Sunday, 3 August 2008

Review: Race Driver: GRID

Publisher: Codemasters
Developer: Codemasters
Formats: Xbox 360, PC, DS, PS3
Release Date: May 2008

The last two years have seen a proliferation of high profile racers screaming their way onto the 360 after the consoles rather quality free first year. Running a gamut between open world arcade and realistic simulator, petrolheads have been suitably compensated for the initial mediocre offerings.
GRID, none too surprisingly, is the monosyllabic big brother of Codies’ 2007 DIRT and the spiritual successor to the previous generation’s TOCA Race Driver series. All of which gives an inkling to the class held within the rather more polished confines of their new product.
With the TOCA moniker and license dropped, GRID has grown up from the story based racers we saw on the original XBOX into a frenetic driving game that straddles the unforgiving sim of Forza and the overtly arcadey PGR4. With the drunk Scotsman, er… Scotty, a foul-breathed memory of TOCA’s past, newcomers will find themselves guided by a disembodied, sultry voiced business manager and a race manager who is more than happy to throw you in at the deep end. Your career begins in San Francisco, your driving a Dodge Viper and before you know it you’re competing to earn your rookie license. Finishing this one lap, one chance race will give you a feel for the chaotic race day action as well as provide a pre-text for the heart of the one player game, the Grid World career. Here the aim is too work up from your meager beginnings and build into a world beating team. To do this you will have to race for other teams to gain money and reputation, subsequently you will receive new licenses which open up more events. You will eventually be able to create your own team with a teammate, customize your cars with a limited set of decals and earn sponsorship deals to splash over your various motors. It’s no FORZA, but it gives the player a certain level of in game personality.
Unlike it’s predecessor, GRID is considerably more about the race. It isn’t here to weave a story of rookie come world beater and subsequently GRID has become a more focused affair. Heck once you get racing, the career merely becomes the excuse not the aim and you will quickly forget to care how well your team is doing as the season’s role by.
Like in TOCA, your GRID career will see you span the globe; however where the two differ is in application. GRID is set out across three regions, the US, Europe and Japan. Each region has a distinct racing ethos, in the US you will find a propensity for big muscle cars and tight street circuits, Europe is tied to more traditionalist track day pursuits and Japan sees a tendency towards Drift racing and touge, a kind of two part hill-climb-come-rally event. Each region has its own sets of cars suited to the style of event and the game runs the spectrum from back heavy drift cars, juggernaut steering Muscle cars and nippy aerodynamic formula three’s and Le Mans GT’s.
With such a vast difference in steering models you would expect GRID to struggle, especially after the somewhat washy handling experience in DIRT. However Codemasters have come out all guns blazing, cars handle as they should with the various styles being well catered throughout the range. This was probably helped by limiting the game too just 43 playable vehicles and stripping out the kind of pre-race tweaking seen in FORZA Motorsport, subsequently, with so few cars in the roster, many events will run with just a single car option and whilst this may disappoint some its clearly where Codemasters had to cut the corner. Nevertheless what GRID lacks in car selection, it more than makes up for with the considerable diversity in events. One minute you can be competing in a Le Mans race with a car that feels like it has been glued to the track, next you are skating about in a dustbowl in a banged up American sedan trying to complete a demolition derby.
Whilst the handling lacks the rigidity of FORZA, it has developed to become the primary element distinguishing the regions in GRID. The sheer difference in the various handling models is where some of the initial dizzying challenge comes from as you work your way up from a rookie and learn to become a master tamer of track and the car. You will certainly find yourself going cross-country in the early hours of your career, but the learning curve is mercifully short and sharp and there is a certain sense of achievement on earning your first back to back wins when the first race was a Tokyo drift and your next was a race prept’ touring car event.
