The fourth instalment in the Grid series is here. Confusingly, it’s just called Grid. But is Grid any good? Gird your loins.
On-boarding is a tricky thing in racing games. There tend to be two main methodologies: force the player through tedious driving school tutorials, or chuck them in at the deep end. The former has the advantage of functioning as a tutorial, but is particularly tedious for experienced players. (Doubly so, if progress is gated behind this virtual driver’s ed.) The latter is instantly gratifying, in terms of putting you straight into the action, but can be demoralising if you, well, suck.
Grid, the latest multi-discipline racer from British veteran, Codemasters, does something quite unusual. It’s somewhere between the two schools, but doesn’t really feel like either. You’re dropped into three scenarios: a standard race; an action-packed, almost-scripted snippet; and some extreme, wet weather conditions.
It is a bit deep end, in truth. I don’t recall seeing any screen prompts telling me how to accelerate or brake – or if they were present, the tiny white subtitles were lost in the sunlight glistening on the tarmac surface – but the good news is, these scenarios don’t really matter. They’re just a toe, dipped in Grid’s metaphorical pool. A sampling menu, or a flight of beer. The first is to allow you to get to grips with the game’s controls and feel. The second is to show off the game’s cinematic quality, dropping you into the driving seat in the middle of a spectacular stock-car pile-up. And the third? Slippery, slick, soaked, silly, sensational.
These are pitched as a highlights package at the end of Grid’s previous season, then after all that excitement, you’re dropped into the game’s career mode proper. It’s a little underwhelming. Compared to the sprawling, Ubisoft-alike open-world of Forza Horizon, or the cinematic role-playing of Codemasters’ own F1 franchise, Grid is just a series of menus. Visually, it looks like the racing game equivalent of picking tracks from Spotify.
Luckily, Grid’s variety and depth mean it plays like the racing game equivalent of Spotify, too.
Broadly speaking, it’s split into six main categories: touring, stock, tuner, GT, invitational, and “Fernando Alonso,” who worked as a consultant on the game. (And also because Codemasters can’t cross-pollinate the F1 license, presumably, but there’s nothing to say it can’t reuse the physics in Grid.) Within these categories, you’ll jump around between classes and time periods. In touring, you’ll be in a VW Golf or Ford Focus one minute, then a Holden Commodore or Chevy Camaro the next. Stock might see you in classic fastback muscle cars one minute (like the Ford Mustang or Pontiac Firebird) and then in
NASCAR generic, off-brand, definitely-not-license-impinging oval-racing stock cars the next.
Predictably, the invitational category is the most fun. In particular, the classic Mini Cooper and Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth races. Why is it that hooning around in the (comparatively) slowest, oldest cars is usually the most fun in racing games?
They look the part, too, and Grid is a very pretty game. Ever since the first Gran Turismo nudged the wheel away from chunky Sega Rally polygons and into showroom visualisations of pearlescent paint and tinted glass, racing game visuals have turned into a detail-driven arms race. While the circuit-based environment is scope-limited in comparison to the likes of Forza Horizon 4 and The Crew 2, and the total number of tracks is a little on the short side, it means what is in the game is lavished in detail. By featuring variations of each circuit at different times of day, and in different weather conditions, it stretches each environment further. Like wearing your underpants inside out to get extra wear. But for race tracks.
The street circuits are a particular highpoint, but everything is both realistic and cinematic in equal measure. That’s sometimes a blessing and a curse. J. J. Abrams lens flare and light streaks are captivating but commonplace, while glare off the track surface frequently obscures the racing line indicator.
And the racing line indicator is brilliant in Grid.
There have been, broadly speaking, three great innovations in racing games over the years, since they made the shift from pseudo-3D to actual 3D in the early 90s. The first two are purely hardware innovations – analogue thumbsticks for steering and analogue triggers for acceleration and braking – while the third is the adaptive racing line indicator.
On the face of it, it doesn’t seem unusual. It’s a visual assist, tracing the ideal racing line onto corners for players who aren’t experienced racing drivers. But Codemasters’ racing line is a remarkably clever system. It’s coloured green if you can accelerate through the bend, but changes colour, through yellow and orange to an angry raised red, if you need to scrub off speed or hit the brakes. Other games do something similar, it’s true, but Codies’ is the best. It’s one borne of years spent learning from the real racing world, combined with a real passion for the genre.
But as Codemasters fleshes out and refines its systems over the years, it continues it introduce new innovations. The one they’re most proud of recently is the nemesis system, and it’s used to great effect in Grid. It’s a fairly straightforward (but effective) cause and effect deal, where if you aggravate an opponent a little too much, the red mist will descend and they’ll have it out for you for the remainder of the race. That might mean hogging the racing line – even at the expense of losing places to other cars – to stop you from overtaking, but can stretch as far as violent rear-end collisions and deliberate police-like PIT manoeuvres.
“One of the challenges with racing games,” Grid game director Chris Smith told us at E3 2019, “is making the game as fun if you’re in the middle of the pack, or fighting at the back, as if you’re out in front.”
That’s counter-intuitive when racing games reward you for winning in order to progress, but I’d argue that it’s even more fun in the middle. Or at the back. Basically anywhere you can dent someone’s bumper and make some enemies.
Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Release Date: October 11, 2019