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Prologue is a tantalizing — and overpriced — glimpse at the next Gran Turismo 

When the trailer for Star Wars: Episode I first hit theaters, some fans bought tickets for the movie it was presented with, watched the trailer, and then walked out — essentially paying full price for a fraction of the final product.

Superfans are happy to do that sort of thing — heck, I did it — but most recognize it's not a very good deal. Similarly, die-hard racing fans will be happy for a glimpse of what's to come with Gran Turismo 5: Prologue. But for the majority of gamers . . . well, not so much.

Prologue is a chunk carved from the work-in-progress that is Gran Turismo 5 — a sort of Frankenstein's Monster that's part demo, part retail game, and part marketing, all stitched together by the attractiveness of a mid-development cash infusion. As such, it doesn't have a full game's content — a fact that's reflected in the somewhat reduced price: $40, or two-thirds of what a game typically goes for.

There's a lot less than two-thirds the content, though: You get about 70 cars and a half-dozen tracks. By comparison, Gran Turismo 4 offers 700 cars and 50 tracks, and rival Forza Motorsport 2 offers 300 cars and 15 tracks. When it comes to substance, Prologue simply doesn't measure up to the competition. It's rescued only by the level of polish on the little bit that's here.

First, the visuals are outstanding. At the risk of fanning the flames of internet fanboy rivalries: Prologue looks better than Forza, better than PGR, better than every other racing game, period. The tracks look great, but it's the detail in the cars that makes this pure automotive porn of the highest order; the way light reflects off the fenders is just stunning, like nothing else short of real life.

Prologue's cockpit view allows you to race from the driver's seat. The preternaturally spotless windshields are a little disappointing (a little grime helps sell the visual illusion), but nothing beats it in terms of immersion. And the tactile feedback via the new DualShock 3, though a bit subdued, is well done, especially when you can feel your back tires slipping during a too-fast turn.

When it comes to game play, though, Prologue isn't much of a leap. Opponents are still a bit dim and slavish when it comes to following the ideal racing line, and only barely aware of other cars. And while the racing physics are great, car-to-car contact looks and feels odd; exploiting all this allows for some profoundly unrealistic racing maneuvers, like placing an opponent between you and the outside of a high-speed turn to buffer yourself from sliding off the road, or letting yourself get rear-ended for a quick acceleration boost. As a result, Prologue online looks more like amateur bumper cars than professional racing.

But the demo suffers more for quantity than quality. No question, Prologue ratchets up excitement for Gran Turismo 5. But you're either fish or fowl: Are you a demo bursting at the seams with content or a retail product offering less for the money than almost any other racer on the market?

Forty bucks says it's the latter.

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