Review: Race Driver: GRID

PC – Keyboard – 2008
Developer: Codemasters
Publisher: Codemasters
Playtime: 19 hours
Paid: $15 – Steam
Metacritic: 87 (PC/PS3/360), 79 (DS)

If you’ve played DiRT, here is a summary: GRID is like DiRT with road and street racing events, and retaining the atmosphere and great presentation. In my opinion, this is a good thing. It lives between arcade and sim, but definitely leans towards the arcade side of the spectrum – higher difficulty settings essentially crank up the realism. Car damage becomes a bigger factor as the difficulty increases, as big slams cause tyre damage, or damage to the steering, engine, and so on. These can really affect performance.

On the first launch of GRID, a menu prompt asks for the player’s name. If it is common enough, it will be on the list, so the in-game vocals refer to you by name, which is really quite nice. The menu, like DiRT’s before it, is really well-presented and simple. This sort of thing should be more common, with occasional background vocals explaining menu options, well-designed menu design, and background graphics as opposed to a hastily-constructed list of words.

Car damage is neutralized by the flashback system, which is an excellent way to add forgiveness to an unforgiving genre. In each race, there are 0-5 flashbacks available (dependant on difficulty). When you crash, or just decide you could have performed better in a section, you can pause and view an instant replay of the last 10 or so seconds and can start again from any point in that replay – it is oddly reminiscent of rewinds in The Sands of Time.

GRID has two types of rewards – reputation and money.  Both are earned by winning race events. Retiring from an event loses you reputation, but there is practically no reason to ever do so, as there is no penalty for restarting a race. These events span multiple races, and thankfully, if you’re 2 races through a 5-race event, the game saves the progress. After a few introductory races, you earn enough money to start your own racing team, giving it your own name and car design (changeable later). Given more time and money, you can add a teammate to the mix. Reputation is issued in each region, and unlocks new licenses which open new events, eventually unlocking the global license. Winning events unlocks real sponsors, who will provide cash rewards if you meet their demands in each race – such as finishing in the top 3.

There are three regions for race events – the US, Europe, and Japan. Each has a different style of racing: the US tends towards muscle cars; Europe, touring cars; and Japan, drifting. There are 15 race locations spread between these regions, and pretty much all tracks are fun to race on. The variety really comes from the racing disciplines. GRID includes open wheel racing, demolition derbies, pro tuned cars, touge races, pro muscle cars, touring cars, Le Mans events, prototype cars….a bunch of stuff, essentially.

The game is split into seasons of 4 events. At the end of each season, you can enter the 24 Hours Le Mans, one of the most famous races in the world. The option to race in this is pushed on you in the menu – either do it, or skip it. Le Mans is a superb event, though. For the uninitiated, it is a real race which lasts for 24 hours. In-game, it lasts for 12 minutes by default, which still makes it an endurance event by game standards. It can actually be set to last for various lengths, including a ridiculous 24 hours, in the Race Day mode of the menu, which lets you jump into any race, any time. The quality of racing is higher than the rest of the game in this race, and any mistake can really ruin you.

Le Mans events have four classes of cars. For your first few 24 Hour events, you’ll start in the lower classes. To “win” the race, you just have to win out of your class of vehicle. Actually winning the race in the highest class after buying the $20 million prototype car is a great experience. This is the best example of how high-level the racing becomes. By this point in the game, you’ll be high in the rankings both of drivers (ranked by reputation) and teams (ranked by money earned each season). Becoming number one in each is a point of pride, but isn’t actually the end-game, and is hardly even congratulated. Winning each event in a group (3 to 6 events) unlocks a head-to-head battle against Ravenwest (the game’s top racing team). The final showdown is locked to extreme difficulty, with only one flashback available – winning this causes the credits to roll.

Clearly, I got distracted writing about the rewards of racing. The racing itself is a solid experience, with each vehicle type performing and controlling differently. The game looks fantastic, truly. I raced in the cockpit view for the whole game, and found it to add immersion, particularly with car damage. Shattering the windscreen is incredibly distracting – it would be nice if there were a way to break it off entirely without having to crash again. The environments and vehicles are pretty flawless. Performance is affected by car damage, and slipstreaming is rewarded.

Having vocals in the game is quite neat. I was pleasantly surprised the first time my teammate spoke to me over the team radio. Their accent is defined by their nationality. I suspect that their relative ranking might also have an impact on their dialogue, as I hired a German guy who was ranked higher than me, and he seemed really condescending. He eventually caused me to crash near the end of a Le Mans, so I fired him and replaced him with a lovely Irish guy. The other vocals are the manager and your pit chief. Hearing these voices adds immersion, but there just aren’t enough dialogue lines. The pit chief told me roughly a thousand times that my “car got a little banged up, but it’s nothin’ serious”. The car sounds sound like…well, cars. I honestly don’t know what more to tell you. They could probably be better, but they’re definitely competent. The game’s music is really quite enjoyable, but is only played in important races such as head-to-head battles and 24 Hour events. This is good in that it adds to the drama and intensity, but a drawback in that the rest of the game could really use some tunes.

There are other drawbacks, but they’re really nothing serious. For example, the mini-map could be more informative – instead of showing every car as a yellow dot, how about showing me my teammate, or colouring each class in Le Mans events differently? There are no night races with the exception of half of the 24 Hours, and a street race in Shibuya. There are also no weather options, with every race being sunny and dry. Admittedly, rain and snow would make the game really hard. Some racing fans may also complain that there are fewer than 50 cars to collect and drive, but again, it’s not really a big deal.

Time flies while playing GRID. It is an exciting and immersive racing experience, beautifully presented and designed. The racing is the real focus of the game, but the team management features are interesting as well. Loading times are short and made moderately interesting by showing statistics about your racing career. (It would be nice if I could view these separately.) GRID is a solid arcade racer which can be set to have just enough realism to make it compelling to gamers looking for a sim experience.

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