If there’s one thing that Codemasters is known for, it’s developing quality racing games that stand the test of time. This is especially true when it comes to rally, where DiRT and DiRT Rally really stand out above the competition. Back in 2008, the Banbury, England-based studio took on the risk of creating a new IP, which would be a spiritual successor to their series of TOCA Racing games. The result was Race Driver: GRID, which effectively blended the lines between arcade and simulation, and was able to appeal to different audiences as a result. In Race Driver: GRID, players would run their own racing team, while acting as the primary driver. This role would send them around the world, as they competed in a plethora of different, digitally crafted events in international locations, including Europe, the USA and Japan. First, though, said player would have to do jobs for other teams, in order to earn the money required to start his or her own.
Eleven years later, GRID is back, after a hiatus that followed the release of a couple of sequels to the debut game. This time around, however, what we’re looking at and able to play is a reboot, which reimagines that original. As such, it simply goes by GRID, and is meant to refresh the series as a whole. Released earlier this month, 2019’s version of GRID is considered to be the tenth game in the long-running TOCA series, even if it doesn’t share the same branding. Loved Formula One driver, Fernando Alonso, also helped with development, acting as a consultant. For his troubles, he was immortalized within the game in a pretty major way.
Is this refresh the incredible Forza and Forza Horizon competitor that it could’ve been? Not exactly. It’s a quality affair, but doesn’t reach the heights of those games, or end up being as excellent as we had hoped.
GRID 2019 is divided into two different modes: Career (aka. single player) and Multiplayer, which involves Xbox Live connectivity. Both are quite similar, though, neither one will set your world on fire. They’re competent modes, but nothing special. Unlike some of the flashy Career modes of Codemasters’ past (DiRT series, I’m looking at you), GRID’s is displayed as a simple, static menu. There, you’ll find several disciplines, with each having approximately thirteen base events and one ultimate showdown against a professional driver. Those usually take the form of races, but there’s one or two time trials intermingled within.
The disciplines on offer are of the Touring, Stock, Tuner, GT and Fernando Alonso varieties. The titles, as any racing or car fan will know, generally relate to the type of cars you’ll be driving in each one. The Fernando Alonso series, however, requires fast cars, including souped up, Formula One style chassis. What you'll discover as you play is that, not only does GRID offer its own version of F1 racing; it also has a handful of NASCAR-esque events (and tracks) as well. There is also a lengthier Invitational series, which slowly unlocks as you play through the others. These racing events are meant to be one off palette cleansers, so to speak, as they’re designed with special vehicles in mind. For instance, the first couple involve driving a Mini. The cars get better from there on, though.
It can take some time to unlock all of the Invitational Series’ events, because several of them are tied to completing different ones spread throughout each of the other disciplines. Meanwhile, those other disciplines unlock through basic progression. Finish one series of 1 to 4 cumulative races, and you’ll open another one, until there aren’t any more left. To open, and become invited to all of the different final showdowns, your goal is simple: Complete ten of the thirteen events in each of the main disciplines, with the Invitational seeming to be optional. Through this, GRID allows some player choice and freedom, which is nice because it can sometimes throw a curveball at you, by way of vehicle cost. For instance, just four or five races into one of the tiers, and I was looking at a $1.2 million purchase, and that one car was the only thing available for use.
The above kind of negates GRID’s open and (slightly) choice driven campaign. After all, given that you can start with any of the tiers, it’s odd for such a roadblock to appear as it does. It isn’t the only one either, as certain events will require you to spend quite a bit of cash. Earning can be kind of slow, too, especially if the teammate you’ve hired wants a big cut of your winnings from each race. I didn’t realize that I could hire somebody different until several hours in, because said mechanic was not made clear, and when I looked I noticed that the default guy was taking a 30% cut. The second person I hired? He takes 10%.
Understandably, it took me quite a few (8?) hours, and a good portion of the career mode, to earn enough money to buy that $1.2 million car. I was able to progress without doing those events when they came up, however, because of the fact that I only needed to complete 10/13 in order to unlock the showdown. My plan is to go back and do them later. I think that the vehicular pricing structure, and the roadblocks it can create, stick out to me because of how the Career mode is set up. While there is a garage hidden in the driver details menu (which is where you can also go to hire new drivers, change your team’s name, edit your player card and that kind of thing), the game doesn’t exactly make this clear. Nor does it do a great job of portraying which cars you’ll need when. You pretty much have to unlock, then open an event, before seeing if you own something it allows, or what the price tag of purchasing said ride will be. Sure, you can purchase a touring car, but that doesn't mean that all touring events will allow the same car.
One will find a competent list of fast, fun to drive and licensed vehicles within GRID, but don’t expect something akin to Forza or Forza Horizon. The list is somewhat varied, but it’s far from something in one of those games. As such, certain events will only allow one specific car (or racing truck) to enter, while others will give you a list of three to five that you can purchase. You may already have something, though, especially if you’ve paid extra for the more expensive (or early) editions, because those come with exclusive vehicles. Sadly, nothing that offsets the $1.2 million wallet destroyer.
Once the player has finished (at least four of) the Career mode’s main disciplines and their concluding showdowns, they’ll be entered into the higher stakes GRID World Series, which separates the professionals from the imitators. It’ll take a decent amount of time to get to this point, though, because the Career mode can be deceptively long, since many of its series require you to do at least decently well in two to four consecutive races, during which your placing is turned into points that are tallied at the end. Funnily enough, I’ve come in first in series where I thought I’d barely make the podium, after finishing eighth or lower in one event, third in another and so on.
