'Gran Turismo 7' Makes a Triumphant Comeback on Its Own Terms

If Polyphony Digital have felt pressured by the competition from Forza, there's no trace of worry in their lovingly nostalgic racing sim.

You are not the hero of Gran Turismo 7. If it has protagonists, they are engineers, designers, and probably the corporations they work for. The game's coffee table book sensibilities don't require a hotshot driver to transform its generous collection of cars into winning race cars. The cars are already great, that's why they're here in a Gran Turismo game. You just need to be a worthy and appreciative steward of the cars it presents to you.

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That inward-looking reverence sets Gran Turismo 7 apart from the games that have defined and redefined the racing genre since 2013's Gran Turismo 6. It's a game where you collect cars, but it's not the frenzied collectathon that a Forza Horizon often is. It projects a level of care and interest in its cars that is frankly absent from Forza Motorsport 7's infinite banquet table. Its systems are built around fostering a relationship with your favorite cars rather than taking them on a series of competitive test drives. The way it communicates these ideas, asking you to pay attention to all its minute details is alternately sublime, endearing, and grating.

The core of Gran Turismo 7 is the Gran Turismo Cafe. It's at the center of the little diorama that serves as your main menu, with a stadium at its 9 o'clock where you go racing, your garage at 3 where you can peruse your personal collection, and the tuning shop at 6 where you buy and install upgrades. At the outer edges of this map there are car dealers, a photo studio, regular multiplayer and a portal to the more structured world of Gran Turismo Sport, but the GT Cafe is the home base that gives much of the game its structure. 

The conceit is that it's a cozy, tucked-away little coffee shop for gearheads. Against a montage of cozy decor and bucolic forest glade, you'll see your car parked outside the cafe while you talk to the proprietor inside. From him you receive quests to go compete in events that yield "gift cars" that you'll need to complete a special set, like collecting three French sport compacts or three American muscle cars. Then, via the little speech bubbles that serve as the game's voice, you get a potted history about the vehicles you've collected and where they stand in automotive culture. The other thing you'll find at the cafe is a nerdy car connoisseur who will give you a similar history of almost every individual car you bring by, and occasionally a designer with a connection to your car.

These little asides and anecdotes are a cute idea but only occasionally generate an interesting comment or story. If Gran Turismo 7 really were a coffee table book, it'd be one with dazzling pictures but slightly dull text and not as much insight as you might hope. Still, it often serves to humanize the cars and their designers, placing them in a context beyond the performance they'll yield on a track. It's also notable how thoroughly GT7 commits to this bit: go to the car dealer and you'll get different commentary on the cars you're browsing. The AI racers you face have their own snippets of dialogue about their favorite cars that offer yet another angle on car culture around the world. If you do want to know more, of course, you can go to your garage and research your own collection, reading the longer encyclopedia entries that accompany each car you own.

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At the intersection of history lesson and branding deal are the showrooms you find at the dealer, where just about every manufacturer at least has a pictorial history of their company that you can review and many have short video features as well. This stuff is all over the map, and it gets worse when you go to "partner" organizations' pages and suddenly have access to featurettes on what a fabulously progressive, ecologically sensitive company the tire company Michelin really is. It's not that GT7 needs some searching introspection about the production practices and global impact of the auto industry but in a game that's already sincerely celebratory, these pieces of crude PR stand out like a sore thumb.

All these elements mostly exist to give a bit more structure to your racing, and it's on the racing that GT7 ultimately hinges. This is pretty subjective, especially if your experience of race cars is (like mine) mostly through the lens of other racing sims, watching racing, and reading automotive press. However, there is no denying that GT7 feels profoundly different from Forza Motorsport 7, which I spent much of my holiday break playing. At first GT7 felt a bit tame by comparison. Turn off all the aids in Forza 7 and even modest hatchbacks will try and bite you. Just a whisper of too much pressure on the brakes or throttle can cause an ugly snap, and this only gets more exaggerated as you deal with lighter and faster cars. GT7, on the other hand, feels very forgiving. The cars want to stay planted on the road, and will do their best to save you from yourself if you mishandle them.

