We're not content with just one high-concept ultromegoXmasfeature this year, oh no. As well as a wry look at the year that was, we've also distilled the many, many games we enjoyed over the course of 2008 into a mere 12. Why? Because 12 is a Christmassy number, dummkopf. It does mean there have been sacrifices. We mourn for the games that did not make the cut, and will never forget them. Somehow, though, we've managed to agree on this shortlist. So, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, we'll be doing our Best 2008 Ever thingy, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays it's long-form natters about our fave games. Exciting!
Let's get on with it, then. Whatever could be beneath that festive snowfall? For the first game of Christmas, my true blog gave to me...
...a motorcar on a raaaaacetrack.
It's GRID! Or Race Driver GRID. Or TOCA Race Driver GRID. God only knows - it seems to have a different name in every country. Whatever, it's Codemaster's latest, smartest rebranding and rethinking of its oft-rebranded and rethought trackracer, and we reckon it's one of the best car games we've ever clapped our tired, myopic eyes on. Here's the jury's thoughts:
I was reviewing the latest Need For Speed the other day – can’t even remember its subtitle, the damned things sound so similar now – and my hand kept straying towards a control that wasn’t there. It was the instant replay button from GRID, a function that my gaming muscle memory had adopted it entirely. I was genuinely thrown that I couldn’t rewind from some damn-fool collision. Didn’t all racing games have that? Hadn’t they always? Actually, no. GRID just tricked me into thinking they had.
That’s GRID’s greatest strength. It feels like the archetypal racing game – it’s a game that’s so close to what we think racing games are but almost none other is in practice. It is not new in any definable way: it is simply better. I'm given to understand that many purist simheads turn their imperious noses up at it, but for everyone else it falls squarely into the perfect centre bracket of arcade and authentic. Glanced at through the adrenalised eye rather than inspected closely with a scientific one, it seems and feels believable enough: it requires just enough foresight and doles out just enough punishment. At the same time, it allows seat-of-the-pants winging it. The best of both worlds, and it feels entirely natural: a racing game you're instantly familiar with, though you've never played it before.
Most of all, it's celebratory. Even the best racing games are so dry and soulless, but this one realises that starring cold metal doesn't mean it can't have a warm heart. From the stupid nicknames you can tell the game to call you (sexy menu-lady greeting me with a "Hello, Spanky", barely able to stifle the giggle in her voice, is definitely one of my gaming moments of the year) to the giant, floaty 3D metal letters spelling out your name and WINNER above your car at the end of the race, GRID really wants to make you feel good.
Going back to that instant replay button - it's not there as a cheat, and restricting to five or less uses per race makes that impossible anyway. It's also there to make you feel good. It's there so the game can say "aw, these things happen. G'wan, have another crack at it" and rub your hair affectionately, rather than taking the usual approach of bellowing that you're a loser and a disappointment and effectively kicking you out of the race.
GRID's one of those games I've gone back to throughout the year. It doesn't do anything special: it's just doing it right. In an age when most other racing games are morosely painting themselves into a shrinking corner, GRID successfully identifies why we wanted to play these things in the first place.
Its drift challenges are a waste of time, mind.
It's a smidgeon odd that the game that's first up on our list of love for 2008 is a racing game. RPS isn't much of a racing community, but there are a few exceptions that make us relish the hurtling faster-faster of the petrolhead. GRID worked for me not simply because of the lavish presentation, but because it was the first time in many years I'd really bothered to learn the drift and braking-distance of a series of tracks, and then found myself honing laptimes. It did speed and bombast that all the best racing games seem to deliver, and allowed me to race so close to track that got grit in my eye.
This is a beast of a racing game, and I was glad to not just be playing it on my 360: I am a deskbound beast. Anyway, without the crucial solidity of the game this kind of activity would have been unbearable, but the original hi-score table of racing time trials suddenly gripped me, and I spent hours at the wheel.
And I literally mean wheel, as this was one of the few times my expensive Logitech racing wheel set up has ever seen any use. It's a shocking experience on a mouse and keyboard, fine on a decent gamepad, and a kind of nerdy hysteria when faced with the full racing set up. It was one of those games where I'd mastered a couple of skills (and a couple of cars) and loved the incremental achievement of getting better and better in particular races.
The one nasty experience I did have with the game was installing the Steam version for our little LAN party in the summer and finding it didn't work with my then-graphics card. Ah, but such is PC gaming.
GRID is a masterwork of electronic racing (actually my second favourite racing game of 2008, after Burnout Paradise, which comes out on PC after Christmas) and I hope that Codies' ambitious racing games next year are up to the same kind of challenge. (Particularly FUEL.)
Colin McRae's Nuremberg Rally for 2009, anyone? [What? - Ed]