Race Driver: GRID Review (Xbox 360)
It took me quite a bit of time to come to grips with what Grid is. Let me get that out of the way right up front. Codemasters, the developers behind a long line of simulation-style driving games on consoles appeared to be focusing on the arcade genre judging by early press releases and screen shots. A preview video of a horrific crash with realistic-looking damage would be followed up by cars zipping around a street course at unrealistic speeds.
Taken at face value, there isn’t a problem there—Project Gotham Racing has the “arcade street racing formula” down to a science, and it’s an excellent title. The nagging voice of hope that I kept hearing in the back of my head was something more along the lines of “this is Codemasters…they’ll still give us the great simulation engine under the hood, but add some features to bring in the arcade fans”.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
While Grid is the spiritual successor to the Pro Race Driver and TOCA Race Driver games, it bears little resemblance to any of them under the hood. Cars will fly around the circuits at breakneck speeds, careening off of walls and tire stacks with regularity. The pure sense of speed is second to none on the console. New features like the “Flashback” feature (explained later) cater the entire experience to the arcade gamer. Even the handling model, once the hallmark of Codemasters simulation titles, has been completely revamped to be a pure arcade experience. Anybody jumping into Grid expecting to find a great simulation engine will be sorely disappointed. Anybody who can see past the obvious things that it’s not, and see the game for what it is, will have a glorious time. It’s definitely NOT a TOCA game. Somebody over at Codemasters decided that there was more than enough room for a Project Gotham-style racer with genuine race cars instead of mixtures of street and race cars, and I tend to agree.
The first thing you notice when booting up Grid is the elegant menus, much like the last game to use the game’s engine—Dirt. You will be staring at an old Ford Mustang Boss 302 in a garage, complete with fender scrapes and dents, as well as the menu items themselves in full 3D and hovering in midair. The effect is pleasant and not overbearing. The entire interface is very clean, actually. If you’ve played Dirt, you’ll instantly be familiar with it…in fact, you’ll hear the same menu music playing.
Navigating through the options and modes, you wll find everything that a race title released in 2008 should have—HUD configuration options, assist settings, and wheel linearity, dead zone and threshold. The wheel settings in particular should be used in every racing game ever created. I can’t tell you how disappointing it is to play ANY racing game nowadays and be stuck with the default wheel configuration set by the developers, who usually decide to make the dead zone about five degrees wide, creating a sloppy mess at the top of the wheel’s turning radius.
The “meat and potatoes” of Grid is the Grid World mode. Similar in concept to the career mode of past TOCA games, you will get thrown into the cockpit of a Dodge Viper immediately after choosing the mode for the first time, and have to navigate the treacherous chicanes with a full field of AI cars. While that sounds very ho-hum for any veteran of the racing genre, in Grid you notice the difference at the very first corner. The cars all brake and slow to a crawl while navigating the first chicane, and I guarantee that 95% of the players who try Grid for the first time will absolutely slam into the field, ricochet off of a wall, and then go on about their merry way (usually with a cracked windshield if playing from the fantastic cockpit camera).
This presents Grid’s largest hurdle that it took hours for me to overcome, all within the first twenty seconds of actual gameplay—the mindset that it is a make-no-apologies arcade racer, and you can expect to bounce off of walls and other cars with regularity. I first tried to approach it as a simulation…that is, braking early, not getting into other cars, and using realistic braking and throttle tendencies. I got absolutely destroyed on the “Hard” difficulty setting, and even Normal difficulty was tough. You see, Grid prides itself on being “all about the race”, and that pride shows. What they don’t tell you is that they want you to feel slightly out of control, always on the edge of your seat, not sure whether the line you’re taking around that 90-degree corner will result in your career-best lap time or your left front fender having a close encounter of the tire-stack kind. If you try to drive like a cautious, sim-oriented racer, you will have little success in Grid.
This might be the only chance many of us get to drive a Viper.
