Race Driver: Grid continues the stunning visual legacy of its rally-bred predecessor, Dirt, in both overall design and visual quality. The name of the game here is speed, and it's obvious right from the start that the latest edition to the TOCA Touring Cars (V8 Supercars here in Australia) franchise has burrowed out a niche between the pedal to the metal arcade racers like Burnout and the high-end, engine tweaking titles like Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport.
You start your Grid career as a freelance race driver, taking driver offers from other already established teams in order to raise the $80 grand it costs to start your own. These early races allow you to sample some of the higher-end crs that are initially unavailable to you, as well as getting you familiar with the game's driving mechanics before you start sliding your own $300,000 vehicle around the track like soap across a polished tiled floor.
The game presents you with a set of difficulty toggles prior to every race, giving you options such as the level of driver AI, a Pro Mode that disallows you from restarting your race and other racing sim standards like Traction Control. Each setting counts towards your Reputation points, which is Grid's way of progressing you through its career mode. I didn't want to let these Reputation points dictate my enjoyment of the game, so I found a set of custom settings that kept the game both fun and challenging, and with these settings I progressed through the game at a comfortable pace.
The one difficulty setting that I reluctantly, at first, left on was the one setting that I ultimately grew to love. The 'Lock to Head Mode' option locks your camera's view to cockpit perspective and while this takes some getting used to, I quickly mastered it and began to appreciate how much the first person view added to the immersion and enjoyment of the game. The interiors are not quite as detailed as the ones seen in Gran Turismo, but they are still impressive the first time you seen them.
That is until you glance at your rear vision mirror. Whether it's your left-hand door mirror when you're in a left-hand drive car, or the rear-vision mirror in a right-hand drive vehicle, it's painfully obvious to notice the abysmal Nintendo 64-era graphics of the cars chasing you around the track. It's a small issue that is quite annoying and I found myself asking, "Why, if the game offers a Gameplay incentive for you to use the cockpit view, would the developers skip out on the quality of such an important tool?"
Grid's hook is its Flashback system. This is actually a feature that I had seen in early trailers for Grid 6 months prior to its release, but had completely forgotten about when I picked up the title to review. To its discredit, the game hides this feature like a dirty little secret, and only lets you in on it once you've smashed into a wall and wrecked your car. But once you start using Flashback you'll miss it every time you play another racer that doesn't have it, and it should be made as commonplace as Traction Control is to the genre.
Flashback gives you the ability to rewind a few seconds and allows you a do-over if you nick a wall, over correct on a corner, or just downright plummet into a wall. While you are limited in the amount of times you can rewind, it's a feature that you'll wonder how you ever raced without. The time investment when playing a racing game is far more tangible than any other genre. Lap times are clearly visible and it's easy to rack up a whole hour just trying to get that perfect lap, because one mistake means you have to start the race all over again. With Flashback you can rewind, take it again and continue on with the race.
The racing experience of Grid is fun and forgiving. The Flashback feature, combined with the fact that at times your car seems glued to the track make it a treat for the casual gamer, but the hardcore driving ace might feel a little condescended. Motion blurring gives you the feeling that you're moving a squillion miles an hour, and the other cars on the track seem to do a decent job of moving out of the way when passing, to the point where as you accelerate out of a corner after passing three cars and barely breaking at all, you think to yourself, "How the deuce did I make that pass without a scratch?"
It's difficult to find a good balance between the easy-beats and the drivers that will lap you after the first 2 laps when it comes to AI. I played through my career mode on the Normal setting and I'd really have to spill beer all over myself and get up to clean it off just to lose a race. As soon as I switched to the next setting up, I couldn't finish above second last place. Given enough time, I'm sure skill would prevail and even the toughest setting would be a piece of cake, and while the learning curve looks to be pretty steep, this would certainly add to the game's replay value.
It's not long until you've raised enough bread to start your very own race team and it's on with the competition. You are presented with a stylish tiered table featuring the races you can enter over the course of the game. The table is split into three sections, USA, Europe and Japan and as you earn Reputation points you unlock higher tiers.
Race Driver: Grid does a great job of progressing you through the game, almost to the point of spoon-feeding you. While these words might be a deterrent for all you die-hard Gran Turismo junkies out there, it's important to remember where this game places itself in the race simulator world. It is not a game where your goal is to purchase and tune as many cars as possible. On the contrary, Grid's cars are all purposely select, high-performance beasts designed to whiz you around the track at break-neck speeds. You are presented with a wide variety of different racing disciplines, such as your standard lap races, point-to-point and Pro Touge, drifting, and my favourite the demolition derby. Once you've selected your race, you are given the choice of selecting a car from your garage or purchasing a new or used one. You don't spend long deliberating over which car has the most performance or better handling, which allows you to jump right into the business end -the race itself.
The impressive and surprising voice-over acting carries the shallow, almost non-existent, story of the career mode along nicely. Your team manager often chimes in with little nuggets of information and evens uses your name. Your race-spotter does a good (If not great) job of letting you know who's spun out and where your teammate is. Your teammate, which you can hire as you progress further through the career mode will crackle their positions over your in-car radio, and while the tone of their voice when they announce that they're in last position is heart wrenching, It's not enough to keep you from firing their sorry arses once you're back in your garage.
Winning races means sponsor attention, and after a while you'll start attracting some major players and, in turn, start earning some serious cash for each event. The drawback here is the most of the major sponsors will only pay out if you place 1st in the race. This means that although your teammate is taking 45% of your winnings, he's not earning any money because you're the one taking the chequered flag.
You can customise your race team's war-paint with patterns, sponsors and colours and it gives you great sense of pride to see you and your team mate flying around the track in your chosen colours and stripes on the replay.
The online mode of Grid is solid, but not exciting. Unless you're racing a group of buddies, you may as well just go back and race the computer. The competition online is tough too. I played quite a few matches and each time I had my arse handed to me.
As usual, lag was an issue when playing online. The cars ahead would skip and stutter all over the shop, even when playing only with one or two Aussies. This is unforgivable, and considering the game has been out for a good month or two now, it doesn't look like it's one of those games where it will get better as more Aussies get the game.
Achievements spilled out of this game like candy from a busted piñata. I didn't try for a single one and by the end of my first session I had about 8. If you're an Achievement whore like Drew, then this would be a good game for you to spend a few hours in.
Overall Race Driver: Grid really impressed me. On a grander scale this game got me excited about playing single player games again, after a long period where I wouldn't look twice at a game that I couldn't play online with a bunch of guys on a Friday night. This game reminded me of the days where it would be sacrilegious not to finish a game. Despite it's few annoyances, Grid's arcade style racing, combined with the excellent design and fantastic voice acting make this an easy choice for anyone just looking for a great game, and certainly one to consider for those experienced racers looking for their next fix of speed.