Up to a point, and this might be where GT7 really begins to win me over. In GT7, it's much easier to find the edge… and then convince yourself you have a bit more room to carry speed and only then does the car suddenly start to lurch out from under you. And I do mean lurch: I've only had a few incidents where a car snapped into a spin, but I've had a bunch where you can feel the nose and tail start to slip out of alignment, the weight of the car shifting dangerously only to have your instinctive countersteering cause an even more dangerous swing in the other direction. It's completely different than Forza 7's capricious physics, where any and every car can abruptly break traction and start to skate along the surface of the road. It's a really generic feeling, a near-universal trait to cars in that game. 

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The approach GT7 takes makes the track surface much more palpable as well. You'll really feel the impact of camber consistently, but it also makes weather effects shine as well. There was one race where it started to rain buckets (not as a scripted event, even the routine races seem to have semi-random weather conditions) and suddenly my treaded sports tires couldn't cope with the standing water on the front straight. The feeling of that car getting swamped in in the deep water, the tires starting to aquaplane and the way it would come in-and-out of control as I tried to slow down, was frankly uncanny.

Every flagship racing game has looked stunning for the last several years and I don't want to oversell GT7 but there are a few places where it rises above what I've seen elsewhere. For one thing, day-night cycles and weather effects are some of the best I've ever seen, interacting in ways that give a specificity to a lot of moments that feels like it goes beyond a menu option for "track conditions". The play of light in GT7 is gorgeous, and at times frighteningly convincing. When I passed another car during one of my first night races, I was immediately dazzled as their highbeams came flooding in through the back window and hit my mirrors and windshield. I cannot overstate how convincing this effect was, but there were also a number of moments where interior lighting and reflection effects were noticeably imprecise and out-of-sync with the action.

It's harder for me to assess the AI drivers. Sometimes I feel like I see lifelike miscues from them and convincing bunch-ups in corners behind slower cars as AI drivers throw on their brakes, and I was stunned in one case to find that one refused to give ground as I attempted to run them out wide through a corner. Still, sometimes they seem to be oddly passive or, in some cases, almost scripted in terms of exactly when they will suddenly begin turning ungodly fast laps. They're not bad foils to race against, but I'm not sure they feel like real opponents.

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As a single-player game, Gran Turismo 7 remains focused on tuning and upgrades. These features exist in the Forza games but they're also easy to ignore (and indeed, in some ways Forza Motorsport 7 is downright hostile to them) whereas Gran Turismo 7 is all about incrementally upgrading cars from their stock configurations into increasingly customizable professional-grade racing machines. I was surprised how much I enjoyed going back to this style of racing game. While upgrades definitely change a lot of a car's characteristics, they never felt like they completely overwhelmed them. An identically-upgraded Nissan Silvia and Toyota Supra, for instance, still had radically different personalities. Despite the Supra having a far higher performance value, the Nissan was so tailored to my driving style that I ended up benching the Toyota entirely and carrying the Nissan into several higher-tier competitions even though the upgrade costs increasingly dwarfed what newer, better cars would have cost. On the other hand, this also means that across just about everything I've played so far, GT7 will let you spend money to simply upgrade your way to a win.

By the way, it's only at the highest tier of upgrades that you really need to start worrying about car setup. For the most part you can get pretty far just by slapping a "race" suspension in place of a "sport" suspension. Don't even get me started about how far a set of soft racing slicks can carry an otherwise uncompetitive car. Gran Turismo 7 doesn't really demand that you become your own mechanic and race engineer.

It expects you to get your act together as a driver, however. The racing license system returns to administer a series of exams where you have to demonstrate greater and greater mastery of corner types and conditions. While it's not exactly fun doing these increasingly demanding chores in order to progress, I have to admit they're pretty good tutorials that knocked a lot of rust and sloppiness off my own technique. 

