July 22, 2008 Codemasters returned to their prior reputable standing as racing game developers with the release of Colin McRae DIRT last June. This year, Race Driver: GRID resurrects another last-gen favorite for the current generation of consoles - here's our full review.
Starting off with an old, beaten-up Mustang, you'll need to race for other teams in order to earn the money you'll need to fix up your car, design your team's signature paint job and start your team. Racing for other teams earns you cash fast, and means you don't have to own a suitable car to enter an event, but it doesn't do much at all for your reputation - which you'll need to reach the advanced races. The good news is you can breeze past this first part of the game on one of the easier difficulty levels if you need to, earning the $30,000 you need in less than fifteen minutes.
While the 47 cars on offer might seem a little light on in comparison to Forza Motorsport 2, the depth and variety of the racing modes in GRID more than make up for it. You'll be racing across three continents (US, Europe and Asia) each with their own vehicles and several signature events like the demolition derbies and muscle cars of the US, the touring cars and circuit racing of Europe and the pro-tuned racers and Touge (head-to-head, no-contact mountain climbs and descents) events of Japan. And before you think "Jack of all trades, master of none," I can safely say that GRID excels in everything it does despite it's ambitious reach.
GRID is part-simulation, part-arcade. You can slide around a corner, but it doesn't feel like you're on train tracks like Ridge Racer. You'll have to brake to get around a hairpin, but it you're not going to spin out and ruin your race should you accelerate a little too early on the way out. It's just...fun. In contrast with a majority of racing games, the AI doesn't rely on cheating to win by sitting inches away from your rear bumper and waiting for the slightest mistake. If you pull off a perfect turn on the last lap, you'll be extending your lead. The rubber banding effect is absent, and it's a far more rewarding racing experience as a result.
GRID features a Flashback mechanic that is one of the most innovative ideas to hit the racing genre in years. Depending on the difficulty level you've chosen, you get a certain number of flashbacks per race. At any stage you can pause the game, scroll back through the replay, and resume the gameplay from a point in time before you'd made a mistake. It's a brilliant element that takes the frustration out of your inevitable mistakes - a Flashback is a far better option than restarting the race, especially when you've just lost it on the last corner of a twenty minute run around Circuit de la Sarthe. What's great is that those who think the mechanic is akin to cheating can choose to leave it unused, and those who think it's the best thing since Daytona hit arcades can use it to enjoy the racing without the frustration.
There's no denying that GRID is gorgeous. The sense of speed it conveys in motion is amazing - the screenshots don't really do it justice. Convincing smoke effects and an unsurpassed damage model lead to some truly spectacular crashes. More impressive is that Codemasters managed to leave enough horsepower to render possibly the most human-looking crowd in a racing game. They wave frantically as you drive by, cheer as you overtake, and gasp as you hit a barrier at 120 miles per hour - a welcome change compared to the static mannequins standing by the road in Gran Turismo 5 Prologue.
The pacing is beautiful - you can buy a competitive car for a new event type by winning a handful of races - so you won't have to grind for hours to progress in the game. Provided you're winning races, sponsors will regularly contact you. There's enough room on your car for one major sponsors logo, and several minor sponsors which you can change at any time. Each sponsor will set conditions like "Place higher than 4th for $3,000" or "Place 1st for $6,000", so with the right sponsors, you can rack up some serious cash for even a podium place. There's also a basic teammate mechanic that allows you to hire a driver to race with you. Having your team win in the team standings on top of winning the drivers championship means even more cash and reputation, and your sponsors will pay out on your teammates placing as well.
As you'd expect from the developers of DIRT, the interface and menu system is absolutely superb. It's incredibly quick and easy to navigate, you've got a clear indication of the differences between cars before you purchase them, and the time you spend watching loading screens is made far less painful by showing interesting statistics like the total number of miles you've raced, how much of the game you've completed and how far away you are from unlocking certain achievements.
If you tire of the clinical feel of simulations like Forza and Gran Turismo, but can't get into Ridge Racer, Need for Speed or Burnout, GRID could be the racing game you have been waiting for. And no matter what racers you're already into, the GRID experience is so undeniably fun that it's worth a rental at the very least.
We tested the Xbox 360 version of the game, but there are versions available for the Nintendo DS, PlayStation 3 and PC, including a digital download from Steam. Console demos are available from Xbox Live Marketplace and the PlayStation Network, and the PC demo is available from Codemasters.