As soon as I changed my mindset to the “win at all costs, ignore the other cars on the track” arcade racer, the game changed. I pushed it just a little deeper than reality should allow into each corner. I went just a bit faster around corners than a car should be able to travel. I didn’t mind rear-ending the car directly in front of me, or bouncing off of that wall if I knew it was coming…just stay on the hammer and plan for the “bounce angle” and make sure that it doesn’t send me head-on into another barrier. It became more like a Project Gotham Racing race than it did a TOCA race, and that was fine by me. The problem isn’t necessarily how you drive the car for speeit’s actually trying to pass other cars while driving like a “normal” racer. You just won’t do it much. If you try to respect all of the other AI cars on the track while constantly trying to fight from a starting position routinely set at 9th or 10th place out of 12 cars, you won’t make it through half of the field before the two or three laps count down in the first tiers of races. You’ll spend your time appreciating the rear views of some of the car models, and less time taking the checkered flag.
You see, the driving model itself in Grid isn’t bad. It’s just not “sim” by any means. As anybody who’s ever read any of my reviews knows, the biggest thing I look for is a predictable handling model. I don’t necessarily care if the game is “arcade” or “sim”, but I do care that it knows which one it is. Some games manage to straddle the line rather well, and others seem to lose sight of what it was originally intended to be. Grid never loses focus of what it is, and I actually like that about it. The cars don’t really have any weight to them. Some feel slower, or turn a little more sluggish, but bouncing a big Demolition Derby car off of a barrier feels exactly like bouncing a Formula 3 car off of the same barrier. Any car is capable of a jaw-dropping wreck, but none of them feel weighted in real-world physics. That fact alone will turn quite a few potential players off, but if you can handle a less-than-simulation handling model, you’ll have a good amount of fun here. The brakes (with assists off) will lock up if you plant your foot on the floor, leading to the four-wheel-skid if you overcook a corner entry too much. I had to use some sim-style techniques like breathing the pedal to get the best deceleration, and then smooth throttle application in order to avoid wheel spin on corner exit. The limits of both are well outside the realm of believable physics, but it’s a genuine attempt to make the cars more complicated to drive than just a “point and shoot” affair. You’ll have to really think about what you’re doing on the pedals or triggers with the assists off, but it’s still far from a simulation…just a very fun handling model.
What I personally didn’t find so fun is the Drift sections. In Japan, you’ll run across more of the “tuner culture” races that you find in the streets…drift races, canyon races that are 1-on-1 showdowns comprised of two legs—one down, one up, and street races through what would appear to be a harbor, complete with loading trucks, stacks of crates, and shipping containers. It’s very confined, very tight, and not particularly fun. If you think the game feels frantic on the “normal” street courses, wait until you get a load of the docks, especially from the cockpit camera. You’ll feel like you’re flying a jet fighter through a high school gymnasium. The drift events just felt so out of place, as you get more points for drifting faster and closer to the cones at the apex of each corner than your opponent.
Again, when I forget that I’m playing a Codemasters title and not Need for Speed, it’s easier to deal with, but we already have titles that handle the drifting and tuner culture…do we need one little section of a pure “racing” game to try and take it on as well? Personally, I don’t think so, but that’s just my opinion. The entire focus on the drift and canyon runs felt completely disjointed from the rest of the game. The European region has the traditional racing circuits, while the American region houses the PGR-like street courses. So if you love drifting and tuners, you might be the complete opposite from me—you may love Japan but loathe Europe, and tolerate the American races. That’s why they make these games, I guess—because not everyone has my taste, and sometimes I have to take a step back and remember that I’m not the center of the universe to see it.
If you can get a grip (pun intended) on the driving model and region styles in Grid and progress through the Grid World mode, you’ll be able to acquire licenses and earn reputation by racing as a driver-for-hire in the three included regions: America, Europe, and Japan. Constantly signing on as a driver for teams in the American races will do nothing for your exposure and reputation in the other regions. After you’ve acquired enough cash, you will have the opportunity to start your own team, complete with a team name (listed at the results screen of each race), a very basic “branding” system (choose the overall pattern and base, primary, and secondary color selections), and sponsors. Your sponsors will sign with your team based on your performance in a given region. It’s a very basic system, but it works well—race in locale “A”, get “X” amount of reputation every race, and then get sponsors from table “A”.
As you start mixing and matching sponsors, you’ll discover another trend…some will give you cash for just finishing a race, while others will only give you money if you win, or place 3rd or better, etc. Some will even offer you cash for placing above a certain position without damage, which is almost a ridiculous thought to me. Considering the fact that you start from the rear of the field every time, that means that you had better blast through the field and stay there in a hurry if your sponsorship group is made up primarily of “win or go home” companies, and trying to do it without touching any other cars or barriers would be a superhuman feat, especially at the higher difficulties. As you acquire more reputation and more money, you can even hire a second driver that will also win prize money (for a percentage off the top) for your team.
