No matter the genre, most games have one underlying concept that nearly ties them all together: the idea that you are in the digital shoes of another character, playing a role in a fantasy/virtual world, designed for you by a special team of developers. But do any actually make you feel like you’re not just playing as someone, but that you are the character, that you are the center role, that you are the one thing tying everything else together? Codemasters’ Grid 2 ponders this with the racing genre, with a mission to make you–the character–feel like you are a talented but unproven racer making his way up the ranks. But does this experience truly immerse players, or is it an incomplete concept that loosely binds the game together?
Grid 2 revolves around the idea that a sports visionary named Patrick Callahan wants to put together an entirely new racing franchise called World Series Racing. His idea is that he can unite all of the disparate racing leagues together into one grand federation of speed. Think Dana White and the UFC: uniting such vastly different racing clubs, cars, and racing types into one complete package. But to make this work, he needs a star. A star to–pardon the pun–drive this idea to the finish line and gets fans behind it.
And that star is you.
This idea permeates every design choice of Grid 2: from single player to multiplayer, from the actual races to Race.Net. Everything is about you being the best, winning over rivals, and gaining as many fans as you can. It actually works really well.
We’ve seen set ups like this before in sports and racing games: you’re a no-name amateur trying to make it big; you have a virtual garage or locker room that you can access the game’s features from, and you have to beat objectives to advance properly in the main narrative. Grid 2 is no different in that respect, setting up players in a virtual garage where their computer accesses their races, their stats, and their cars. What’s nice about this set up in Grid 2 is that it doesn’t stop there.
When you start the single player career mode “World Series Racing,” you are prompted to do a create-a-player-like process with the bare essentials of your name and background. There’s even a WWE-like “Announce Name” feature, where you can (hopefully) find your name (or choose a suitable substitute) so that when you are spoken to during the campaign, it’s like you’re actually being spoken directly to. The entire campaign afterwards has nifty little moments where–when you rise through the ranks–you see your name on social media networks, on TV, the works. All to compound the idea that this is your life. You’ll even gain rivals to look out for, to beat, and to overcome when you’re racing, constantly giving you something to strive for while playing.
This idea extends to gameplay as well. Everything you do is aided by a disembodied voice that explains new rules, gives you pointers, and critiques your performance as you race. No, this isn’t The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time‘s Navi: thankfully and surprisingly, it never feels intrusive. It actually feels genuine, adding that extra dimension of authenticity. You are, after all, an up and coming star, being guided to not only make yourself famous, but represent an entire brand. I had plenty of moments where the guidance and management was much appreciated, and I was surprised by how accurate the advice given could be. Perhaps this betrays how badly I performed in certain earlier races, but the game was very specific on the advice given sometimes.
Of course, how A.I. acts during races is far more important to how long you’ll be playing this game, and in this Grid 2 excels, with it’s “TrueFeel” system. For anyone who believes single player games prepare gamers for multiplayer real-life opponents, Grid 2‘s A.I. are among the best, with competitors that will cut you off, try to lead you into forks in the road to make you crash, tip the backend of your car to make you spin, the works. Don’t fear: it isn’t always a Death Race 2000 type of game, but these occasional moments of fierce opposition are usually welcome. Enemies feel like human opponents. There are times when it can be a little frustrating (sometimes very frustrating), but again, this is a game meant to make you a sharp racer and sharp player.
Grid 2, in fact, may fall between arcadey-fun and full-on simulation, but it leans just a little more heavily towards the realistic approach. There are many races where precision trumps speed and brunt force, like the race type “Overtake,” which has you building up points for every car you pass. The best way to build up points is to create a combo chain, which requires players to pass cars without making a “collision.” Which means not touching anything at all, even for a moment, even down thin roads and sharp turns. It’s a challenge, but it makes you actually want to learn to play better. Cars have weight and will drive with real racing physics, but driving isn’t as punishing once you get used to the controls. This realism also comes in the way of the damage you take to your car: the more damage you take, of course, the more it affects your car. This isn’t the typical “hood flies off” “door gets dents” “smoke comes out” and then your car runs a little slower; no, particular damage to particular parts of the car cause particular penalties.
