SUMMARY: Though extremely challenging to casual players, GRID is rewarding and brings the fun back to sim racers.
Highlights: Fun, competitive racing; Wide variety of race types; Excellent damage modeling; Team racing; Sponsor goals; Customizable voice over
Lowpoints: Hard; Driving model is a little too responsive for a sim; Very high learning curve; Repetitive voice over at times; Limited painting options
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<i>Did I mention that this game is competitive?</i>
To start things off, let's get one thing straight: GRID is hard. If you don't think it's hard then you're either great at racing games or you don't have the difficulty set high enough. GRID's driving model straddles a no man's land between simulation and arcade. While it certainly leans to the simulation side, the handling is just a touch too responsive making it feel a bit like an arcade racer. Just getting accustomed to GRID's nuances is part of its difficulty; knowing that you can drive a little more recklessly than you could in say Gran Turismo or Forza but then suddenly the realism switch will turn on and you'll go sliding out of control - only to have it switch completely off and go into the realm of fantasy as your car hits a curb or barricade and goes spinning off into the stratosphere.
OK, so I'm exaggerating just a little here - but not much.
But because this is a driving game, mastering those nuances is going to greatly affect your opinion of the game.
Actually, let's back up a bit: GRID is a simulation racing game developed by Codemasters. The same people that brought us the rally racing game, DiRT. Using the same driving engine, GRID handles much the same way although I think the responsive engine is much more suited for the asphalt than it was for the earth. Like DiRT, GRID also features a gorgeous interface that's easy to navigate, a pleasure to interact with, and loading screens that are informative and just as attractive. This might sound like a minor thing but the interaction design here is really one of my favorite aspects of the game.
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<i>Just one example of the attractive interface style.</i>
But why am I talking about menus when I should be talking about racing? When the game starts, you'll be placed in the position of a driver for hire working to make money for other racing teams until you have enough money to start your own team - which is a bit weird because when you do start driving for yourself, your "team" will consist of only you. The game progresses simply by winning races and taking home event trophies as you make your way to the top of the leaderboard. Single races can be played for fun but you'll only make progress in the game by playing in the career mode known as, GRID World. Here too you can race in single races for other teams where your reward is big cash prizes. GRID also has a reputation system that tells how you rank against other drivers in the world. Racing for other teams in single races will win you big money, especially if you complete the bonus objective (things like getting a podium finish or simply beating another team) but it won't impact your reputation points as much.
GRID World Events are the bulk of the racing where each race is restricted to a single car class and consists of 2 or more races where you're competing for points. The driver with the most points at the end wins the event. Teams also factor in here as you'll get additional cash for getting overall team wins. Events are broken down into three regions, each with 6 event races for that license class. Oh, yes by the way, there are licenses. However, they're based not on passing any tests but rather reaching certain reputation levels. Earn enough reputation points in a region and you unlock the next license for that region. Eventually, you can gain enough reputation to unlock the global license, unlocking more races and allowing you to race in any region.
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What really separates GRID from games like Gran Turismo or Forza is the variety of races. Touring, open wheel, endurance, drifting, drift battles, downhill drifts, touge (which I hate), city races, tracks, daytime, nighttime, and even the infamous 24 hour Le Mans which lasts for 24 minutes - taking you throughout an entire day and night, on poorly lit roads - which somehow, the AI cars seem unaffected by lack of light on both Le Mans and Touge races. Heck, there's even demolition derby races. Sure, GT and Forza feature hundreds of cars that will determine the race style, but something about them gets bland and repetitive. Maybe it's only because it's still fresh but GRID feels like you're never racing the same race twice. Each event is also limited to the class of car that can be entered and this is what I feel is the hallmark of GRID. With the exception of the Le Mans, in each race you'll only ever have 2 or 3 different car makes on the track at once - despite there being up to 20 cars on the track in some races. And because GRID doesn't offer any way to add performance upgrades to cars, each driver is on a level playing field. The result: close competitive races where one mistake can cost you everything. What's more, the computer AI is racing for the same stakes. You'll never find one or two cars that blow the rest of the field away because they simply have the best car. If someone's winning, it's because they're racing well and if someone's lagging behind well... either they suck, but more commonly it's because a car spun out in a turn, blew a tire, or even blew an engine. Regardless of what car someone is driving or even who is driving, who will win is never certain and no one is immune to happenstance accidents. It's an incredible feature that makes your opponents feel more alive and because each race is competitive with no certain outcome, the fun factor skyrockets. Winning races is no longer a matter of who has the fastest car, but rather who's the best driver. Having to avoid car pileups because someone crashed while your screen is filled with white smoke only adds to the excitement and unpredictability of races.
The great challenge of GRID is it's steep learning curve. Typically, racing games start you out in everyday $20K drivers. The result is that you're able to get a feel for the driving engine as well as learn the tracks at low speeds. Then as you get better cars you're able to drive the courses faster as you're already accustomed to them. While GRID doesn't put you in a Nissan NSX from the very beginning, you do start out driving Mustangs (old and new), Vipers, and even Skyline GT-Rs. Your typical Civics, GTIs, and Celica's are nowhere to be found. What this means is that you have to learn tracks at high speeds; nor is it always clear which track you'll be racing since tracks are listed by location and route only - no helpful pictures. During an event, you'll also race tracks both directions and even change locations after each race. Mix that up further by different races racing only on certain courses and each location having at least two tracks (normal and reverse) and some as many as 6, it can take awhile to get accustomed to each race.
