In general, I am accustomed to a sedate introduction to a new virtual world. Oftentimes this introduction takes the form of either a narrated video tailored towards an absolute newcomer or a kind-hearted offer for the neophyte player to partake in some kind of formal tutorial. Rarely do I find myself immediately overwhelmed by a sudden drop into the type of almost complete sensory overload as was common in an old TV show called “Quantum Leap,” and even then the mind-bending transitions of that show occurred at the end of the previous week's show. You had a week to get your head wrapped around it.
This was an entirely different experience; the first thing I knew, I was sitting in a car at the starting line of a race. Thus it was that I found myself struggling to make the mental adjustment required to survive a race through the streets of Chicago as I jumped into Codemaster’s GRID 2. As it turns out, the race ended up being quite the debacle, at least from where I was sitting.
Fortunately, my dismal results did not negatively impact the first impression I made on a guy named Patrick Callahan. Like many before him, Mr. Callahan thought that he had found a new way to break into the motorsport industry with a racing series he was calling World Series Racing. The fundamental idea behind the series was to gather up the best racing drivers from around the world, no matter what type of racing they specialized in. These drivers would then compete against each other in multi-disciplinary events, the variety of which would theoretically balance the field such that the best overall driver would emerge as the true champion. In order for this to work, the premier drivers in each country and style of racing would need to be convinced that this was worth their time, and I would be the ambassador to whom the task of proving sufficient prowess to impress them would fall.
I felt inadequate, to be honest. It was all quite overwhelming.
That said, this was a nice change from the normal rags-to-riches approach to a career mode in console racers. I would be given pretty good cars from the get-go, although one still expects to work through a progressive scale of increasingly desirable automotive hardware--that’s still pretty much de rigeuer for console racers and we wouldn’t want to get too far from the conventional approach, would we?
Once you work your way through the first race, there will be a series of cutscenes that subtly introduce the metric by which your progress will be tracked by showing Facebook-like pages and YouTube videos of your racing performance gathering ‘Likes’ from the people viewing them. From these scenes, it becomes clear that the unit of measurement will be the number of fans you attract via social media--when you get enough fans in each racing series, you unlock the next higher series.
Using what I call an Ambience Menu System that mimics the environment of your garage/race shop, you can manage your fleet of cars, their paint jobs and your sponsors. Each sponsor on offer has a value proposition that is in essence a racing objective. Easy ones to satisfy are things like “drive over 100 mph for at least six seconds,” while others might prove to be a little more difficult. For example, I always do poorly at drifting, a weakness that I attribute to the fact that I am of an age where I have purchased many a tire--I know what they cost and I know what drifting does to them. Sponsors asking that I drift for some number of seconds or feet were not on my personal list of favorites. In any event, nearly everything you need to do, or want to do, in the game is accessed through the ambience menu. It doesn’t take too long to figure out.
The career mode international tour starts in the US, and you start with an old American classic: the same car you used for the first race, the Ford Mustang. Not to worry, though: new cars will be coming at you early and often. The first race track in the race series will look familiar, too. It’s Chicago again. Being your third time in the car (there was a time trial in Indianapolis, too), though, it is likely that you will be starting to get comfortable enough to start paying attention to the driving/physics modeling. This is admittedly a subjective observation, but as they did with F1 2012, Codemasters seems to have found a nearly perfect balance between arcade-style driving and, at the other end of the spectrum, simulation-level difficulty. While it’s not perfect, there is a nice compromise between driving-on-rails easy and can’t-even-get-moving realism.
As with anything of this nature, it may take a few minutes to get truly comfortable with it, but I felt like I got up to speed fairly quickly, albeit not with regards to drifting. I don’t think I will ever be able to do that well. Which is an unfortunate weakness, given the premium placed on drift-style racing in the first few races. It came as a visceral relief to finally receive access to a car that was described as “balanced” rather than “drift.” There were times, however, when the model seemed to become quite unforgiving. Those were primarily in situations where I may have gotten a little too close to the edge of the road, though, so it’s hard to pin all of the blame on the driving model. It may have just been nerves.
Nerves? Well, yes. There were some races that I seemed to just not be able to finish well enough to make the progression to the next level. Keeping in mind that Codemasters has elected to perpetuate one of the most irritating conventions of console racers, by which I mean the habit of always making the human player start at the back of the field, there was always a balance to be struck in trying to pass all of the cars quickly but safely. It was not uncommon for the leaders to get too far out in front to be caught in a short race, nor was it uncommon to try to force a pass only to get wrecked. It was towards the end of a race in which the balance had worked out such that I had a chance of finishing in a decent position that nerves would enter the fray, much to my detriment. In other words, it seemed that I often choked when I finally had a chance for a good finish.
