Gran Turismo 5 is a game about cars from a franchise that is about cars for people who like cars. The central gameplay mechanic is the race, the quintessential automotive examination, but to call it a racing game would be missing the point entirely: it's a driving game. The player is confronted with a number of required licenses before they can ever enter a race. Many of the license tests explore a single corner or short sequence, inviting the player through challenges of sometimes punishing difficulty to learn the importance of grip, throttle control, timing your gear change, hitting the power band, and pumping the brakes.

The game's so called "Special" events follow along this same vein, punishing you with utmost love, providing a path of pain through which you can see the light. A particularly difficult challenge takes place on Top Gear's test track, in which you're given a Lotus Elise fitted with tires made of butter, and told to pass 11 idiotic maniacs in identical Elises in two laps. The Elise is known as a nimble car with excellent handling, but the titanium alloy tire compound you get in this challenge has you in an uncontrollable slide if you turn more than 20 degrees at 35mph.

The central lesson of this challenge is that you must lay off the power to maintain grip, so that you can take off and build up speed for the track's many power sections. The track is lined with cones; the ones with the white stripes will just bounce around if you hit them, but the solid orange ones are instant disqualification. The track is also lined with Lotus Elises; if you hit one at the wrong angle, or at a high enough speed (the sweet spot seemed around 45mph), you're disqualified.

To make matters worse, the Stig's lines for this track are mostly illegal, with solid orange cones right where you'd like to put your car. Annoyingly, this is particularly common on the later parts of the track, and seeing as you'll have to pass half of the other cars in the first 3 corners, you won't get much practice on those corners. The candy-striped inside of the follow through is off limits, as is the inside corner through the tires, as is the mere consideration of hitting the inside of the penultimate corner or of Gambon. Of course, you wouldn't normally hit the inside corner of Gambon, but there isn't normally a Lotus Elise on the outside of Gambon either.

It simultaneously betrays the central point of the game (driving) and reinforces it. You'll play the first two corners so many times full of Elises that when you make it to the second lap in the thinner crowd of the front three, you won't actually know how to take the correct driving line. In order to conquer this challenge, you need to learn how to very precisely and very quickly drive around the Top Gear Test Track incorrectly. It's maddening, and even without your crashes and inputs having any affect on your body in the form of G-forces, bruises, concussions, and lost limbs, you begin to understand just how difficult racing must be.

After three hours, I generally had an idea of where I had to be at each of the critical first couple turns. Break early to get traction on the first turn and overtake 11 and possibly 10, find traction and power out to overtake 9 on the inside and then outside of 8 on the way to Chicago, planting the front-left bumper on 7 in the turn and righting myself to find grip and power out down towards the Hammerhead. Around 4.8 - 5 seconds back here, brake late and pass 6 on the entry and 5 on the exit, hopefully with some traction left over to be on 4's trumpet down towards the follow through.

After that, it's a complete mystery. It's one in 10 attempts that I get this far, and often I cause a stiff breeze in the vicinity of 4 in the penultimate corner to earn a disqualification. The 2nd lap might as well take place on mars. No longer dodging 2 or 3 Lotuses on every corner, you try to take the normal driving lines and fail because all of your timing and muscle memory has you following your incorrect lines from the first lap. After lots of failures, I breeze by the red Lotus in pole position on the exit from the Hammerhead and beat the challenge by 2 entire seconds, which at 100mph is 90 yards (85m) in front.

And it's a victory that provides a release, a feeling of accomplishment, the end to a relentless string of failures. The challenge itself starts to feel, in its depth and complexity, a lot like a game of Gradius or Life Force; the level is an endless repeat so long as you've not beaten it, and in order for you to be prepared to execute your strategy for section 2, you need to have successfully accomplished the preparations in section 1. Lose unexpectedly, and your options and lasers and missiles are toast, and so is your knowledge of how to get through the next section.

In a lot of ways, despite the analog controls, the window for success is similarly minuscule in the Gran Turismo challenges. Or perhaps even worse; when you're driving at speed, you are punished for taking corners too well. If you know you can slam the brakes at the 50m sign, enter the apex at 45 and exit at 70, but you nail it this time around and enter at 48, then find grip early and then exit at 75, your braking point for the following corner is messed up, because your entrance speed is faster than normal.

In perhaps one of my all time favorite gaming experiences, an ex roommate of mine and I spent hours doing an endurance rase on Fuji Speedway, doing 7 laps per set of tires and swapping, knowing that the sweet spot for breaking lap records would fall in the middle 3 laps when the tires were hot but still had structural integrity, pushing every corner to the limit in an endless refinement of our understanding of the circuit. Over the course of the race, we continued to improve within that 3 lap sweet spot, knocking off tenths and hundredths on each turn, learning from each other's different driving lines, improving our original times drastically.

So that sense of accomplishment is really grounded in the agony of defeat, the difficulty of the task at hand, and the knifes edge margin of error you skate with each gear change and each corner. It's an exercise in patience, analysis, control, and profanity. From the outside, it all seems pointlessly obsessive and inconsequential, but for those who enjoy it, they spend those hours cursing that idiot in the red Lotus, planning and refining and executing until they finally round Gambon in first... and across the line.

May 26 2011