To say Gran Turismo 7 fluffed its opening moments earlier this year might be understating things a little; this was a getaway as catastrophic as Lewis Hamilton's at the Baku restart last year, Polyphony Digital's high profile PlayStation exclusive careering off-track in a cloud of self-inflicted chaos. The magic button that was the cause of all that drama was in this instance microtransactions, deployed aggressively on launch (and somewhat cynically activated once many of the reviews were already in) and leading to some deserved vitriol from fans.
That controversy defined Gran Turismo 7's early days, and in so many ways continues to do so today. Polyphony Digital's initial updates only exacerbated the situation: an early patch nerfed payouts of some key grinding spots players had been exploiting, but most damningly its deployment took the servers down for 24 hours, underlining the madness of a single-player campaign rendered unplayable without an internet connection. The spotlight was on Sony's series for its first numbered outing in almost a decade, and it duly shat itself.
Series creator Kazunori Yamauchi's justification for the always online element and the inflated prices was simply maddening. "The pricing of cars is an important element that conveys their value and rarity," he said in the heated aftermath of that early update. "So I do think it's important for it to be linked with the real world prices. I want to make GT7 a game in which you can enjoy a variety of cars lots of different ways, and if possible would like to try to avoid a situation where a player must mechanically keep replaying certain events over and over again."
It's frankly ludicrous, though part of me admires Yamauchi's commitment to his bit (an admiration that would come that much easier if it was possible to sell on your own cars in Gran Turismo 7, a promised feature that's yet to materialise and that leaves the economy still firmly weighted against the player).
There's an enforced scarcity to the more rarefied cars found in Gran Turismo 7's auction house, and no easy way to get your hands on the game's most desirable vehicles like the astounding Porsche 917K that has an asking price of a cool 18 million in-game credits. Unless you're willing to part with just under £150 of your own cash, that is, and follow the prominent in-game prompt to the PlayStation Store where you can purchase Gran Turismo 7's virtual currency.
Those kinds of numbers will always overshadow Gran Turismo 7, as should be expected for a full-price game stuffed with microtransactions (another uncomfortable figure is the £3600 it'd cost you to unlock all of Gran Turismo 7's ever-growing garage, a number I'd baulk at if I wasn't aware I'd probably spent as much on fuelling an iRacing addiction over the years). Gran Turismo games have always been a serious grind, and in this way Gran Turismo 7 is no different - it's just been lent a new unsavoury edge by its new business model.
At the same time as Yamauchi was justifying all that, he requested players take a longer view of the project - and in that light Gran Turismo 7 looks a little better. The updates have kept flowing, sticking to a monthly cadence and introducing some genuine surprises amidst the usual culprits. Watkins Glen, the gloriously faded, fantastic gem from upstate New York, made its series debut in July and underlines everything that makes Gran Turismo great: a respect and understanding of heritage, and an execution that's near flawless in what's surely the best virtual representation of the track yet, its dips and surprising cambers the perfect canvas for Gran Turismo 7's exquisite handling.
That's something that continues to shine, and continues to draw me back in all these months later. It's with the benefit of all that time, and with the hype and drama of launch having dimmed, that it becomes ever clearer how much of a step forward Polyphony Digital took with Gran Turismo 7. It's not exactly Assetto Corsa - and if a PC release ever does materialise as Sony’s studios continue to make headway into that space, it'll sit awkwardly alongside more dedicated sims - yet there's still nothing on console that immerses you so fully in the quirks and character of any particular car. I love just
Racing, however, hasn't been quite so straightforward, and it's been a surprise to see how Gran Turismo 7 has at times felt like a backwards step from Gran Turismo Sport - the game that dragged the series kicking and screaming into the world of competitive multiplayer, and did a damn fine job of it too. Some aspects of Gran Turismo 7 fall short of Sport's fine example, such as lobbies that have only recently been updated to the point of respectability, or a penalty system that can feel easily exploited or plain hard to parse. It's made the online racing feel scrappy rather than slick.
As if to underline those troubles, Gran Turismo 7 was quietly dropped from the FIA's Motorsport Games for Assetto Corsa Competizione, seemingly marking an end to the high-profile partnership between Polyphony Digital and motorsport's governing body. When the FIA clarified the relationship was still in place and implied the move came about because of Gran Turismo 7's teething troubles, it was hardly a better look for the game.
But it does suggest reconciliation in the future, and there's plenty of promise there to be fulfilled. It might not have the clout of an FIA-recognised event, but the Nations Cup has recently spun up for a grand scale multiplayer tournament, while the potentially ground-breaking AI tool Sophy has had some convincing trial runouts - if and when it does arrive for everyone in Gran Turismo 7, it could profoundly change the composition of Sony's game. That's a large if, though, and there's no defined timeline on when it could arrive.
Before that, though, there's still plenty to get stuck into. The single player cafe mode has enjoyed modest but welcome expansions with new cafe books, and inbound is a handsome list of cars - one that's not too hard to track down, should you desire a look at what the dataminers suggest - with a surprise or two in the mix. It's the offbeat additions that have had me coming back for more; the bizarre promise of a Dior collaboration, or the Tomica plastic model town that recently came to Gran Turismo 7's photo mode and let you pose your cars like multi-million pound toys.
And Gran Turismo 7 still stands at the pinnacle when it comes to treating these multi million pound toys with respect, reverence and occasionally something of a fevered religious approach to the automobile. It’s that giddy, wide-eyed approach that may have been responsible for some of those easy missteps - Yamauchi was so desperate for every car to feel like an occasion that he might not have had his eyes fully open to the optics of the situation - but its that mad, twisted love that also makes Gran Turismo stand apart from its contemporaries.
There's work to be done, but also the promise of big new features on the near horizon, whether it's Sophy AI finally making the cut or the inevitable support for Sony's new PSVR headset that'll put a fresh focus on Gran Turismo 7. Then, of course, there's the imminent arrival of time-honoured sparring rival Forza Motorsport when the long-awaited reboot of Microsoft's driving sim emerges next year. It'll be fascinating to see what shape Polyphony Digital will have the sometimes wayward, always fascinating Gran Turismo 7 by then.
This piece is part of our State of the Game series, where we check in on some of the biggest service games running to see how they're getting on. You can find plenty more pieces like it in our State of the Game hub.
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