Five years in the pit lane
The racing genre is divided between arcade and simulation fans. While other genres have fairly interchangeable skill sets, what works in an arcade racer will send you straight to the hospital in a racing sim; the no holds barred action of Need for Speed caters to the former, while Gran Turismo appeals to the latter. But every now and then a game arrives that blends together the thrill of arcade racing with the down-to-earth realism of simulation, tying the genre together. Codemasters’ classic 2008 title Race Driver: GRID was one such release.
GRID is considered by many to be the perfect marriage of arcade and simulation, offering a gateway to more realistic driving for novices, and providing a fun alternative for veterans, while introducing a greater audience to disciplines of racing such as Touring Cars and the Le Mans series for the very first time. Despite it being five years old, it’s still a beloved title, putting its sequel GRID 2 under plenty of pressure. But can Codemasters make lightning strike twice, or are the arcade and simulation genres just too dissimilar to find a middle ground?
Dive straight into a race and it’s instantly apparent that this isn’t Race Driver: GRID, and that over the past five years, Codemasters may well have forgotten what made the first game so iconic. While GRID blended arcade thrills with simulation handling, its sequel takes a wholly arcade approach – this is a racing game where drifting around a corner is far quicker than braking and following a racing line.
Cars now handle with far more flair than they would in real life, with everything from the Dodge Challenger to a McLaren supercar favouring oversteer, forcing you to drift around absolutely every corner, while the physics system is prone to unrealistic results, with cars bouncing violently off one another with little contact. But while this is sure to irk franchise fans, there's no denying that it can be an extremely fun and forgiving style of racing.
Codemasters’ trademark flashback system and damage model make a return, offering the most robust engine currently available in racing games. Making contact leaves devastating results, with vehicles often rearranged into little more than a chassis with a roof. But while the physical damage excels, save for a few permanently safe areas such as headlights, the mechanical damage is far too forgiving; while DiRT 3 penalised you for reckless driving, GRID 2 eschews many meaningful failures, even after hitting a wall at over 100MPH.
Around this model, GRID 2 offers two very distinct modes: an all-new career option and the ability to take the race online. It’s a smart way of differentiating offline and online play, but the separation does prevent progress transfer between the modes and makes menu navigation more difficult than it perhaps needs to be.
The career mode itself, which also includes standalone races buried within its menus, sees you joining forces with entrepreneur Patrick Callahan to help form the ‘World Series Racing’. His grand plan is to unify all racing disciplines under one brand, and to do that, he sends you around the world to take on various clubs under their different disciplines, be it racing, overtake challenges, or drift events. Beating these clubs results in you adding an arbitrary number of fans to a meaningless tally, which at random points allows you to compete in World Series Racing events, while your garage is furnished with new cars when the game deems that you're ready, with no option to upgrade or tweak the stats.
End of season reviews presented as a mock ESPN SportsCenter broadcast help add an air of legitimacy to proceedings, but ultimately this is a nonsensical career mode, and simply an elaborate way to funnel you through various disciplines and vehicle types around the globe. Given how attractive and robust GRID’s career was, it's disappointing to see it stripped down this way, and with no real-life events such as Le Mans, it ends up becoming little more than a tour of the game’s various modes and tracks.
And that’s an area where GRID 2 really lets itself down. Aside from frankly baffling omissions such as Time Trials and lap time leaderboards, the track selection is barely noteworthy, with most of the environments set on the streets of a handful of cities around the world. While the first game had a balance of permanent tracks and fictional routes around real cities, the variety here falls squarely into the latter; while these are allegedly authentic to the area that they represent, in the end they all look very similar, and it can be hard to discern whether you’re racing in Paris, Barcelona, or Chicago. The lack of tracks is particularly strange when you consider Codemasters’ other licenses and the wealth of routes available to them.
While each track has a handful of variations, the big addition to the roster is a new LiveRoutes system. Set in one of GRID 2’s many city tracks, this system dynamically changes the road layout as you race, taking you around random corners from the many different routes already available. What this amounts to is a race where you pass segments from each route in random succession, creating a largely frustrating experience. Think that there’s a left turn ahead? Wrong, it’s a right, and you’ve just wrecked your car. Taking unmemorable tracks and mixing up the corners was always going to be a recipe for disaster, and that’s exactly what it becomes.
Despite the single player experience being largely nonsensical, the AI is somewhat engaging and aware. But for a real racing experience, the natural place to go is online, and this is where things begin to fall apart for GRID 2. It should be said that the game's online mode is a smartly conceived idea, but for anyone who has played multiplayer racing games, the problem is obvious – the title's loose and drift-heavy handling system means that you really have to throw the car into every turn at full throttle. Take twelve players, put them all in big cars on a narrow city track, and send them to turn one. The result is absolute carnage.
And even after turn one, the problems continue, with intentional collisions going unpenalised by the game, making the quickest way to victory simply taking out your opposition. If you can find eleven like-minded racers, then online really is the best way to experience GRID 2’s many disciplines in an extremely competitive environment, but it takes just a handful of crashes to strip a lot of the fun out of the mode, ultimately leaving the winner as the person who kept their car intact the longest.
Tolerate and you'll earn credits, which can in turn be used to buy better cars in each tier. These vehicles can then have a variety of upgrades applied to them to improve their performance, adding a much needed level of customisation to the online competition. The upgrade system also helps differentiate the cars in each tier, which all too often drive alike in the career mode, and really adds some character to the large variety on offer.
One area where GRID 2 really excels, though, is in the presentation, and like DiRT 3 before it, Codemasters proves that it knows how to make a racing game shine. Sunlight reflects beautifully off the Californian coastline, while the smoky streets of Chicago are constantly alive. The stunning Cote d’Azur tracks offer beautiful views throughout, and little touches like planes flying overhead and traffic lights changing colour add to the realism on offer. The car models also look wonderful, and with an impressive audio package bundled in, this is one of the best presented racing games to date. The lack of weather effects are a shame, however, especially as the game looks stunning at night, and the permanent dust filter on the camera adds nothing to the experience.
For many, Race Driver: GRID redefined the racing genre, and while GRID 2 hits many of the same beats as its predecessor, it never feels like it's trying to make the same impact. Instead, this is a fairly conservative effort that dismisses simulation driving in favour of adrenaline fuelled racing, resulting in an experience that, while fun to play, is a little safe. In the end, the loss of ‘Race Driver’ in the title says it all – this is a good arcade racer, but in a market already saturated with similar titles, it struggles to find a place upon the grid.