Let’s start with a quiz: are you a car nut, dear reader? Are you the sort of person who worries about torque and centre-of-mass and how many valves it has and all sorts of other weird phrases that I’m probably using wrong? If so, then this is not a review for you, because I don’t know what any of that means!
I’m not exactly an aficionado of either cars or racing games. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll regularly pop in some of the more arcade-y ones – I still think Blur is the finest arcade racer of all time, and I’ve messed around with DiRT 2, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, Project Gotham Racing, etc. – but any game that positions itself as a “simulation” terrifies me. So no, this isn’t a review for those of you who pore over car specifications with the voracious appetite of a dog at a barbecue. This is for those of you who enjoy the odd racing game, as long as they’re not too scary. Maybe you watch Top Gear every now and then. Maybe you haven’t played a racing game for awhile and you’re curious. It’s okay. I’m here for you.
And if you’re like me and prefer your racers somewhere in the middle of the Arcade/Simulation spectrum (but maybe leaning a bit more towards the arcade side) then you’ll also be happy to know that Grid 2 actually straddles that line remarkably well and offers a rather entertaining experience, even for the car-shy.
Oddly, Grid 2 is a racing game with a bit of a story. You’re a fledgling driver, and you’ve been handpicked by shadowy financier Patrick Callahan to be the poster-boy for his dream racing league, World Series Racing. Initially, at least, it’s your job to beat the world’s best clubs at their own events so that they’ll sign on for WSR, while simultaneously winning over the crowd so that WSR has a fanbase. Later on, once the WSR gets going properly, you devote all your time to competing in that and becoming the PEOPLE’S CHAMPION.
If you don’t fancy all that fluff, you could just as easily describe it as “win events to get fans; get lots of fans to unlock more races and the season finale”, but that’d be a bit of a shame because – while it’s not exactly Planescape: Torment – all of these little bits add a human touch to what is, essentially, cars going around a track. Each season is even closed by an ESPN discussion of how the WSR is expanding, which is rather neat. That’s right! This has in-game advertising/sponsorship that actually makes sense and adds to the game! Be still, my heart.
Each club specialises in a different sort of event, which is a good reason for the game having so many modes other than standard races (which, obviously, are the game’s primary focus). There’s Faceoff, a series of one-on-one races in a knockout format. There’s Touge, a best-of-three one-on-one race in which you’re trying to get five seconds ahead, but are disqualified for ramming. There’s Elimination, in which the last place vehicle is removed every time a clock ticks down to zero, until only one car remains. There are drift competitions, endurance races, overtake promo events, time trials… There’s a fair amount of variety, is what I’m saying.
And, obviously, there are also about a billion real-world cars to drive. Well, okay: it’s probably closer to 50, but it still feels like a billion. These are divided into four tiers, ranging from relatively low-end bits and bobs like an Alfa Romeo Giulietta and a Nissan Fairlady Z, up to the expected Tier 4 dominators like the McLaren F1 and the Koenigsegg Agera R.
If, like me, you can barely remember the names of those cars, you’ll be happy that their stats are simple and self-explanatory. You’ve got Top Speed, Acceleration, Power, Weight, what drive layout it has, and whether it’s drifty, grippy, or balanced between the two. I get the impression there’s a lot more going on under the hood, as it were, but the visible stats tell you just about everything you need to know, and even I can handle that lot.
Speaking of handling, every car does handle differently. While Grid 2 doesn’t feature the most realistic simulation of cars, they’ve all got their own little quirks that take some getting used to. When it comes to racing games, I generally consider that it’s doing a pretty good job of differentiating cars if I perform horribly and crash on every corner the first time I hop in, but am driving like a pro half an hour later. This does that rather well.
There’s certainly still a focus on “fun”, though. It’s easy to throw a car into a drift and, with a bit of practice, it’s not too hard to pull it out of one and shoot off at high speeds. That said, it’s also not too hard to misjudge a corner, turn too late, and slide side-on into a barrier. A lot of the skill in the game comes down to mastering whatever vehicle you’re using; if you’ve got a light, drift-y car then you can afford to be more aggressive on corners, while if you’re in a lumbering powerhouse then you need to take corners conservatively and push hard on straights.
It’s not exactly realistic, but it feels like… oh, let’s say “exaggerated realism.” Most vehicles handle roughly as you’d expect, but pushed just a little bit further to make them “fun.” Expect drifting and oversteer.
Cor. Hark at me, writing like I know things about cars.
You can just about squeak through most of the opening seasons by bouncing off barriers, but around the time high-tier cars start appearing, you’ll actually need some genuine skill to proceed. That’s when you need to try sticking to racing lines, and slowing into/accelerating out of corners at the right times. A fair few of the Tier 4 cars drive like a melting stick of butter attached to a firework and shot across a sheet of ice, and holding down the accelerator and trying to drift around tight hairpins will result in you going hood-first into a rockface.
