Premature Evaluation is a weekly dive into the world of early access games, which Brendan has now permanently seized from the Rob Zacny in a bloodless coup. Thanks Rob! This week, he goes speeding through the future world of combat racer GRIP, frequently upside down.
GRIP is the spiritual successor to Rollcage - but also to those remote-controlled cars that were massive in the nineties, and which could not climb the ceiling no matter how hard you believed. If you haven't heard of Rollcage, I wouldn't be surprised. It is the forgotten son of the futuristic racer era of the late 90s and early 00s, overshadowed by its older brother, Wipeout. And who could be surprised? Wipeout had the Chemical Brothers, it had techno and ecstasy, it had that one scene in Hackers. What did Rollcage have? A set of toys that routinely malfunctioned after three weeks.
But it was also brilliant. So along came Caged Element last year with a Kickstarter and a defibrillator. The Kickstarter was later cancelled but the CPR seems to have worked, because a version of the game went up on Steam early access in April. I can tell you now it is admirably loyal to its ancestor, right down to the head-tilting sense of panic as the camera flips and your car takes to the air upside-down.
To explain the basics: this is like any other racer, except that your cars are double-sided, allowing you to continue driving if you find yourself flipping over. The tracks are all built with this in mind, allowing you to storm down the ceilings of cylindrical tunnels and veer onto curved walls in a frantic attempt to outpace the opposition. All the while you'll be firing weapons and using powerups to get an advantage.
The first thing you'll notice is the speed. It is nippy. It might even be a little too intense when you activate the speed boost powerups, which you'll soon learn to save for straights and emergency resets (something I'll explain in a minute). Such speed in racing games is often accompanied by frustration. Crashing or losing control interrupts the flow of the race and sucks all the tension and adrenaline away, creating a start-stop routine that's like stubbing your toe on a coffee table every five steps you take through your house.
This is still a little bit true for GRIP. Bouncing off small bumps or catching on concrete corners is often enough to send you flying into the air, sometimes landing in exactly the way you wanted, sometimes not. There is some measure of control while you're airborne but not as much as you'd expect, or as much as the game's loading screen tips seems to think. It definitely isn't as noticeable as, say, steering your slowly crashing car in Burnout 3's old crash mode.
But there's a lot done to get the flow back as quickly as possible. The rate of acceleration is high and there's a dedicated button for "resetting" your car to the centre of the track (like I said before, this is often the time to use that speed boost powerup). The only time I became really irritated by a crash or bump was if it happened in one of the game's narrow tunnels, in which case the camera becomes a jibbering wreck and it's impossible to see which way is up. But the changeable sensitivity of the controls and the quick reset button made up for a lot of time. And for every swear-inducing collision there is a moment when you mistakenly launch yourself into the air only to land like a four-wheeled ballerina, perfectly aligned to the course.
And what about these courses? Well, there's only three right now, with a couple more teased for development in the level select menu. All of these can be mirrored and/or reversed to give them some extra life. A tournament mode is still sadly missing - greyed out on the main menu - as is online racing. But there is local 2-player splitscreen - a rare and welcome old monster. There's also a deathmatch mode against AI cars. Think Rollcage meets Destruction Derby - an arena full of pickups and small hills or ramps, inviting you to destroy everyone and be the last car standing. I mucked about in this mode for a little while but it lacked the adrenal satisfaction of the races or elimination mode, in which you have to keep yourself out of last place or die when a cyclical timer reaches zero.
For me, the stress of the races is the focus. There is very little middle ground between cars, with members of the pack staying more or less within firing distance of one or two others at least. When I turned off the "catch-up assist" option I felt things got a lot more evenly spread but that could simply have been coincidence. Whatever the case, you don't want to collide with your opponents. The ferocious tone of the racing makes you WANT to do this but in reality these collisions often ruin the chances of everyone involved, causing both aggressor and victim to swerve uncontrollably.
It is a far better idea to stick to the weapons. These feel and look great, in an old-fashioned kind of way, especially the minigun blasts shredding apart the tyres of the person in front, making them helplessly reel to one side as shell casings rain out of your chassis. But there is a lot here you've seen before - mines, rockets, even a missile that fulfills the role of Mario Kart's "blue shell", targeting only the person in first place. There is a shield that guards your car's rear, like a big pair of steel pants, which is a nice touch. And the effects of the EMP blast (again, think Mario Kart's "lightning strike" pickup) are wonderful, causing your engine to shudder, your weapons to break and your entire HUD to crackle and disappear.
But these are all constants of the genre and it would be good to see something new. A "warp" pickup, say, that transfers your consciousness to the car targeted in front (and theirs to your car) or a "cloner" that creates physical decoys of your vehicle. Or, I don't know, something. I also wish they had ripped up the clichéd "pickups" tradition and instead allowed players to customise their cars to use certain types of weapons - essentially encouraging "builds", something that would add a kind of metagame to any future online play, and to give you something to tinker with between races. I want to get attached my machine, I want to give it a name and drag it kicking and screaming through the dust, competition after competition, plucking machinery out of the bonnet and welding new bits to the outside.
There are plans to include upgrades and customisable vehicles in the future but to what extent we don't know. Right now there are two different types of car - the Dominator and the Dreadnought. The Dominators look lighter but seem to have better grip, while the Dreadnought looks heavier but tends to come off the ground and lose control much more often. It's hard to tell exactly what the difference is meant to be here without any description or stats alongside but I found sticking with the lighter-looking Dominator model suited my "accelerate until you get frightened" style of racing.
The soundtrack - something that has always been the essential marinade of "future racers" - doesn't have the heavy hitters of yesteryear, sadly. Fatboy Slim was featured on the OST of the first Rollcage, for instance, but there's nobody with the same eye-catching popularity in GRIP's lineup today. That's not to say it won't appease the deeper fans of trance and drum 'n' bass, just that it might lack some popular appeal.
Some of these observations might make me sound like I'm a little disappointed by GRIP. I am anything but that. It's probably one of the most loyal remakes of any PlayStation 1 era game I have ever seen, while also eliminating some of the toe-stubbing annoyance of the original (although, not all of it - not yet). There were plenty of moments, where rockets went flying over my head, missing their mark, or I slipped through a narrow gap thanks to a last minute twitch, or I ill-advisedly shunted a foe into a narrow pipe that sent him catapulting into the lead. Each of these moments had me grinning like my 11-year-old self at the recreation - nay - the improvement of that forgotten 90s spawn. Rest assured, when the tournament and online modes are added, I will be back.
GRIP is on Steam for £11.99/$15.99. These impressions are based on build 1160122, played on 29 June 2016