On Tuesday Gran Turismo 7 received an update that is fair to call the biggest in the game’s nearly year-long history. Maybe the one who fixed the multiplayer or the one that lets you sell cars was more impactful for other reasons, but the just-released 1.29 patch literally adds something for everyone.
If you grew up playing Gran Turismo, your interest has no doubt been piqued by the return and reinterpretation of Grand Valley Speedway, a franchise classic. If you’re into AI stuff and are particularly good at this game, you’ll want to try your hand at it Sophie — the AI agent designed by Sony’s artificial intelligence arm, in collaboration with GT dev Polyphony Digital. And if you’re a virtual reality fan and early adopter, you’ll want to experience the whole thing GT7 — split screen multiplayer aside — in PS VR2.
This is a big one, and that’s even before we recognize the five new cars in this update, one of which is Richie Ginther’s 1965 Honda RA272 — the first grand prix winner to wear the Japanese automaker’s badge. It’s not as much of a handful to drive as you might suspect, although it’s a lot more fun if you ditch the usual hard-compound racing tires for less grippy rubber. It is also 901 Porsche Carrera RS 2.7, Citroën DS 21 Pallas and two new ones Vision Gran Turismo concepts from Italdesign, in track and off-road flavours.
I wish I could comment on how the game plays in PS VR2, but alas – I don’t have Sony’s new hardware to test. It seems pretty good, though according to those who have already driven it. What I can comment on is the experience of skiing the reimagined Grand Valley – now called Grand Valley National highway-1for reasons that the picture at the top probably makes clear – and how Sophy is raging against.
Only then did we learn yesterday that Grand Valley was returning, not as a permanent racetrack as we knew it best GT1 through GT6, but as a band of public asphalt along California’s central coastline, opinions were mixed. Polyphony of course updated Trial mountain and Deep forests quite dramatically too GT7, re-profiling certain corners and completely new sections of the track – but at least they remained circuits, with similar geographical features to what they had in the late 90s. Grand Valley, on the other hand, has been picked up and dropped in a completely different part of the world.
As a longtime fan myself, it wasn’t what I expected or, frankly, wanted. But I warmed up very quickly as I admitted how incredibly beautiful the new landscape is, and I learned that the new Grand Valley appears to be a giant love letter to the California coast. Since I’ve barely spent more than six days in California in my entire life, I didn’t find this right away The trailer was released on Monday. Luckily, photographer Eric Yui has put together a handy thread on Twitter highlights various landmarks that have been assigned to the Grand Valley, such as the iconic Bixby Bridge, Coronado Bridge, Rain Rocks Tunnel and Ragged Point Inn.
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Of course, California is a big state, and in real life all these sights are quite far apart. IN Gran Turismo, you can visit them all in one 3.17-mile lap, driving a built course you may have first encountered 25 years ago. It’s quite nice.
This being the Grand Valley, it’s still a dream to drive. The Turn 5 hairpin, now at the cliff edge, is wider in radius and more carousel-like than it used to be, but the technical middle sector is deceptively tight as ever, and the final sector chicane – usually everyone’s least favorite part of the track – has now been moved closer to the exit to the previous corner, and totally redesigned. These are all, in my opinion, welcome changes. The South Course – GT7s renaming what used to be called the East Course — is a fun blast of low-powered machinery, with blind corners and undulating asphalt challenging you to brake in a straight line. It’s good stuff.
And then there’s Sophy. First of all, it’s important to note that this is a limited-time event that is unfortunately exclusive to the PS5 version of the game. It is unfortunate as it is one of the few aspects of GT7 which lacks parity between generations, but that’s hardly surprising, given that this is state-of-the-art AI that probably requires a little more CPU grunt than the decade-old Jaguar silicon in the PS4 launch can deliver.
In “Sophy Mode”, we’ll call it, you get the chance to race against four computer-controlled opponents on four tracks – Tsukuba, Alsace, Trial Mountain and Suzuka. There are three difficulty levels for each race, where your car and its upgrades are predetermined. Each race begins with a heavily gapped rolling start where the cars in front are all worse than yours, even if the purple car behind you is at least the same make and model. There’s also a one-on-one mode that doesn’t offer any prize money, but lets you race a single Sophy in a specified standing start race.
At my skill level, which I would describe as very little above average the beginner and intermediate tours around Tsukuba were a piece of cake. The car you get in the lower difficulties is much faster than what you get in Expert and I passed the field so quickly that I never got to observe their behavior much, except for one instance when I noticed the lead Sophy shimmy right to protect the inside lane around Tsukubas last hairpin. But it gave up very quickly and got a sad emoji over the top, just so I was aware of the displeasure.
When I met Expert I started sweating. Sophy isn’t afraid to block or get her elbows out, but it usually gets you just enough space to keep at least half of the car on the tarmac. It also doesn’t tend to move more than once. It doesn’t beat you on gameplay, it beats you on speed. And if you give it any opening, it will take it.
I learned this the hard way in my Expert Tsukuba race, where the fastest Sophy Violette seized my moment of understeer in the penultimate turn and set up the inside, wheels on the curb, to take the win. I would eventually get the better of them in the Expert challenge, but when it came to the 1v1 race – where you face Sophy in an identical car – I was completely helpless. I only won by driving in a way that would have gotten an actual racing license revoked, blocking Sophy incessantly and trying to stall her by practically parking my car in each of Tsukuba’s countless low-speed corners. If I let it beat me to Turn 1, it was gone.
In a way, I had taken advantage of Sophy’s clean driving and sportsmanship, as Sony AI engineers previously said they had to build back to the agent to teach it that racing is a non-contact sport. In cases where I drove respectfully and Sophy and I made contact, a gap passed that was completely within my rights and I tried to close the door too late. They’ve really built a competitor here that runs clean and is fast on merit – not an artificial speed boost, where it secretly packs a power or weight buffer.
I would like to see Sophy power GT7s AI in more events, instead of this limited scope demo. Maybe it’s more than one GT8 thing. Gran Turismo AI has historically been one of the worst in the genre – usually too sheepish to rage hard, sometimes too bullheaded to avoid certain ruin and pretty much always unable to win without cheating. This is a very encouraging taste of a racing sim that simulates human behavior with the same care and focus as car behavior, and I’m very excited to see it develop.