Friday, July 04, 2008

GRID Review

GRID, developed and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Several racing styles, flashbacks are neat without being overused, total victory not required for advancement, joining multiplayer games is generally painless, aggressive AI, nice graphics, excellent sound design
The Not So Good: Semi-arcade driving model won’t appeal to everyone, a lot of previous Race Driver disciplines are missing like oval racing, fuzzy graphics return, pre-determined starting position, no car setup options
What say you? Codemasters’ second arcade racing reinvention fares much better: 7/8

DiRT succeeded in screwing up a proud franchise: the Colin McRae rally games. Now we have GRID, the newest version of Codemasters' Race Driver series, another proud franchise which I enjoyed thanks to a wide variety of tracks and cars with believable physics. Competition is stiff on the PC for racing games: oval racers have ARCA Sim Racing, touring car fans have RACE 07, and variety comes in the form of Live for Speed and rFactor. DiRT suffered from a console-oriented design, from the mouse-free menus to the arcade physics to the lackluster multiplayer. While this may fly on the consoles (which, apparently, it did), we PC gamers need more than a simple arcade game. Of course, if it's fun, the lack of authenticity will be forgiven (see Trackmania for a stellar arcade racing game). Does GRID encounter the same pitfalls at the previous Codemasters reboot attempt?

GRID looks, not surprisingly, a lot like DiRT, and that means overall excellence in graphics with a couple of shortcomings. The tracks and environments in the game look almost identical to their real-world counterparts, although racing aficionados will notice some subtle differences in layout (like those big giant arrows pointing the way). The cars are nicely detailed, and the best aspect of these is the outstanding damage model: from chipped paint to crashed windshields to missing bumpers, you will see the fruits of your poor driving labor. GRID continues the Codemasters obsession of having everything look fuzzy and out of focus for unknown reasons, which almost ruins all of the work that went into the graphics. Performance has gotten better, although there are sporadic periods of slow-down and overall I am pleased with how the game runs at high settings. The sound in GRID is fantastic: while the engine sounds are unimpressive, the rest of the audio is awesome. Running over curbs, crashing into things, slightly hitting a barrier: it all sounds great. It’s nice that an area that usually is overlooked gets more attention in GRID. Also, the game calls you by first name (assuming you have a semi-reasonable moniker), so that’s pretty cool. So while GRID continues the fuzzy graphics problem, the rest of the presentation is top-notch.

I’m going to be mentioning DiRT a lot during this review of GRID, for obvious reasons, so be prepared. Prepared? OK, good. The majority of your single player experience in GRID will be spent in the “grid world” career mode. It’s a further enhanced version of the career mode featured in DiRT (see, I told you I would be mentioning it a lot) that eases new players into the game a bit more. You’ll start out in the “way over your head” race that’s been a staple of Race Driver games in the past, but then you get your choice of running freelance races for teams in three regions: the US, Japan, and Europe. Each region comes with its own flavor of racing styles and you can focus on one region or spread yourself out. You earn money simply by showing up and can earn bonus cash by doing well: setting a minimum lap time or top speed, passing a specific driver, or getting a podium finish. I really like that GRID does not force you to win in order to advance, which is the downfall of many racing titles. It’ll take longer to advance, but you can still progress through the game finishing dead last in the introductory races. I do not like how GRID pre-selects your starting position and you have no control over it: starting in 3rd can result in a much different race than starting in 12th, and your sponsors don't care how difficult your race might have been when they sign the checks. Once you earn enough money driving for others, you’ll start your own team.

Your racing team will need a name and paint scheme (which can be used online as well. Indecisive ones can randomize their livery. You start out with a low-level car, but by placing on the podium in races you can earn money to purchase better cars required for additional races. You can still do freelance races like the introductory events, but they pay a lot less money (although it’s not contingent on finishing position). You can focus on one style of racing or spread yourself evenly, and giving the user this level of freedom is a welcome feature. By doing well, you’ll earn sponsors that will give you bonus cash for fulfilling objectives (like finish in the top 5). Being a primary sponsor will double the income, and you can have a number of secondary sponsors as well. I’m so glad that GRID got rid of the completely unrealistic “pay for sponsors” from DiRT. You start out at the easiest difficulty setting, but getting reputation (by finishing on the podium) will unlock higher-level licenses and subsequently more powerful cars that can be bought or sold on eBay (a shrewd marketing scheme). Reputation can also be increased by escalating the AI skill level and removing driver aids. Once your team gets good enough, you can hire a teammate to increase your earnings. Each game year ends with the 24 hours of Le Mans where one game minute equals one hour. The grid world career mode in GRID should keep you busy for quite a while, and the approach is a lot better than before.

