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After years of rumors, waiting — and even the release of a prologue version — “Gran Turismo 5” has finally made its proper debut on PlayStation 3.

For followers of this Polyphony Digital series, it has always been about the cars. This game doesn’t disappoint, featuring more than 1,000 vehicles.

Unfortunately, even in a virtual world, a Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren is still expensive. Gamers looking for those high-end cars will have to earn them by winning races.

While there are a lot of great improvements, there are also many shortfalls.

A cumbersome and inefficient menu system that leads to excessive wait times really plagues this game.

I found myself spending almost as much time working the menu screen as I did behind the wheel of my dream car.

Where the game really delivers, however, is with immersive graphics and uncanny level of detail on the cars.

The first “Gran Turismo” on the PlayStation was groundbreaking. I had never seen cars rendered so well in a video game. Years later, I am still amazed at how realistic they look, and the jump to PlayStation 3 has really helped take the game to a whole other level graphically.

Some may take this progression for granted, but overall it’s still quite impressive, and looking at these cars in my virtual garage almost makes me feel as if I have the real thing.

And the digital re-creations of actual tracks are equally remarkable.

Having driven on the expressway in Tokyo, I was blown away by how accurate and detailed that course was. I enjoyed being behind the wheel in virtual Tokyo far more than I would for the actual experience. Real life would be so much easier without having to contend with traffic jams and road blocks.

Another strength is the realistic feel to the controllers when steering, braking and cornering. It can be quite a challenge to learn to drive some of the faster, more powerful cars. Fortunately, when you begin, most of the cars you can afford are on the lower end, and controlling an older Honda Civic isn’t that different from driving the real thing. Plus, the practice will let you work your way up to driving a Lamborghini Gallardo.

My major complaint with the game play is with its “artificial intelligence.” While it’s not a pushover and can still be hard to beat, I am often disappointed in the one-dimensional driving by the computer. Very rarely does the computer stray from its projected course or even make an occasional risky move.

The vehicle sounds are very notable. Although I can’t proclaim to know exactly what a Ferrari 458 Italia sounds like with its engines revving, what I hear in the game sure sounds like the real thing, and it sure sounds fast. The soundtrack, however, is uninspired and bland. With such a poor showing, you may find yourself wishing for the option of installing your own iPod into the stereo jack.

This latest installment is surprisingly far more friendly for first-time players. In older versions, players had to go through a very difficult and lengthy process to earn different driver’s licenses that were needed in the game. It seemed just as tedious as standing in line at the local Department of Motor Vehicle office.

Thankfully, that system has been eliminated, and a far simpler experience point level system has been adopted.

While not terrible, but not really great either, “Gran Turismo 5’s” online multiplayer mode could be better. Once again, the lumbering menu system and additional wait time comes into play, souring the online experience.

Bottom line: “Gran Turismo 5” is still the best simulation racer out there, but the game suffers from a weak AI, sluggish menu and load time issues, leaving plenty of room for improvement.

Platform: PlayStation 3

Online: us.gran-turismo.com/us/

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