Codemasters’ Grid 2 has something of a hill climb to overcome. The racing game fields on both Sony and Microsoft’s consoles are dominated by first party giants – Gran Turismo’s clinical, and Forza’s celebratory, simulations. This is further complicated by Forza’s thematic shift a little closer to the arcade side of things – Horizon – being such a success last year.
But console racing isn’t only about the games that pitch themselves as more simulation-like, there’s room for those with less of a fervour for gear ratios and wheel camber, too.
It’s been over two years since EA’s heavily marketed sequel to Shift and there is enough different between a track-based racer and the ostensibly open world or point-to-point approach of more recent Need for Speed games. Grid 2 might be arriving on the cusp of an opportunity but is it good enough to capitalise on that?
The preview code I’ve played is unfinished and had a number of known – and easily forgivable, at this stage of its life – issues. Things like texture and shadow pop-in, long load times, frame rate and sound issues, and low resolution paint jobs on cars are the things they tend to fix last in a game like this and, given that they pointed them out to us before the disc was even inserted, there’s plenty of reason to assume that they will fix them before they call the game “finished” and ship it. More critical, at this stage, is the way the cars handle, the AI and the systems the game sets up for its career mode.
Grid 2 takes the now-familiar tack of dropping you into a race before anything else, even a menu screen, becomes available. This is often a way to test your ability and suggest a difficulty level or range of assists you may or may not want. In Grid 2, it didn’t seem to make any difference whatsoever. Despite my rather tragic performance – limping home in the almost panel-less chassis of a much-crashed car at least ten seconds behind everyone else – the voiceover in my ear told me I was brilliant and had surely caught the eye of whoever I was trying to impress.
That launches you into the game’s career mode, after setting up your name and picking a difficulty level – which is not related to assists but seems to simply dumb down the opposition AI. This was an issue because, as my performance in the opening race might have indicated, the car handling was quite a struggle to overcome.
Most of my racing was in a US-made muscle car, with its heavy back end and powerful rear wheel drive making it an obvious candidate for difficult handling. But even the cars that you wouldn’t ordinarily expect to turn like a fan boat on a Louisiana bayou weren’t exactly sharp in their steering. There’s a distinctly lightweight feel to the cars which results in super sensitive braking, drift that isn’t easy to pull out of before oversteering into a spin and erratic collisions that will have you hitting that handy rewind function more often than you’d like.
I found some of the collisions to be completely unpredictable too. Trading paint on a corner might be a viable course of action in this style of game but where you might reasonably expect a speed penalty and obvious steering issues, I often found my car’s back end would often almost bounce off the opposition (or barriers) and put me into a fast and uncontrollable spin while my opponent drove on as normal. Occasionally, that bounce would also have verticality so a sideways shunt turned into something from a Michael Bay movie. Perhaps the remedy to this is plenty more practice and a gentler touch on the controls (I played with a DualShock but they promise “most” wheels will be supported) but that’s a work-around to avoid the bizarre responses to a collision rather than a fix.
The frustration of tensely setting myself up through a series of corners to try an overtaking manoeuvre, only to see a gentle bump with my opponent (whoever’s fault that might be…) result in a spectacular crash and a loss of several places, caused me to restart and set the difficulty to its easiest setting. This doesn’t improve handling or make the propensity to lose traction any less and it doesn’t change the lightweight feel of vehicles or the way they respond to collisions. It makes the opposition AI drive like your grandmother might if taking a bus full of six-year-olds to Sunday school.
I know it’s listed as “Very Easy” but it really does almost turn opponents into semi-mobile barricades. So you’re not actually operating within a more manageable set of rules for your own performance, you’re just smashing and crashing a flimsy, erratic car through a field of super slow opponents. Rather than make the penalty for the game’s handling issues more easily avoidable, it simply makes them less punishing. Stepping up the difficulty levels did allow me to find a point where I could balance the punishment incurred for leaving the ideal racing line with how difficult it was to catch up to the rest of the field again but the frustration of never quite knowing how a manoeuvre might end up never went away.
The career mode is based around a presumably wealthy (and very easily impressed) racing magnate who wants to set up a global racing scene featuring the best drivers from around the world. He’s counting on you to wow the other drivers and fans of other racing clubs and convince them to join up. This allows the game to present you with a particular rival in each field of racers and task you with impressing them enough that they’ll want to join your racing meets.
My bosses always seemed extremely impressed with my (generally winning) performances, regardless of the state in which I brought the car home but there wasn’t enough of the game on show here to properly determine how I’d be unlocking new vehicles and upgrading my garage. The fan system is potentially interesting though, winning races allows you to win fans – a running tally is recorded back at your garage. The game frames the career mode as a kind of YouTube channel that shows races (even referencing “camera phones” pointing at you in the opening race). The more popular you become, the better your career is going.
There are several different types of race, from straight up multiple-lap track races to drift competitions, elimination events where the car in last position is removed from the race every 20 seconds and an odd LiveRoutes race, where the track changes through the race.
LiveRoutes works by taking several overlapping circuits from the game and loading them all simultaneously. As you drive, the points at which these tracks converge could see you heading off onto a different section of track, and without a mini-map in the corner this makes judging braking points and setting up racing lines near impossible with trial and error.
Grid 2 is, at least, looking good with some quite lovely lens effects, smoke effects and in-race scenery to match the decent presentation of events and the kind of YouTube-based fan system it uses to chart your building popularity and therefore your success towards your goal. Unfortunately, though, the most important parts of any racing game – the car handling and opponent interaction – are too erratic at this point. The handling doesn’t feel like its too far away from being perfectly acceptable, so that might be an easy fix for finished code. The objectionable collisions, however, seem almost like a bug and that might require a little more work to track down.
Hopefully, they pin it all down before the game’s release at the end of May.