Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (previewed)
It's been half a decade since Race Driver: GRID released, and in that time we've seen multiple instalments of racing franchises such as Forza, Need For Speed, and Codemasters' own DiRT series. In that time, much of what the original GRID has stood for has seemingly become rather unfashionable. "Narratives in racing games?!" critics and consumers scoff alike. "Whoever heard of such a thing?" You only have to look at the almost aggressively apathetic reaction to The Run to see that we've potentially moved on.
Of course, it could just be argued that we simply don't appreciate mediocre games.
"I think that's the key," says senior game designer Lee Roberts. "We've experimented with storytelling in racing games before in the Race Driver games, we know what we're about, and we know what it is that we want to be doing. Racing games will always be about competitive multiplayer and beating your mates, but we want to appeal to gamers who like to play offline too and give them something to connect with. So we have this story that puts you at the forefront of this new racing movement -- WSR -- and you'll meet characters and other racers along the way who'll become rivals, so we can try and replicate some of the feeling you get when playing online against someone you really want to beat."
In the game's story mode, you start off with a prologue event that throws you straight into a street race, whereupon you discover that cars in GRID 2 are a bit like pinballs, and that collisions will see you bouncing around and into uncontrollable spins with alarming ease. It's something of a baptism of fire for a chap who's been glued to Forza Horizon and NFS: Most Wanted for the past six months.
GRID 2 is a game that certainly leans more towards the "Arcade" end of the racing spectrum as opposed to the "Simulation" end. There are no real options for tweaking and tuning all of the little variable you might find under the hoods of Forza and GT, for example. "We have this saying on the team: 'It's all about the racing'," says Roberts. "And that means that it's all about achieving an emotional connection between you as a player, your car, and the track. It's not about simulation physics, the TrueFeel system has been designed to capture the essence and personality of each car, all the while making racing an incredibly fun, exhilarating experience."
What this means in practice is that all of the cars have a tendency towards exaggeration. GRID 2 is very drift-heavy, though there's far more variation within that slippery sub-genre than a game such as Burnout presents. The vehicles we tested out tended heavily towards large amounts of oversteer, and the muscle cars in the game are very much like stallions that require player practice to be broken. It might be that I simply hadn't played a true drift-heavy game in some time, but I found that the brakes were often a little over-sensitive, and it was often tricky to pull out of a drift in time.
Thankfully, as our multiplayer hands-on would demonstrate later on during the event, I wasn't the only one.
From the street race, you're led to a Track Day at the Indianapolis Infield Circuit where your race engineer instructs you in the art of racing, and the importance of kicking that back-end out. You do one lap and you're given the option to quit out, but we carried on, attempting to get a better handle on what makes the game tick on the track. It's difficult to do that, of course, without opposition, and truth be told, that's where the appeal of GRID 2 comes from. It's not a perfectly balanced ode to petrolhead nirvana like Forza, nor is it a balls-out, hyper-aggressive blur like Criterion's output. Handling is a fairly lightweight affair that's all about fine margins, tactical positioning, managing your drift, and staying out of trouble.
The rewind feature helps you out when you get into trouble in the singleplayer mode, and you will get into a little bit of trouble. The first race, having been spotted by Patrick Callahan -- the premier of World Series Racing -- mucking about at the test track, is a New Union Club Race along a winding Californian coastal road. On the Normal difficulty setting, it's best to listen to your race engineer, who warble tips and instructions at you, highlighting when the best opportunity to overtake someone is. You can ignore him of course, turn off all of the driving assists and play the game like drunk Vin Diesel, but you're more likely to ruin your car that way, get caught in a tangle and have to rewind. Worse yet, if you ratchet the difficulty up and turn on the damage modelling, clean racing is the only way you're going to drag yourself ahead of the pack. Small margins and all that. Listen to the disembodied voice in your ear; he gives good advice for the most part.
A later race sees us relocate to Japan, where we're given the task of competing in a Drift competition. On a winding Okutama Mizu Mountain Pass, points are awarded based on the duration and speed of your slide, triggered by sliding past drift markers. Unencumbered by fellow traffic, it's easier to take advantage of the road's curves and, before the race is out, I've gotten the hang of chaining together some smooth wiggles to take a respectable second place.
The multiplayer aspects of the game are enormously frenetic but a lot of fun. Worthy of special note must be the Live Races. Here the game takes a bunch of track pieces as then streams them together in a constantly changing order in real-time to present a race that's constantly unpredictable.
"It's not quite completely random," Roberts admits. "It's not as if it's drawing a completely new track in real-time, but we have all of these pieces for each of the locales, and what Live Route does is basically picks random pieces and chains them together. Obviously, once you've played a certain location several times, you'll be able to anticipate the track to a certain degree a second or two in advance, but there's no certainty in planning your best route. You have to be really adaptable."
It's not so much the random placements of bits of road that throws us, but rather the realisation that there's no longer a map display so it's almost impossible to determine where your fellow racers are in relation to your vehicle unless you can see them, making shunts from the rear a serious annoyance. In fact, the human element can derail a race entirely, with headstrong drivers who fail to control their cars often spinning out , crashing, and causing a pile up that can wreck a perfect run. "There's still a spot of balancing to be done," Roberts says. "We've been trying to implement a system whereby if you're within a certain vicinity of a crash, you'll just pass straight through the danger zone if it's not your fault, and we've been working on ways to penalise serial offenders."
A checkpoint race around an urban street track proved to be just as fast and furious -- hit checkpoints to extend your time, and see how far you can get your car -- but here the crashes were ruining the experience so much that we were all forced to change cars. So we left the slide-friendly supercars in the garage, and made do with pimped-out hatchbacks.
This all points towards a game that demands some respect from the player wand will require a certain amount of practice before you can think about ragging a Pagani Zonda around the Nurburgring. But we're ok with that. We've had five years of racing games pandering to an all-encompassing audience, targeting newcomers and veterans alike. That's not to say any of those games have been bad; on the contrary, many of them have been excellent. But is this post-Dark Souls world of ours, there's something to be said for a game that grabs you by the balls and simply forces you to be better, whilst having an absolute blast. GRID 2 might end up being one off those games...
...unless the lack of a cockpit cam is a dealbreaker.