Racing, as a genre, has been declared dead by many. Or, if not dead, then at least bloodily beaten, forced into a vicious retirement at the brutal hands of the first-person shooter and the relentless name-calling of the free-to-play MMO games. And I too have been guilty of such talk. But why? The genre has had its fair share of great games over the years. There have been sims like Forza and F1, arcade smashers like Burnout and Dirt Showdown, and sometimes even something completely crazy, like Motorstorm Apocalypse.
It's a troubling development. If a string of great, thoroughly enjoyable games can't inspire confidence in a genre, then what can? The answer came as Codemasters unveiled Grid 2. And it wasn't the visuals, stunning as they were. Nor was it the handling, being primed for simulation, yet friendly to beginners. No, the answer came from an understanding of what it means to be a great game in a world filled with CODs and Warcrafts: competitive, compelling, and vengeance-led online play.
It dawned on me that of all the racing games I've played over the years, few have been compelling enough to keep me on the track. Bizarre Creations' tragically short-lived Blur came close to capturing that harsh, competitive spirit online--if only more had bought into its charms. But here was a developer, a big one, acknowledging that its biggest rivals weren't other racing games, but those fantastically addictive online epics that keep us glued to our screens more than any racer could ever hope to.
After four long years, Grid returns not just as a fast-paced street racer, but as an online experience that hopes to rank among the very best that gaming has to offer. The multiplayer isn't just an extension of the single-player, says Codemasters, but an entirely separate entity created to keep players locked behind the wheel. Rivalries will be nurtured, race types will be bent to the wills of players, and a progression system will ensure that everyone starts on a level playing field--none of your single-player progress is taken into account online.
And it stretches beyond the confines of your console. Racenet--Codemasters' Web-based profile system--will let you access your account, send challenges, and chase up those rivalries wherever you are. There are even mobile apps for devices like the iPhone and iPad in development too. And for those who prefer to face their rivals face-to-face, there will be split-screen.
It's an ambitious undertaking, but one that's backed up by some similarly ambitious work in Grid 2's underlying technology. The handling, dubbed True Feel, aims to mix the ultimate in car feel and realism with the ability for newcomers to get a car around the track with ease--and all without using any driver aids whatsoever. It's done, say Codemasters, by first creating realistic simulations of vehicles with the help of pro-racing drivers. And then the vehicles are scaled back, the edges smoothed off, while leaving unique characteristics like understeer and oversteer intact.
It results in a handling that makes each car feel unique, but somehow manageable. In two separate races I could feel the differences in the cars, the ferocious grunt of a Ford Mustang as it spat its way across a rocky mountain road standing in stark contrast to the smooth, vice-like handling of a McLaren Mercedes. And yet, each time, I could get the car around the track. Not with total ease, mind, but well enough to register to a time, provided I didn't try to hammer it around each and every corner.
When I did, I inevitably crashed, and crashed hard. The damage modeling is severe, with pieces of bodywork flying haphazardly across the circuit with each and every bash of the barriers and scrape against competitors. It was beautiful to look at, in a sadistic kind of way, and was helped along by gratuitous use of bounce lighting, motion blur, and cinematic-style bokeh, all rendered smoothly by an updated version of the Ego engine.
Vehicles weren't the only things to benefit from the visual overhaul, with the circuits themselves looking like they'd been pulled from the frames of the world's best photographers. Sunlight crept through the spaces between the tall city streets of Chicago, reflecting off the vast glass panels of buildings and lighting the roads. The cliff-tops of the California coast gave way to breathtaking views of the ocean, which whooshed past as my Ford grunted along the tree-lined roads.
The final game promises circuits located over three continents--the USA, Europe, and Asia--as well as numerous cars, which include the BMW E30 M3, the Nissan R34 Skyline, and the majestic Pagani Huayra. But according to Codemasters, Grid 2 is not a numbers game. Cars and circuits have been handpicked to showcase the very best that motor racing has to offer, while there are just three select modes--Street Racing, Road Racing, and Track Racing.
All will be available online and in single-player, which promises to be something special. There will be your traditional XP-based progression, but rather than just feel the effects of it in an upgraded car, or even a brand-new one, the environment of the game itself will change. Your home garage will become more extravagant, gaining fancier toys and even fancier lighting. The tracks, initially empty, gradually get filled with spectators, each cheering you and your competitors on to victory. And your car, a blank slate of metal, becomes a mobile advertising board as companies begin to recognize your success.
That's just scratching the surface when it comes to Grid 2. It's littered with smaller tweaks, ranging from improved Flashback to more intelligent driver AI. After four long years, and after a string of hit racing games, it comes as no surprise that Grid 2 is on its way to equaling, if not eclipsing, Codemasters' already stellar work. But I couldn't help but ask producer Clive Moody why, only now, after all this time, is the game finally on its way? "Our ambition outstripped the technology," he said. An audacious answer perhaps, but after what I've seen of Grid 2, I can't help but believe it.
Grid 2 is due for release next summer on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.