The tracks are pretty at first, but then lose their originality.
One thing that some people may have a complaint about, and it would have some merit, would be the lack of cars and tracks in the game. There are a reported 45 vehicles in the game, and 15 cities, but you’ll find that you spend large portions of your Grid World career racing variations of the same tracks (or different cities that look eerily familiar), and it feels slightly repetitive as you progress. The upside to that is that you already know some tracks as you move to the much faster GT1 cars and beyond…you won’t spend so much time trying to figure out a track on the fly since there’s no qualification or practice session option. If you already know the track and just have to get a handle on the car, it makes it a bit simpler. Maybe it’s a design decision by Codemasters, although it is a curious one.
I couldn’t help but get a feeling of déjà vu from time to time, since you might be driving the same exact car through three different series, and it wil feel exactly the same everywhere, because there are no setup options whatsoever. You can’t adjust sway bars, shocks, springs…anything. If you’re a gearhead who loves to tinker with his ride, you’ll be sorely disappointed. For me personally, I prefer fixed setup racing (especially online) for the driver vs. driver aspect and less about the mechanic vs. mechanic aspect, so it fit me perfectly. For the driver who wants to spend hours on a track testing whether his bump and rebound adjustment gave him that last half a second…Grid isn’t for you. Especially since you won’t be practicing before a Grid World race. You’d have to jump out to the main menu, then go to a Quick Race and treat that as your practice.
If the Grid World mode doesn’t get you excited, you can always hop online for some racing against other humans, but the mode is practically an afterthought. The last game to use the same engine, Dirt, had multiplayer that felt strangely empty, as well. In Dirt, you had lobbies but no way to chat with each other or “live” racing. Granted, it was a rally game, and you don’t typically race against other cars directly, but the whole experience just seemed rushed and unfinished. I guess I should be thankful for having multiplayer AT ALL in Grid, but it is very basic. You hop into a lobby, and the host can set the track and car, and then everybody gets seeded and off you go. The racing has been entirely lag free in my experience, but you don’t have qualifying options, or even pit stops or tire wear. The fact that you can race a simulated 24 Hours of Le Mans without having to pit once, or change a tire, is insane. At that point, you wonder why Codemasters did some of the things that they did. Qualifying would have helped out the offline modes as well, not forcing you to barrel through the field like Wile E. Coyote with an ACME rocket strapped to your back. The online is enjoyable, though, if not a little “empty”. I’m not talking population, but when you play, you are always left with a feeling that they could have done so much more, if given another few months.
GRID provides a nice arcade challenge for racing fans.
Setting the game to “Pro” mode will not allow race restarts or the Flashback feature to be utilized at all. It wasn’t until I had really come to grips with the fact that the game would never feel realistic, no matter how much I wanted it to, that I finally grasped the concept of Grid. With the game set to Hard difficulty, you’ll use that Flashback feature no matter how much you think you won’t (providing you don’t have it on Pro). With the cars zipping around at breakneck speed, always on the edge of control, and cars slamming into you and each other, you’re guaranteed to have an underwear-soiling moment from time to time. I’ll admit that I have been thankful for that Flashback feature a few times when I was on the last race of a multi-race event and barely hanging on to the points lead. I became a convert to Grid’s formula, and haven’t regretted it since. Especially since it’s so nice to look at.
Visually, it’s gorgeous, but there are some design decisions that won’t please everybody. Taken by themselves, the car models are fantastic, and the environments look just as good. The entire game has this “post apocalyptic” filter over it, though…like you’re racing through the haze of a nuclear fallout zone. It may not make sense, but looking at videos will help. It’s like you have this dingy, slightly-yellow look to everything, and I know a few friends who weren’t too happy with it. Just be warned that it could be annoying, but it never reached that level with me. The scenery just flies by too quickly for me to really focus on it.