GRID does offer a few driving aids to make things easier, and like Forza, turning these aids off and making the game more difficult will increase your reward for each race. These options are limited though: overall difficulty (basic, normal, serious, savage, extreme), traction control, manual or auto, anti-lock brakes, and stability control. I personally found turning off stability control made the game a bit easier to drive as it reduced the super sensitive responsiveness of the cars. What the game is lacking is a driving assist line to show you the best path and when to brake. Honestly, the only other game I've played that used such a feature was Forza - and that became a crutch for me. What it does have is a little light in the bottom left corner that blinks when you're approaching turns too fast. It's a little too inconspicuous when you need it and at times, unreliable, but it's certainly helpful and unobtrusive to more experienced drivers. In GRID World races, there's also an option to turn on Pro Mode which will make you unable to restart races onces begun. This game would kill me [on Normal] if it weren't for restart so I don't play on Pro Mode.
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<i>There's an achievement for winning while locked to this view. I won't get that achievement.</i>
There is another option to make races a little more forgiving. A feature called "Flashback." Although it'll be available automatically when you crash your car to the point where it's un-drivable, it can also be activated at any time in the pause menu. What it will do is let you rewind the race a few seconds so that you can retry that turn you took too fast the first time and sent you careening into the jersey barriers. Your difficulty setting determines how many Flashbacks you're allowed and you're never required to use them. However, doing so will lower your both your rewards for reputation as well as prize money so it's at your advantage to do without.
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<i>Your home away from home.</i>
Keep the patience dial turned to 11 and you'll eventually learn the tracks and how each car handles differently. Once you cross that line, racing becomes considerably easier but still, ever challenging. No two races ever play out the same and, depending on your difficulty level, even the best drivers will have those occasional mishaps. Even when you're comfortable racing, it's the unpredictability and challenging AI that keep winning races a satifying and rewarding experience - especially when each one of your sponsors has to pay you big bucks.
While the driving engine can be a little unpredictable at times, it is executed exceptionally well and Codemasters' attention to detail in every other regard makes up for any minor deficiencies. The damage modeling is fantastic and, in most cases, how your car is damaged will effect how your car performs - though I've found that your car can take remarkable amounts of abuse and have no ill effect whatsoever. Sometimes. This is one of those cases where GRID is remarkably inconsistent. In addition to your car handling differently, pieces of your's and others' cars will fall off as they take damage. These pieces don't just disappear either. Rather they stay on the course where they landed, becoming themselves, obstacles that will impact your can when run over. Perhaps one of the most overlooked details of other racing games, Codemasters decided to make GRID's tracks themselves interactive by allowing you to crash directly through walls or having tire barricades explode, with tires sailing through the air and rolling across the ground when struck. Glass will shatter and eventually break out. Bumpers will hang down on one side, rubbing along the ground with sparks flying off until the entire thing eventually falls off.
And to top it off, your team manager and pit boss, as well as your racing teammate, will be talking to you, updating you on race status the entire time... addressing you by name. It's a small thing but it's just another one of those details that Codemasters seems to be so attune to. For the most part it never gets repetitive or annoying, although depending on your teammate, they might be a complete moron, a pretty decent guy, or hardly say a word. The only time I've really found the voice over to get tiresome is during drift races. For some reason, the pit boss feels the need to remind me at the beginning of every race that I need to get close to the flag to score points. Or repeatedly tell me that I need to be physically leading the other drift battle cars, despite leading in point score. Where this really gets irritating is if you have tendency to restart these races often [as, umm, someone I know does...], then you'll hear the same words each and every time. Thankfully, a quick trip to the options menu will quiet him down.
GRID isn't a long game and it doesn't have the extensive car collections that Forza has, never mind anything close to Gran Turismo. I think the car count is somewhere close to 45. Which honestly, that's really all you need. When a race only allows two or three car models, your not likely going to be needing 20 cars of the same class. As I already mentioned, it also doesn't have any car customization options like Forza or other arcade racers like Need for Speed or Project Gotham Racing. It will let you do a few limited team related things; such as choose 3 paint colors and pick a design from several (around 20 or 30) patterns. (If you want to paint cars, stick to Forza. If you want to race, well...) You can also pick a team name, choose between sponsors as they become available, (with some limited control over where sponsor names appear) as well as hire and fire teammates as you see fit. Teammates, usually have a signing fee and will take a percentage of each win. The better the driver, the more they're going to cost.
Multiplayer is the standard fare. The online is a bit of a drag since when looking for a match it'll simply plop you in any ol' race, regardless of your skill rank or where the current race is at in terms of progress. This means it may take you a few tries to find a game that's close enough to over that it's worth waiting for it to end or find one that hasn't begun yet. Somewhat unique to GRID is that races are selected democratically. Rather than the host getting to select whatever they please, each player has a small window of time to vote for their race preference. The race with the highest votes is the one that's played. With the exception of getting matched up with some people that had obviously been playing for a while - and were insanely better than me - I didn't run into any problems while online. Framerates stayed smooth and lag was occasional but minimal.
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<i>Talk about responsive. Try driving one of these.</i>
When all is said and done, I'm feeling generous with this one. Once you're able to overcome the steep learning curve [for casual gamers], GRID is a tremendously rewarding and satisfying race game that stays competitive and unpredictable. It puts the focus on the driver rather than what car you drive. Like any race game, it'll benefit those that learn to drive well consistently and take advantage of the opportunities that arise - not to mention have the wherewithal to react to ever changing track conditions. But it's always challenging and despite its short career mode, upping the difficulty level and the game's competitive online multiplayer, should keep you coming back for more. Most importantly, it makes simulation racing fun again. Heck, even the replays are exciting to watch. If only there were a way to record and share them online...