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Hands-On: GRID 2

Stronger than Mensa?

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A happy coincidence. I had recently installed Grid, having never played it before and feeling a craving for velocity. I’d gently eased myself into the world of cars wot drift when Codemasters appeared in my inbox, offering a preview code for the sequel. Before playing Grid, I hadn’t spent a great deal of time with any racing game for a couple of years, but the series seems to be pitched at those, like me, who want something more complex than a kart game but less intricate than a sim. Mirror, signal, manoeuvre – and we’re off.

Even when I’m inside a boxy nightclub at 3AM, just as somebody slips Blue Monday onto the graveyard end of the playlist, I’m more likely to have a need for cold beer than a need for speed, so when racing mogul Patrick Callahan approached me, I had to blink the sleep from my eyes and confess that I may not be the right man for the job.

“Mr Callahan, I’m sure that your all-new World Series Racing will be very zippy and exciting, but even though I passed my test fourteen years ago, I really struggled with reverse parking and, if I can be absolutely honest here, I sometimes get the fear when I accidentally find myself in the fast lane on the motorway.”

“I’ve had my eye on you for some time, kid. I’ve seen your Youtube videos and I think you’ve got what it takes.”

“Why were you looking for me on Youtube? If I feature in any Youtube videos, I’m probably dancing or falling over, or doing both at the same time while trying to impress somebody.”

“I want you to take this super-fancy car and drive around a track for a while so I can see how far you can push it.”

“What if I don’t want to push it?”

“push it”

“I don’t know if I can!”

“PUSH IT”

It seemed I had little choice in the matter. So I pushed it (the pedal) to the metal, and then I crashed into a barrier, marvelled at the crumpling of my bonnet and the smoke that billowed from it like the ghost of a machine. Then I hit the ‘rewind’ button to reverse time, watching the car reform like a rubbish Transformer, and approached the bend again, easing off the pedal this time, drifting slightly and then accelerating when the angle was right, leaving smoke, treadmarks and a squeal of satisfaction in the air.

Here’s the thing – I like Patrick Callahan. Not as a man, because he’s an slightly creepy billionaire obsessed with cars and power, but as a framing device he’s fantastic. Even though his references to social media effectively form a time capsule around the game that’ll date it more precisely than its end-of-generation graphics, letting the player in the garage door at the beginnings of a multi-discipline, global racing empire is a fine idea. It provides a scaffold around which to construct an automobile edifice of variety, progression and competition.

My first race took place on the streets. I was proving myself, my feats captured on film and uploaded to the internet where the electronic eyes of Callahan’s minions might see them. I came third, which was just about good enough to progress, but I tried again anyway, wanting to win. Grid 2 doesn’t have driving aids, although it does have difficulty levels, and I opted for medium, which was a suitable challenge. I could jostle, take some damage, drive aggressively, and still succeed. The damage model can be switched off, so that cars still look like they’ve been rattled and rolled but don’t actually deteriorate. I didn’t want to drive an invincible dodgem though. Every crunch into an opponent or a side barrier caused my car to handle slightly worse than it had before, until eventually, on my second attempt at glory, I found that I was unable to turn left. I’m no mechanic, but that’s a problem.

The rewind feature, carried over from the first game, allows recovery from mistakes. Time pulls backwards and can be spun forward again when there is a window for reparation, and every time I use it I feel like a Timelord DJ, scratching errors out of existence. There are limited uses per race, of course, and some will prefer not to use it at all, but I find it an enjoyable way to learn racing lines. And to see how much Burnout style carnage I can get away with.

In regards to the latter, I’ve found myself getting away with quite a lot. While the voice in my ear – which creepily speaks my actual name – admonishes me for ramming my way through the pack, I enjoy the wrestling match that ensues, as both my victims and my own car threaten to spin out of control. I’m thankful, when the worst happens as it so often does, that he rewind function is there, because it encourages me to watch the crashes and they are impressive. Metal screams, glass shatters and glitches appear on the screen, as if the feed to the race has been smashed to pieces.

Indeed, it was those glitches that made me think about the contentious removal of the in-car camera. At the moment of a race-ending wreck, the camera moves in close, all sense of position lost among billowing smoke and jagged video artifacts. It’s probably the bonnet cam that it defaults to at that point, as the exquisite detail of the broken vehicles is plastered across the screen. I’m not a proper race car driver, so I prefer to attach myself to the car’s rear like a windsurfer, piloting it from behind and above, but I can understand the frustration of those who have seen a favourite/required feature stripped from a sequel. Codemasters’ explanation is that only 5% of players use the in-car view and it takes a great deal of work to implement properly for every vehicle in the game.

The preview code jumps forward in time, previewing events later in the career mode, so I had the chance to try elimination races (last car is knocked out at timed intervals), one-on-one feuds, and rally-like point to point races, as well as pootling around tracks and streets in time trials. Driving a Bugatti on the streets of Paris is far more twitchy and terrifying than throwing a chunky muscle car around the curves of a dusty mountain-side trail. The variety is more than cosmetic, although it does seem largely prescribed, with few options for those who want to tinker beneath the bonnet.

Multiplayer is a separate entity entirely, with much more customisation and its own stream of progression, segregated from the singleplayer mode’s narrative. I didn’t get a chance to try it, so instead I shall say a word or two about the AI drivers who accompanied me on my automotive adventure. They are well-tuned, fighting for position and unpredictable enough to require reactive driving, though not so unpredictable as to cause carmageddon at every corner. Each race in the campaign has a named driver and I was pleased to see that the chap in question isn’t superhuman – a target to beat but not an uncanny cheat.

Structurally sound, compelling and with a learning curve that I can feel myself ascending quite rapidly as I unlock each car or track – Grid 2 is precisely the sort of racing game I was hankering for. It cuts out much of the complexity but presents a challenge, both through its aggressive AI and complex physics, which react to every slight surface change and bump in the road. It looks great too, with a stylised Michael Mann-esque digital filter, which, rather than ultra-realism, is probably the best way to squeeze the last juice from the current generation of consoles, to which it is tied. I’m also pleased by the daftly po-faced but glitzy and enjoyable story mode, which is of far more interest to leagues, seasons and trophies. It’s like a buffet of Best Global Racing Experiences.

Along with the solidity of the story and the racing models, there’s also some unexpected cleverness in the form of the Live Routes trickery, which dynamically alters street races, shifting crowds and barriers to change the layout of a track. It’s a brilliant idea but it’s the technical wizardry that makes it function so cohesively that really impresses. I hope it’s used for more than a couple of big cities, although the implications, going back to my Paris experience are terrifying.

Arriving at the Arc de Triomphe and seeing that Callahan and his minions have erected barricades throughout the entire centre of the metropolis, along with all manner of gaudy lighting, I became convinced that World Series Racing is destined to become a dictatorship. What kind of power does a man capable of shutting down Paris on a whim truly wield? And to then alter the course of the race even as it is in progress? He’s a bloody maniac and no mistake.

I fully expect the final race to take place in and around his volcano lair. The winner will be crowned King of Cars and permitted to drive any vehicle anywhere and over anyone.

Grid 2 is out at the end of the month – the specific date may vary depending on where you live.

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