Grid 2 and why Codemasters isn’t waiting for the next generation

Grid 2 is less a question of why and more why now? Why is easy. Grid 2 exists because it has existed for too long to do anything else – from TOCA to Grid to Sega-made arcade cabinets – but why, when new hardware is just months away, release it into a world where experienced people insist racing games need new technology to succeed and every other developer’s focus as shifted to the next generation?

“There’s no crazy mad rush to jump to the next platforms,” says chief designer James Nicholls. “We’re squeezing more out of the current generation than anyone thought possible because all the supporting framework of tools we have behind Grid are so mature. Our processes are so optimised and we’re in the same space you saw at the tail end of the last generation – there were some incredible releases in that last year that make you wonder how on Earth they pulled it off on that hardware. Right now we’re about as optimal as we can be on the current consoles.”

And there’s the matter of the current generation release schedule. As developers retreat into the next generation the summer has become so barren it’s a season Grid 2 has almost to itself. “I think there’s gonna be a huge number of gamers waiting for great games now,” says Nicholls. “There’s no point in just not making games until next Christmas. What’s gonna get them through the summer without a big game release?”

And Grid 2 is big; Codemasters won’t let anyone forget that. A throwback to the old TOCA games, Grid is a racer with a story, following World Series Racing and its owner Patrick Callahan – motorsport allegories to the UFC and UFC president Dana White, of sorts – as the new race league tours the world, recruits international driving clubs and grows in popularity. Callahan is your guide through a growing multi-discipline motorsport championship, where Japanese drifters, European track stars and American street racers compete to become the best in the world behind the wheel. As the Series grows so do the crowds. Cameramen start showing up, spectators stand four or five deep, grandstands are constructed, ESPN hosts present live-action cut scenes, races are rescheduled to evening slots so they can air at primetime on sports networks. Your XP is measured in fame. This is Grid 2′s sheer scale – ESPN talent, dozens of sponsors, real-world circuits – and all of it exists for design’s sake, says Nicholls.

“It’s been part of the Race Driver DNA since the beginning, but it works,” he explains. “Suddenly you’re racing for a reason – you’ve got history with certain drivers and you build personal rivalries. You don’t end up in a career grind where you have X number of points to hit in order to progress. You have a reason to race.”

Grid 2 is so big Codemasters have even branded its handling, as if even the maths behind the game were abnormally huge. To hear Nicholls explain it, Truefeel is the perfect handling model – a rich simulation of every car’s real handling, tweaked and tuned to make each ride accessible but still nuanced. “It’s a single handling system that works for everybody,” he says. “You can pick up a pad and chuck the car around if you like, but those core racing game guys can feel the weight, feel the wheelspin and learn each car.

“We offered a huge range of different assists in Dirt 3. But until now there was no one-size-fits-all approach; you always imply that players have to tune the game to their liking. What’s amazing about Truefeel is that you can just get on with it. The only difficulty options are how smart the AI is and whether you want damage turned on.”

No matter how it’s described Truefeel never sounds too dissimilar to the physics behind Forza Horizon or Project Gotham or even Codemasters’ own Dirt series. Even if Truefeel is a unique technical achievement, the technology behind it is invisible to players once your hands are on the controls, and it becomes just another Codemasters handling model where you’re always on the edge of control, always clinging on by your fingertips, always thrilled. Perhaps Grid 2 has hidden depths where its competitors have none, but all that really matters is Grid 2 feels dangerous and exciting, and that’s enough.

And it’s big because Grid 2 will see the official launch of Codemasters’ Racenet online system. Beta tested with Dirt: Showdown, Racenet will launch alongside Grid 2 and unite every Codemasters’ racer with stat tracking and multiplayer challenges. At the very least, Racenet is a Halo Waypoint for racing games, but at its best it could create a shared Codemasters universe where players in Dirt and Grid can contribute towards the same global objectives – ‘travel ten million miles’, ‘burn fifty million gallons of fuel’. This isn’t a one-game deal, but a platform upon which the studio will build every next generation racer.

But more than anything, Grid 2 is big because of context. Because it’s the last word in racing games on the current generation of consoles. Because the next Playstation and Xbox will mean a new generation of Gran Turismos and Forzas, of Dirts and Need for Speeds, but for now Grid has 2013 all to itself. It’s beautiful, it’s accessible, it has a number after the title, it’s undeniably good at what it does and it’s big because they said so; it’s this generation in a nutshell. It had to be now, didn’t it?