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“Hello, Bozo.” It’s charming enough when a game greets you every time you load it. It’s even more endearing when you can choose to be called, instead of your first name, a gently satirical nickname like Bossman, or Chief or, indeed, Bozo. The announcer sounds like she’s almost laughing whenever she says it, like it’s our little shared joke. So we’re proud to be a Bozo, and we feel welcomed. Immediately, from the second it’s loaded up, it’s clear that the good-natured personality of this racer is a far cry from its ever-frowning contemporaries.
GRID totally understands the importance of presentation. While other car games, especially those with any leaning towards accurate simulation, content themselves with being an accurate racing model and leave it pretty much at that, this smiling semi-sim paints a little flair onto even minor details. Such touches could be accused of superficiality, yet they make a colossal difference. Sometimes this is pretty subtle - your advisor makes worried noises about the famed abilities of another racer and suggests you aim for third place. The hell you will. Just that casual mention creates an instant, single-serving rival, granting nebulous personality to one of the 15 otherwise faceless drivers - you don’t know anything about him, but you do know you absolutely have to beat him. There’s no benefit to doing so except pride, and every time that’s more than enough. You’ve beaten someone you were told you couldn’t beat. Go, you!
All images taken from the 360 version
But other times it’s not so subtle: come the finish of a successful head-to-head race, you’ll see your name in giant, gold 3D letters hovering over your car, with the word WINNER triumphantly below. The other guy? LOSER. It’s enormously tacky in principle, but in practice it makes for a punch-the-air moment. It helps that GRID’s a remarkably good-looking game. Don’t pore too closely over the individual details, or you may sneer at the mannequin crowds, the slightly too neatly shaped debris, or the mucky textures on the drivers’ overalls. Instead, look wide-angle at the business of GRID’s world - the sheer number of people in those crowds, the side barriers that crumple and disintegrate spectacularly when you hit ’em, the gorgeous reflections and dust-spray from each car.
Underneath all its frills, GRID might be a relatively familiar experience, but its gloss and cheer expertly free it from the odd sterility of a GTR, a Project Gotham or even a Colin McRae DiRT (a game with which GRID shares an engine, but discards its infamous chug - this runs incredibly smoothly). It’s here to entertain, not merely to court solemn nods of approval from ardent motorsports enthusiasts. And yet it’s a conflicted creature. I’ve been following the internet response to the demo, and most people’s comments fall into one of three camps: a) too arcadey; b) too hard; c) mmm, the baby bear’s porridge is just right. It’s certainly a tricky game to define - all its trappings, that bombastic presentation, suggest an arcade game, something chasing at the unhinged glee of Trackmania. Then, on the track, the handling is surprisingly demanding, being almost inaccessible to someone without a ton of experience.
There’s essentially zero help for new players; even the optional on-screen racing guide line or driving school found in far more stentorian contemporaries are absent. Gruelling trial and error may get a greenhorn so far, but there are fundamental, non-intuitive principles, critical to success in even the earliest stages of the game, that GRID simply assumes you already have. Seasoned racers won’t even notice, of course. They can jump right in, not even blinking at the startling power of the supercars the game kicks off with - glad, in fact, that they get an immediate taste of the good stuff rather than being stuck with slowpokes for ten hours. The first four or five races are essentially hired work in other people’s cars so you can earn enough to afford your own vehicle.
Then GRID drops back to more manageable touring cars, before gradually escalating up again to heavenly-horsepower brutes. While there’s no need to win these earliest races - in fact, it’s possible to hack through much of the game with low placings - they may daunt the less practised driver. For a genre increasingly in danger of painting itself into the same preaching-only-to-the-converted corner as flight sims have, it’s odd that the game completely overlooks even basic newbie assistance. Moreover, in recent interviews, GRID’s developers have worried aloud about this problem.
The drift races, for instance, which are a dramatically different discipline to anything else in the game (and to most other racing games), sport only this advice: “use the handbrake.” Right. Thanks. If we’re honest, we really don’t enjoy the crazy wobbles and slides of drift racing at the best of times, and GRID’s particularly punitive take on them only reinforces that. Fortunately, the campaign’s designed in such a way that you can effectively bypass a discipline you don’t dig. It’s split into Project Gothamy American street races, GTRy European track races and Need For Speedy Japanese touge and drift, and for the most part you can pursue just one or two while neglecting the others. GRID’s big on choices - it understands that you’ve bought it to entertain yourself, not to slavishly follow someone else’s arbitrary rules.