And it is for that reason that I eventually broke one of my cardinal rules: I had always viewed the "rewind" option (the racing equivalent of golf’s “mulligan”) to be cheating, but after attempting the same race dozens of times only to meet with ignominious failure, my ethics began to loosen up a bit. I used the rewind feature. And, as it turns out, once the barrier was broken I used it over and over and over. I am not proud of this, and I will speak of it no further.
Given the difficulty I had in making clean, safe passes while under time pressure, it should come as no surprise that there is one particular race mode that I absolutely detested. In "Overtake" races, the goal was to pass more cars than your opponent. That in itself proved easy to do, yet I continued to lose in attempt after attempt due to a pernicious wrinkle thrown in by the developers: the passes had to be absolutely clean; no contact was allowed with the other cars. And adding insult to injury, no contact was allowed with anything else, either! Making repeated clean passes in under five seconds between each pass would increase the point value of each succeeding pass, but the least little contact with anything at all would reset the value to the lowest setting. Thus, it was easy to pass more cars than the opponent did yet still lose the race by thousands of points. In fact, you didn’t really need to pass more cars at all, you just had to be better and faster at it. There was no other mode that put as much pressure on the driver to be both aggressive and cautious in such a delicate balance. Unfortunately, I do aggressive far better than I do cautious--I never managed to win a single one of those races.
There was an equally innovative race mode that I did do well at, though. I ended up being a big fan of the "Live Route" races. In these races, the race course would change after each lap. This type of race put a premium on being able to instantly assess a corner rather than count on learning each turn through pre-race practice or good short-term memory based on previous laps. This was a type of race that at times rewarded the strategy of remaining in second place until the last lap as the car in front gave cues as to braking points and good racing lines through the turns.
Having more or less gotten comfortable with the single player mode, I started on the multiplayer. And by "started" I mean I spent more time getting registered on Codemasters RaceNet than it took to close the purchase of my palatial mansion. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to struggle to find an unused user name and create yet another soon-to-be-forgotten password over the last decade and quite frankly, I’m sick to death of it. Still, that was the price of admission, I guess. I no sooner had finished that when I realized that I was also going to "start" in another way: I was going to start over on the slow, tortuous path of earning my way into better cars. The stable of cars that I had painstakingly built to the degree that I was starting to feel like a virtual Jay Leno was gone, disappeared into thin air faster that a pair of Air Jordans left unattended at the gym.
So, I thought, here I am again, starting at the back of the pack burdened with the slowest car on the track. Well...no. I was, in fact, perched at the very front of the pack, burdened with the slowest car on the track.
It was one of those "be careful what you wish for" things.
The countdown finished, the race was on, and I was shoved aside like an octogenarian trying to buy the last sixer of Bud Light at Walmart two hours before the start of the Super Bowl. Note that this was an appropriate introduction to the rigors of online multiplayer racing that I was about to encounter. The races are short and the fast cars are at the back of the field--all of the tactics learned in single player were essentially useless now. Brake for a turn, get punted into a wall. Aim for the apex, get punted into a wall. Keep a straight line down the long straights, get punted into a wall. You get the drift, right? Oh, that reminds me: I was back to driving (poorly) drift-style cars again too. Sigh.
Call me an elitist snob (really, go ahead. I am!), but when it comes to online multiplayer racing, I will stick to iRacing. Please note, however, that none of my experiences should be taken as criticism of GRID 2--it is simply the case that races with a random group of people are destined to be crash-fests of the highest order, although I do feel that the propensity of the GRID 2 cars to launch themselves high into the air after the lightest of brushes against a guardrail could be considered a slight design flaw.
Okay, yeah, maybe I’m a little bitter at my ignominious defeat at the hands of, well...just about everyone.
It got better with time, of course. Even with an average finishing position of 8th place, I was earning the money required to buy my way into better cars. And there were cases when I was allowed into races high above my level and was as a result the recipient of some very nice loaner cars--those were fun, although I somewhat resented having my winnings reduced by 50 percent to pay for the loan of the car. At the end of the day, though, I found that I still preferred the predictability and more level playing field found in the single player.
GRID 2 has all of the hallmarks of a modern console racer well covered, and even manages to move the genre incrementally forward with a few new innovations in the types of races available. It isn’t as chock full of cars as some competing titles, but it doesn’t need to be. There is a broad enough spectrum of different types of cars available to allow the player to sample any number of racing varieties. The tracks are also quite varied in their styles, ranging from internationally renowned permanent facilities like Yas Marina to open road hill-climbs in California to temporary tracks laid out in major cities. Something for everyone, in other words. The controls are well-balanced, providing both accessibility and challenge in equal measure.
My only regret is that I simply cannot drift.
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