'd see on Sky Sports F1.
We'll just have to wait to see if there's an audience for virtual racing, and if GT Sport can compete with the MOBAs and FPS titles currently dominating the Twitch homepage.
Gran Turismo Sport early verdict
After a few hours behind the wheel, it's difficult to see what Gran Turismo Sport does to stand out when the grid is filled with so many competitors. Forza Motorsport has stepped up to the plate on Xbox One in GT's absence, ultra-serious racer Assetto Corsa has taken simulation to the next level, and DriveClub still has the edge when it comes to drop-dead gorgeous graphics.
Polyphony has big plans for eSports racing, and the FIA seal of approval might convince die-hard racing fans to give GT Sport a spin, but I'm not sure what's on offer for casual fans.
There's still plenty of time for the devs to tweak the formula before the November release, and the multitude of modes that weren't on show at today's launch might still shake things up for anyone that doesn't bleed petrol.
If you've got a racing wheel and are itching for some new virtual tyres to shred, there's still plenty here to look forward to - but we'll have to wait until launch day to see whether that's enough for the rest of us Sunday drivers.