As development teams become more sprawling, and as increasing numbers of art assets are outsourced to remote studios in the east, it must be extremely tempting for developers to indulge in external post-processing to bring pre-release screenshots to the level of ‘polish’ that they expect of the final product. Internet forum dwellers, hawk-like in their awareness, intolerant of deception (perceived or actual), and quick to coin a phrase, have long dubbed these images ‘bullshots’, at least partly as a deterrent.
There was some doubt when early screens from Race Driver: Grid surfaced as to whether they were entirely the work of Codemasters’ proprietary EGO engine. Suspicion was accentuated by the knowledge that TOCA Race Driver 3 was announced alongside a series of incredibly detailed target renders – high standards of which the final game fell well short. With the release of Grid it has become a moot point if the screenshots were doctored, most would have trouble identifying any exposed seams in comparison to the finished article.
While GT5 Prologue boasts a level of sheer fidelity that has not been approached, let alone matched, by other racing games, the Gran Turismo series has long been criticised for its sterile, inert approach to art direction beyond the fetishistic reproduction of its cars. Grid, in contrast, is a sumptuously warm and animated experience and, by virtue of that, is actually visually superior to Polyphony’s efforts, particularly on the level playing field of a 720p display. It’s no mere tableau, either even the slowest vehicles move with frightening alacrity. By the time you’re threading a Formula Three car through the narrow streets of Milan, the world becomes a multicoloured smear as tunnel vision closes in and the detailed scenery is consumed four blocks at a time.
Sharing each circuit is a cohort of the most convincing AI to grace a silicon speedway. The pack swarms rather than snakes its way around corners, and opponents are fallible in an utterly convincing fashion. There are no canned spins in the traditional sense; sometimes a driver will simply run off-line and recover swiftly, other times a collision will result in a multi-car pile up, with shattered vehicles and crumpled debris that must be picked through cautiously. Races are invariably incident-filled, but in a manner that’s neither predictable nor implausible.
Serving as structure, Grid World mode provides a career with a laudable degree of freedom of choice. Race meetings take place across three continents, each with a local flavor to its selection, and the player is given freedom in choosing the breadth of their campaign. TOCA traditionalists will find the European races satisfy cravings for authenticity, Japan offers distinctly Need For Speed-inspired drifting and Touge racing, and the US caters for PGR refugees looking for tight, angular street circuits.
As the career mode develops, simplistic managerial elements are introduced to provide continuity between events, with sponsor selection the key to squeezing as much lucre as possible from each event. Later on, a teammate is hired, allowing you to further increase your earnings. It’s all self-consciously unobtrusive, ensuring that players aren’t burdened by their decisions when the green flag drops. Undoubtedly, some will crave greater opportunity to tinker with the innards of their team, but what’s there is certainly fit for purpose.
The ultimate goal of the career is taking victory in the famous 24 Heures Du Mans endurance race, which is compressed here into a marginally more manageable 24 minutes. Despite this concession to comfort, the race remains the most challenging of Grid’s bestiary – maintaining clean lines and diligently clipping every apex of every bend for 12 minutes of darkness requires absolute concentration.
Combine that with Grid’s exemplary damage system, and the danger is that it could become punitively difficult – in spite of consistently tight and responsive arcade handling, the unpredictability of the racing means some collisions are unavoidable. Fortunately, much of Grid’s frustration is erased, literally, by the introduction of the Flashback system. Any misdemeanor, great or small, can be scrubbed from the permanent record by an instant replay that allows players to rewind to before the error and resume the race from there. Limits on use are imposed depending on the difficulty level, but Flashbacks cater for all but the most protracted of accidents. It isn’t as damaging to the suspension of disbelief as it might first appear, and turns a catastrophic accident into something to savor, rather than a terminal event that simply serves as cause for a restart.
There are few areas where Grid disappoints, but the most noticeable is the audio accompaniment. Given the visual fireworks, dramatic racing and caliber of vehicles on offer, Grid’s collection of engine notes should be a symphony of piercing V12 wails and low, gut-punching V8 throbs. Instead, environmental audio appears on an equal footing, creating an inherent weakness, and resultant homogeneity, to the simulated combustion – something that could perhaps be remedied with as little as a tweak to the equalisation.
Ultimately, though, Race Driver: Grid is a scintillating racing experience, and as a revitalization of the Race Driver series it’s utterly successful. Codemasters has quietly built itself a commanding position in the pantheon of racing game developers, proudly eligible to sit alongside the platform-exclusive budgets and teams. With the developer having recently acquired the license, embattled Formula One fans will no doubt look upon Grid and hope that life can one day imitate Codemasters’ incendiary art.