Talk about Codemasters these days and you probably think of two racing series: F1 and DiRT. But neither of those games would be emblazoned into your brain if it weren't for Race Driver GRID, which is, incredibly, over four years old. I'm not exaggerating when I say it's been the single most important racing game of this generation. But despite its shockwaves still being felt, after four years some people are forgetting what caused the splash in the first place.
But as Codemasters continues milking the DiRT series for all it's worth, GRID 2 is reported to be in development deep within the studio. Silently. Except for the occasional growl of an engine. The GRID team is a separate entity from the DiRT team, which means the core values of the original should all be present in the new game. As we're about to show you, GRID has always been more important than DiRT, so a sequel - when it finally arrives - could... nay, will shake up the entire genre again. Here's why…
Above: This car is sitting on the grid. On the GRID. Yep, that's where the name comes from
GRID marked the start of EGO's reign
GRID 2 has almost certainly been used as a rolling test bed for development of the EGO engine, which - while present in Colin McRae DiRT, really hit its stride in GRID. So what better game than GRID 2 to show off what can be done when you've mastered its capabilities? We often see the most technically incredible games released right at the end of a console's lifecycle, so the time is right for 360 and PS3 to get their wonder-racer.
EGO already lets you pause the action at any point, then move time backwards and forwards at any increment of speed between 'practically frozen' and 'super-fast motion'. Just imagine if every single surface could dent like cardboard. If every component and wheel was individually rendered and could become a physics object during an accident - and heavy enough to put another car out of the race if there's secondary contact. And after DiRT Showdown's omission of in-car cameras, expect full-on helmet cam to make a very welcome return.
Above: Helmet cam, which has been emulated, but never matched
Adding wet weather races to GRID's already-impressive repertoire would be the icing on the cake. And it's up to Codemasters how deep to go - F1's weather tech allows for individual tiles of tarmac to have its own grip levels and wetness stat. There's no reason to go quite so deep here, but then there's no reason to have tyres that visibly bulge under load. EGO can seemingly do anything thrown at it - and the GRID team has had a long time to play around with optimisation...
Racing on Tarmac has plenty enough variety
Just look at the review of DiRT 3. We were expecting a 10/10 game. Now, the latest DiRT game has got a 7/10 from us and mid-70s across the board on Metacritic. Dirt, Tarmac, destruction, arenas, 'Hooniganism'... That series has become too many different things at once, not quite knowing how to package them all. That's actually something GRID does really well. You always feel like the same driver entering various events, aided no doubt by the excellent instructional commentary in the menus.
Ironically, the best bits of Showdown are the ones that are most like GRID, with Tarmac races full of incident and spectacle.
Above: Close competition on Tarmac tracks is something of a rarity in racers right now
It's all about racing, in whatever form or discipline that entails. Open-wheeled Formula 3 cars to German Touring cars – it's all here. And then there's the track selection. Whether it's the purpose-built racetrack at the Nurburgring, Spa's beautiful countryside or the sun-drenched San Francisco street circuit (pictured above), the game flows smoothly and effortlessly.
You could argue that the first GRID's single weakness is that a few disciplines have iffy handling. But the time spent developing the sequel should have ironed that right out. Every single race type could have quality worthy of an entire game. Just imagine that.
It has 12 car racing which needs to come back
What's up with Showdown's 8-competitor races? It feels cut-down compared to what we're already used to from GRID. Playing GRID today and watching 12 beautifully-rendered cars stream past the camera is still an incredible sight. The design brief for the art style appears to have been 'make it look like CG intro movies did in the late 1990s'.
Above: GRID has a visual sheen very similar to Ridge Racer Type 4's intro (inset)
There's a fantastic filter over everything that makes it feel like you're playing the CG intro to Ridge Racer Type 4. Blending that level of gloss with that many cars is GRID's greatest achievement and we can't wait to see how it's improved.
Rivalries make offline races interesting
GRID's commentary via the pit radio is brilliant. Not only does it call you by name, it tells you exactly who you need to beat, by name, and also who's leading the race – by name. Get to the point where you need to pass a certain driver and you can see the evolution from the TOCA Race Driver games on the previous generation, where there was an actual story that followed your driver through his career. The story part doesn't need to make a return, but the rivalry system most certainly does.
Above: CURSE YOU RALPH ANDERSON!
GRID's cars are delicate and will break
Who can forget the surprise they felt when they started off their first race, missed the breaking point and slammed into the back of the car in front, denting up their car, smashing the windscreen and making two or three little yellow damage indicator lights blink on to the side of the HUD? Visibly buckled wheels have a genuine impact on how the car handles, even pulling to one side down the straight.
And it's the little details like the audio shift when you smash your windscreen that make the game so exciting. You start the race in your little bubble, but when the glass is smashed out, everything gets louder and clearer. It's like suddenly being really awake. Gran Turismo 5's got nothing on that. And speaking of differences between that game, there are the crashes...
Above: Crashing into tyre barriers in GRID is better than in any other game, DiRT included
We want to see all of this expanded upon in GRID 2. Fuel leaks (that catch fire!), oil on the track from broken vehicles and engine blowouts from overheating your engine would be brilliant.
It has a sense of car ownership
It takes a while to be able to afford your own car in GRID. But you can choose how to go about building your collection. There's an eBay Motors license which does a lot more than give the advertising hoardings some plausibility, actually enabling you to purchase pre-owned cars during the game.
Above: You don't just buy in eBay Motors - you can add value to car with wins then sell it
Now, although second-hand cars that have won a lot of races are indeed faster than 'new' cars (and write-offs should be avoided at all costs), the feature is under-used by most players in the original GRID. Many will just use the second-hand market to buy a cheaper, better car earlier in the game and never touch it again. Forum posts span pages debating how much value there is in bothering with the feature at all.
Imagine if car ownership is taken to a whole new level in GRID 2. For instance, if wrecking your car really meant it was written off for good. Codemasters games always have varying difficulty settings. What if the 'realism' mode locked you not only to Headcam, but also made you pay for every car you wreck? If your career bank balance can be depleted to the point that you need to retire? It's something most games dare not offer, but it could make the career mode here utterly enthralling for hardcore gamers.
GRID makes a single car look like the most exciting thing in the world
Something to do with the speed blur effect maybe, or the Dutch tilt of the camera as it pans low along the ground at flattering angles, peeping up at the smoking tyres of the player's car, but the replays in GRID are ridiculously exciting. Likewise, just playing the game – in any view – is a white-knuckle experience. Trying not to roll your car as you slam down over the jumps in San Francisco remains one of gaming's most edge-of-control moments. And the night-time events in Tokyo are just beautiful.
Above: If GRID was looking this good four years ago, imagine how good the sequel will be!
GRID was a breakthrough moment for racing games. Former Radarite Ben Richardson and I loaded up the first preview code of GRID back in 2008 and agreed – Codemasters gets it. This is what racing games should be like. With the same team working on the sequel, they only have to 'still get it' and GRID 2 will be immense. Now if we could just have an official announcement and some hands-on, please...