Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: Race Driver: GRID


PS3, Xbox 360, PC, DS

When you’re framing the concept of an ideal racing game, there’s a fine line between the pixel-perfect windscreen wiper simulations of Gran Turismo and the Burnout series’ lightning bolt from the arcade gods. Whatever shortcomings Race Driver: GRID may have, it toes that line throughout, taking enough positive attributes from each extreme to make a complete driving experience. Without getting bogged down in collecting seven hundred makes and models or causing as much damage as possible to innocent civilian vehicles, GRID just works admirably as both a racing and team management game. Although, for a driving game, it sure does have a pedestrian title.

GRID follows in the footsteps of the crowd favourite TOCA Race Driver series, and uses a very similar graphics engine to stablemate DiRT (which, incidentally, is the reason there are no off-road tracks left in GRID – they all got shipped off to a different game). Developers Codemasters rewrote parts of their Neon engine from scratch for GRID’s Ego engine, paying particular attention to the already-solid damage modelling. Unlike GT5: Prologue, which refused to show a single scratch on your car, even if you drove off a cliff, GRID’s damage shows every single ding, dent or scrape, and even minor damage to your car will impact its performance. Another feature that will appeal to literal-minded gamers is persistent damage modelling, meaning that the bumper bar you shed on the first lap will continue to be a hazard for you and the computer-controlled drivers each time you pass it. (Given the time penalty inherent in hitting a wall and getting back up to speed, though, there’s no question of tactically spreading debris across the course to gain an advantage in the race.)

Upon starting the game, you’re thrown head-first into a race, and told not to concern yourself with placing, and only to finish. Once you cross the line, though, you’re given a worse car – a beaten-up Mustang, and told to go and seek your fortune. It’s a common enough method of starting up, although it has an air of the ‘abilitease’ about it – start the player off with a souped-up monster for the smallest possible amount of time, and then reduce them to a shell of their former selves. Despite this, the effort involved in building up a car, reputation, and (later) a racing team are among the most fun parts of the game – it’s kind of like Super Burnout: RPG.

The cars handle very smoothly on the courses, and feel slightly less fine-tuned than those in Gran Turismo, although there’s still a hell of a learning curve. This difficulty is ameliorated somewhat by the addition of the new ‘Flashback’ feature, effectively letting you rewind the action after any crashes serious mishaps, and take control again from the point you screwed up. It’s as if all game developers these days liked the 3D Prince of Persia games so much that they’re shoehorning in a ‘mulligan’ feature wherever possible, regardless of genre expectations or plot. Why call it a flashback when the point of racing games is immediacy, and the rest of the game is based, necessarily, around forward motion? Braid (reviewed here) plays with and subverts this concept, but GRID seems to just throw the feature in to flatten out the rapidly spiking difficulty curve. Accessibility isn’t usually a concern of racing game devs, though, and while inexperienced gamers may appreciate a do-over, the inclusion of flashbacks comes across as surprisingly patronising, if occasionally useful.

There are fifty events to complete in the single-player game, ranging from the hilly streets of San Francisco (complete with a shiny muscle car, a la Steve McQueen), drift tournaments in Japan, Touge events that will see you measuring your performance in microseconds, a Le Mans 24 endurance mode, and, to wean players off Burnout (as if Paradise hadn’t already done that), you can even take part in some very satisfying demolition derbies.

Visually, GRID again toes the line between current-gen versions of GT and Burnout on the major consoles, while still offering moments of level design and art direction that catch players’ breath – in particular, the glowing, hypnotic night-time levels in Japan and the crisply defined open-wheel street levels in Germany spring to mind as magnificently designed and laid-out set-pieces.

In comparison to the morass of menus in GT5, navigation through GRID’s options is incredibly straightforward. Want to buy a new car for your team? It’s only ever a couple of button presses away, and the only real clanger in the process is the branded eBay Motors screen – easy enough for New Zealand audiences to ignore, perhaps, but the hefty product placement still mars the (otherwise independent and accomplished) game.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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