Gran Turismo 5: Prologue is some way off, but tearing around the famous Suzuka course in a Nissan GT-R with the lastest playable version of Sony's Real Driving Simulator makes us want to hibernate to pass the time until its launch, like children who go to bed early on Christmas Eve in anticipation of the treats to come the next morning.
To say we're fans of Polyphony's racing series in an understatement. Playing GT HD was amusing enough (despite it being the tightest, skimpiest demo offering in the history of videogames), but instead of impressing us, it left us with a worry that the next generation of Gran Turismo would do little more than add a few extra pixels to the resolution. We were wrong to worry.
The newer version of the game we've played is only a very small portion of what Sony's cooking up, but for racing nuts and series fans, it's pretty astonishing. If there's anyone out there that, even after Heavenly Sword, still needs a reason to justify the £400 notes they splashed out on that big shiny box, this will most certainly be it.
Playing GT5 feels like putting on your best suit and going for a no-expense-spared meal at The Ritz. Everything about it is lush. It's elite. It's the most upper class of racing game ever. And we're not just talking about the stunning graphics or super-satisfying handling of the cars.
The menu screens have a sheen - that extra touch of class - that forces home the fact that this is no budget project by some random garage developer. This is a proud team's work of art. Even the chilled, jazz-style music that backs the menus sounds like the kind of tracks you'd probably expect to hear playing quietly in the background in a five-star hotel lobby.
Enough about the menus though, because it's all about the drive. We've been thrashing around in seven cars in the new version of the game, ranging from the woefully average Daihatsu OFC-1, to the far more aggressive, utterly satisfying Nissan GT-R and we love it. Everything feels so brilliantly fine-tuned that, when sitting in the right car, there's immense satisfaction to be had every time you pull the perfect racing line and throw a car around a bend on the edge of its limit.
GT5 is still totally simulation, but it now feels so much more playable than the previous version of the game we played. This is far tighter. The cars are obedient, have a good sense of speed and the most realistic feeling of weight and traction of any racing game.
The version we have boasts the same performance options of the GT HD demo - ABS, stability management and a traction console - as well as a choice of racing and non-racing spec tyres, which means you can set up the game to feel how you want.
The only thing that drastically hinders this game from being everybody's dream simulator is the continuing lack of a damage model. You have these fantastic, photo-realistic visuals, insanely detailed car set-up options and amazing physics - but slam into another car and you bounce off each other like solid wooden blocks.
What makes it extra astonishing is that you get this solid-as-a-rock frame-rate without the loss of detail that most other games endure when they want to hit the 60fps mark. The cars look incredible. Picture perfect even. All the detail is there, right down to the lines in the plastic covering the headlights. There are 16 of these high-poly bad boys on the course at once, but the frame-rate remains unshaken.
Proper race geeks will be pleased with the new in-cockpit view in GT5, too. It places you right in the driver's seat, and the cockpit detail is, again, perfect to the real thing. All the buttons and dials of the real car are there, and all the dials are fully operational. You can see the driver steering and changing gear, and even leaning side to side slightly as you power into corners.