Codemasters' Grid 2 was waiting for me at home when I returned to Ann Arbor from Los Angeles, after attending my first ever E3 this year. I was worried.
Of course I'd been thrilled weeks before when I'd gotten confirmation that I'd receive a loaner copy of the game to take out for a spin, and I'd certainly been stoked to play it since I'd first started seeing preview trailers and teasers show up on YouTube. But, having just spent a few days driving the newest and hottest upcoming racing games on a pair of next-generation consoles that I was sampling for the first time, my concern was that my expectations would be off for the Grid 2 experience on my lowly Xbox 360.
The truth is that developers are still squeezing more and more performance out of current gaming platforms, and this Codemasters effort oozes good design and nuanced graphical work, despite being behind the frames-per-second and ultra-detail pace set by upcoming Xbox One and Playstation 4 titles. And, because gameplay is satisfying just as soon as one boots up Grid 2, the demos and delights of E3 were quickly in my rearview.
Grid 2 is clearly standing on the shoulders of some great work from one of the studio's big releases from last year, F1 2012. Influence from the racing title can be seen in the elegant and easy-to-navigate menu design, loading screens enriched with live-updated player stats (kilometers raced, average finishing position, top speed achieved, etc.), and most prominently with the in-game environments. From breezy and sun-soaked coastal roads to the million-points-of-light nighttime races at Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina Circuit, G2 has created some of the best lighting design I've ever encountered in a racing game. (For a sample, scroll down to the bottom of the article for some game play video from our friends at Joystiq.) Overall detail for the tracks and surrounding worlds is not as dense or pixel-perfect as other top-tier racing games, but Grid 2's flowing, rich style is sometimes more attractive (especially when seen at speed during a race) in the same way that an oil painting is often more interesting to look at than a photograph.
It's kind of a shame that this same inventiveness and detail isn't lavished on the Grid 2 cars, then. In their most stock formulation, without livery or modification, the in-game vehicles are well rendered, if a bit out of scale and proportion. Throw in the race paint and stickers that are pretty much the norm for a G2 grid, however, and the cars start to look downright cartoony to my eyes. Of course, slightly non-standard car design might actually serve to make transparent the sort of mission of Grid 2 gameplay, which bifurcates the "simulation" and "arcade" genres of driving games nicely.
The in-game vehicles are well rendered, if a bit out of scale and proportion.
On the sim side of the equation, for instance, we get things like meaningful and weighty dynamic differences in handling from one car to the next. Sure, the drift-happy rear ends of lots of the cars in-game have been exaggerated vis-à-vis reality, but there's still a lot of subtlety to be found between models. The damage modeling, both graphical and that which affects your car in a race – crashing in Grid 2 is not risk-free – lends credence to the simulation argument, too. I think it's reasonable to assume that Codemasters dug into core learnings from its F1 titles to inform this street racer, though the handling and damage are not as impactful in G2 as they are in F1 2012 – more like caricatures of actual physical behavior than full-fat modeling.
The core physics engine may be sound then, but G2 doesn't ever let itself become bogged down in too much reality. Cars cannot be tuned to add more performance, unless one is playing in the online challenge mode that rewards "levels" gained with access to both go-fast and look-good modification options. In the single-player career mode, you're down to paint, tires and sponsor decals in terms of customization. There's no in-cockpit point of view to select from, with G2 making do with through-the-windshield and over-the-hood views for those who like a first-person experience. That news will bounce right off if you typically enjoy pick-up-and-play racing titles, but guys with dedicated wheel/pedal sets are likely to be put off by the omission of in-cabin. All of the above makes Grid 2 more like a serious take on an arcade-style thing rather than a real-world driver.
I never got to feel as though I was building my dream garage.
For me, one of the biggest factors on the arcade side of the ledger is also perhaps my biggest gripe with G2: I never got to feel as though I was building my dream garage. The car collection mechanic is automated in Grid, with cars being offered for you to choose from (usually you pick one of two) as you progress through races. You can win the cars that you didn't select initially via a separate group of challenge races, but there's no "showroom" or similar repository of every model. I'm left flat anytime a driving game won't let me curate exactly the race garage I desire – then again, I spend stupid hours on eBay Motors each week, so I might be an outlier.
I mostly found the racing action to be very well done here, with loads of different styles of races and a pretty good selection of tracks to choose from. (In actuality there aren't that many completely different venues, but G2 does a pretty good job parsing what it has into different layouts, reverse running, etc.) The effects of damage, while easy to feel, still mostly do not prohibit using AI vehicles as 'brakes' in wheel-to-wheel racing. A serious blow to the front tire/suspension will cause your car to pull to one side or the other, but I had to beat the piss out of something before I would actually be failed from the race (this gets you a pretty satisfying slow-motion animation, which is cool). Racing versus the clock, point-to-point racing with time added on at each stage, drifting competitions and Touge style races (try to get five seconds ahead of a single opponent) are all on offer, though the first game's Demolition Derby mode – one of its predecessor's most amusing features – is conspicuously absent.
I can't lie; I'm a racing gamer that really enjoys the modified simulation style that has been dominated by the Forza and Gran Turismo franchises for decades now. I like tuning cars, collecting cars and being forced to understand the subtle differences between sometimes difficult-to-drive models. Grid 2 is, for all its charms, most definitely not that kind of game. But it is an undeniably entertaining title. The breezy gameplay is easy to learn but pretty difficult to perfect (there are plenty of races that I simply had to settle for a second- or third-place finish in). Loads of racing styles kept me from getting bored with the lack of vehicles or annoyed with the slightly wonky appearance of cars. And, honestly, driving Touge and Drift events on courses as brilliantly designed as the Mizu Mountain stage in Japan is simply joyful.
It is an undeniably entertaining title.
Squint a little, pick up a controller and play. Grid 2 is an awfully fun way to spend the next few months before your Xbox One is delivered.