Reviewed: July 6, 2008
Released: June 3, 2008
One of the most important phases in a young boy's development into a grown man is a period defined by an obsession with fast, loud, flashy cars. While this chapter of life usually doesn't last for more than a couple of years, one of the requirements of being a man is to maintain a certain level of interest in high-performance vehicles. This includes the ability to identify the make and model of top-end cars seen out on the road, a vague understanding of how an internal combustion engine works, an appreciation for "woman-driver" jokes, and a special place in the heart reserved specifically for kickass racing games. Having been absent from this genre since PGR2 in 2003, GRID was just the high-octane, forced-induction boost I needed.
GRID is the 7th game in the 11-year-old TOCA Touring Car franchise. Since its original debut in 1997, the series has spanned across three generations of consoles and has enjoyed a fairly successful run while building a solid fan base around the world. GRID, along with its six predecessors, was developed and published by the veteran British game designer Codemasters, which has been in this business since 1985.
The single-player campaign in GRID is a "rags-to-riches" story. The player will start out with an empty garage, $0, and a "manager" who gives tips on how to begin. The ultimate goal is to become the wealthiest and most renowned driver on the planet while building a world-class racing team out of nothing. The player will raise the money to buy their first car and start their team by driving for other teams. Once the player has accumulated $80,000, they receive their first car and can start working for themselves. As a side note, the first car is a 1970 Ford Boss 302 Mustang in mint condition with 0 miles on the odometer; Codemasters knows how to make people happy.
The GRID World is divided into three distinct regions: America, Europe, and Asia. Each region is further divided into three tiers of events. The player will start out by competing in the lowest tier, earning money and reputation points with each podium finish. When enough reputation points have been earned in a particular region, the next tier will be unlocked, granting the player access to more difficult events with more robust cash and reputation prizes. In total, there are 51 events including touring, Formula 1, drifting contests, touge, and demolition derbies. Every event has specific requirements as to what sort of cars are permitted to race, so players will find themselves doing plenty of car shopping. Cars can be purchased brand new for full price, or the player can elect to shop for used cars at a reduced price using the in-game reenactment of eBay Motors. There is no car customization beyond paint jobs, but I daresay that if I were to spend $20 million on an Audi R10 TDI in real life, I would probably not start looking for after-market exhaust systems.
Racing in GRID is fast-paced and extremely intense. The controls are tight and fairly intuitive, but also mercilessly unforgiving. Each of the 43 cars in GRID respond to driver inputs in a respectable imitation of their real-life counterparts, which means that if a player intends to climb into a Lamborghini Murciélago with a 6.5L, 632bhp, V12 engine, they had better be ready to either put their lightning-fast reflexes to work or conclude their race with a spectacular crash. Most of the tracks in GRID are laced with tight corners requiring that challenging maneuvers be flawlessly executed to pass through quickly and unscathed. The cars themselves are aerodynamic, performance-tuned, asphalt-ripping monsters, so the question becomes whether or not the driver will be the weakest link.
Fortunately, somebody at Codemasters realized the potential for unbridled rage that would be present whenever somebody watched ten minutes of their flawless driving disappear into the wall at 150mph because one of the AI drivers clipped their rear bumper on the final turn. As a result, the Flashback feature was born. Flashbacks have a distinct resemblance to the Prince of Persia's magical dagger in that they allow the player to rewind time and go as far as ten seconds into the past to correct a potentially devastating mistake. This is an extremely powerful tool for the GRID driver (10 seconds is an eternity when you are pushing 220 mph) and can only be used a limited number of times during a race. Fewer flashbacks are available at higher difficulty levels. The flashbacks interface is centered around the replay feature. The instant replay sequences in GRID are easily the most intense I've seen in a racing game. At the end of every race, a replay will automatically begin featuring many different camera views with spectacular chasing angles and a techno/rock soundtrack. The final product grants the beholder the feeling that they are watching the climactic car-chase scene in an epic action movie.