The gameplay that drives GRID is fast, fluid, and polished to a nice shine. As you race, you’ll enjoy some rather smooth mechanics that turn the in-game driving into a mesmerizing trance of sorts. After a while, things become reflexive, as you get sucked into the on-screen engagements. It’s really quite impressive from a technical standpoint and is deserving of all of the praise it’s been getting on this level, especially since it’s able to appeal to both simulation purists and arcade fans at the same time. Granted, this is aided by options that allow you to make damage detrimental, increase or eliminate the amount of available rewinds, tune, and decide whether you want critical damage to be a thing.
It isn’t without its faults, though, and one comes in the form of difficulty.
During my time with GRID 2019, I mostly played on medium, but did dabble in hard for a little bit. What I found was a frustratingly uneven difficulty system, which is hard to get a read of. When I changed the difficulty, it was because races were too easy. However, I quickly found out that hard wasn’t the answer. It was a bit too far of a step ahead from where I was, as a competent and skilled, but not flawless or incredible racer. After a few 8th place finishes, I switched back to medium.
The odd and frustrating part of all of this isn’t the difference between normal and hard. I’ve played enough video games to understand that I can’t play everything on the same difficulty, and that each one has its own definitions of easy, normal, hard and so forth. What was annoying was how different medium was throughout the game. Sure, many races (including later ones, like showdowns) were almost mind-numbingly easy on that setting, but every so often I’d encounter races where I could hardly make headway past sixth or eighth. It was like the AI had become much better drivers out of the blue, without me having changed anything. This kept cropping up, too, and wasn’t just a one off oddity.
GRID’s nemesis system, which attempts to make the stakes higher by turning every racer you anger (whether by accident or on purpose) into your rival or enemy, is also a disappointment. It feels shoehorned in as a bit of an afterthought, and doesn’t really have the depth that one would hope for. In the end, it simply makes the people you repeatedly hit (or hit hard once or twice) mad at you, and causes them to be more aggressive. Will they spin you out from time to time? Yes, they will try for revenge. It’s simply not that big of a game changer, or anything to write home about. Having plentiful rewinds also means that it’s generally not much of a nuisance. Hell, you can spin out after being touched by any car, especially if they run into your back wheel. Spin-outs are a bit too common, if I'm being honest. Sometimes it seems like a light tap to the back wheel will cause the player's car to spin and head for the guardrail.
Despite boasting quite a few great tracks, and some impressive driving mechanics, GRID’s racing can also become tedious after a while. Although there are different disciplines, a lot of it tends to blend together after hours of playtime. As such, this is something I recommend playing in shorter bursts, as opposed to lengthy ones. It’s better that way.
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it is, but as well made as GRID is, it’s also hard not to feel like something is missing. Some sort of a wow factor I guess you’d say, that will keep people wanting to come back. Yes, the driving is good, and yes the Career mode is decently long, but it doesn’t have the variety or personality found in other games. The multiplayer is also very derivative of the single player section, and seems to simply be an online extension of the series featured within the campaign. One can set something up, invite friends, or play with randoms.
When I tried to play online, I could only find one other player, so the rest of the cars were driven by bots. I don’t know if this is because of sales, or simply because of the time of day, but it made the multiplayer feel even more similar to the base mode. Then again, I generally don’t play racing games online, because I don’t find it to be as fun as playing against the computer and completing the campaign. Why is this? The AI tends to make for better drivers, and is more predictable. When you venture online, you’re often at the mercy of one really good racer and one or two others who want to do nothing more than piss people off. You know them; they’re the ones who drive backwards and ram everyone they can.
Presentation wise, GRID 2019 is a success. It’s easy on the eyes, has some impressively detailed vehicles (including realistic cockpit views), and offers some gorgeous tracks. There’s lots of colour and realism to look forward to, along with some nice bloom effects that can really put the sun in your eyes and limit what you can see, albeit in a realistic and non-frustrating way.
There isn’t much in the way of music, but the sound effects are on point, and make you feel like you’re in the cockpit or driver’s seat of your chosen vehicle. They're loud, boisterous and realistic, at least in my opinion. I’m not much of a car guy, so I can’t exactly compare how each different vehicle sounds in real life to how it sounds in the game.
At the opening to every race, one can listen to a male announcer and his female commentary partner as they go over the necessary details and outline what to expect. That is, if you don’t press 'A' to skip it all, which is something that becomes habit after a while, as you plow through the Career mode. For the most part, it’s nothing special, but it’s a nice touch, especially since they’ll change their tune and simply say, “Well, it looks like the action is about to begin” if you cut them off. The two also appear in a visceral opening video montage, which has some playable moments, where the player is dropped into different cars and racing events, in order to get a feel for what they’re about to partake in.
With all that having been said, I must admit that GRID is a difficult game to score. It does a lot of things very well, but it’s hard not to feel like it’s missing a spark, a wow factor or some sort of true personality. As it stands, I don’t see it being something that people will continually go back to, despite its quality mechanics and beautiful visuals. It’s simply a bit too sterile. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun while it lasts, though, or that it isn't rather well made.
**This review is based on the Xbox One X version of the game, which we were provided with by its publisher.**
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