Race Driver: GRID
It's funny how sometimes it seems like a game has been designed just for you, every feature seemingly tailored to fit with exactly what you want from a game of its type. Race Driver: GRID is just such a game. I have to admit that while I can appreciate the technical marvels that are games like Gran Turismo and Forza, they do tend to leave me a little cold. Their continual struggle to achieve ever increasing levels of realism and overwhelming sense seriousness renders them ever more unexciting in my eyes. While expensive cars are nice to look at, it's the racing I'm interested in, not tweaking a million settings or getting hot and bothered about how accurate the engine sound is.
Race Driver: GRID is an evolution of the existing Race Driver series, a series that tried to put a character and story behind the racing with varying degrees of success. In GRID World, the central single player experience in GRID, you play a fresh-faced rookie driver trying to make a name for themselves, initially by taking driving assignments with other teams for cash before setting up your own team and trying to drive them to glory over the game's many tournaments.
Interestingly the first innovation you notice when you start things up is the option to decide how the game and its characters address you, not via replacing your name in the text as other games have done but by proper spoken dialogue. If you've got a relatively common name, Paul for example, you should find it in the decently sized list supplied, if not then there's a nice variety of nicknames available to pick from. It's a refreshing change to hear your real name in the mid race radio chatter and it makes you wonder why more games don't do this considering the amount of disk space available these days.
That novelty aside there's not a huge amount that's new about the structure of GRID World. You pick from the selection of available rides to start with, each with different prize money and objectives for bonuses. After you've earned enough money (it doesn't take long) you're able to start up your own team. Once you've picked a name you're able to design the paint job that will be applied to any car you buy, it's not exactly on a par with Forza 2 but its nice enough. As you race you'll be offered sponsorship deals which you can assign to various advertising slots on your car. Each of these come with race objectives and cash rewards for reaching them so there's some juggling to be done at times to maximise your earnings.
With your team all sorted you can get started with the real meat of the game, the tournaments themselves. These are split across three locations, the USA, Europe and Japan, and cover a huge variety of events from American muscle cars to good old European Touring Cars, and tuned-up Japanese sports cars. There's even room for more niche entries to the roster like open wheeled Formula 1000, drift battles, destruction derbies and Pro Touge (two cars racing down a steep A to B super twisty track with no contact allowed). Each race requires a certain style of car and until you can afford one you'll have to make do with events your current car roster qualifies for. This is never a real problem through as money does flow in fairly quickly meaning progress never feels stunted by a need for repetition.
In a novel yet largely superficial move it's possible to eschew the brand new wheels offered to you when you come to purchase a car and try buying one of the same spec via the in-game version of eBay Motors. Product placement aside, the downside is the few quid you save is supposedly offset by having purchased a car with high mileage and a few crashes to its name although to be honest quite how much difference this really makes is open to debate.
While you start off with a basic license you can earn a further two as your reputation levels increases across the game's three regions. These open up new tiers of tournaments to compete in and with them more cars to buy. The game is split up into seasons with each one culminating in the showpiece Le Mans 24 hour race. It may only last minutes in reality but it's still far longer than the other races and with a full day/night cycle in place for effect it can prove to be a surprisingly tough challenge.
Fans of the huge selection of cars available to race in other triple-A titles may find the mere forty or so on show in GRID a little disappointing, but, to be honest, you should barely notice. One of the reasons for that is how the game places the focus on the driving experience rather than the cars themselves. In gameplay terms the action hogs a pleasing middle ground between the arcade friendly and the hyper realistic ends of the spectrum, but more importantly it nails the fun factor to the wall in glorious style. Each car feels weighty and responsive in a way that seems perfectly natural when you get behind the wheel. Even though the rational part of the brain knows it's probably not anywhere near as realistic as other more serious racing games the rest of the brain is far too busy having fun to worry about such things.
By way of proof that making racing fun is more important to Codemasters than making it one hundred percent accurate the game answers the prayers of many a gamer over the years by including what it calls Flashback. Putting it simply this snazzy new feature allows you to hit rewind at any point in a race then jump back into the action at any point in the last few seconds. Cheating? Possibly. But, a racing game that understands we sometimes just want another bash at that last corner rather than having to restart the whole race is a game with its heart in the right place. If you want to be all righteous about it then you're free not to use it, in fact you only get a limited number per race and on the harder difficulty the option is taken away completely anyway so it's not quite a flashback free for all.
As tempting as Flashback may be when you've had a spectacular crash there's something to be said for not hitting rewind too quickly and enjoying the carnage. The damage model on all the cars in GRID is something special, they crumble and buckle with gut wrenching effect leaving persistent debris scattered over the track. In fact the whole graphical shebang is pretty stunning, it's perhaps not up there with Gran Turismo 5 Prologue for picture postcard beauty but it's still one of the best looking racing games around. Even the end of race replays that we all often skip through in other games become worth watching as the excitement of the racing is transferred perfectly courtesy of some dramatic camera work that really gives the graphics engine a chance to show off.
Outside of GRID World you'll find your expected array of single race options, including the chance to do a real-time Le Mans 24 hour race if you've got the time, patience and caffeine supply. Then of course there's the multiplayer side of things. No split-screen is a bit of a disappointment but the online action makes up for it with support for up to twelve players including full damage modelling and next to no lag that I could detect.
It's genuinely tough to find bits of GRID to moan about. If I was being picky I'd moan that some of the in race radio chatter can be a little inaccurate at times (being warned of a crash in front of you that's not there can be annoying) and does gets a tad repetitive after a while. It'd also have been nice to be able to zoom the in-race mini map out a little at times as corners seem to come on you a bit fast at times, especially when you're learning the tracks, but now I'm really scraping the flaw-hunting barrel.
How you like your racing games is a personal thing, for me the delicate balance between pedal to the metal racing and slightly dull car porn is something that GRID gets spot on. However, I imagine for others it'll be that exact lack of hardcore petrol head material which may make them think twice. Which side of that line you fall is up to you, but if you're more than happy being spoon fed a succession of sexy cars with minimal choice over what to drive when and absolutely no setup options to tweak then GRID gets everything spot on. However, once you're behind the wheel both parties should be more than satisfied because there's no doubting that's where GRID excels which makes it, for my money, the most enjoyable racing game of the year so far and well worth the pennies.