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.
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.