The cockpit camera seems to be the biggest movement in racing games nowadays, and I couldn’t be happier. Each game seems to be implementing their own version of the cockpit camera, and each one makes subtle improvements to the formula. In Grid, it’s an almost intangible and subtle difference that is very hard to explain. Often, when racing in the cockpit camera, one can almost get a claustrophobic feeling, like you’re racing through a track with horse blinders on. You’re very limited in what you can see, making navigating corners incredibly difficult. I’m happy to say that Grid doesn’t have that problem. The view doesn’t necessarily pan, but the car is wide enough on a widescreen TV that you can see out of the side windows and really have that peripheral vision that you have in a real car. Of course it’s not quite like the real thing, as no flat TV screen could be, but I found I was actually faster with the cockpit camera than an external camera, which was surprising. It was just more comfortable, and I didn’t have the problem of clipping those 90-degree corner entries like I do with so many other cockpit cameras that make it tough to judge corner entry and position.
GRID's cockpit cam is one of the better ones you will see.
Aurally, it is good, but falls just a tad flat. The menu music is the exact same, pleasantly-composed selection from Dirt, so you know what you’re getting there. Many cars,however, are missing the “throaty” growl that the motors should have. Some of the engines sound a bit “electronic” at higher RPM’s, but it’s nothing that pulled me out of the immersion of a race…very little could. Most of the sounds are well done, like the “clunk” of a transmission slamming through gears, or plowing into a barrier and the glass shattering sounds that follow. What really started to wear on me was hearing my crew chief in my ear every thirty seconds, telling me that I needed to beware of a crash up ahead—several seconds after I passed it.
The spoken radio lines aren’t varied enough to be fresh, so you’ll hear the same expressions so many times by the end of your Grid World tour that you’ll want to turn them off. A nice touch would be that they at least say your name or nickname, though. When you initially create your profile, if your name is in the list for male or female names, they will actually tell you your name when speaking to you during a race. For most of us, though (I didn’t know “Terry” wasn’t that common!), you’ll have to go to the Nicknames listing, and they have everything from Ace,Bossman, and Ghost to some more comical ones. It’s a nice touch, but the communication lines would have to be more varied to actually get some enjoyment out of it. I don’t need to hear that “somebody just spun out….it looks like it’s….Douglas Thirsten” ever again. The sound is hit or miss, but it’s never bad enough to really ruin your experience.
In the end, Grid is true to itself. It doesn’t try to pretend to be a simulation (any viewing of the commercials could tell you that, with cars flipping and rolling and snapping by at 200 miles per hour), and it sticks to it’s tagline “It’s all about the race” with admirable dedication. You won’t find fancy modes or claims about it being the most realistic game ever. What you’ll find are a stable of fast race cars, a bunch of street courses, traditional circuits, and canyon/drift venues. The game looks great, even with the filter that appears to be over the whole thing, and you will get an incredibly hectic, predictable handling model. After a few races, you won’t be fighting with the controls, but only with the other cars.
The very nature of the game means that you’ll utter a few choice four-letter words after a rival of yours punts you into a tire stack and ends your race, but the Flashback feature will allow you to rewind it and “hit him back first”, so to speak. Whether that sounds like your cup of tea or not, you’d be wise to at least give it a shot with an open mind. I have seen reports of “stuttering” and freezing on various boards and internet sites, however, so that’s always a risk. Codemasters is supposed to be issuing a patch for the affected gamers soon (and it will probably be a non-issue within weeks of this writing), but it’s worth mentioning. Any game that freezes your console is a gamble, although I didn’t have that problem once in all of the hours I spent playing it.
Codemasters has taken some very gutsy steps with Grid, and it seems to be a very polarizing title. Either you love it, or you hate it. Personally, I love it, but I can’t recommend it to just anybody. If you love games like Wipeout, then you’ll probably love Grid. If you love simulation games and care whether or not the body roll of a Ford Mustang GT is accurate to the real-world data, then you definitely won’t. To put it more simply, if you’re a Forza fan who wants a Forza-style game, keep looking. If you’re a Project Gotham Racing fan who wants a similar title, it’s right here.
The question is whether or not there is room in a gamer’s library for PGR and Grid. I think that the modes are varied enough in each, and they feel different enough, that there is. Which one’s better is purely a matter of personal taste, but if you like arcade racing and can get past the fact that Grid is definitely not TOCA Race Driver 4 or anything of the sort, you’ll really have a good time with this one. It’s limitations are with its sound presentation and the online modes, so if you’re primarily an online racer, you may want to stick with the tried-and-true PGR4. If you just want to “sit down, strap in, shut up, and hang on," then Grid is for you.