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In the same vein, but slightly more entertaining, are arrays of missions that unlock as you progress through the game. These are short-form driving challenges, like overtaking a series of slower cars in a single sector. Some of them are legitimately thrilling, while others are… basically racing game shitposts. For instance, I had to win a ridiculous 2-lap race around a long track in antique Fiats that topped out around 70 MPH. It was honestly excruciating, hilarious to my partner… and maybe a little instructive in terms of how carefully I had to execute in order to gain advantages in a car that struggled mightily to regain any loss of speed.

GT7 features the familiar list of driver's aids, but they're implemented unusually well here. Driving with most of the aids turns on smothers most of the feel of the cars, but once you turn off braking and steering assist you'll realize that the traction and stability control aids are absolutely costing you speed every time you midjudge an angle, so they do end up serving the function of training wheels rather than acting as bonuses that compensate for poor form. Worth special mention here is the racing-line graphic. Unlike every other racing game where the racing line is highly-dynamic and constantly tells you whether you should be gaining or losing speed, GT7 just paints a noncommittal yellow line across the track. It also highlights the major braking zones with translucent red stripes but even taken together these tool don't tell you anywhere near as much as a dynamic racing line… and again they probably keep you from developing unhelpful dependency on those features. You'll have to fill in most of the missing data yourself by paying attention to reference points and learning from experience.

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When you're not racing and ready to take a break, there's two more things that Gran Turismo 7 boasts that are unexpectedly charming. First, you can go to your garage, pick one of your cars, and hit "scapes" to watch a montage of your car rolling through incredibly scenic imagery from around the world. The car looks like it's digitally composited into existing photos / footage but for the most part it looks really sensational and might be the best "idle mode" I've seen in ages. Unfortunately, the predominant vibe of Gran Turismo 7 is "easy listening jazz / Pure Moods CD" and so these gorgeous little reels are accompanied by a merciless, unrelenting playlist from Hooked on Classics. You ever wonder what Satie's "Trois Gymnopédies" would sound like with a preset Casio keyboard trip-hop beat behind it? You're about to find out, again and again until you hear it in your sleep.

You also have the option of going and taking your own streetscape photo of your cars, where you select from a huge gallery of locations and themes and then use the very good "photo mode" controls to create a custom still. It's a gimmick, absolutely, but it's a nice break from just taking photos at race tracks. And honestly, it can be a little affecting. The first thing I did when I unlocked the mode was find a section of the Berlin waterfront where some friends and I met for the last time just before the pandemic, and plunked a couple little cars down in a bend of the river near where a bunch of games writers did some much-needed and yet probably ill-advised stock-taking, as if we'd all just driven-up for a reunion.

And with that: enter context. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on Gran Turismo 7 in comparison to some of its competitors and predecessors, though there's loads of the game I still have yet to see. But the thing I can't quite control for is that I got Gran Turismo 7 code right as a war broke out, basic human rights came under renewed attack in the United States, and at the tail end of yet another winter where I basically saw no family and no friends. Against a dismal week, Gran Turismo 7's slow pace, gentle sentimentality, and engrossing detail could not have had a more flattering contrast.

I don't think that's just coincidence. Gran Turismo 7 doesn't feel like a modern game rooted in the modern world. Every once in a while it gives you a lottery ticket to get extra in-game currency, but the rewards are so paltry and reliably disappointing it practically serves as a PSA against gambling. In the pre-launch week, there have been no pop-ups pushing me to grind for something I don't even want that will only be available or a limited event. When I choose an activity, nothing and nobody breaks-in to tell me about something else I could be doing right now. It's quiet in here, like that moment when you get into a new car and before you turn it on when the sound of the outside world is briefly hushed by the heavy click of a closing door.

Tagged:

Racing Games, Gran Turismo, Polyphony Digital, Forza 7, Gran Turismo 7

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