In addition to the career mode, you can do a single race. Fortunately, everything is unlocked from the beginning in the single race day mode, so you are not restricted to what you have purchased in the career mode. Multiplayer has gotten overhauled for the better. GRID comes with a server browser with filters, so you can join the game of your choice instead of being limited to quick matches like in DiRT. Also, races with up to twelve people can be undertaken, instead of racing the clock. Completing races will give you experience points that will go towards your online ranking. Online performance is OK: there is the occasional warp that is a result of playing people in Europe (where this series is very popular), but nothing horrible. I will say that GRID features some of the most horrible online drivers that I have ever seen. In almost every single race, the first braking corner is met with a huge accident as a majority of people simply do not slow down. I guess this is what happens when you design a game intended for a more general audience.

GRID features a number of racing disciplines. Typical inclusions are GT, open wheel, touring, and endurance racing. GRID also features drift competitions (in GP, battle, freestyle, and downhill flavors) in addition to one-on-one rally-like togue races (with pro (no traffic, no contact) and midnight (traffic and crashes) versions). Plus, damage fans can enjoy the demolition derbies that take place one modified figure-eight configurations. There are only 15 tracks to choose from, although there are 38 different layouts (plus reverses). While this is not necessarily a small amount of content, when you compare it to the number that was present in Race Driver 3, it is disappointing. Each discipline typically comes with two or three cars to choose from real manufacturers; since I don’t really care about having a huge roster of cars, this is fine with me. You won’t be able to tweak or upgrade your cars at all, since GRID lacks setups and parts upgrades of any form. While this makes the game more fair, those who enjoy fine-tuning their vehicle will be disappointed. It took a while for me to get my gamepad working correctly. I had to input my custom controls, enter a race and find they were not working, exit back to the options menu, input them again, and now it works. Weird. It also took some tweaking to get the controls to feel right, as the defaults are designed for keyboard input: lowering the steering saturation helped a whole lot. GRID features the same slick menus as before and also lacks mouse support, so those who enjoy pointing and clicking (and who doesn’t) will feel left out.

The developers of GRID have settled on a physics model that lies somewhere between arcade and simulation, though it leans more drastically towards arcade. It definitely takes some getting used to, especially with a background in more realistic simulations. Essentially, you can brake very quickly, not worry about shifting weight in your vehicle, and turn easily. Some of the cars feel like they are sliding on ice, while others are more connected to the racetrack. There is also a very fine line between braking and locking up the tires, so that takes some practice as well. Some people will like this relaxed approach and some will not, so whether you ultimately enjoy GRID is dependent on your tolerance for arcade physics. As long as you’re not expecting a completely realistic experience (there are other games for that), then you should be fine. And I will admit that tearing around the corners and bumping off the walls and other cars is pretty fun. You will suffer damage during the game (the AI demands it), and you can cause your gears suspension, steering, engine, and wheels to fail. When (not if, but when) you total your car, the game supplies stats on the speed you hit the way and the G-forces that resulted: pretty funny. The AI drivers are tough and aggressive: normal difficulty proved to be a bit challenging on new courses for a seasoned (mostly paprika) racing veteran such as myself. The AI will also make mistakes in difficult portions of the track, which goes a long way in making them seem more human-like. One of the completely new features in GRID is the flashback. If you suffer a large accident, take a corner too wide, or get passed in the last corner, you can enter the instant replay, pick any point in the past 10 seconds or so, and start from there. It’s a pretty neat feature that is great for beginners, and it also never becomes a focus of the game. Rather, it’s a tool that is limited (beginners get four per race while pros get none) in its usage and more for learning the track in real time than to turn out perfect lap times.

GRID is a whole lot better than DiRT in essentially every area. From the enhanced career mode to the improved multiplayer interface, getting into the races is a lot easier. GRID could have more tracks and disciplines that were present in previous Race Driver games (where’s my ovals?!?), but there is still enough content in GRID to keep you busy. The flashback feature is useful without being gimmicky, and the graphics and sound continue their high-level pedigree. About the only way you won’t like GRID is if you don’t like the driving physics: if you are looking for authentic realism, then GRID is definitely not for you. And I can certainly understand if you’d like a more realistic game (as I tend to gravitate towards them), but sometimes it’s fun to cut loose and fly around corners way too fast while wrecking into a bunch of other cars. That’s something GRID excels at, and it’s certainly a polished and enjoyable arcade racing game.