What happens after you slam into said rockface depends on your difficutly. Damage is fully modelled on Normal upwards; it’s entirely possible to take engine damage that slows you down, take some hits to the side that results in your car pulling to the left or right and losing a lot of its cornering power, or even lose tyres. Oh, and totalling the car by ploughing it into a wall at 200mph will lose you the race rather than plonking you back on track.
Fortunately for those who are as dreadful as me, rewinds – letting you quite literally rewind the race and then take control again at an earlier point – are back in. You get a maximum of five for each race, though, so you still have to use them pretty strategically; while it can be handy to try taking a corner a liiiiittle too fast, just to see if it’ll work, you may well wind up requiring that rewind later on. You’d hate to end up with a DNF because you smashed into someone’s house and had no rewinds left because you used them all up on one corner earlier, wouldn’t you?
Courses are varied; other than Probably Real-World Tracks, Look, I Don’t Know These Things like Brand’s Hatch, the Algarve circuit, and the Red Bull Ring, there’s also a bit of racing through city streets and a few mountainous locations. In a neat touch, most offer “LiveRoutes” – a sort of on-the-fly design that creates a track out of the individual pieces that make up the normal ones. All regions look and sound gorgeous, too, thanks to Grid 2‘s stunning attention to aesthetics. Lighting effects in night-time races are to die for, and the way the engine sound modulates when you’re passing through tunnels is impressive enough that even I noticed; I get the impression that there are hundreds of little details in the modelling and physics that car aficionados may well pick up on, but I’m not really qualified to comment.
The regions play differently, too. Paris contains both wide, multi-lane roads and tiny cobbled streets; Dubai has lots of sweeping curves; Chicago is full of 90 degree corners… as the voice-in-your-ear will repeatedly tell you. This chap (who can call you by your real name, presumably thanks to an actor reading out names for a few hours) is of no help and occasionally annoys, giving you advice like “Now that you’re in third, you can try to take second” and “You lost some time when you went off the track there.” Despite how aggressively useless he is I actually like his presence, because it gives me someone to shout at. Honestly, I just assume that he’s looking at porn and eating a Big Mac while occasionally glancing at a TV to see how the race is going.
Now, to darker stuff. For some people, there’s one big pall hanging over the game. I speak, of course, of Cockpitgate, which isn’t some sort of bizarre airline sex scandal but is instead the lack of an in-car cockpit view, ostensibly because it freed up both time and rendering power to make the courses and cars look prettier.
Truthfully, I don’t actually mind. I’ve never really used cockpit view when racing “seriously”, instead hopping into it occasionally to ooh and ahh over things, and there’s enough to ooh and ahh over here anyway. There are still a variety of views, from the default third-person behind-the-car floating camera, to a bumper cam, to… well, what’s basically a cockpit view without the cockpit. If you’re really turned off by the lack of an intricately-rendered dashboard for each of the game’s cars, then I feel for you, but I can’t say it impacted my enjoyment any. I can imagine that those with pedals and a wheel do kinda need this to function at their best, though.
We should probably also talk about the multiplayer, but I’m not sure I’m in a good position to really go in-depth into this. I’ve played it for about five hours (twice with devs and other journos, and twice with Peter) but that’s not really long enough to throw out a definitive judgment.
What I’ve played, though, is pretty bloody good. It follows the Call of Duty formula in that you take control of a nameless soldier with a gun, who… wait, no. It follows the Call of Duty formula in that the multiplayer is completely separate from single-player: you level up and get cash during multiplayer matches (custom or otherwise), which lets you purchase new cars, upgrade old ones, and customise your liveries. Racing against real human beings is always more enjoyable than taking on the AI, and there’s supposedly tech inside that groups like-minded players together, whether you’re a clean driver or the type who rams your opponents off the road. Nice touch, if it works.
It’s not just multiplayer, either. If you’re desperate to gain a few levels to unlock new cars or new paints you can take part in the solo Global Challenges for some weekly experience, and to prove to your friends that you’re a better Car Driving Man or Woman than they are by scoffing at their scores. And it now occurs to me that I didn’t spot any female names on the drivers of other cars in single-player, which seems like a bit of a sad oversight since this is meant to be a brand-new racing league.
Ignoring for a moment that the fairer sex are yet again unrepresented, there’s a huge amount here that I want to specifically applaud: the aesthetics, the intuitive handling, the way it remains accessible despite appearing to have an ocean’s depth, the way LiveRoutes screw you up and force you to be more cautious, the rush of speed, the personality. But there’s no space to go into detail, so I’ll just say this: Grid 2 is a gorgeous, well-designed game that packs a tonne of variety into both single-player and multiplayer. Hardcore sim fans and those who refuse to play anything that doesn’t feature a cockpit may well disapprove, but Grid 2‘s realistic-but-not-too-realistic driving and drifting should be able to pull a squeak of delight out of just about anyone else.