In the world of racing games it takes a special breed of game to gain the appreciation of fans and critics alike. With a nearly impeccable track record, Codemasters is one of the few developers that everyone takes notice of when they release a brand new driving game. When you have a back catalog that consists of titles like TOCA Touring Car, Pro Race Driver and the more recent DiRT, anyone should be able to understand why this company has become known for its racing titles. GRID lives up to the reputation of the company by delivering yet another accessible title that features incredible visuals, a robust career mode and a brand new flashback feature that bends the learning curve just enough that casual fans will be able to enjoy the game without frustration. Unlike previous entries GRID focuses more on the actual racing than the driver while still retaining that endearing charm the series has always been known for.
The bulk focus obviously on the single-player world tour mode. Here you will race across three different locales (Europe, US and Japan) earning respect, sponsorships and of course cash along the way. Each area sports different styles of racing and breaks up the monotony found in most single-style racing games. In Japan you will focus on drifting much like the direction the latest Need for Speed games have gone, Europe has a more refined – closed circuit type of feel, while US focuses on street racing and muscle cars. The bonus is that you can pick and choose what type you like the best and focus on that or go back and forth to keep things fresh.
As I mentioned this mode focuses more on driving than the racer, but it does have some nice personal touches. For instance you get to enter a driver name at the outset and even assign a vocal nickname that the narrator and pit crew will call you during your career. The game also tracks all accomplishments (and Achievement progress on 360) and displays them during load times. These things are more appreciated than required, but it does go a long way at upping the presentation.
The biggest added feature in GRID has to be the flashback system. Basically when you begin a race you get a set number of do-overs that will help you out of unexpected crashes. Take that turn a bit too wide and slam into the guard rail? No problem, simply tap a button and choose where in the replay you would like to start from. Hardcore fans will likely scoff at the idea, but rest assured there is a bonus for not using them at all; plus on harder difficulties you get fewer opportunities to use them at all.
One of the first things I noticed when I started playing is a complete lack of a tutorial. Instead the game attempts to immerse you into the experience by simply throwing you into a race to get you accustomed to the controls. Once the race is over (regardless of where you finish) you officially become a freelance driver and begin taking contract races to earn enough money to buy your very own car. Once you obtain enough street cred and money you can open up your own racing team, complete with sponsorships and you can even hire drivers to race alongside you. The amount of depth and immersion is impressive, but the one thing this game lacks could be the breaking point for hardcore sim heads.
As opposed to using a traditional upgrade system found in games like Forza and Gran Turismo, GRID follows the mentality of ’why change it when you can buy a new one’. Instead of buying new exhaust systems or turbo kits you simply buy new cars and sell your old ones on Ebay; no I am not kidding. In what appears to be the first proper use of product placement you can buy and sell cars on the acclaimed auction site for a fraction of the cost than you would pay from the manufacturer. You have to be careful though, some cars are so beat up they will end up costing you the race.
All of these features and functions are great but if the game fails to play well, they can all be useless window dressing. The handling in the game is smooth and responsive, but also can tend to feel a bit rigid. All of the cars feel unique and with all of the driving aids enabled you gain a sense of confidence flying around the track at ridiculous speeds. Damage also plays a role in the control of your car as some collisions will leave your vehicle leaning to one side or the other or even lose acceleration and speed in the long stretch. Slamming into walls is just as fun as it should be, and with the unique flashback feature you never feel punished for experimenting and taking chances on the track, which makes for a more enjoyable ride.
Probably the most impressive part of racing though is the advanced AI system of the CPU drivers. There is neither rubber band intelligence nor a follow the leader mentality here. Cars will crash into each other, cut you off at inopportune times and generally act like aggressive human drivers so often you will sometimes think you are actually playing against other gamers. It is also nice that you will not likely blow away the competition even on the easiest difficulty, but you will always earn money with sponsors making the career feel more immersive and challenging, while not frustrating players too much. This balance really goes a long way to creating the sense of really being in the shoes of your driver.
Once you have had your fill of driving around the world by yourself you can indulge in an impressive online mode that supports up to 12 racers at once. Here you can compete in any of the race types from the single-player game including demolition derbies and drift racing. What is different with the online is that ranked matches are democratic in nature, meaning variables such as race type, damage and length are voted on by all the players in the room. If you want full control over your parameters you can always open up a private match, but as always you cannot earn Achievements or probably be able to find 11 friends with time and a copy of the game. Our sessions ran rather smooth, with only a hint of lag depending on the time of day we were playing and its also nice that the game forces players to certain car restrictions keeping online endeavors as balanced as can be.
Using a modified version of the DiRT engine, now called Ego GRID is a visual tour de force. Car models sport some amazing detail and when you slam into a wall the amount of damage is impressive. Windshields crack, bumpers become disconnected and you begin to populate the track with debris that actually remains there for each lap and becomes a hazard to you and the other drivers. Sadly there are no weather effects to be found in the game, so you better really like driving on warm sunny days. The frame rate is locked at a solid 30 and never misses a beat even when all the cars are onscreen or during massive pile-ups. Sound on the other hand is less impressive. While the quips your pit crew will mutter throughout each race are fun for the first few races; their repetition becomes annoying the longer you play the game. Engines also sound tinny and weak on some accounts and the crashes simply do not convey a sense of impact. Overall the presentation is strong outside of an uninspiring audio component.
GRID is the type of game that straddles the line between sim and arcade so well that it actually works on both levels. Casual players will enjoy the sense of security the flashback feature delivers, especially when crashes are as fun and look as good as they do in GRID, while hardcore players will love the in-depth career mode and more challenging difficulties. It is rare that a game manages to find a solid middle ground, but GRID pulls it off nicely, making this a must-own game for fans of the genre. If Forza is too simulation for you and Burnout too arcadey, GRID should satisfy your needs.