posted 6/25/2008 by Randy Kalista
other articles by Randy Kalista
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But if these types of sanctions sound a little too rule-bound, demolition derbies give you a chance to see the GRID engine when it wilds out. The bullying takes on a more pronounced character. And, in a figure-8 track with a dirt-packed jump in the middle, it’s exquisite and frightening to witness midair collisions from airborne cross-traffic, exploded tire stacks littering the track’s perimeter, vehicles landing on top of yours--sideways--or cars flipped over like turtles baking in the sun. It’s brilliant mayhem, with GRID’s pull towards realism piling on a white-knuckled intensity where pulpier racing games eventually burnout much of their shock value all too soon. And unlike a series such as Gran Turismo’s untouchable paint jobs, vehicular damage in GRID writes pages more drama into the script.

A place where a “pulpier” approach was needed is in the flat, vanilla soundtrack which is thematically chaired by a not-their-best-work UNKLE remix for Queens of the Stone Age’s “No One Knows.” The rest of the music’s BPMs are set to match the RPMs whenever given the chance--such as during the sharply-choreographed replays--but, like GRID has done with the race drivers’ egos, the songs are stuffed in the back and carefully buckled into their car seat. The songs are appropriate, but boringly so.

The place where the soundtrack is a dramatic motivator, however, is during the last three minutes of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After only hearing the hum of your engine for who-knows-how-long, a gorgeously-orchestrated score rises up from the tarmac to make the finish line not only visible in an ocular sense, but in an aural one as well. The timeline for the 24 Hours of Le Mans is scaleable from two-hours-per-minute (making for a 12-minute race utilizing an accelerated day and night cycle) all the way up to a bed-sore inducing real-world 24 hours, where you can witness the treeline’s shadow creep inch by inch across the road during the countless laps. But this is no one-time event. If the American-, European-, and Japanese-licensed races are the melody, then the Le Mans in the end-of-season chorus that you’ll sing time and time again.

While the nighttime drive can be harrowing with the barely-there headlights, muddy earth-toned palette, and often vague track directions (that goes for many of the GRID’s track directions), weather effects are left at partly-cloudy with zero chance of precipitation. The local weatherman gets to go home early. Regardless, there are genuine, adrenal-pumped moments built into every race, even without atmospheric conditions having their say. Night crops up during certain other events--like the sensory-overload Shibuya street circuit in Japan--but the From-Dusk-Til-Dawn effect only rears its surreal head during the Le Mans.

Though each season is anchored by an endurance event, continent hopping reveals a surprising diversity of race styles to compete in. Owning an American Racing League badge pushes your formula racer or muscle car around jury-rigged city streets. The European License speeds you along golf course-perfect circuits in touring cars. And Japan’s J-Speed license drifts you around industrial zones and mountainous hairpin duels. Of course, each region’s races spill a little into the other landmasses, but the vehicle selection is only populated by the best of breed.

GRID doesn’t entertain the thought of getting your car “tricked out” beyond slapping on a higher-paying sponsor’s sticker. And GRID also doesn’t entertain the thought of tweaking any gearheaded settings under the hood or otherwise. Personalization for your team’s cars, once you’ve accrued the capital to start a team, is given a wide range of metallic paints and body-ranging decals, but nothing that would get rapper Xzibit hosting the show.

Instead, eBay Motors appears to be hosting what might be the most deft and heavily-augmented integration of in-game advertising to date. While every vehicle can be purchased at full retail price, a quantity will always be available via eBay Motors for your garage. Your manager warns about purchasing a car that’s “been in too many crashes,” while also hinting that a car that’s racked up a lot of wins “probably did so for a reason.” The full ramifications of those statements are hard to measure in-game, but suffice it to say that any vehicle purchased on eBay Motors performs to spec as far as the untrained eye can tell. This is an advertisement, not a reality check. In what must be a head nod to Codemasters’ DIRT, there is also a “wash car” button that serves no noticeable effect to your vehicle (unless this secretly garners a marginally bigger payoff when you sell something), and there’s a statistic for your “dirtiest car,” which is presumably the vehicle you’ve driven the most miles on, though your entire garage consistently looks pristine on the start line. Again, this is probably just a head nod to GRID’s developers, the people that put DIRT on the map in a big way.

The high school yearbook for GRID also shows off a much smaller graduating class of cars than the average--only 45--but they’re all at least salutatorians. And complaining about having “only” 45 cars in a racing game is like complaining about having “only” 45 guns in a first-person shooter. Which all in all means, no, your dream of whipping a Chevy Aveo around Germany’s Nurburgring will not be realized here. And the Midnight Club practice of buying an Asian economy car for the sole purpose of stringing neon under the runners is also not in the marketing plan. Instead, as GRID promises, “It’s all about the race.” And to do that, Codemasters made the very cognizant decision to start trimming entire rolls of fat that have been weighing down many AAA racing games. The slick, DIRT-inspired menus are a beauty to navigate, but GRID doesn’t want to lock you in the garage, it wants to pole position you on the track. It’s a welcome simplification and a studied focus that gives GRID definitive character, as opposed to it attempting some unattainable goal of being the Be All/End All of racers. GRID does what it does with aplomb, knowing full well that it could drag a host of other amenities around the track if it really wanted to.

Instead, GRID exercises a commendable level of self-control, which is exactly what it asks of its players on the racetrack: Control; like an actor that has to “play to the back row” while exploring nuance and internal conflict all at the same time. Codemasters’ love affair with the race has bred a contender that will doubtless leave a persistent mark on center stage for some time.

GRID is, in essence, the Nicole Kidman of racing games. Hollywood production values couple with classic beauty under neo lighting, skinned-over by intelligent complexity--all of which rumbles unseen beneath the bodywork, sometimes understated, sometimes overt, and at all times volatile.

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