Racing modes include a variety of challenges, including Race (the normal get-to-the-finish-line objective); Checkpoint (every checkpoint gives you extra time to keep racing); Elimination (the last car at the end of each countdown gets taken out); the aforementioned Overtake, and more. Within each race there’s also the chance to take on mini-challenges, ones provided by the decals you put on your car. Again, each of these are for the purpose of increasing your fans, and Grid 2 never breaks character on this act.
I also have to mention Grid 2‘s “Liveroutes” system, a system that creates your path as you play, making each lap feel like a different map. This system doesn’t radically change maps the same way that Split/Second‘s “course change” feature does, but it does enough to shake up a race and keep players on their toes. Some players may feel more at home with learning and mastering specific tracks, tracks they’ll race on several times during the game, but Liveroutes is a nice start to dynamic races that keep drivers guessing.
Visually, the game is stunning. It may not be as sharp or vibrant as some of its peers on the market, but the attention to detail is more amazing than most. Not only are the graphics pretty, but the lighting is fantastic (and reflects off the car’s hood wonderfully), and cities are often as accurate as you can imagine. It’s not just the scale or how identical the buildings are to photo-realism: in Chicago the hundreds of spectator’s flashing their camera at night is awesome to behold; the fireworks in Dubai are fun to see, as well as the boats that seem to momentarily raced alongside you from the water; the planes that fly in the background of Miami are insignificant but appreciated: again, none of these directly affect gameplay, but it makes the stages feel more real, and more alive.
This attention to detail shows off during gameplay as well: when an auto part falls off your car, it doesn’t just fade into obscurity, it really falls off and stays there. Make a lap, and you’ll see it in the same place. If a car gets eliminated, it doesn’t just magically disappear. It actually drives off the stage. These are all nice little touches. The developers at Codemasters explained to me previously why they decided to remove the little-used cockpit view, but it’s still a shame to have that option unavailable when in the presence of such an interesting virtual world.
All of this bleeds into the Multiplayer, which is actually its own separate campaign. While you may no longer be the WSR-Hero of the single player campaign, you are still a WSR racer looking to accrue fans (almost a secondary currency in this game), take on rivals, and get better cars. The graphics and details are identical to the single player, which made the little things even more surprising to see. Unfortunately, this does lead to occasional glitches during races, glitches highly reminiscent of Wreck-It Ralph‘s heroine and racer, Vanellope. More than once did I see cars that faded or started blinking, and then suddenly vanished and appeared a few feet to the side or a few feet ahead. But this isn’t a gamebreaking issue, and most often you have to deal with your rivals’ cutthroat tactics more than any unfair technical handicaps or penalties.
And if you find certain playstyles are ruining your racing experience, there’s always Grid 2‘s extensive matchmaking options to find the races and players you’d like to play with. You can also turn on and off such penalties as “corner cutting,” which forces your car to drive at a slower speed for a short amount of time when taking shortcuts. Finally, there’s also some great “global challenges” and “Rivals” features, which encourage players to take on special objectives or go against strangers to see who has the fastest wheels in the world. Races and followers can be managed via Grid 2‘s “Race.Net” social network, which allows players to upload and share moments, show off stats, accrue real-life fans, and feel as much of a superstar as their racing hero in the single player campaign.
One single player campaign-exclusive feature is Grid 2‘s signature “Flashback” component, which gives players the power to rewind time (or, as the game puts it, “see how that moment could have happened”). This Prince of Persia or Braid-like feature is great, because it helps new players adjust to Grid 2‘s gameplay early on, while also serving as a way to perfect your style. Sure, you could just use up your limited uses as a cheap device to blaze through a race haphazardly, but you could just as well learn from your mistakes by trying to take a sharp turn a different way, or test how a change of pace could alter your results. The idea that these are limited also drives you to play better, because when you get caught in the middle of a mistake and then find out you’re out of Flashbacks, it really hurts. It teaches players to conserve them and play smarter, using them in the right situations as a true game-changer.
Grid 2, as you can see, has plenty to offer. It’s not perfect, and players looking for a game that you can just jump into and play may be turned off at first. But for everyone else, Grid 2 succeeds, at making a game with a good campaign and at making a uniform experience across the single player and multiplayer despite the different premise. With the power of next-gen coming soon, I’m eager to see what Codemasters will do with its follow-up in expanding it’s social media aspect and with making A.I., stages, and Liveroutes system more advanced: but until then, Grid 2 will certainly keep my need for speed and for burning rubber satisfied.