I've had my suspicions about GRID 2’s narrative since I first played the game, believing the multi-disciplinary racing organisation around which the story is constructed may be a front, concealing something more sinister. Now that I’ve conquered most of the world’s continents by driving around them really fast, I’ve discovered the truth. You can read all about it below.
A man talks to me as I drift around a particularly difficult bend. He thinks I need to improve my skills in sector 2 and that I should be a less aggressive driver, but on the whole he’s impressed. At the beginning of the race, he told me that he’d set up my car “just the way I like it”. What this communication signifies is the lack of tuning in GRID 2 - everything under the hood is automatically configured by this unseen but ever-present engineer, and the most a driver can do before taking his new car out for a spin is add a new paintjob.
This is indicative of where the game lies on the simulation/arcade spectrum and it’s also something that doesn’t bother me a jot. I’m not even particularly interested in the livery editor, although when I noticed there was a randomisation button, I quickly warmed to the idea of splurging bizarre and repulsive designs all over my cars' bodywork. I’m actually quite taken with the one pictured below.
GRID 2 has a narrative and it makes me laugh because it seems to take itself so very seriously. It's like a judge who doesn't know that someone has placed a tiny bowler hat on top of his wig. On top of that, the structure of the plot relies on an infatuation with social media so powerful that it already seems like a product of yesterday. What the story doesn't do, to its credit, is force long and dreary cutscenes on the player between every race. The wait between the end of one event and the start of the next is usually brief. Choose an event from those available, pick a car and prepare to hit the tarmac/dirt/cobbles. The loading screens display tedious facts about your career to date and the figures arrive on the screen, like everything else in the game, as if part of some burlesque of smoke and chrome. GRID 2’s persona, despite the game’s British origins, has none of the bloke-headed Top Gearisms or boy racer affectations that I associate with Englishmen and their cars, but instead a sort of digital age, futurist American dream.
Split into seasons, the single player mode tracks the evolution and eventual domination of the new World Racing Series, an attempt to create a global franchise that encompasses all manner of event types, including point-to-point races taking in spectacular coastline and mountain views, city centre street races in which routes can shift from lap to lap, and recognisable circuits. While there’s plenty of variety, some routes and cars are only available as day one DLC, which is at least a little bit rubbish, particularly for those who enjoy speedway. Traditional race tracks are underrepresented and the Indycar pack contains cars, online events and routes which bolster that content significantly.
Oh, and in case you’ve somehow managed to be interested in the game and somehow miss the fact, there’s no in-car view (though modders may yet have their way).
Before I lob a rotten tomato with enough force to dislodge GRID 2 from the podium though, let’s move on to all of the things that work well. The actual driving is lots of fun, which is a relief since there is absolutely nothing else of importance in the game. It’s worth mentioning the narrative again before moving on to specifics of the handling and variation in race/car types. Despite its constant presence, the storyline is little more than an aesthetic choice, a method of linear progression through continents and vehicle tiers. At times, rather than wishing it was excised altogether, I craved deeper involvement. The World Racing Series is a fantastically preposterous backdrop, taking in live action SportsCentre clips, named rivals and racing clubs branded with names like Eliminazione (location, Europe – specialism, Elimination events). There’s no real interaction with any of it though – the game moves to a new area, bestowing increasingly sci-fi garages on the player, and a series of challenges are presented and overcome.
Progression is tied to the number of fans the player has attracted but these loyal folk are nothing more than a form of currency. Gather enough and the season’s final events open up. This means gathering enough high-placed finishes on the club events and, if you’re as good at racing games as I am (unpractised, but with the speedy instincts of a cat on Whiskamphetamines), you’ll find it fairly easy to place in the top three at the first attempt during the first couple of seasons. That’s not to say I didn’t struggle at times but mostly, learning the curves is intuitive. The handling of each car makes sense after a minute or so, helped by the returning rewind feature that, at first, seems like an extra life system, allowing recovery from horrific crashes, but later becomes a device to shave a few hundredths of a second off an all but perfect lap.
Even playing with joypad rather than wheel, there’s a satisfying sense of weight and speed, and I often felt like I was grappling with my car, particularly during the first season’s American adventures. These early races are packed tight with gas-guzzling monsters that crunch off barriers and one another as they muscle for supremacy. Even with full damage effects switched on, they can seem far too robust, so it was a shock when Europe introduced itself by presenting me with a tiny hatchback that gripped the road rather than drifting around bends, and crumpled like a concertina when I span into a barrier. The detail around the tracks is superb and as I (presumably) perished in my vivisected Volkswagen, the crowd behind the barrier gasped in astonishment. They should probably have screamed and attended post-traumatic shock therapy but, hey, at least it’s a response.
I don’t think Codemasters are making an overt political comment with their continental shifts, but I will say that the flimsiness of Europe’s engines and the design of the cities in which they engage put heavier demands on driver's technical abilities than the American autos ever do. Indeed, progressing through the game is consistently rewarding, despite some niggles. Why bother with a league system for the final tournament in each season when the top drivers always seem to finish in the same spots? Even the slightest bit of give and take in the standings would create some tension rather than, as is the case, making the best driver in each club/region a sort of boss battle. The AI, while pleasantly aggressive, becomes too predictable, although I was still happy to play through every singleplayer event.
Multiplayer is far more competitive because your average human being is an unpredictable learning machine. The RaceNet profile that tracks multiplayer success and failure creates a more compelling CV than solo play’s narrative, which is a good thing for those who plan to spend most of their time online, but does somewhat highlight the campaign’s lack of total commitment to giving the player’s racer an identity in the world. Also, as many people have pointed out to me, the game has built in audio for plenty of names for chaps, but refuses to speak to ladies. It's a man's World (Series Racing).
I have enjoyed driving these cars, particularly in the UAE, and around the splendid streets of Barcelona, Paris and Chicago. The first season is perhaps too stubbornly single-minded, but as various disciplines and cars become available, the variations in handling become apparent. It’s a looker too, despite appearing as this generation of consoles prepares to pass away. With all settings at maximum, and there’s plenty of room for tweaking, GRID 2 runs at a consistent and rapid pace on my three year old rig, and the sparks, glitches and smoke of the stylised world rarely fail to please the eye.
It's been a pleasure, there’s no denying it, but I must confess my disappointment that there isn’t a late game twist. I demand that 3RID Three: Good Griddance contains in a plot in which World Series Racing is exposed as a secret organisation, set up by a mad genius to find the greatest drivers in the world so that he can recruit them as members of a crime-fighting/causing vehicular organisation. Capers, as you might imagine, would swiftly ensue.
GRID 2 is available now.