GRID Legends reminds me of the F1 2021 season finale. “No, no, no. That’s was so not right!” you can imagine AI driver Valentin Manzi crying down the team radio as his tyre blows up unexpectedly and the player sweeps past them to win. “Valentin? It’s called a motor-race, OK? We went car racing,” replies the AI race director as he smashes buttons to explode some more tyres on other cars.
That now infamous exchange from last year’s F1 finale is basically the ethos of GRID Legends. It’s all of the brash, over the top spectacle of motor racing, the wheel-to-wheel battles and clattering fumbled overtakes, the charges through the field from the back of the grid, and as little of the boring stuff as possible. In some ways, it manages to capture those high octane thrills, but it’s built on the foundations of the 2019 reboot, and that shows.
At the end of the day, Grid Legends is an enjoyable racer, so long as you check your brain at the door. Everything about the game is built for spectacle. The selection of vehicles adds Stadium Trucks, Big Rigs, electric race cars and more to the typical array of racing hot hatches, GTs and tuner cars that you’d expect. The events throw in mixed class races, Elimination events, and optional boost gates and ramps. Every race feels like it’s accompanied by a cannonade of fireworks, even if it’s taking place in the middle of the day, and there’s dramatic, pulsating soundtrack that only barely drowns out the sounds of cars smashing together, tyres exploding, car engines giving up the ghost and seemingly inexplicable crashes that send cars barrel rolling down the straight.
There’s a wide range of cars to race through the various categories and performance brackets. You’re given monstrous amounts of grip by many of them, to the extent that you can go flat out through the S curves at Suzuka, when even the mightiest, most downforce-laden F1 car has to bleed off speed in the real world. As the cars get faster, they start to become more unruly through corners, certain cars dragging to the side under heavy braking, and an inclination toward power sliding through the turn. It’s a step forward over the 2019 game in some ways, but it’s still far from a simulation. Then again that’s not what they’re really aiming to be.
Again, this is all about the spectacle, and the AI absolutely feeds into that. The driver personalities reappear from the 2019 game, as does the ability to rile someone up enough to be your Nemesis. You can have more nemeses at once in this game, but even without that, the AI has a bit of a nasty streak, some of them happily side-swiping you when you’re trying to pass. It feeds back into how you race, against them, happily clattering into them when you need to muscle your way through.
The biggest new talking point is the Driven to Glory story mode, which wraps a documentary-style narrative around a pretty lengthy series of race events. You join the struggling Team Seneca as the rookie Driver 22, bursting onto the scene to compliment the team’s veteran driver Yume Tanaka, and battling with rivals at Team Voltz’ Valentin Manzi and eventually Ravenwest’s Nathan McKane.
It’s a solid narrative, aping the way that Netflix’s Drive to Survive tells the story of Formula 1 through interviews with the main figures, occasional fly-on-the-wall video, and then throws you into any number of different race events. There’s some good, slightly hammy performances for your erstwhile rivals, and the production does good things with blending their acting with digital backgrounds. There’s a hefty 36 events to work through, spanning prety much all of the different race types and disciplines as you go from rookie, to leading Seneca up into the Pro League and then battle against Ravenwest for the title.
The problem with stories in racing games is that they always want to make you the underdog and/or the rookie, but that doesn’t really gel well with the innate desire to win races you’re taking part in. F1 2021’s Braking Point story took the approach of giving you more specific scenarios to overcome, generally keeping race wins well out of reach and the small victories of lower points finishes and recovery drives in the fore. Grid Legends pretty much always gives you an opportunity to win, so when the following event is pitched as a comeback drive or a make-or-break race where you need to come 8th or 4th or beat a particular driver, it doesn’t quite fit.
Where the story gives a linear structure, the main “career” in the game feels oddly rudderless by comparison. All of the pieces are there – the slew of events across different categories, the ability to name and brand your team, pick a sponsor with additional objectives, grab upgrades for your expanding garage of cars and to boost your stats and earnings – but it’s sprinkled across the main menu in a way that feels dilutes it. It doesn’t help that many events and vehicles have prerequisites, like needing to level up a car by driving a certain distance, or to complete a particular blandly named event.
On the other hand, everything you do in the game counts toward progression, and that’s part of the all-encompassing Race Creator, where you can mix and match whatever cars, event types, locations and weather you like. You can add Stadium Truck ramps to any tracks you want (even when racing other vehicles), you can cook up HGV vs. dinky little open wheelers in a brutal multi-class race, add in boost zones for electric vehicles to grab a three boost allowance. If you really want, you can set up a race in the night time snow at Australia’s Mount Panorama circuit.
Much of this can be playing in multiplayer. The story mode is a purely single player experience, but as you’re playing through the career, you can open things up to let other people join your race. They won’t progress their own career, but can certainly hop in to play in yours. The Race Creator is the tool that is used for the freeform online multiplayer racing, but a nice quirk is the ability to join a lobby and, if the race is less than 60% complete, take over a randomly chosen AI driver. It works, but the UI is a bit confusing for when you just want to try and join a friend (who has to have set their lobby to be online).