Our review of Race Driver: Grid opened by discussing the controversy its screenshots generated before its release, and it feels appropriate to repeat that for Grid 2. This game looks a hardware generation ahead of the original, and it’s raised the hackles of incredulous Internet commenters all over again. When those doubters finally get their hands on the finished game, we wouldn’t blame them for continuing to suspect that some underhand trickery is afoot. Where the first game was drenched in bloom, Grid 2 is pin-sharp and vibrant, flooding the screen with colour and consigning its predecessor’s Vaseline blur to history. Car models are near photoreal when you catch them in the right light, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a single low-res texture in the detailed backdrops.
Grid’s warm, animated riposte to Gran Turismo 5’s somewhat clinical take on racing returns, too, with naturalistic lighting, excitable crowds cheering, and all manner of trackside distractions. It occasionally proves too much – Chicago’s billowing discarded newspapers, sewer steam and the sparks from the underside of a monorail look beautiful, but conspire to obscure both the racing line and your opponents – yet for the most part the drama is welcome. And it all runs at a steady lick, only dipping below 30fps in the busiest pileups.
All of this effects-laden geometry does come at a cost, however: Grid’s cockpit view is gone, though apparently not many will care. While we’re partial to in-car perspectives ourselves, Codemasters’ telemetry reveals that only five per cent of its racing-game players use it. Nixing the view and using the freed-up memory elsewhere makes good sense, then – there are still bumper and bonnet cams for precision drivers – but the decision is less easy to reconcile with a series that lets you embody a driver and play out their career.
Which explains why the limelight has shifted slightly from the racer you control to the World Series Racing championship that you’ve been enlisted to help promote. Funded by investor Patrick Callahan – who spends his time either congratulating or chiding you via IM – the US-based championship starts out small. By taking part in promotional events and proving your skills in other clubs’ competitions, you help increase awareness of the championship.
Instead of raising money, this time around you must gain fans (accrued in blocks of 25), who take more or less notice of you depending on your performance, while progress through singleplayer depends on the exposure you create. Critics of Codemasters’ penchant for American racing will find more to bemoan in the opening portion of Grid 2, which has you make your way around US cities and along coastal routes in US and Japanese muscle cars. But you’ll be racing Alfa Romeos in Europe by the second season, and by season three you’ll be drifting Hondas and Mercedes through the United Arab Emirates and Asia. The resultant sense of building hype as World Series Racing goes global, bolstered by specially filmed ESPN SportsCenter segments that discuss your progress, come together in Codemasters’ most successful and well-integrated storyline to date, setting a high bar for others to beat.
There’s plenty of variety in the events, too. Drifting is no longer awkwardly consigned to its own mode and instead features among checkpoint dashes, pack racing, time trials, overtaking challenges, one-on-one face-offs and five-minute endurance sessions that see the route reconfigured as you drive. The only events that you won’t look forward to are the Japanese Touge runs, which can be won by crossing the line first or putting five seconds between you and your opponent. Unfortunately, the minimal-contact rule will often see you disqualified even when another car rams into you.
Instances of questionable refereeing aside, Grid 2’s AI is exceptional. Your opponents will regularly overcook corners, spin out entirely or get tangled up in spectacular accidents, but never in a way that feels like it’s been engineered for your benefit. And on tighter, shorter tracks, they’ll put up a convincing fight even with medium difficulty selected, moving to block you and even aggressively shunting you, depending on the driver. To avoid a lonely race on longer events, however, you’ll want to crank up the difficulty level.
Regardless of how brave you find yourself feeling, your opponents make for on-Tarmac company of unprecedented quality. But racing with 11 friends will always be the best option and Grid 2’s multiplayer comes with its own campaign, the ability to upgrade your cars and the chance to reap peer approval for the bright-pink livery you’ve painstakingly created for your ride. There’s local splitscreen, too.
But all of these achievements, spectacular as they are, fall by the wayside next to Grid 2’s handling model. The original feels comparatively floaty next to this game’s weightier vehicles, and that sensation is heightened by the tracks’ detailed, undulating surfaces. The game strikes a compromise between arcade and simulation handling, which means that while it’s almost as easy to drift a front-wheel-drive car as it is a rear-wheel-drive model, every vehicle has its own personality and you’ll quickly grow close to a handful of favourites.
Codemasters had a hard act to follow in Grid, but with this sequel it’s delivered a dazzling package that can proudly take its place among the best racing games of this generation. It not only smooths off nearly all of the awkward edges that have plagued the studio’s ongoing attempts to cohere its racing games with driver-focused storylines, but it does so with enough pomp and spectacle to send current-generation hardware off with a memorable bang.
Grid 2 is released in Europe on May 31 for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. Xbox 360 version tested.