GRID: Real Driving Meets the Arcade

June 6, 2008


Creating a realistic-looking racing game that’s accessible and fun without being shallow is a pretty mean feat. Fresh off of its success with DiRT, the team at Codemasters has gone back to the drawing board once again to come up with GRID, a racer that uses advanced graphics and crash physics to go back to the basics of what makes driving games work, and they’ve done a pretty good job of it.

GRID has positioned itself with the phrase “It’s all about the race,” basically promising great gameplay, but also signaling up front that some areas have been ignored for the sake of others. So one thing the game is not about is offering a huge amount of cars. If you’re a closet collector reared on Gran Turismo, the list is going to seem a little small with just 45 different vehicles. Likewise there isn’t much emphasis on customization--you can choose a pattern and a three-color pallete for looks, but you can’t tune your car’s performance. This may not make everyone happy, but making compromises doesn’t necessarily mean copping out.

Cars are split up into different disciplines, and then further broken down to individual models. From drift racing to open wheel, each class has a distinctive feel with noticeable differences between each car within a class. Each event type is accessible immediately in race day mode, while the career option puts you in charge of your own team while working as a hired gun. The objective is to build your reputation in the US, Japan, and Europe—each with multiple tiers. Expect to flex some serious muscle in America and do your fair share of drifting in Japan.

You don’t necessarily have to finish first--or even place--in every event, but finishing races in the career mode earns you the respect to move up in stature and the money you’ll need to buy new vehicles. Competing under tougher settings can net you greater rewards, encouraging you to tweak your difficulty from race to race to manage your level of challenge



Along with AI and driver assists, there’s one more crucial component to difficulty -- the game’s flashback system. Essentially, this feature lets you rewind time, take a look at what went wrong, and jump back into the cockpit at any point to avoid a nasty crash or even take a turn a little tighter to ensure you stay at the front of the pack. Lower difficulty settings let you turn back the clock multiple times, while pro mode cuts this fantasy feature altogether.

When you head online a lot of the single-player elements follow. Races feature 12 cars apiece, and full-on damage, though you can turn it off if you want. Events are on the slim side with just a few different options, and you’ll have to race in the pro difficulty mode if you want to post your times to online leaderboards, meaning flashbacks are rightly ignored in favor of consistency and skill.

Don’t expect to get 100 hours of play out of the single-player, but in conjunction with the online play you’ll still get plenty of mileage for your cash.

Two of the most important considerations in a racing game are a good sense of speed and the overall feel, and GRID makes a good run at both. While the sense of speed is never in doubt, handling in general can feel. a bit loose and touchy at first. At times, you’ll be more afraid of straying off the track into surprisingly deadly grass than being hit by another car. You’ll also notice right away that the AI drivers aren’t generally worried about a few scrapes, and can be fairly aggressive right off the line.

Fortunately the crashes are highly entertaining in their own right, acting as a sort of consolation prize while you get to grips with the controls. Each class of car tends to have its own learning curve, but once you’re into the groove driving feels appropriately fast, dangerous, and responsive.

The AI drivers in GRID are a credit to the game. They drive fairly, appearing to be aware of the track situation without being infallible. Like a human player, the guy in first can occasionally blow it all with a nasty spin-out. The difference being you would actually have the chance to save yourself by rewinding an instant replay and taking a different approach to that killer turn.

Damage is modeled, but is definitely a little more forgiving than a straight-up simulation, letting you take a bit of a beating before affecting performance. It’s a necessary concession given the game’s arcade edge and aggressive competition. Still, serious crashes can impact your top speed, steering, or take you out of the race altogether.

While tweaking your car’s appearance and performance aren’t really part of the equation, you can choose a pattern and color scheme for your team in career mode, as well as apply sponsor labels as badges of honor that provide a welcome rest between demanding events.

Instead of expressing yourself through your paintjob, you’ll manage various sponsorships to make sure your team gets paid at the end of the day. Some sponsors pony up cash regardless, while others only offer money for a podium finish. The most lucrative deals ask nothing less than first place. Making the right choices for your skill level and that of your team can dramatically accelerate your earnings and put you back on the track in a better, faster ride.

While GRID comes off as an arcade racer, there’s actually a great deal of strategy that goes into playing it. It cannot be overstated how important the realistic AI is to any racing game, and this is one area where Codemasters’ latest has it nailed.

In the garage GRID features a smooth and simple interface you feel like you can almost reach out and touch. The game features a rolling start without tutorials, but you will be primed for new event types via succinct video introductions. It’s a very automotive mixture of function and style that slickly gets you where you need to go.

On the track, GRID easily passes the across the room test as replays can easily be mistaken for the real thing. The game’s detailed cockpit view, exhilarating sense of speed, and impressive crashes rank alongside the best racing games of the current generation. Audio is also strong with an aggressive soundtrack of techno and rock. Chatter from your teammates and manager conveys useful information but can become annoyingly repetitive, but it’s a small issue in an otherwise outstanding presentation.

With a sleek look and smooth-running mechanics, GRID is a successful compromise of realism and arcade playability that offers a variety of racing activities within a consistent framework. While not all that innovative, the game brilliantly implements a race-saving instant replay function and incorporates a strong strategic element with its sponsor management. Customization and vehicle lineup are limited, but in line with a focus on providing a satisfying race, which is exactly what you get from GRID.