One thing that did not need any improvement from DIRT was the graphics, with sumptuous bloom lighting and crafted motion blur, DIRT managed to make mud look interesting and this very same graphics engine has been carried through to GRID and renamed “Ego.” Subsequently handling the more diverse vistas from the cluttered surrounds of the San Francisco streets, to the sparseness of Spa Francochamps and the drizzly neon drifting streets of Japan and the Tokyo docklands, Codemasters know how to make a pretty racing game whilst having the time to throw in real time shadows and reflections. In fact, if you have the time, or find yourself parked in pieces under a tree, you will notice the developers have gone to the extent to craft a lighting system that glows through the gaps in trees. These little touches set the bar at a new height for attention to detail in a racing game where you will often find yourself staring at the tarmac and missing the blurred beauty passing you by.
Subsequently it could be argued that the greater care had been implemented in the surroundings and the oh-so smooth menus adopted from DIRT. Whilst the car models are effective and maintain the standards set by other top end racing titles, GRID’s cars never quite reach the purist come swat sheik of FORZA, but then again that is not what the graphics engine was primarily concerned with here. Instead, Codies’ TOCA series was always noted for its damage modeling and GRID is no different. Harnessing the power of the 360, Codemasters driving epic now has the definitive model for driving mishaps. From minute paint scratches borne out of panel rubbing racing to full blown wheels and engine block meets windscreen disasters, GRID knows how to make a replay look especially spectacular for people who enjoy watching car crashes and let’s face it, that’s most of us.
What does differ from real world calamities is the new flashback model GRID has inserted into its racing world. Where traditionally throwing your car into a brick wall is not the prescription for racing success, those displeased with their wheels making tracks 100 feet away from their chassis can now rewind time, up to 10 seconds, and have another shot at not cocking up. Kind of like Timeshift meets PGR, the physics defying feature staves of the need for time consuming race restarting and allows the career to flow without feeling like you have cheated yourself, much.
Pealing away the veneer and the variety, when it comes down to racing GRID provides one of the best balls out experiences without ever feeling like it is camping in the arcade or simulation corners. Instead the racing is chaotic and full blooded but also tempered and balanced. This is aided by an exceptional and schizophrenic AI. One moment placid, the next outright brutal, the AI racers in GRID never feel like they are running on rails but do feel like they are sufferers of a multiple personality disorder. Despite the occasional propensity to catch up suddenly as if to enforce excitement, the computer drivers will block, nudge and spin off in their desperation to beat you and everyone else and it all sums up to grandstand the single player experience.
Said experience is particularly enhanced when the volume is turned up. Where one could be critical of the effort put in to the car modeling, the various audio components help communicate the extreme differences in racing types. You know when you’re in a V8 muscle car in comparison to a whiny single-seater and the general cacophony that surrounds the race events from panel bashings and crowds is well realized and helps thicken up a race game already munching down on its Beefcake 4000.
Bottom-line, GRID more than holds its own amongst the 360’s most stellar racing titles. It doesn’t do this by providing an accurate racing experience or throwing turbo boosts and power ups on every corner. It does it by nailing the thrill of racing and the heart pounding difficulty of beating a thoughtful AI whilst throwing an accessible experience into the mix. And that isn’t GRID’s only selling point. To this day, no other next-gen racer has offered the level of variety in race events that GRID does, it pushes you to know how to win in every event and from extensive playtime I can say that takes an awful long time on Extreme difficulty. But push you will, not just because you want the achievement, but because GRID manages to remain a compelling race experience long after you have opened up your global license. Sure you may have played through all 43 vehicles within a weekend, but GRID doesn’t sell itself as an eye spy book for cars, it’s the variety held within the limited permutations and the consistently accurate handling that wins the day and takes the chequered flag.
Best racer on the 360, meh, it’s a matter of taste but it certainly sits amongst them and it is certainly the best presented.
A standalone racer that offers a little bit of something everybody will like and it will do it with precision and beauty. It maybe light in cars and tracks but it more than makes up for it with captivating and exciting racing.

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