posted 6/25/2008 by Randy Kalista
other articles by Randy Kalista
One Page Platforms: 360
After watching another tour de force performance from one of my favorite Hollywood actors, I was presented with a disarming epiphany: GRID is the Nicole Kidman of racing games.

I didn’t believe it at first either. But with GRID’s fine-lined features, willingness to take on difficult and not always likeable roles, and its overall variety of selective yet class-act performances, this seemingly ethereal analogy began to cement itself. Not to say that Nicole Kidman hasn’t run into the odd roadblock or two during her tenure as one of Tinseltown’s leading ladies. Which is to admit that developer Codemasters didn’t race away without erecting the occasional roadblock for its GRID actors either.

The first roadblock I encountered wasn’t those initial gravel-choked elbows in France’s Circuit de la Sarthe during my maiden 24 Hours of Le Mans. It wasn’t those anime angles drifting around Japan’s Yokohama Docks. It was, in fact, the seemingly innocuous test-run time trial. These trials, to the novice driver, are not your friend. And in racing games--a genre seemingly absent end bosses--those acutely-sharpened minutes and seconds are GRID’s equivalent of a low-level bad guy. The clock face reading 01:37.00 for one particular event was my minutes/seconds/hundredths Shadow of the Colossus. Every hard-braking corner and subsequent stretch of gray asphalt was my God of War quick time event. And that checkered flag at the end of those short hauls was my Assassin’s Creed target marked for death.

GRID’s skill-level demands are exactly that: Demanding. From the get-go, stress and embarrassment elevated, and every event--be it a pro tuned tour, formula 1000, or freestyle drift--might as well have been labeled the Michigan demolition derby. “Button mashing” through a race is all well and good in, say, Burnout Revenge or MotorStorm; that’s the fun-loving, full-on arcade-style racing audience they aim to please. But GRID aims to train you with “timed attacks” as you parry and riposte your car’s heading when nudged by another driver; or waiting for your opponent to drop their guard as you slalom the inside lane on a rigid chicane-lined set of turns. This isn’t a street brawl: It’s martial artistry.

But sensei GRID isn’t completely unforgiving to his white-belt students. A “flashback” feature gives you multiple chances to rewind the sands of time, a la Prince of Persia, should the race run afoul. It’s brilliant, it’s beautiful, and it secretly shames you if you’re still using it during the higher echelons. Racing simulator enthusiasts have every reason to baulk at the inclusion of this temporally-manipulative convention. But for those of us not able to breakout our HotSeat Racer GT racing seat with its wireless True Force-Feedback wheel and pedals … breathe easy. The flashback feature is for you. And for those of you that eventually grow out of its usage, the difficulty levels scale from “Basic” to “Extreme” with increasingly-skilled opponents, and decreasingly-available flashbacks for you to call upon during the race. Once you’re ready for some really sweaty palms, making that leap of faith to Pro Mode robs you of all of your flashbacks, and even says, “Huh-uh,” to restarts. You’re committed. And it takes a focused, dialed-in player to attempt GRID on such a “Legendary” level.

But GRID in and of itself is not your most visible opponent. While the ego-puffery surrounding the game’s drivers has been seatbelted in the back (compared to previous editions of the Race Driver series), a rival team known as Ravenwest is setup to serve as the Bowser to your Mario. And if you’re after a Princess Peach taking the shape of a tournament trophy, then Ravenwest drivers like Nathan McKane are more than happy to carry off that win, informing you in Ravenwest’s own wordless way, “Thank you, Mario. But our princess is in another castle!” More literally, your racing pit coach--the guy giving you state-of-the-union updates for your car’s damage and your place standings--will typically start the race on a resigned note if he sees Ravenwest in the lineup, hanging his head with some foregone conclusion like, “Ravenwest is here; might as well settle for third.” You can practically hear the heavy sigh punctuating his defeatist tone. To the frustration of many, Ravenwest is indeed formidable, along with hundreds of other less-aggrandized drivers, and the higher difficulty levels seem to physically alter other driver’s car physics, perhaps making them “heavier” so that even love-taps can bring disaster to an unaware player.

But your opponents, while sometimes feeling omnisciently skilled, are not reckless vagabonds and could rightly be labeled “gentlemen drivers.” While hungry to overtake your position, the computer AI never rides the rails, never finds a race line and glues itself to it at the cost of everyone around it. In fact, its movements are tempered and its ability is often more passive aggressive rather than outright bullish. Thankfully, the AI isn’t a Deep Blue chess computer either. Opponents are occasionally prone to making mistakes: An overtake that doesn’t take so well, an inside corner cut too close, an outside lane that pushed him all the way out. The AI is primly-packaged and tough but mostly fair; although it’s a godsend knowing that a tight corner means that the racer ahead of you will brake too hard and inadvertently toss you an opportunity to pull into the lead.
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