If someone were to reel breathlessly into a game shop right now, and ask at the counter for that Japanese game everyone is talking about, you know, the really difficult one, by the eccentric guy, who stashes all the story stuff in item descriptions, and tells of a bleak and beautiful world by way of what it built and how it moved in its days of grace, they could end up with Elden Ring or Gran Turismo 7. As mixups go, this would not be cause for consternation. In either case, this customer would leave with a masterpiece.
Despite the title, Gran Turismo 7 is, in fact, the thirteenth game in its series. Slipped between its numbered entries are trysting titles such as Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, Gran Turismo Sport, and, my personal favourite, Gran Turismo Concept, as though it were less a thing to be played as thought about—a cogitation pressed onto a disc. The chief cogitator is Kazunori Yamauchi, the head of Polyphony Digital, for whom the automobile is, if not the measure, then the mirror of human progress: a gleaming reflection of its appetites, its worries, and its spirit-souping optimism. Hence the cinematic that opens the game: footage of the early twentieth century, as brown as parchment, showing the Ford Model T clattering out of the past, before flaring into grainy colour as the flanks of rally cars stream by, and growing crisp with high definition as bodywork is painted, with a spotless spray, on an assembly line. No wonder, in Gran Turismo 6, we wound up on the moon, piloting a lunar rover across a silver prairie. For Yamauchi, cars are not only a mark of our endeavour but a sea of tranquillity.
That is why, in Gran Turismo 7, we get the Café. Inside, the camera drifts along tables like a lazy driver, over pastures of polished wood and past gleaming coffee pots, and you get the impression that Yamauchi relishes not solely automobiles but any object that does its job—that lubricates our relationship to the world with style. (I can imagine cafés, with their dark blend of relaxation and caffeination, are ideal for him.) The place is run by a fellow named Luca, who supplies us with menus. These do not contain a list of croque monsieurs and sweetly frothed lattes, however, but itineraries of cars and races. One wonders, should Luca be blessed with customers of the non-motoring variety, if he has backup menus that offer an inventory less infused with petrol.
From here, you—embodied by a lone figure in a jumpsuit of blinding white—embark on a series of high-speed jaunts. It’s worth noting the ease with which the game beckons you in. My memories of Gran Turismo are vested in the third and fourth entries, on the PlayStation 2, and steeped in a state of sublime panic. The graphics, back then, seemed to have arrived from the future (Gran Turismo 4 was one of only four games on the PS2 to output in 1080i), but the visions they bestowed—smooth, glinting, perfumed with pine trees—were trammelled by punishing mechanics. The dreaded licence tests saw my nails chewed to nubs. And the general spirit of play, especially for someone eager to step on the accelerator, was one of constriction. Rubber was there to be burned, yes, but also to be tended, and studiously renewed. These games teemed with vehicles and customisation options, and yet, for a certain kind of player, they were frustrating. They were, in the fullest sense of the word, tiresome.
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Not so, in Gran Turismo 7. How sweet to breeze through a sunny string of Gallic races, winning prize cars, and getting tutored by Luca on the proud role of the French—with its sporty fleets of Renaults, Citroëns, and Peugeots—in adding dash and sex to the hatchback. For Yamauchi, cars are inseparably twined to the lands that bore them, their bonnets forever glossed by the ghosts of time and place. So it is that another of Luca’s menus has us hopping the Atlantic, to the flats of Willow Springs and Daytona, to acquaint us, under American skies, with creamy Camaros and Mustangs, with their hungry muzzles. Pardon the blasphemy, but could it be that Polyphony has taken inspiration from the turbocharged hospitality of Forza Horizon?
If that is the case, then it has certainly tamped down the excess. That series, developed by Playground Games, is eager to please, throwing supercars at us from the off; whereas here our initial thrills are bound not to the likes of Lamborghini and Porsche, but to the earthlier metal of Volkswagen and Fiat. Your credits accrue slowly, and the purchasing of new vehicles carries real weight. Thus, models that you wouldn’t ordinarily think twice about acquire an allure and romance of their own. I’m ashamed to say that I have trudged by a hundred Suzuki Swifts, anchored to some dreary kerb and drizzled in rain, with an unstirred soul. But here it’s a creature of quest and zest, with its subtle curves and cat’s-eye headlamps. Plus, it can really move.
There is no getting away from it: Gran Turismo 7 is the best racing game I’ve ever felt. The PlayStation 5 controller offers not just nifty sensations—in the name of dipping you that much deeper, and more fizzily, into your chosen fiction—but real help in the act of driving. It’s an aid as much as an ode. Corners are there to be squeezed through, as the triggers lock and judder with understeer; you feel half-way between a professional racer and a masseuse, working out hairpin bends as if they were knotted muscles. (If you want the full effect, go for motion-controlled steering.) Off the track we get further rumbles, as your cars are nursed into shining health; check out the haptic burble, as fresh oil is poured into the tank, and the anxious quiver of a squeegee, as it deliberates over glass.
The effect of all this is texture. Polyphony has delivered an airtight flight from the everyday, rich in escape yet rooted in anything but fantasy. The series’ tagline, since its inception on the PlayStation, in 1997, is “The Real Driving Simulator,” a dry and inauspicious description, and not one that you would expect to apply to Sony’s highest-selling franchise. Indeed, Gran Turismo was always something that you would encounter on unexpected shelves—those of uncles, family friends in their forties, people with no prior interest in games. You would catch sight of a copy of Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec, unaccompanied by its kind, next to the gloomy, neglected shard of a PS2. Long before the Nintendo Wii, Yamauchi was reaching people outside the fold with the simple promise of fun. The simulator is such a cloistral genre now, attended by those in quiet devotion, that it’s easy to forget that it was once a novelty.
Gran Turismo 7 is a joyous reminder. I had to smirk, the first time I saw the PlayStation Studios ident, awash with images of brightly hued touring cars. Just think: all those floppy-eared lombaxes, dumbfounded Drakes, and gods with axes to grind—outpaced by mere machines. You could hardly wheel a devil-red Ferrari F430 alongside Aloy and expect the same pangs of recognition; and yet it is character that defines Gran Turismo 7, if not that of its cars then of its creator. This is a game about racing—about driving—but it’s stamped with the badge of a single mind, as obsessively as anything by Kojima or Miyazaki. Where else can you peruse a timeline exhibiting the fortunes of Aston Martin, and expect to see a parallel timeline below, pointing out that, at the same moment, Duke Ellington made history by recording the first long-playing vinyl? For Yamauchi, these games are about more than carburetors, brake pads, and all that jazz. They are about us.
Developer: Polyphony Digital
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Available on: PlayStation 5 [reviewed on], PlayStation 4
Release Date: March 4, 2022
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