Codemasters claims your favorite racing games, the Gothams, Forzas and Gran Turismos, aren’t actually about racing at all. What are they about? Maybe ownership, or glamour, or simple iterative realism. Anything but what they’re meant to be.
“Gotham 4 was cool,” admits Ralph Fulton, chief designer of Race Driver: Grid. “But when we started looking at what this game’s ‘thing’ was, we looked at our competitors and found that, as a whole, they were concentrating on everything but the racing experience. We concluded that our strengths, historically, are in providing that experience. We do excellent AI, excellent physics, world-leading damage systems. We look at the competition and they’re palpably not doing what we do really well.”
If it sounds like a rather flat description of a game about the innate buzz of racing, it’s understandable; Grid’s ‘thing’ is hard to put into words. It’s a truly generational sequel, as unlikely a TOCA game as Dirt was a Colin McRae Rally. What it hopes to capture is something ethereal: an air that exists wherever there’s a race, an electricity that runs through the mere notion of taking the wheel. Imagine a storied, charismatic driver – Kowalski, say, from the movie Vanishing Point – looking back over a life spent chasing that high, wherever it’s to be found. Grid has that same deep, universal, uncomplicated love.
Its issue with modern racing seems, primarily, to be its obsession with science and technology. Too many facts and figures. Too many publicized polygon counts. Too much telemetry written across the screen. In its three territories, Europe, America and Japan, Grid seldom stares at the intricacies of vehicle manufacture; it never feels like a Haynes manual. Despite inheriting Ego (formerly Neon), the most sophisticated engine a racer could have, its attention is drawn more to the bonnets themselves that what’s beneath them.
“I’m not sure anyone could argue there’s a chasm in the racing market,” laughs Fulton. “Last year, we saw AAA racer after AAA racer come out, and obviously we were thinking then about how we’d differentiate ourselves. With many franchises, particularly racing, each iteration becomes an exercise in box-ticking: more cars, more tracks. We didn’t want to go down that road.”
Not to sound too obvious, but roads are a big thing here. Rather than a fetish for clinical, famous straights and bends, its reverence veers towards the iconic. And in its treatments of Haruna (the celebrated hill-climb from Initial D), Milan (a sun-struck, hazy dash through and around the Galleria) and San Francisco (a sepia-toned tribute to Dirty Harry) it gives renewed meaning to that overused term. The open-wheel touring cars of European circuits, belching muscle cars of US cities and tuned drift cars of illegal Japanese street-racing all convey an uncommon sense of heritage.
Unlike the era of Colin McRae 04 and Race Driver 2, where the two companion brands ploughed damagingly through each other’s turf, this game is healthily unique. “There’s healthy competition, maybe, but no overlap in terms of content,” insists Fulton. “We’ve gone out of our way to make a clear distinction between the two brands; although they’re noticeably from the same studio, they’re palpably different. There’s an overlap of personnel in the art team and programming, and obviously our outsource studio in Kuala Lumpur is heavily involved. But the key personnel differ from project to project.” And he should know: a lead designer here, he wasn’t even involved in Dirt.
What the games share most of all now is experience. And, of course, shockingly powerful technology. Burned somewhat by the weak multiplayer and meandering singleplayer of Dirt, Grid hopes to make no such mistakes. “It was at pains with its literalness, wasn’t it?” Fulton laughs of Dirt’s career mode. “That you were climbing, literally, a pyramid. It’s a fair criticism. I think we’ve tried to ground our career mode much more in the notion of a world which evolves. And while a lot of racing games have the pretence of choice, where really you’re just moving in a linear direction, we want the player to choose his career path and what to do next.”
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