For those unfamiliar to the Race Driver series, you've probably missed out on one of the most pure racing series in the industry over the years. While Codemasters has struggled time and time again to bring the franchise to the mainstream and bust away from their indie roots, there just didn't seem to be a way for the company to push it past a niche audience. Once they dropped the Colin McRae name from its rally series and slapped Dirt real big on the cover, however, it seemed all the Race Driver series needed was a renaming.
...and so Grid is born.
To start, the presentation of Grid is easily the smoothest and most beautiful out of any racing game to date. The graphics are slapped with Hollywood-quality lighting, smooth models, and nary a glitch to be seen. It doesn't stop there, however, as everything about the game is just all around "cool". The loading menus will show your achievement progress, your garage offers simple and easy menu access, and even the beginnings and endings of races themselves almost have that high-quality TV show feel. As the camera moves in on your car and shows the name of the track and such, your brain will click back to watching all those episodes of Heroes (and if you aren't watching Heroes, something is wrong with you). The one area where Grid accels beyond others in the "prettiness" class happens to be real-time car damage. Being raised by a mechanic father who loves watching cars crash, it's nice to see Grid offer a more realistic point of view from the typical Burnout standard...while doing the one thing that games like Gran Turismo still refuse to do. You don't get a lot of the clipping issues and jaggies with the damage in Grid like you did in something like Forza 2, which is a welcome relief. However, the car damage goes further than just LOOKING cool...but it will affect your driving in a HUGE way.
As far as gameplay goes, Grid stays true to the Race Driver series for the most part by offering some of the best physics and handling on the racer market. Things feel a bit more user-friendly and entry-level accessible, however, which some diehard fans of the series might not take too kindly to. They don't overplay the "sim" aspect, but you quickly realize that you aren't playing San Francisco Rush either. It's a good balance of gameplay that no one ever seems to get right except for the guys at Codemasters. Right off the bat, when you pick up the sticks, you'll notice that things get a little hairy. The uber-sensitive controls offer far more depth than most games ever offer, especially when you get into the drift races. Putting a drift from Grid against any drift mode from Need for Speed is like putting a Lambourghini against a Pinto. The cars react accordingly, and especially after they've been damaged like crazy. See, Codemasters obviously figured out this crazy mathematic formula that most others have missed out on:
Amount of damage + independent car parts + erraticly crazy driving = hard to handle vehicle!
The real-time damage of your car can play a huge role in whether you'll win or lose a race, and the extent of the damage is both visible on the car (almost in an indicative way like your fighter's visual status in Fight Night Round 3) as well as by nifty "dummy lights" integrated as part of your dials. However, even Codemasters knows that they can't just force you to restart every race because you suck at driving. Therefore, the team behind the game apparently got ahold of the Sands of Time and added some to your rides. A nifty "rewind" feature has been added to the instant replay screens to allow for up to what seems like about a 10 second window to redo that hairpin turn you got wrong or adjust the way you drafted off that guy...or to even brake on that turn you didn't see coming. It's a very helpful tool, especially when you hit the higher license areas of the game. However, for veteran racing game fans, you aren't going to be using it much until the last legs of the game anyways.
For all the single players out there, you'll more than likely dig deep and hard into the Career mode, which features 3 separate continents (America, Europe, and Japan), as well as 3 separate license brackets for each of them. You'll race for both cash and reputation, and there's plenty of both to go around. Before you get to the licenses, though, you'll have to climb into other people's cars and play through some driver offers to build up your own bank. Between all your basic lap races and the drift runs, you'll find a handful of other interesting choices to mix up the action. The Michigan Destruction Derby quickly comes to mind as not only one of the extremly fun events in Career, but probably as one of the cooler events in the game PERIOD! You'll also find that everything is broken down into "seasons", and you'll be competing for leaderboard positions via Xbox Live and in the Career mode itself to earn the most money in a career, as well as the most reputation. At the end of each season, you'll have the option to enter the 24 Hour Le Mans race. Before you run for the hills and think you'll need to pull a rubber-band trick on a 500-lap Gran Turismo race all over again, the 24 hours in question are all scaled. The race will take somewhere around 14 minutes or so, and each of the 4 laps translates out to about 6 hours of in-game racing time. The course is always the same, so once you've learned it, it's mostly about learning how to handle the car you are racing with. Overall, the Career mode feels full, even if you'll find yourself mostly using the same handful of cars for everything in each license area. There are some problems, which I'll go into later.
As for the online mode, Grid is hands down the best online racer out there, and any man that can say it isn't much drink gasoline as a hobby. The lobby menu is smooth and simple to navigate, each gamertag can earn its own individual ranking like you would find in something like Call of Duty or Battlefield, and the way that races are handled is far and beyond better than the simple crap found in Halo. Instead of just being given a track to race on, everyone in the lobby puts a vote out on what type of race they want, what track they want, and then they get a selection between 1-3 cars to race with. It gives players what they want: control over their ranked games. To be honest, Grid just shines in online gameplay, but real-time car damage does become a problem when jerk-offs are more than willing to negate playing a match in order to just race the track backwards and ram into other players, thereby totaling everyone's vehicles and thus pissing more than a fair share of honest gamers off.
Part of the rating reduction for this review deals with one simple fact: a strong lack of customization options on your cars. Grid challenges you to pick up every car in the game and store them in your small mechanical playground, but you can't trick them out and make them look the way you want like you can with the Need for Speed franchise. There's also no way for you to custom tune your cars' performance, which even simplistic and horrific games from the past like Destruction Derby Arenas even offered up. I understand the purpose behind this: it makes the online modes far more fair when you don't have everyone and their mom super-tuning a Nissan Skyline GT-R or a Lambourghini to be the ultimate racing machine on the planet. That shouldn't, however, become a reason to punish those of us in the career mode. It just baffles me how all these little details are thrown into Grid (like how this game features the single best in-car camera in the entire universe), and yet they neglected the one area that makes most car games fun in the first place. It should easily be evidenced to Codemasters that we're all loot whores and we want user-created content. Granted, I will give you that Project Gotham Racing doesn't have to end up using any form of customization options, but that's an entirely different machine on its own. The only other issue is that the whole eBay mechanic in the Career mode to buy a car cheaper doesn't seem to actually serve its purpose quite well. You're able to shop for a car, and the game tells you that the more wins that a car has, the better
Overall analysis: If Grid had customization options and a little bit more wrench time in the Career mode to offer more than 4-6 different race types, this could've easily been the perfect racer and almost better than a perfect orgasm. However, with a game that focuses so hard on its pretty graphics, it seems almost ludacrious that they would leave out some form of visual customization aesthetic. Grid is still, however, the best racing game out there gameplay-wise, and that's where it really ends up mattering.