Despite its impressive presentation and realistic feel, GRID commits the same sin that plagues so many other games in this genre: the bungee cord effect. No matter how flawlessly a player negotiates perilous corners or how violently an AI driver slams into a wall, the entire pack of NPC drivers trailing the player will always remain huddled together a second or two behind him, waiting for him to slip up once so they can all pass together. The bungee cord effect is most noticeable during head-to-head matches. About 20 seconds after an AI opponent spins out and smashes through a tire barricade, he will be right back in the mix threatening to pass at every turn. While this certainly makes a race more intense, it also gives the game it's most irritating flaw.
The visual presentation in GRID is excellent. The cars are polished, scale well with the environment, and are impressive renditions of their real-world alternatives. Almost as delightful as watching the cars gleam vibrantly in the computer-generated sunlight is watching them get smashed up in high-speed collisions. As is the case in most arcade racing games, the vehicles in GRID can take a much more severe pounding than they would be able to endure in reality, but that is easily forgivable. When they DO get banged up, the visible destruction is convincingly realistic and will even interfere with smooth driving if the extent of the damage crosses the threshold between aesthetic and mechanical.
The environment in GRID provides a perfect backdrop for these beautiful cars. The smoke from burning rubber, day/night effects, snazzy 3D menus, detailed scenery, and all the rest of the eye candy blend seamlessly together to convince players that they really are drifting around perilous curves on the side of a mountain in Japan or putting their endurance to the test in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. Apart from the occasional twinge of lag during the post-race results, the game runs as smooth as silk. The most noticeable flaws in the GRID visual presentation center around the bystanders. It is obvious that Codemasters cut a few corners here. Not only are they exceptionally bland, but it is not uncommon to see an entire row of them locked into the same fist-pumping or hand-clapping animation simultaneously. It is distracting and disturbing for the few seconds before the light turns green, but it is forgiven and forgotten by the time the player hits second gear.
The audio quality in GRID is admirable in every respect. The American muscle cars sound deep and throaty, the Japanese street machines buzz like wasps, and everything in between sounds exactly the way you would expect it to. The roar of engines revving, the screeching of tires being lit up, the soft clicking of gear-shifts, and the occasional comment from the track-side coach all have an aura of realism about them.
The voice acting was very well done and Codemasters did an excellent job of splicing audio clips together to form complete sentences. There are several characters who will talk to the player both on and off the track. They speak frequently enough to keep the player informed about damage to his car, field position, the condition of his teammate, and other important aspects of the race, but not often enough to be annoying. That is a difficult balance to achieve, but Codemasters managed to pull it off.
The layout of the single player campaign, coupled with the diversity of available event types gives the "GRID World" mode a fairly large potential for play time. Every win unlocks new events, new sponsors, more money for new cars, and new tracks. An average gamer could probably put 15-30 hours of play into the single player campaign before losing interest.
The XBL-based multiplayer has some promising features, but ultimately fails to deliver a worthwhile gaming experience. Racing in GRID requires split second reflexes and careful maneuvering. Unfortunately, that is not possible when the other cars are randomly teleporting around on the track thanks to lag. In addition, both of my XBL sessions ended with the game crashing after about an hour.
The first time the screen went blank and 55 XBL-points worth of achievements that I hadn't completed were randomly unlocked. 15 minutes of loading screen later, I shut down the console and logged back in to find that my online GRID ranking and my "total miles driven" statistic were both erased. Spinning out on the final turn is nothing compared to losing 800 miles worth of progress towards an achievement. My second online session also ended with a game crash. This time the game just froze; no loading screen, no blank-out, no random achievements unlocked, just a sudden and complete stop. 15 minutes later, I restarted the console again and, sure enough, my online ranking and total miles driven were, once again, reset. Epic fail.
The single-player campaign in GRID is definitely worth a test drive. Multiplayer has its moments, but you could skip over it without missing much. If you have high blood pressure or a short temper, I would probably recommend steering clear of this particular game. The odds are favorable that you will go into cardiac arrest or smash up one of your controllers (respectively) before you get the hang of driving in GRID. I like to think of myself as a fairly mild-mannered guy, and I was ready to punch kittens by the end of my first 30 minutes behind the wheel. However, if you have the patience to stick with it, this is a fantastic game for car enthusiasts.