Gran Turismo Sophy Arrives in GT7 Update 1.29: Hands-On First Impressions

Gran Turismo 7’s February 2023 update includes the public debut of GT Sophy: a new artificial intelligence that you can compete against in a free “Race Together” special event.

I had the chance to preview the new Sophy races at PlayStation’s North American headquarters last week, and it was the most fun I’ve ever had racing against a computer.

Sophy is brilliant, and it can change the way racing games like Gran Turismo are designed and developed from now on. But you don’t have to take my word for it: you can try it for yourself, for free, in Gran Turismo 7 on the PlayStation 5.

Let’s talk about how the special event works, and why this new technology is such a big deal.

Sony Interactive Entertainment

“Race Together” Special Event

Sophy is available in a new “Race Together” special event available in the PS5 version of Gran Turismo 7 through the end of March 2023.

It includes races spanning four different tracks: Tsukuba, Alsace Village, Trial Mountain, and Suzuka. Each track has four races available with Beginner, Intermediate, and Expert difficulty levels along with a 1-versus-1 mode.

During my hands-on demo, I had the chance to speak with Dr. Michael Spranger, COO of Sony AI, and Dr. Peter Wurman, the director of Sony AI America and the project leader of Gran Turismo Sophy. They explained to me exactly how the various difficulty levels were implemented to keep Sophy fun — yet challenging — for everyone who tries this special event.

Sony Interactive Entertainment

Multi-Car Races

In the first three races at each track, you compete against four Sophy opponents, each represented by different colors. The Sophy drivers all have the same skill level, but they are hindered by the type of car they are driving.

Green will always be the slowest opponent in your race, and the violet/purple car will be the fastest. The difficulty of each race is determined by the car you are driving, so in the easier modes you’re given a faster car than the Sophy drivers, and in the Expert mode, you are on a more level playing field.

In all the races, as the human driver you will be starting in fourth, with the slightly slower green Sophy Verte car ahead of you, and the fastest Sophy Violette car behind you.

Sony Interactive Entertainment

As explained to me by the Sony AI team, this was designed so that as the races begin, you’ll typically be attacking the car in front while defending your position at the same time.

One thing which I haven’t spoken about yet — but I’m sure you’ve noticed — is the emoticon reactions coming from the Sophy drivers. The feature needs a bit more polish, as the facial expressions don’t always make sense and they update too frequently, but I think these will attract a lot of attention and they help give these AI drivers more of a persona.

1-vs-1 Races

The most difficult challenge at each track comes in the 1-versus-1 mode, which pits you head-to-head against a single Sophy opponent in the exact same car. Your goal is to win this two-lap race from a side-by-side, standing start.

It can be done, but — believe me — it’s not easy!

The video at the top of this article includes footage of Gran Turismo World Champion Igor Fraga battling wheel-to-wheel with Sophy, and as you can see, it goes toe-to-toe with one of best Gran Turismo players of all-time.

Sony Interactive Entertainment

My Impressions

I’m not bad at Gran Turismo, but I’m certainly not Igor Fraga or a GT World Tour driver. I assumed that Sophy would completely embarrass me during my demo. It was a very humbling experience — but I was, eventually, able to defeat it in the 1-vs-1 race at Tsukuba.

I was not able to record the race during my demo, but I can tell you it was one of the most thrilling challenges I’ve had in 25 years of playing Gran Turismo.

Sophy is incredibly quick, so the key to defeating it is to beat it to the first corner and get that position early. It is an aggressive but also very clean driver. In over a half hour of intense gameplay, I don’t recall any incidents or contact that was initiated by Sophy; all of the mistakes were my own.

When I’m under attack from a car behind me, I tend to get nervous and brake earlier than normal — and earlier than my opponent might expect. This leads me to frequently getting punted in braking zones or making my opponent think I’ve brake-checked them, which isn’t really fun for anybody.

Sophy, however, was able to anticipate this, like a highly skilled and experienced driver would. It never made contact with me, and it never panicked or lost control when I went to the brakes too soon.

Sony Interactive Entertainment

This made the race absolutely exhilarating, because it was a door-to-door, bumper-to-bumper battle, from start to finish. I was doing everything that I could to keep Sophy behind me, and it was sticking its nose in the door every single time I made a mistake.

It all came down to the final lap and the long, sweeping last corner at Tsukuba. I came in just a bit too hot and left the door open for Sophy to take the inside line. 

In this situation, it’s easy for the attacking driver to get too aggressive and understeer into the lead car, pushing them wide in something that would look like an ugly move. I fully expected my race to be over in that instant, but Sophy held it together. We cleared the corner and had a drag race to the finish.

It was fantastic; it was the type of race you might experience only once in an online lobby, and certainly not a battle you would ever have with the game’s standard artificial intelligence.

That’s what makes Sophy so special: it’s like having your best human rival, online, all the time, ready to race whenever you are, for however long you want. That is seriously fun, and there has perhaps never been — in video games nor the real world — a better way to practice your race craft.

Sophy is the ultimate sparring partner, and it’s only going to get better from here.

Dr. Peter Wurman, Director of Sony AI America and Gran Turismo Sophy Project Lead. Photo by Sony AI.

The Future

The only problem with Sophy is that it’s so good, it spoils you.

It reminds you how dull and lifeless the standard AI is in the rest of Gran Turismo 7’s single-player mode, and how aggressive and inconsistent other humans can be when playing online. This “Race Together” special event is great, but it’s just a small teaser.

If you are like me, you will desperately want to race with Sophy on more tracks with different cars, but the reality is this is still just a limited technical preview and there is a lot more work to be done.

“There are still some technical challenges to overcome to make it available through the whole [game],” Dr. Spranger explained. “Another big factor is a lot of work went into the design of this interaction. I think we all want to see how it goes and hear players’ feedback and learn from that experience, to design the best way to release it in the whole game.”

Dr. Michael Spranger, COO of Sony AI. Photo by Roger Sieber.

“It’s a big step,” Dr. Wurman added. “We want to make sure we get it right and get enough feedback to really understand how this might be enhancing the experiences of players.”

Player Feedback

The Sony AI team is eager to get feedback on Sophy, and they are actively encouraging players to help them develop the system further.

“I hope that people share what they like, they share their experiences, and that they also share the stuff they don’t like. We want to hear both of those things,” said Dr. Wurman. “[We hope] they actually share videos online so that we can really understand how people feel about it, the way it makes them race better, or worse, or helps them learn, and so on.”

Once again, the free Race Together special event will be introduced in Gran Turismo 7 Update 1.29, available starting February 22 through March 31, 2023. Presumably due to the processing power required, the special event will only be available to players using the PlayStation 5 version of the game.

Of course, Sophy is going to be a very hot topic in the GTPlanet Forums: visit the comments link below to jump straight to the latest discussion!

Also, stay tuned: we will continue covering Sophy as it evolves into the future.

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