We’ve always taken Gran Turismo’s slogan, “the real driving simulator”, to be something of an underhand admission. Polyphony Digital’s simulation series may have repeatedly set standards in the physics department, but it’s never been much of a racer really – even if flinging a flat-tired Fiat Panda around the auburn Autumn Ring may have had a certain sort of charm to it. Gran Turismo Sport, as its name so eloquently indicates, brings into focus the franchise’s competitive side for the first time – and it results in a product that’s sure to divide.

Where the PlayStation 3’s fashionably late Gran Turismo 6 was a hulking behemoth blending Ayrton Senna’s story with missions on the moon, director Kazunori Yamauchi’s latest creation is laser focused: it wants to make you a better driver. The lengths that it goes to get you to learn is unprecedented: you can’t even access the online modes until you’ve watched two five minute videos outlining the importance of etiquette. The developer probably could have accelerated the entire process with a single sentence: don’t drive like a dick.

But for as overbearing as it may seem, there’s a real beauty to it all: the game’s main multiplayer mode not only ranks you based on your final position, but also your manners when out on the road. And it works: those only interested in playing bumper cars will be punished by being pooled with other online idiots in matchmaking purgatory, thus leaving everyone else to play by the rules. There are a couple of irritating inconsistences – like when you get stabbed by someone else’s Alfa Romeo and lose sportsmanship points as a result of their error – but it generally works well.

The multiplayer format is accentuated by an emphasis on reoccurring events rather than one-off races. Every five minutes – already reduced from 15 minutes at launch – you’ll be able to enter a mini-Grand Prix, in which you set a qualification time before being matched up against other players. The addition of warm-up laps and lobbies really helps add to the sense of occasion, and while you may very well end up bumbling around Brands Hatch in a boat-like Honda Civic Type R, it’s entertaining trying to work your way up the field without clipping or crashing into the competition.

It’s just a shame that, despite indications to the contrary, Polyphony Digital isn’t updating these daily races on a, y’know, daily basis; the trio of available events have remained unchanged since release, and are already starting to outstay their welcome. Moreover, beyond the base thrills of the racing itself, it’s hard to really get a grasp for the long-term progression of this mode without access to the various multi-stage tournaments that the studio has planned – that’s all scheduled to get underway next month.

Still, understandably, the emphasis on online comes at the cost of single player content. Stalwarts of the Sunday Cup may be disappointed to learn that Gran Turismo Sport’s campaign revolves around a series of challenges, each designed to improve your performance in multiplayer. To be fair, there’s more meat here than is being given credit, and it comes with real purpose, too; whether you’re learning the unique undulations of the Nürburgring in Circuit Experience or practicing fuel and tire management in end-game Endurance Races, it always feels like you’re absorbing  key information.

But there can be no bones about it: this is a slender package at launch. It’s the car selection, focused as it is, that will perhaps cause most concern; with just 162 vehicles to choose from, it’s a far cry from the 1,200 or so included in Gran Turismo 6. To be fair, the cars have been modelled with an obsessive attention to detail, but the emphasis on high-end automobiles means that the title lacks that encyclopaedic appeal that has always been a mainstay of the franchise in the past. You’re unlikely to find your own car here – unless you happen to have a couple of Porsche 911s stashed away.

Despite this, though, the game still very much feels like a love letter to the entire automotive scene. There’s a real eccentricity to the title, as it contextualises motorsport milestones by associating them with unrelated historical events, and the presentation across the board is practically peerless – even the engine audio has taken enormous strides forward from the sampled Dysons of yore. Of note, the user interface adopts a pseudo-social network format, as you’re able to share and comment on friends’ photos and achievements – and the game even debuts a livery editor at long last.

But for every advancement, it can feel like there’s a let-down waiting perilously around the corner. For a game so inspired by real-world motorsports, for example, it leans far too heavily on fictional tracks. There’s nothing wrong with the likes of Dragon Trail and Lake Maggiore – in fact, they’re actually excellent courses – but with just six authentic locales on offer, it’s not unreasonable to ask for more. And although the PlayStation VR implementation is impressive, it’s barely utilised beyond a series of short one-on-one sprints.

Perhaps the only part of the package that doesn’t have a dark side is the handling model, which truly excels on either a wheel or a pad. This is best-in-class stuff, effortlessly communicating the unique attributes of each individual vehicle, whether it’s the road-legal sports cars on the lower end of the scale or the furious chariots in the GT3 and GT4 classes. An absolutely flawless framerate helps perfect the illusion, and while there are perhaps more authentic simulators available elsewhere, the important underpinning here is that the cars simply feel sublime to drive.

Conclusion

Gran Turismo Sport represents a sharp change in direction for a beloved brand – and only time will tell whether that move proves shrewd. The game sets a new standard for online simulation racing on consoles, and for that it must be praised, but in its efforts to educate it’s shed the series’ revered single player structure – and almost certainly a fair few fans along the way.