• Sometimes it feels like Codemasters has been making driving games forever, but it’s incredible to think that they really only stepped up to the plate just over 10 years ago, first with the superb Colin McCrae Rally series, then later with the hard as nails TOCA Touring Car series of games.

    The latter kicked off back in late 1997 with TOCA Touring Car Championship, which appeared on the Playstation 1 and PC and gave gamers a seriously sim-like experience with realistic handling, unforgiving AI and a whole bucketload of satisfaction. So much so for me that I ended up purchasing a hefty Thrustmaster Analogue Steering wheel to get the most from the game and its sublime sequel, TOCA 2Touring Cars.

    From then on, the series took an arguable dive into the more arcade-style approachable driving found in TOCA Race Driver 1, 2 and 3, and now it seems things have almost gone full circle and Race Driver: GRiD attempts to find some common ground between satisfying a need for a more tough driving challenge, and being approachable enough not to alienate novice drivers who want to just blast round a track as quickly as possible, not caring about following the correct driving line, or perfecting their late braking.

    GRiD uses the new NEON game engine tech we first saw in Colin McCrae: DiRT (Bless ‘im and rest in peace). DiRT was robustly satisfying enough and had enough mass appeal to please gamers on both sides of the pond, but that game engine needed a polish.

    Boy howdy, it sure as hell got one too.

    GRiD is easily one of the best-looking Xbox 360 games to date. All the glitchiness and graphical anomalies that kept cropping up in DiRT have been dispensed with, and what you’re left with is a solidly smooth racing experience that is eye-poppingly beautiful to look at whether static or in motion.

    Of course, as we all know looks aren’t everything, so it’s nice to note that GRiD plays like a dream too. Perhaps not as “simmy” as fans of the first TOCA Touring car games would like, but certainly not purely arcade-like, particularly if you start to take the stabilisers off and play the game without stability controls, in Pro Mode, and with no braking assist.

    Race Driver: GRID

    GRiD offers plenty of depth and content too, with three regions packed to the gills with driver challenges. In the US of A you’ve got the meaty huge-engined muscle cars and Stock Car racers to get to grips with. For me, this is where I have spent most of the game simply because the handling on the big V8 / V10 racers is exactly how I’d expect it to be – packed with enough risk / reward handling to ensure that if you overcook a corner or clip a kerb with just a little bit too much gusto you’re going to pay for it.

    GRiD’s damage model is superb, again harking back to the early TOCA games so that each of the car’s systems can be damaged individually, and eventually wrecked completely, counting you out of the race.

    It’s here where one of GRiD’s revolutionary new features comes in, the ability to “rewind time” with the Flashback facility if you make a tiny mistake that costs you dearly. Hitting the “Select” button at any time during a race, assuming you’ve got enough Flashback tokens on offer, will allow you to spool back to the moments before you screwed things up, restarting the race from there. At first I thought this was just a gimmick that I’d never use, for fear of it getting in the way of the feeling of immersion and realism I demand from racing games – but as a frustration-easing pressure valve it’s perfect because there’s nothing worse than leading the pack in a long race, only to buckle to pressure at the last moment and write your car off by cramming it into the trackside barriers.

    So it gets a big thumbs up. You can opt not to use it of course and purely concentrate on earning your cash and your professional racing respect in the game through actually not crashing and being a good driver but I’d wager you’ll be tempted to rewind if you’re in the dying minutes of a 24 Heures De Mans race and you louse things up at the last corner, losing the race.

    Moving on from the Muscle Car antics across the pond, there are also European races which concentrate more on smooth technical driving, coupled with seat-of-your-pants thrills in stuff like the classic races.

    Finally, in Japan you can become a Drift or Togue king in a massive variety of overpowered Japanese saloons. Again, this was a part of the game I didn’t really look forward to, having seen Drift Modes in so many other games now. Happily I’m glad to report that because of GRiD’s handling and multi-mode camera systems, even spending race after race trying to get sideways as stylishly as possible becomes incredibly addictive, and the regimentally tough Togue races demand skill, patience and just a little bit of gutsy pushing of the envelope in order to succeed.

    There are three tiers of expertise in each of the three racing regions, and you must earn enough points at each level to progress. As you do so, the financial rewards ramp up and to balance things out you can start to build your racing team into a force to be reckoned with, hiring co-drivers with enough skill to ensure that you please your sponsors so you can rake in even more cash.

    GRiD’s tracks and environments are superb and beautifully presented but if there’s one quibble I did have with the game, it was that there just weren’t nearly enough variety in them. Blasting through the city streets of San Francisco in classic Mustangs never gets old though, and I’ll even forgive the developers for including the durned Nurburgring (AGAIN!) as there’s enough of a decent balance of racing tracks spliced with city races to keep things interesting and ensure that you can swiftly learn where all the nasty corners and kerbs are, ensuring you get a nice smooth race.

    Returning to the handling for a second, it’s odd to see various reports clamouring about Codemasters’ usual “car on a cocktail stick” handling. I didn’t feel once that the game merely rotated the car round a central pivot to simulate cornering, in fact for the first time in ages it felt more to me like each time I swung a car into a corner, it offered a decent amount of predictable grip on each wheel unless you tried to overcook things.

    Grip and slide simulation seems to have been really worked on and the cocktail stick stuff is indeed something that Codemasters has rightly taken flak for in the past, but if others have still seen evidence of it in GRiD then I must be slacking because it’s usually something that bugs the hell out of me and I didn’t see a single instance.

    The game gave me a very good excuse to dust down my Microsoft Force Feedback wheel and bring it into play. Support for the wheel is far more satisfying than it was in DiRT, and despite posting better lap times and generally being more successful with the gamepad, I did at least feel like with practice the wheel would offer a good control alternative, and coupled with the headcam view the game offers, feels nicely immersive.

    Race Driver: GRiD can be described as the pinnacle of Codemasters’ efforts to produce a racing game that injects a breath of fresh air into the genre, coupling delicious visuals and sublime handling with a feeling that every successfully won race is truly earned, and every sneaky win at the expense of the impressively unpredictable AI is no hollow victory. Even Online GRiD holds its own rather well, but I found more satisfaction with the single-player career mode than with the rather “light’ feeling multiplayer action on offer.

    With around 20 hours play under my belt, I’ve still got a severe craving to get back to it as soon as possible to see how things progress when I move into the upper echelons of GRiD’s champion drivers. I’d seriously like to see a sequel feature more tracks and different racing types as there’s still enough room for it to expand a touch. Secretly too I’d love to see Codemasters produce at least one more proper Touring Car game based on the BTCC stuff (which probably wouldn’t sell very well in the States but what do they know about driving games anyway!)

    Score: 9/10

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