If you have even the slightest interest in driving virtual vehicles, you have plenty of options. For strict simulation buffs, there's GTR; fans of arcade racers can look forward to Burnout Paradise; and off-road fans have DiRT.
The team behind the latter, Codemasters Racing Studio, thought there was room in the already crowded videogame racing market for yet another entry, a game that deftly straddles the line between arcade racer and hardcore simulation all wrapped up in a glitzy high-gloss package.
So they dusted off the DiRT's groundbreaking engine, renamed it Ego and used it as the framework for an entirely new project: Grid, an unabashedly racing-focused game that takes the skeleton of Codemasters' old TOCA/Pro Race Driver series, slips it into a high-tech skin and imbues it with a modern soul.
The result is an intense, highly focused experience that offers nearly everything a road racing game should – speed, drama, precision, competition, and a sense of hard-won progression. And it does it all with impeccable style.
From the opening montage, Grid sets a slick cinematic tone, and it's a theme that carries over strongly into the game itself. In addition to the standard driving views – cockpit, hood, bumper and two third-person – Grid has a full replay system that lets you pause, rewind, fast-forward and change views of your performance. Its best component is a cinematic replay camera that gives you an incomparable sense of the speed, sound and action on the racetrack.
Whether you smoke the competition in a flawless GT1 race or crash magnificently in the streets of Shibuya, Grid's replay cam captures it all with intimacy and flair. If you've never been one to view replays of your races in videogames, Grid's cam may just convert you. Although you can review your race as many times as you like immediately after it's over, it's gone forever once you exit the race. With such a great tool at my disposal, I found it disappointing that I could not save my races to my hard drive – not because I wanted to show off my driving skills, but rather because some of my wipeouts were so spectacular that I wanted to share them.
Codemasters paid close attention to the camera in Grid, and not just in replay. The in-game cam works consistently well, whether you're zooming along a straightaway with a cockpit view or drifting around a hairpin in third-person. Even in the menus, Grid is never quite static. You'll always see movement in the background, and titles shift slightly on-screen. In Grid, as in DiRT, choosing an option feels like you're setting something in motion rather than simply clicking a button.
Forward momentum is what Grid is all about. Once you create your character and give him or her a name and country of origin, the poor sap gets dumped directly on the track for a virgin race. There's no tutorial. You don't flip through a menu of cars and tracks. It's into a Dodge Viper and up to 100 mph. Finish that race and you're officially a freelance driver, hiring yourself out to the highest bidder in an effort to raise €60,000 toward a car of your own.
A few races later, you have the resources to create your own team, name it, brand it and choose your official colors and design, which will be applied to every car you acquire throughout the game. If you've grown accustomed to the detailed livery creation system in Forza 2, you'll be underwhelmed by the design customization options in Grid. For me, Grid includes just enough visual tweaking. To keep the races somewhat realistic looking, Codemasters had to limit the looks of the cars. You'll probably never see a Master Chief-themed car at Le Mans, and you won't see it in Grid.
What Grid lacks in visual customization it makes up for in audio personalization. After you enter your full name, the game asks you to choose a first name from a preset list. If you're lucky enough to have common name, pick your support staff will call you by that name throughout the game, praising you when you best the competition and expressing their disapproval when you slam your million-dollar prototype car into a guardrail.
If your parents hated you and gave you an odd name like, say, Talmadge, you're still in luck because Grid includes a list of nicknames you can choose instead. Want your crew to call you "Dumptruck"? How about "Dude"? I went with the former for a few rounds, and it was funny every time I heard it.
Pre-recorded dialogue is a big part of the Grid experience. Your business manager, spotter and teammate (who you'll hire later in the game) are constantly chattering at you, which at first makes for an immersive experience that gives the illusion of a real working race team. If there's an accident on the track, your spotter will alert you over the radio, saying something like, "Whoa, someone spun out up ahead. I think it's Ross Meadows."
I was able to recount that line from memory because I heard it hundreds of times. The problem with pre-recorded software speech is that it can get stale pretty quickly with prolonged exposure. A real race spotter might say it just a tad bit different every time, but in Grid, your computerized team members are limited to a few lines of canned conversation, and it begins to grate. And it's not just in-race. Back in the garage, your business manager never tires of telling you (in the same language each time) about the benefits of racing for other teams to make more money, regardless of your preferences. As you spend more time with the game, the dialogue flips from being a cool feature to a bit of an annoyance.
It would be more tolerable if your spotter was spot-on every time. Unfortunately, I found his track record to be spotty at best. He'd frequently call crashes ahead of me that never materialized or warn me late of spin-outs that already passed. That's not to say he was wrong every time – just inconsistent. Overall, the voices and audio calls in the game are a plus that add to the experience. But they're certainly not perfect, and they edge toward distraction as the game progresses.