For all its barriers to entry, if and when you’ve got a handle on the handling, you’ll spot the cheerful liberties GRID takes with reality. A spill onto the gravel or grass would end the race in other games, but often enough you’ll power through adverse terrain or neatly cut a should-be-fatal corner. A reasonably vicious damage system means you can’t survive too many scrapes without your steering breaking or the radiator overheating, but on the other hand it’s eminently possible to draw ahead of the pack by deliberately causing a 12-car pile up on a sharp corner. Personally, we love this - our preferred racing games are those that throw in a little bit of fantasy to keep things thrilling, not just cheerless scientific recreation. Baby bear’s porridge is just right.
Yet, though it’s hardly Burnout, hardcore simheads won’t be impressed that you can grind your side along a wall at 150mph and carry on regardless. Similarly, they won’t like the fact that even the lowest-end cars seem to travel at the same impossible speeds as $2m uber-vehicles - this is a hyper-fast game throughout. This is slightly to GRID’s detriment with the super- and open-wheel cars, in that they don’t seem to be traveling much faster than the touring cars and the like, though a cursory glance at the speedo reveals they most certainly are. You’ll overshoot a corner massively and wonder why - it felt like you were only doing about 40mph. Actually you were doing 110, so no wonder. It’s one of those vertical learning curve moments at first, but you’ll adapt without too much practice.
There’s also discreet rubber-banding at play - you’ll never leave the pack far behind, but equally, when you’re lagging somewhat, you’ll occasionally find yourself granted exhilarating but inexplicable bonus acceleration come a long straight. In fact, watch the replays closely and you’ll spot AI racers quietly cheating all over the shop. A slight nudge from a rival car will often send you into a disorientating spin-out and a probable end to your race (unless you have an instant replay in the bank - more on that in a second). They, though, will recover from all but the most deadly collisions within milliseconds, making unearthly horizontal glides back onto the track without even a whiff of the pinballing you’d suffer in the rare event you did manage to steer back on course.
This sort of rule-bending can distract if you spot it happening - especially given that the AI’s occasional ‘mistakes’ are much more slickly implemented, adding an organic sense to proceedings rather than the creepy feeling you’re racing against flawless robots - but it’s there to stop you winning by elimination. A racing game is at its most thrilling when you’re trading constant paint with a cartel of other drivers, not when you’re 20 seconds ahead and only have to wait things out. Plus, you have the ultimate equalizer: the Instant Replays.
If one feature most defines GRID, it’s this. Each singleplayer race grants you five get-out-of-jail-free cards. Come a nasty collision, misjudged corner, uncontrollable spin-out or whatever, you can choose to rewind by a few seconds and have another crack at doing it right. In a game where one mistake would otherwise cost you the race, this quickly becomes indispensable. Five is just few enough that the replays feel rare and precious, not something you actively rely on, and just numerous enough that you won’t have to repeat too many entire races because you’re having a bit of an off-day.
Because they’re imbued with GRID’s fantastic presentation values you get to watch your crash in glorious slow motion, cycling the camera and rewinding again and again to get the best possible view of your exploding chassis. Unfortunately, this philosophy of bombast does impact the immediacy of the replay: ‘instant’ is very much the wrong prefix. It’s a little long-winded to bring up, and that it defaults to a cool-but-confusing cinematic camera rather than an overhead view introduces one too many extra button clicks to work out exactly which bit you’re about to restart from. Given you’ll be brimming with impatience to get back into the race, it can waste a little too much time. That said, it feels like such a remarkably natural feature that it’s hard to imagine future racers not ripping it off. Make a note here; huge success.
So too is GRID’s softly-softly roleplaying. The early Race Drivers tacked on a fixed narrative with a slightly embarrassing cutscene approach (some characters from which are name-checked as rival racers in GRID), but this understands that making your own decisions puts you far more convincingly in the shoes of your near-faceless character. So, you can deck out your cars in a monstrous livery of your own design, you can pick preferred sponsors, which offer different cash bonuses depending on what conditions you satisfy (eg finish first, finish without damage), and you can hire and fire AI-controlled team-mates.
None of this amounts to anything beyond more or less in-game cash, an easily acquired commodity anyway, but it pushes up the sense of involvement and control enormously. The next race is never some mandatory imposition - you choose what it is and what your goals for it are. Which is GRID all over, really. It eases off so many of the usual breaks most racing games harshly deploy, in favour of fun on your terms. Demanding controls and fast-’n’-loose physics means it’s not quite the game to unite the warring arcade and sim tribes, but it’s the sweet spot if you don’t tie yourself to either camp.
May 30, 2008
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