But Grid's core racing experience makes up for its shortcomings. There are three racing regions in Grid – USA, Europe and Japan – and they're all open to you from the second you earn your racing license. As the seasons tick by and you earn more reputation points, higher tiers of competition open up within each area. The more you race and the better you perform in each region, the sooner you'll unlock the next tier there. Winning events nets you trophies, cash payouts and brand-name sponsorship opportunities.
Grid is a survey of modern racing styles and manages to include something for almost everyone. There are track races, mountain road runs, street competitions, endurance races and more. All are a blast to race and have unique thrills, drawbacks and specialties.
Want to go extremely fast for extended periods of time? Run a Le Mans 24-hour race, in which each hour is represented by a minute. Day will turn to night and back again as you rush to beat the other cars in your class to the finish line. If you're more into drifting, there are downhill, freestyle and grand prix events to tackle. Touge, tuner, touring, open wheel are all here, too, and each are specifically designed to highlight the special attributes of each class of car in Grid.
In its marketing push for Grid, Codemasters has been using the tagline "It's all about the race," a clever attempt to deflect inevitable criticism. Namely that, compared to some of its competitors, Grid's garage is a bit on the small side. There are 45 cars in Grid. And although they're all top-of-the-line racing powerhouses, their number feels limited at times. Some events have only one car choice, which can be a real downer when your only option is a Chevy Lacetti. You also can't tune your cars in the slightest, so if you crave mode understeer from your Honda NSX-R, you'll have to switch to a Nissan Skyline GT-R Z-Tune instead.
I did find myself wishing there were more cars in Grid, but I don't have many complaints (Lacetti aside) about the vehicles Codemasters chose to include. From the classic but staid BMW 320 SI to the blistering and exotic Audi R10 TDi, Grid features some of racing's modern icons. You can even get behind the wheel of the Mazda 787B, whose rotary engine earned it both fame and infamy in the 1991 Le Mans. Each car class and individual vehicle in Grid handles differently, and driving in general takes some getting used to. The learning curve is steep but brief, which means you'll crash a lot for your first couple of races and then even out soon after. That is, until you switch to open wheel cars, which will start the curve o' learnin' all over again.
But failing a race in Grid can be almost as much fun as winning thanks to an excellent damage system that's capable of crumpling your car into a rolling mass of bustedness. Using the damage modeling developed for DiRT, Codemasters has created the most dramatic racing crash effects we've ever seen in a videogame. Bumpers fall off when tapped too hard, Le Mans prototypes lose their wings and stock cars lose their doors after spectacular rolls.
Take a car into a Jersey barrier at 200 mph. and you'll be treated to a slow-mo cinematic camera effect that captures the impact and makes you feel the crunch in your gut. If you survive a collision but lose a fender, your detritus will remain on the road to harass other drivers until the end of the race. If you're lucky, your car will still function properly, but tough hits will damage your wheels, steering, engine and suspension, affecting your car's handling and performance.
To be clear, Grid is not a racing simulation. Although cars look and often feel realistic, the crashes are over-the top and handling tends more toward the arcade end of the spectrum. Take what TOCA used to be and blend it with DiRT's accessibility and you'll have a good idea of what Grid is trying to accomplish. Depending on the track and car you're racing, you'll glance off walls that would total your ride in a sim.
Car pulling to the left after a particularly nasty crash? If you're playing the game in standard mode, you can use Grid's Flashback function, an instant-replay system that allows you to pause the race, rewind for a brief period and resume the action from that point. It's effectively a time machine that lets you erase your mistakes a limited number of times each race, depending on your difficulty level. But I also found it to be a learning tool that taught me how to take dangerous turns. Flub a curve, rewind using a Flashback, take it again and emerge all the wiser.
For those concerned about the Flashback tool breaking the integrity of the game, have no fear. Racing in Pro mode eliminates the Flashback option entirely, and it's the only way to upload lap times to the online leaderboards. So if you want to set records using Flashbacks, you'll be doing so in a vacuum. Get serious in Pro mode, and you'll be glad you did once you dip your toe into the multiplayer. With 12 cars online, full damage optional and (from what we've played) smooth no-lag races, things get very intense very quickly online.
All regions are open online, and there are several events – including drift, Le Mans, and demolition derby – available to race. There's a full lobby system with matchmaking built in, and hosts can choose to turn both damage and catch-up on and off. The networking code is also split between all the racers in the game but will be distributed on the fly if lag rears its ugly head.
Of the three versions of Grid we tested, the PC looked the best. Codemasters gives PC gamers a considerable amount of control over the game's performance with several customization menus. From the level of grass detail to depth of crowd rendering, you can endlessly tweak Grid to your liking on the PC. Grid also fully supports force-feedback racing wheels and allows plenty of customization there as well.
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